How did James Watts improvement of the steam engine spur on the Industrial Revolution and change forever the way that people lived?

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sleeaustralind eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Watt and the steam engine he invented are regarded as one of the biggest influences on the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 18th and 19th Centuries. His invention meant that the transport of goods, raw materials and people caused society to change from one that depended on Cottage Industries to one where cities grew at astronomical rates as they supplied growing industries with the workforce they needed.

Indeed, it was this growth in urban centres that was one of the more significant social changes in human history. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, Britain was predominantly a rural dwelling country. The Lord of the Manor would control his land and allow those who lived on his land (peasants) to farm a small section of it in return for completing work. It was the result of the Feudal System that had developed centuries before. Industry was undertaken in the home. If a good needed to be manufactured it would be completed in the homes of many of these peasants. Their finished goods would be collected and dispersed to the market. There was no factory, no heavy machinery and no industrial workforce that is characteristic of our society today.

Once technology was developed such as Watt’s Steam Engine, Jethro Tull’s Seed Drill as well as the Power Loom this allowed tasks to be completed at a faster rate and with fewer workers required. In rural areas especially, this meant that workers who initially relied on their “strip” of land to feed their families now had no land to farm and were forced to move to urban areas in an attempt to get jobs in the growing number of factories that were enjoying the benefits of the improved technology. Similarly, existing cottage industries ceased to exist as production was now undertaken centrally in factories in big cities. In cities, they could take advantage of the improved transport systems, the over supply of labour as well as a growing market for their products.

The social impacts were significant. Urban areas grew without check and without the proper construction of buildings, waste removal systems or disease control mechanisms. Food was hard to get, especially if one was not employed. Some resorted to crime and the result was a very strict legal system that only resulted in the growth of the number of prison inmates rather than solve any issues.

The initial uncontrolled growth of industry also caused many environmental problems. Waterways became lifeless as they were polluted by industries and skies became darkened with smoke from the growing number of factory smokestacks.

From this point, our society has made many changes. Urban area planning, Environmental planning, Public Welfare and building legislation – to name but a few, but it was the initial technological breakthrough from inventors such as James Watt that began this “Revolution” in the 18th and 19th Centuries.