“Industrial capitalism” refers to the emergence of the new modes of production and distribution that came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution, particularly in Britain in the early 1800s. The nineteenth century is generally known as the “machine age” because radical new developments in the production of metal,...
“Industrial capitalism” refers to the emergence of the new modes of production and distribution that came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution, particularly in Britain in the early 1800s. The nineteenth century is generally known as the “machine age” because radical new developments in the production of metal, the extraction of enormous amounts of natural resources, and revolutionary methods of producing energy allowed for the invention of massive new factories, and the machines that populated them. These machine technologies allowed for the production of goods on an unprecedented scale and furnished the rise of an entirely new urban society.
“Capitalism” is a notoriously difficult word to define, but an attribute that scholars commonly associate with it was the increased willingness of people to take risks and to invest their time, money, and resources into things that would not yield them an immediate profit, but rather were themselves the tools by which they could produce wealth. This way of thinking about economic relations marked a sharp break from the feudal mercantilism that defined most economic relations in Europe prior to the Industrial Revolution. The machine, in and of itself, is not very valuable (yes, the machines of the Industrial Age were expensive, but relative to the amount of wealth they could produce when at work, the value of the materials that made them up and the labor of their construction was peanuts). However, if the capitalist was willing and able to initially invest in it, he then had a tool whose function could allow him to generate wealth on an Industrial scale. Thus, this is what lay at the core of industrial capitalism—an initial investment in “capital” (machines, human labor, property, tools, etc.) that was necessary for the future production of wealth at the level of mass industry.
The machines of the Industrial Revolution allowed Europe to make contact with the rest of the world by the late-nineteenth century. Central to this development was the invention of the steam engine. In the early 1800s, James Watt and Matthew Boulton invented the first steam engine, which, after subsequent iterations throughout the century, became the titular technology of the era. Steam power allowed for the construction of massive locomotives, trans-oceanic steamships, and enormous turbines that could generate electricity for entire cities. Because of the increase in mobility permitted by these steam-energy related technologies, Europeans were able to transfer their ideas and material culture globally, thus bringing the entire world into the economic system of industrial capitalism. Unfortunately, the character of industrial capitalism in, say, the New World or Africa was not the same as in Western Europe, as industrialists had little care for developing these regions. Rather, they were used as repositories, replete with the human labor and raw materials needed to feed Europe’s burgeoning industrial economy. Thus, even though industrial capitalism was a global phenomenon, it was not experienced the same way at every point of the globe it touched.