The Industrial Revolution began in Europe in about 1750 CE (AD). Before the Industrial Revolution, engines, machines, and factories did not exist. Most people had to grow and hunt their own food, make everything they owned (like their homes, clothes, and tools), and travel by foot (or a horse or carriage if they were wealthy). Electricity and indoor plumbing were unknown in Europe. There were no such things as trains, telephones, or cameras.
The Industrial Revolution lead to imperialism because it gave the motive and the ability to imperialize Asia and Africa.
The first major inventions that began the Industrial Revolution were the steam engine and spinning jenny. The steam engine was created in the early 1700s, and perfected in the late 1700s. Using a coal or wood fire to boil water, the engine operated by forcing the high-pressured steam to turn gears. This engine became the basis for train engines and machines in factories—both very important to imperialism.
The spinning jenny was a machine that could quickly create thread. Before the spinning jenny, the only way to create fabric was to spin individual fibers of cotton or wool into thread (you may have seen a spinning wheel in a Sleeping Beauty fairytale). Then, the thread would have to be woven together to make fabric. Then, you would still have to cut and sew the fabric into a garment! If you were like most people and you had to make your own clothing, you probably didn’t have many clothes because they took too long to make. You would have to be very wealthy to afford clothes made by someone else—the process was so long that it cost many day’s labor to produce just one garment.
You might be thinking: Fabric--so what? It was a huge deal, though. Now people could make fabric faster than they could produce wool. Cotton did not grow in Europe—they had to buy it from America. Textiles were the first products to be made in factories. So Europeans decided to take over other parts of the world in order to get the raw materials (also called natural resources-- items like wood, minerals, animals, and crops that come directly from the Earth), including cotton, for their factories.
Imperialism is the practice of creating a web of colonies—places that are dominated economically, legally, and socially by another culture. Europe and America imperialized Africa and Asia in order to exploit them economically. The most chilling example of the callous nature of imperialism in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, the nations of England, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States agreed that they could take over any area of the world (that wasn’t already colonized) as long as they notified the other nations.
How was imperialism in the 1800s different from earlier European colonization of the Americas in the 1500s? The major difference is that Europeans usually set up very small colonies in the 1800s, with the purpose of exporting their resources. The majority of Africa and Asia were not developed with infrastructure (like schools, roads, and local government) beyond what would be necessary to remove natural resources. In contrast, the Americas were fully colonized by Europeans, who intended to stay there in large numbers.
Specifically, England conquered Egypt and India because they were a great source of cotton. Other areas of Africa and Europe provided other resources—iron to be made into steel, and palm trees, whose oil was fantastic for greasing the gears of factories. That was the motive for imperialism.
Remember the steam engine? Trains and boats powered by steam allowed Europeans to easily transport goods out of Africa and Asia to Europe, making imperialism in those regions attractive. The industrial revolution’s most important invention—the steam engine—provided the ability to imperialize.
The industrial revolution occurred at roughly the same time in the United States, causing the US to look mainly for new land in North America by settling West (and similarly constructing railroads such as the Trans-Continental Railroad). However, the United States also established a presence in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico and Cuba) and Asia (Hawaii, the Philippines, and Japan and China to some extent).
The Industrial Revolution led to a type of economic practice called specialization. Specialization meant that each region was used only for a specific resource. For instance, Mali would produce gold and Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo) would produce palm oil. The issue with this system is that people can’t eat gold and palm oil. Therefore, the imperialized areas of Asia and Africa were completely dependent on their mother countries (the more powerful nation that colonized them).
After World War II, European nations rapidly shed their Asian and African colonies. In many instances, those countries were still dependent on their mother countries, and so developed many economic issues that still plague them today.
For more information about the Industrial Revolution, check out this handy eNotes Research Paper Starter. View more information about imperialism in this Homework Help answer.