Origins of the Industrial Revolution
Some revolutions have famous starting dates. On April 19, 1775, a band of North American colonists fired on British soldiers on Lexington Green in Massachusetts—the "shot heard 'round the world" that launched the American Revolution. The next year, on July 4, 1776, these colonists declared their independence. On July 14, 1789, a mob stormed the Bastille prison in Paris, France, sparking the French Revolution. In November 1917, Russian Communists seized power from the monarchy in Moscow to ignite the Russian Revolution.
But the Industrial Revolution did not start with a formal declaration, or with mobs storming a fortress of the old order, or with dramatic speeches and slogans that would move the hearts and minds of men and women for generations afterward.
Instead, the Industrial Revolution took place one small step at a time over a period of more than two hundred years. A pattern developed in which one individual designed a new machine (such as the steam engine or the spinning jenny, a machine used to make cloth), another individual started a business using the machine in a factory, and a family
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The Revolution Begins: Steam Engines, Railroads, and Steamboats
The Industrial Revolution started in the 1700s with the development of machines that substituted for human or animal muscle power. The newly invented machines, powered by burning wood or coal, or by the flowing water of a stream or river, could accomplish the same amount of work that previously required several people or several animals flexing their muscles. Not only could the machines do the work of several living beings, machines could do it at a much faster speed. Imagine substituting a horse for the motor of a car; one or two horses could easily pull the weight of a car with its passengers, but no horse could run down the highway at sixty miles an hour, hour after hour, as a car can.
There were two separate, but related, aspects to the development of new machines in the Industrial Revolution. One was the use of sources of energy besides muscles. In particular, inventors found ways to capture and utilize the natural characteristic of water to expand when it is heated and becomes steam. The other aspect was the invention of machinery that could emulate work done for centuries by skilled workers, especially in the manufacture of fabric. Eventually these two aspects came together, in the form of steam-driven machines to spin thread or weave cloth. The new energy sources also enabled the development of reliable, high-speed transportation, in the form of trains and steam ships.
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New Machines and the Factory System
It seems like an idealistic scene: In a quaint English cottage, a mother sits spinning cotton or wool, twisting the short fibers into yarn. Perhaps the older children are sitting at smaller spinning wheels. Upstairs, the father sits at his loom, weaving the yarn spun by his family downstairs into cloth. Not far away, a farmer tends a flock of sheep that provided the raw wool to the family, whose name might well be Weaver. An unmarried older daughter still working at home spinning yarn is literally a spinster.
This picture of cottage industry stood on the brink of extinction in 1760. Within a generation, most of the spinning and weaving in England had moved out of homes and into factories. Men and women, even children, still participated, but as employees, not as semi-independent skilled workers. A set of machines that could imitate the work of spinners and weavers had almost completely taken over the textile industry in England. These machines would soon stand as models for other industries in which machines could do the work of individual craftspeople.
These machines brought enormous change to the way people lived and worked. A large and growing population of people began living in large towns or cities, employed in new factories and facing little or no prospect of improving or controlling their lives. At the same time, factory owners were making huge fortunes independent...
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From 1800 to 1850, the population of England and Wales doubled, from nine million to eighteen million. During the same period, the proportion of people living in cities rose from 10 percent to 50 percent. Put together, the population of the cities of England and Wales rose from about nine hundred thousand to nine million, a 1,000-percent increase, in fifty years.
The increase in population shocked people at the time. As early as 1798, the English economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) wrote an essay, "The Principles of Population," predicting widespread famine on the grounds that while population seemed to be proceeding at a geometrical rate (2, 4, 8, 16), food production was only growing at an arithmetical rate (2, 4, 6, 8). Malthus, and many others, feared that the population would rapidly outstrip England's ability to produce enough food to feed the millions of new people. Malthus blamed the lower classes for having too many children and proposed that laws be passed limiting the number of children people were allowed to have.
Although the catastrophe predicted by Malthus never occurred (partly because there was a huge increase in productivity in agriculture, partly because the rate of increase in population slowed), his opinions were widely accepted at the time, particularly his conclusion that poor people were to blame for the profound social changes that...
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The Second Phase of the Industrial Revolution: 1850–1940
The practices of using engines as substitutes for animal and human muscle power and of using machines to produce goods took on a different character after about 1850. Sometimes called the second Industrial Revolution (or the second phase of the Industrial Revolution), this new phase differed from the original in several ways, and marked an important shift in the progress of the revolution.
With the rapid spread of the Industrial Revolution from Great Britain to the United States and Europe came a wave of inventions, some of which were new, many of which simply improved upon existing machines. Advances in science, particularly in chemistry, led to widespread changes, especially in agriculture and medicine. Petroleum became an important source of energy, leading to a new class of mobile machines (notably automobiles and trucks). Electricity was developed into a new means of delivering energy, leading to the introduction of small motors as well as superior lighting for both factories and houses. A new process of stringing together several inventions to create complex systems revolutionized manufacturing, transportation, and communications, and helped to create new business enterprises that were much larger than anything that had come before.
Taken together, these changes accelerated the impact of the Industrial Revolution on society throughout Europe and North America. Whereas...
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How Things Got Bigger: Economy of Scale
In the one hundred years between 1800 and 1900, things got much bigger. Businesses boomed: a family-run fabric-making operation that was contained in a single cottage in 1800 had turned into an enormous factory housing giant machines and employing hundreds of workers by 1900. Transportation expanded: a horse-drawn cart delivering farm produce to market in 1800 had been replaced, by 1900, with a long train pulled by a huge locomotive puffing great clouds of smoke and steam. Agriculture spread: the family farm grew from a small plot, or several small plots, in 1800 to a several-hundred-acre estate by 1900. And manufacturing accelerated: a single skilled worker making carriages in 1800 had given way, by 1900, to a long assembly line turning out automobiles.
This enormous increase in the size of business enterprises was a key characteristic of the Industrial Revolution. Businesses grew larger partly in order to take advantage of a concept called economy of scale, which refers to the fact that generally it is cheaper to build and operate one very large factory that can turn out many products per hour as opposed to a series of smaller factories that can turn out only a few products per hour. It may take just one person to operate a large machine, whereas many people might be needed to operate several smaller machines. Even if the cost of raw materials for each product is the same, when the cost of labor...
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By the year 1900, the impact of the Industrial Revolution was felt across the United States. Practically every aspect of everyday life had altered dramatically over the past century. Enormous fortunes had been made by the owners of factories, natural resources (notably oil), and business networks such as railroads. People who once were scattered among scores of small farms in the countryside were now living in cities, working for employers who in many respects viewed their employees as living parts of a complex machine called the factory. Those who still lived in rural areas used new machinery and chemicals to raise crops or livestock that would be transported to faraway markets. In the United States, 40 percent of the population lived in cities, up from just 6 percent in 1800. In the next twenty years, the majority of Americans would be found residing in urban areas.
Such profound transformations hardly went unnoticed. The reality of the Industrial Revolution was reflected in changes in government and politics, as well as in new social organizations that were established independent of the government.
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The Economy Goes Global: What Next?
Traditional revolutions not only have a start date, they have an end date as well. The American Revolution could be said to have ended with the defeat of the British army at Yorktown, Virginia, which left the thirteen former British colonies in North America free to form a new country, the United States. The French Revolution is said to have ended on November 11, 1799, when the French general Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoléon I; 1769–1821) seized control of the government, ending a decade-long experiment in democracy, a political system in which a majority of the people vote to determine the government and its policies. The Industrial Revolution is different. It represents major changes in the way people earn a living, where they live, and even in the way they view the world. The shift from a largely rural society to an urban, industrial one is still continuing, not only in the countries of Europe and North America where it started, but also throughout Asia, Africa, and South America.
The term Industrial Revolution has come to mean different things. It means the substitution of mechanical power, both engines and machines, for animal power (animals and humans). It means the shift from a rural agricultural society to an urban industrial society in which the most important economic activity is making things instead of raising animals or growing crops for food. The Industrial Revolution also represents...
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