Quantitative economic historians (cliometricians) have argued that the Industrial Revolution should be considered revolutionary. Do you agree or disagree? When did the Industrial Revolution start?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Let's start with the second point. There is no official start date for the Industrial Revolution, but most historians agree that it began sometime in the mid-18th century, usually thought to be about 1760 or so, and ended sometime in the mid-19th century, usually thought to be about 1860. Different countries have also industrialized at different rates, so arguably some countries didn't have their Industrial Revolution until decades or even centuries later. There is also considerable controversy over when exactly wages began to rise; we know overall economic output rose, but by some measures it took almost a century before the average worker got to see any of that growth (which was instead concentrated in the hands of billionaires).

Back to the first part of the question. It sounds a bit redundant, "The Industrial Revolution was revolutionary", but really this gets to the heart of why we call it that in the first place. Why not the "Industrial Era" or the "Industrial Period"? Why the "Industrial Revolution"?

It's actually a bit of an odd term, because "revolution" suggests something that happened abruptly, over a few years or something; but in fact it occurred over at least several decades, probably about a century. But the reason we use this word is that the changes in human life were radical; they were essentially unprecedented in history.

The main trigger for the Industrial Revolution that agriculture became more efficient, so that there was all the sudden more food than we needed and people didn't have to spend all their time farming. This freed up people to suddenly take on other jobs. The next major change was the invention of reliable, economically affordable coal power; this allowed humanity for the first time to build machines that used more energy than what could be produced by human beings or animals alone.

This latter change really can't be overstated; up until that point, the way humans did things was either by ourselves, or with the help of work animals such as horses and mules. (We also used natural forces for a few things, such as sailing and windmills.) The steam engine was the first time we were actually able to harness a power source greater than our own bodies, and it increased our productivity dramatically. (This is why some believe that AI will be equally revolutionary---for the first time we will have minds that are greater than our own as well. I remain fairly skeptical; I think AI will increase productivity, but I don't think it will be as radical a change as the Industrial Revolution.)

But you asked about quantitative economic historians, so let me give you a graph (taken from the Atlantic article linked below). While GDP per capita had begun to rise in Europe (and almost nowhere else) in the 16th century, starting in the 18th century it suddenly shot upward, beginning an exponential growth path we are still on today.

That is, for most of human history, economic growth was very slow, and often reversed itself. Overall standard of living did not change all that much from 500 BC to 1500 AD, or even from 1000 BC to 1700 AD. But then all of the sudden in the 18th century, something changed, and per-capita economic output began to grow at an astonishing rate, rising exponentially until it had grown to 10, 20, 50 times what it had been before.

That moment, where the fundamental trajectory of economic history shifted, was the Industrial Revolution. No change in the pattern of economic growth before or since has been anywhere near as large. That is why we say it was revolutionary.

Images:
This image has been Flagged as inappropriate Click to unflag
Image (1 of 1)
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial