The Industrial Revolution

Published 29 May 2017

The Industrial Revolution, which transformed economic life in the West, began in England in the eighteenth century. After the Napoleonic period it spread to Western Europe, and by the end of the nineteenth century it had touched most of Western civilization. The Industrial Revolution was characterized by unprecedented economic growth, the factory system of production, and the use of new, artificially powered machines for transportation and mechanical operations. The potential was tremendous; for the first time, human beings had the ability to produce far more than was needed to sustain a large percentage of the population. Whether that potential would be realized, and at what cost, remained to be seen.

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The Industrial Revolution began in England in the early 18th century for several reasons. One, England had experienced all of the forerunners of industrialization in the previous century: an agricultural revolution, cottage industry, and an expanded commercial revolution.These developments had built surplus capital and an infrastructure (shipping, banking, insurance, joint stock companies). Two, England already had a handcraft textile industry using wool, but with the availability of cotton from overseas markets as an alternative raw material. Three, the scientific revolution in England prepared the way for new inventions to be applied to industry. Four, a spreading shortage of wood (used for energy, for shipbuilding and construction) stimulated a search for alternatives. Five, England was rich in supplies of coal for energy and iron for construction. Six, England had a long, irregular coastline with many rivers and natural harbors which provided easy transportation by water to many areas, and seven, England’s population grew rapidly in the 18th century, providing a labor force for industry.

England’s agricultural revolution was a result of increased attention to fertilizers, the adoption of new crops and farming technologies, and the enclosure movement. English farmers were one of the most productive farmers of the century. They were treating farming as a science, and all this interest eventually resulted in greater yields. These developments taken together was a period of high productivity and low food prices. In 1750, the European economy was overwhelmingly an agricultural economy. The land was owned largely by wealthy and frequently aristocratic landowners known as the “capitalists”. Their activities focused more on mercantile activity rather than production; there was, however, a growing manufacturing industry increasing around the logic of mercantilism. Parliament passed a series of laws that permitted lands that had been held in common by tenant farmers to be enclosed into large, private farms worked by a much smaller labor force. While this drove peasants off the land, it also increased agricultural production and increased the urban population of England, since the only place moved out peasants had to go were the cities. And this, in turn, meant that the typical English family did not have to spend almost everything it earned on bread, and instead could purchase manufactured goods.

Mercantilism had thrived in England in ways that it hadn’t on the continent. In particular, the English had no internal tariffs or duties on commerce, which wasn’t true of any of the continental European states. Moving goods around in continental Europe was an expensive affair as you had to pay taxes and duties every hundred miles or so; moving goods around in England was cheap, and profits soared. In addition, England had come to monopolize overseas trade. Every time England fought a war in the eighteenth century it always acquired new overseas territory.

The technological innovations followed these social and economic changes. The first major technological innovation was the cotton gin. There was a constant shortage of thread so the industry began to focus on ways to improve the spinning of cotton. The first solution to this bottleneck appeared around 1765 when James Hargreaves, a carpenter, invented his cotton-spinning jenny, one of the typological major technological innovations of the Industrial Age. Patented in 1767, the spinning jenny was a series of simple machines rather than a single machine, and it spun sixteen threads of cotton simultaneously. These two qualities: multiple machines in a single machine as well as a machine that was designed not just to speed up work, but to do the work of several laborers simultaneously, was the hallmark of all subsequent technological innovations. Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) invented another kind of spinning device, the water frame. It was based on a different principle. It acquired a capacity of several hundred spindles and demanded more power — water power. The water frame required large, specialized mills employing hundreds of workers. The first consequence of these developments was that cotton goods became much cheaper and were bought by all social classes.

The shortage of trees for lumber had led to the use of coal for heating, but coal mines constantly flooded. This was largely due to a quirk in English geography. England sits on huge quantities of coal, a carbon based mineral derived from ancient life forms. Aside from being cheap, coal burns better and more efficiently than wood. The English figured out that they could substitute coal for wood in the melting of metals, including iron, and blissfully went about tearing coal from the ground.

Although the spinning jenny and water frame had increased the productive capacity of the cotton industry, the real breakthrough came with developments in steam power. Developed in England by Thomas Savery(1698) and Thomas Newcomen (1705), these early steam engines were used to pump water from coal mines. In the 1760s, a Scottish engineer, James Watt(1736-1819) invented an engine that could pump water three times as quickly as the Newcomen engine. Steam power also promoted important changes in other industries. The use of steam-driven bellows in blast furnaces helped ironmakers switch over from charcoal to coke, which is made from coal, in the smelting of pig iron. In the 1780s, Henry Cort(1740-1800) developed the puddling furnace, which allowed pig iron to be refined in turn with coke.

Together with the rise of inventions made in England in terms of textile engine, railroads and electric industry, advances in transportation have been also a part of their development. One of the first achievements of technology was the launching of the first steamboat to navigate St. Lawrence River and which had been completely built and fitted in Montreal. The use of the steam to propel a ship had shortenened the distances and proved that commercial navigation was both possible and economically feasible, a fact which sailing ships had not established(Marson, J., 1990). Iron rails were also developed for coal carts to be hauled to nearby water transport. The combination of iron rails and the steam engine to transport people and goods was the railroad. This was the greatest achievement in transportation since ancient times.

With the help of revolutions in agriculture, transportation, communications and technology, England was able to become the “first industrial nation.” This is a fact that historians have long recognized. However, there were a few other less-tangible reasons which we must consider. These are perhaps cultural reasons. Although the industrial revolution was clearly an unplanned and impulsive event, it never would have been “made” had there not been men who wanted such a thing to occur. There must have been men who saw opportunities not only for advances in technology, but also the profits those advances might create. Which brings us to one very crucial cultural attribute — the English, like the Dutch of the same period, were a very commercial people. They saw little problem with making money, nor with taking their surplus and reinvesting it. The English entrepreneurs had a much wider scope of activities than did their Continental counterparts at the same time.


  • Hooker, R.(1996) the European Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution. Retrieved January 22, 2008, from
  • Wood, E. M. (2002). The origin of capitalism a longer view. London: Verso. Lecture 17: The Origins of the Industrial Revolution in England. Western Civilization:Interpreting the Past. Industrialization and Social Change.
  • Marsan, J.-C. (1990). Montreal in evolution historical analysis of the development of Montreal’s architecture and urban environment. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Industrialization.
  • Mathias, P. (1969 ). The first industrial nation an economic history of Britain. London: Methuen.
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