The Industrial Revolution was a major event in history. It may be defined as the process of change from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing. The revolution began in Great Britain in the mid18th century and spread to other European countries, including Belgium, France and Germany, and to the United States. The term Industrial Revolution was first popularized by the English economic historian Arnold Toynbee, who used it to describe Britain’s economic development from 1760 to 1840. The revolution in Britain is now often called the First Industrial Revolution while the later worldwide revolution led by the United States is referred to as the Second Industrial Revolution. The cotton industry was fundamental to the revolution while inventions were the primary reason due to which it flourished. The Industrial Revolution laid the foundations of the modern world and brought about major changes including making capitalists leaders of the world economy; giving rise to socialism; and having a major adverse effect on the environment. Know more about one of the major turning points in world history through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 Cotton trade was the biggest driver of the Industrial Revolution

The Indo Saraswat Civilization (Indus Valley) in India started cultivating cotton by 2500 BCE and it remained the hub of cotton textiles for thousands of years. 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. In 1700, Britain was known for its woollen industry but cotton textiles had many production advantages over other types of cloth. It was comparatively cheaper, stronger and more easily coloured and washed than wool or linen. However there were two challenges: Britain did not grow cotton because of its cold climate; and it did not have enough manpower to meet the demand. Trade with cotton producers far across the world, such as Southern United States provided the raw material and with British political control over India, the leading cotton industry in the world, the situation changed quickly with India being made into a raw cotton exporter. Innovations in spinning technology like the spinning jenny (1764), water frame (1769) and steam engine (1760s) solved the labour issues and thus Britain became the textile producer of the world.

Raw cotton production became profitable in America in the 19th century and by the early 1830s the United States produced the majority of the world’s cotton. Cultivation of cotton using black slaves brought huge profits to the owners of large plantations, making them some of the wealthiest men in the U.S. prior to the Civil War. Cotton’s importance in the world economy may be estimated by Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina famous boast in 1858: “Without firing a gun, without drawing a sword, should they make war on us, we could bring the whole world to our feet… What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?… England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her save the South. No, you dare not to make war on cotton. No power on the earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.

Lancashire cotton mill
Steam powered Lancashire cotton mill, 1914

 

#2 It started in Great Britain and then spread to the rest of the world

There are many reasons identified as to why the Industrial Revolution started in Britain, like necessity, colonial influence, scientific temperament etc. By the mid-18th century, many British inventors were working on making a cotton spinning machine. In 1864, with the innovation of the Spinning Jenny, the Industrial Revolution gathered steam. Many innovations would follow and would be guarded as trade secrets by the British Government. In 1789, Samuel Slater took British designs to America beginning the setup of factories in the new world. He would later be referred to as the “Father of the American Industrial Revolution”. Belgium would industrialize in 1820s with John Cockereil’s factories in Seraing. France, Germany, Sweden and Japan would be among the firsts to follow.

Samuel Slater
Samuel Slater – Who took British industrial secrets to U.S. to initiate the Revolution there

 

#3 It made Britain the Imperial Superpower

Although European countries like Portugal, Spain, Dutch, France, Denmark and Britain had started their colonization before the Industrial Revolution, the revolution gave the British the much required edge to outperform its rivals. The two major factors were the tremendous wealth accumulated during the Industrial Revolution and the access to technology that came due to the revolution. In 100 years, Great Britain would amass a colonial empire with enormous territory which included Australia, Canada, India and large parts of Africa. This would lead to the saying in Britain that the sun never sets in the British Empire.

British Empire Map
Map of the British Empire in the 1920s

 

#4 It marked a shift from Agriculture to Manufacturing

Pre-industrial societies were primarily agrarian with almost 80% people working in agriculture and animal husbandry. There were cottage industries where a small group or family produced goods at home. With the advent of machines like the Chinese plough, among others, work in the farm was reduced. The opening of factories powered by machines using water, coal and steam led to the migration of workers to industrial towns which formed the first modern cities. The Industrial Revolution was thus a shift of primarily agrarian societies to industrialized societies. The contrast was stark especially for the first few generations of factory workers who knew of life in the country as compared to the life in the industrial cities.

 

#5 It was driven on Innovations and Inventions and led to Exploitation

The Industrial Revolution could not have happened without the innovations in the 18th and 19th century. In 1733, James Kay improved on the old handloom making his simple flying shuttle which doubled worker productivity. The main challenge was to create a subtle mechanized device for pulling and twisting the cotton fibre just the right amount to create strong thread. The invention of the Spinning Jenny by James Hargreaves in 1764 solved this problem and increased the productivity eightfold. In 1769, Richard Arkwright worked on the ideas of Jon Kay and devised a method to hook up the Jenny to a water wheel calling it the water frame. The defining invention of the Industrial Revolution was perhaps the Steam Engine of James Watt in late 1760s which was primarily invented to pull water from the coal mines but also powered the textile industry with innovations like the power mule and power loom. The steam powered engine allowed industries to move away from water, thereby expanding their scope. The rotatory steam engine in 1781 widened its scope beyond textile and mining. The cotton gin made America an exporter of raw cotton while the Bessemer Process strengthened the steel industry, among others. The exploitation of the working class within Europe and America, the slave trade, degeneration of India and the other colonial slaves and the downfall of China were perhaps the human fuel for the Industrial Revolution.

Spinning Jenny of James Hargreaves
The improved spinning jenny that was used in textile mills

 

#6 Steam Engine is considered the most important invention of early Industrial Revolution

The steam engine is termed as the defining innovation of the First Industrial Revolution in Britain. It was the energy 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. In 1712, British ironmonger Thomas Newcomen combined the ideas of British engineer Thomas Savery and French physicist Denis Papin to make a steam powered engine for lifting water from tin mines. The engine produced a pumping action but no rotating motion and was expensive to run. In the 1760s, James Watt, a Scottish instrument maker, worked along with some professors from the University of Glasgow to improve on Newcomen’s engine. He vastly improved the energy and cost effectiveness of the machine adapting his engine to eventually produce rotary movement which widened its scope beyond the mining industry.

Steam Engine of James Watt
A late version of a Watt double-acting steam engine

 

#7 It shifted power in the hands of the Capitalists

Capitalism refers to an economic system based upon private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. With political control over the colonies and rise in technological innovations Capitalism was on a rise in Britain. Factory owners and others who controlled the means of production rapidly became very rich and had more money to invest in technology and more industry. In those times only the wealthy could vote in Britain with only about 3 percent being allowed to vote. Industrial capitalists gradually replaced agrarian land owners as leaders of the nation’s economy and power structure. With economic and political power they were in many ways the new rulers of the nation. This change eventually took place in numerous countries across the world.

Industrial Revolution Capitalist cartoon
Cartoon depicting an Industrial Revolution Capitalist

 

#8 It was the reason for the rise of Socialism and Marxism

The government majorly favoured the wealthy in the early part of the Industrial Revolution. With a large population that felt exploited under a few wealthy capitalists, social tensions gradually increased. The condition of the working class became such a cause of concern that it led to the rise of socialism. Socialism is a theory which advocates that all people are equal and should have shared ownership of the country’s wealth. The most influential socialist thinker was undoubtedly an economist and philosopher named Karl Marx (1818-1883). Though German in his origins, Marx spent most of his time in England understanding and critiquing the established capitalist system of those times. His ideas challenged the very foundations of the capitalist world, inspiring many uprisings against the model. Marxism and Communism as economic models are however widely rejected in the world today due to their lack of success wherever implemented.

Karl Marx
Karl Marx – The Most influential Socialist thinker

 

#9 It led to rise in pollution and severe damage to the environment

Pollution and environmental damage were the obvious consequences of the industrialised world and the consumerism that followed it. The rise of the machines required vast amounts of energy to fuel them, and fossil fuels like coal and petroleum were burned to energise the industry resulting in smog and air pollution. Chemicals were necessary for various processes leading to the fast rise in the development of industrial parks based on the chemical manufacturing of such items as dyes, plastics and pharmaceuticals. Cities were densely populated and forests and farmlands were cleared to make room for railroads and other infrastructure. Waste was dumped in rivers and cities were highly polluted. The Great Stink in London in August 1858 was a noted event during which the hot weather exacerbated the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent that was present on the banks of River Thames. The continued advancement of technology allowed large corporations to dictate the industrial landscape. This resulted in having a far-reaching adverse effect on the environment.

Industrial Revolution pollution
Smoke pollution produced by Industrial Revolution factories

 

#10 It laid the foundations of the Modern World

The foundations of what we may call the modern world and lifestyle undoubtedly lies in the Industrial Revolution. 250 years of industrialization has brought more comfort and convenience to our lives than perhaps the 12,000 that preceded it. The modern cars, cities, planes, computers, medicines, plastics, mobiles, etc come from the natural progression of Industrialization. Average life expectancy has more than doubled in industrialized nations, while average incomes have increased even more. On the flipside, it has led to profane economic inequality, (with an estimated 10% of the world’s wealthiest people controlling 90% of the world’s wealth); pollution levels increasing dramatically, rise in consumerism and materialism; and exploitation of the poor.

The Modern Assembly Line
The Modern Assembly Line

 

Children and the Industrial Revolution

Children were part of the labour force of the Industrial Revolution. They often worked long hours and were used for such highly hazardous tasks as cleaning the machinery. In the early 1860s, an estimated one-fifth of the workers in Britain’s textile industry were younger than 15. The British government moved slowly with reforms giving some relief to the children in the Factory Act of 1833. The provisions of the act included: children 8 and younger could not work in factories; children between 9 and 13 years could work no more than 9 hours a day; children between 13 and 18 years could work no more than 12 hours a day; and children could not work at night. Four factory inspectors were appointed to investigate thousands of factories throughout England and enforce the law. The factory acts would gradually improve over the next 70 years giving minor reliefs.

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