The Industrial Revolution was a period of major industrialization which moved the world away from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing. The revolution began in Great Britain and then spread across the United States and the rest of the world. The driving force behind the Industrial Revolution was the inventions and innovations which continuously fuelled the event by providing better and better means to increase productivity, develop new processes and enhance distribution. Apart from inventions, other watershed moments of the event include British victory over India in the Battle of Plassey which greatly aided in making Britain the textile producer of the world; and Samuel Slater taking the closely guarded secrets of British designs to the United States leading to the American Industrial Revolution. Here is a timeline of the Industrial Revolution capturing its major events through the 10 most important dates which were crucial to its development.
#1 1712 – First steam engine is invented
In 1712, Thomas Newcomen made his atmospheric engine that was powered by steam and was used to pump flood water out of a mine. This was the first of its kind external combustion steam engine that used a piston. The engine required a lot of energy to operate and was not very efficient. In 1733, there were just 200 of them and the number would eventually touch 2000. However more than 60 years later, in 1769, James Watt build upon the Newcomen engine to make an efficient machine which revolutionized the Industry. In 1781, Watt would patent a steam engine that produced continuous rotary motion, an invention that would be widely rated as the defining invention of the First Industrial Revolution. The steam engine was behind advanced inventions in textiles (power loom, spinning mule) and transport (steam powered locomotives and ships); and was one of the primary causes for the transition from human power to machine power.
#2 1757 – British victory in the Battle of Plassey
In 1750, India accounted for close to 25 percent of the world GDP. Centuries of prosperity had made it an extremely wealthy nation. With the East India Company being formed in 1600, cotton started gaining popularity in Britain and by 1664, the Company was importing a quarter of a million pieces into Britain. The demand kept rising well into the 18th century and beyond. India was the cotton manufacturing hub of the world with Bengal at its epicentre. In 1776, in the Bengali city of Dhaka alone, 80,000 women spun cotton for 25,000 weavers who produced approximately 180,000 piece of cloth. The watershed moment came in 1757, the British East India Company with the help of insider Mir Jafar defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah in the Battle of Plassey. This victory is considered as the beginning of the 200 year long British Rule in India. With direct and indirect political control in India, the British had influence to extract wealth from the country, exploit it and de–industrialize it, reducing it to a raw material supplier. India would also form the base for Opium Trade and the consequent downfall of China.
#3 1764 – Invention of the Spinning Jenny
The Spinning Jenny was a multi spindle spinning frame invented by James Hargreaves in Stanhill, Lancashire in England. It was one of the first and key inventions of the First Industrial Revolution in Britain that powered its cotton textile industry. The Jenny initially had 8 spindles doing the work of 8 workers at a time. In 1768, a group of spinners fearing unemployment broke into Hargreaves’ house and destroyed his spinning jenny machines, forcing him to flee to Nottingham. Hargreaves patented a sixteen spindle spinning jenny on July 12, 1770. The courts had rejected his patent application for his first spinning jenny because he had made and sold several years too long before he filed for a patent. The Spinning Jenny was crucial to the development of the cotton industry, which was the biggest driver of the Industrial Revolution.
#4 1771 – Richard Arkwright opens his first factory at Cromford
Richard Arkwright was a shrewd businessman, innovator and among the leading entrepreneurs of 18th century Britain. Some small mills and factories were present in Britain as early as John Lombe’s water-powered silk mill at Derby, in 1721. However, Arkwright is widely credited with being the brain behind the modern factory system. In 1771, Arkwright established his first factory using his “spinning frame“ on the river Derwent at Cromford, England. The people worked twelve hours a day for six days a week and started work at five o’ clock in the morning. There were strict rules that you had to adhere to; like “Any person found whistling at work fined one shilling“ and “Any person found with their window open fined one shilling“. Arkwright attained fabulous success and his model was replicated all around. In 1785, about 30,000 people were employed in factories using Arkwright’s patents.
#5 1789 – Samuel Slater leaves for America
Samuel Slater was born in Belper, Derbyshire, England. Born in a poor farming family Samuel Slater, as a young boy of 10, worked at the cotton mill of Jedediah Strutt using the water frame pioneered by Richard Arkwright. A few years later, after his father’s death, Samuel became an apprentice of Strutt who trained him well. Slater was aware of the bounties offered by American manufacturers for information on British inventions and models. He was also aware of the secrecy of the British with no exports of their machines and prohibition on the emigration of their skilled mechanics. In 1789, Samuel Slater migrated to America; it is said he informed no one and disguised himself. In the new world he would replicate British designs, find success and be revered as the “Father of the American Industrial Revolution”; but in his country he would be called “Slater the Traitor“. The United States would go on to lead the Second Industrial Revolution.
#6 1794 – Eli Whitney patents the cotton gin
In the late 18th century, the mechanization of spinning in England had created a vast market for raw cotton, a plant that was not indigenous to Britain. Massachusetts Yankee Eli Whitney, who was on a trip to the south for a teaching job, landed at the Mulberry Grove plantation due to some unexpected circumstances. Understanding the plight of the cotton farmers and the economics of the situation, Whitney made a device that he called a “cotton gin“. The cotton gin pulled the cotton through a set of wire teeth mounted on a revolving cylinder. The fibre passed through narrow slots in an iron breastwork too small to permit passage of the seed. In 1794, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin. His invention made removing the seeds from cotton extremely easy; a process that had previously been extremely labour intensive. The cotton gin made the cotton industry in America extremely profitable.
#7 1844 – Nomination of Henry Clay for U.S. President is telegraphed
The first commercial telegraph was built in 1833 by Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Weber. William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone managed to create the multi wire telegraph in 1837. In 1838, after some years of financial troubles and challenges and with the valuable help of Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail, Samuel Morse made the first demonstration of his single wire telegraph which was far simpler, more efficient and easier to use that any of its competitors. After 5 years, in 1843, Morse and Vail received $30,000 from the U.S. Congress to set up and test their telegraph system between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. On May 1, 1844, the Whig Party’s nomination of Henry Clay for U.S. President was telegraphed from the party’s convention in Baltimore to the Capitol Building in Washington. On 24th of May 1844, the line was officially opened as Morse successfully sent the verse “What hath God wrought!“ in Morse code from Washington to Alfred Vail in Baltimore.
#8 1855 – Bessemer process for extracting steel is discovered
The Bessemer steel process is a classic example of military’s impetus to technological development. During the Crimean War in the 1850s, Henry Bessemer worked on the problem of manufacturing cheap steel for British Navy. He noted the effect of hot air blast in removing carbon impurities from iron. In 1855, he successfully produced a low-grade steel from molten pig iron in a side-blown fixed converter without any external source of heat. It was the first cost-efficient industrial process for large scale production of steel from molten pig iron. The Bessemer process would go on to achieve good low cost steel. It would change the face of the iron and steel industry and would be used widely for over 100 years.
#9 1859 – Étienne Lenoir makes a successful internal combustion engine
In 1804 Franco-Swiss inventor Isaac de Rivaz created an internal combustion engine which is considered the first of its kind in the world. French physicist Nicolas Carnot elaborated the concept of internal combustion engine in 1824. But it was Belgian inventor Jean-Joseph-Étienne Lenoir who made the first commercially successful internal combustion engine in 1859. Lenoir’s engine was a two stroke cycle engine which used a mixture of coal gas and air. It converted double-acting steam engine with slide valves to admit the air-fuel mixture and to discharge exhaust products. This workable engine later led to Nicolas Otto’s four stroke engine and future internal combustion engines. The ICE provided enough power in a small enough size to enable engines for automobiles.
#10 1901 – Ransom Eli Olds introduces Modern Assembly Line
An assembly line is a line of factory workers and equipment along which a product being assembled passes consecutively from operation to operation until completed. Ransom Eli Olds was a pioneer of the American Automotive Industry in the late 19th and early 20th century. Having founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Michigan, in 1897, Olds is credited with creating and patenting the stationary modern assembly line in 1901. This enabled him to create the first mass produced low priced American motor vehicle in Curved Dash. The Curved Dash sold for $650 (Almost $20,000 today) and 19,000 were built in all till 1907.