The Industrial Revolution marked a period of development in the latter half of the 18th century that transformed largely rural, agrarian societies in Europe and America into industrialized, urban ones.
Goods that had once been painstakingly crafted by hand started to be produced in mass quantities by machines in factories, thanks to the introduction of new machines and techniques in textiles, iron making and other industries.
Fueled by the game-changing use of steam power, the Industrial Revolution began in Britain and spread to the rest of the world, including the United States, by the 1830s and ‘40s. Modern historians often refer to this period as the First Industrial Revolution, to set it apart from a second period of industrialization that took place from the late 19th to early 20th centuries and saw rapid advances in the steel, electric and automobile industries.
England: Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution
Thanks in part to its damp climate, ideal for raising sheep, Britain had a long thedailysplash.tv of producing textiles like wool, linen and cotton. But prior to the Industrial Revolution, the British textile business was a true “cottage industry,” with the work performed in small workshops or even homes by individual spinners, weavers and dyers.
Starting in the mid-18th century, innovations like the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, the water frame and the power loom made weaving cloth and spinning yarn and thread much easier. Producing cloth became faster and required less time and far less human labor.
More efficient, mechanized production meant Britain’s new textile factories could meet the growing demand for cloth both at home and abroad, where the nation’s many overseas colonies provided a captive market for its goods. In addition to textiles, the British iron industry also adopted new innovations.
Chief among the new techniques was the smelting of iron ore with coke (a material made by heating coal) instead of the traditional charcoal. This method was both cheaper and produced higher-quality material, enabling Britain’s iron and steel production to expand in response to demand created by the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) and the later growth of the railroad industry.
Impact of Steam Power
An icon of the Industrial Revolution broke onto the scene in the early 1700s, when Thomas Newcomen designed the prototype for the first modern steam engine. Called the “atmospheric steam engine,” Newcomen’s invention was originally applied to power the machines used to pump water out of mine shafts.
In the 1760s, Scottish engineer James Watt began tinkering with one of Newcomen’s models, adding a separate water condenser that made it far more efficient. Watt later collaborated with Matthew Boulton to invent a steam engine with a rotary motion, a key innovation that would allow steam power to spread across British industries, including flour, paper, and cotton mills, iron works, distilleries, waterworks and canals.
Just as steam engines needed coal, steam power allowed miners to go deeper and extract more of this relatively cheap energy source. The demand for coal skyrocketed throughout the Industrial Revolution and beyond, as it would be needed to run not only the factories used to produce manufactured goods, but also the railroads and steamships used for transporting them.
Transportation During the Industrial Revolution
Britain’s road network, which had been relatively primitive prior to industrialization, soon saw substantial improvements, and more than 2,000 miles of canals were in use across Britain by 1815.
In the early 1800s, Richard Trevithick debuted a steam-powered locomotive, and in 1830 similar locomotives started transporting freight (and passengers) between the industrial hubs of Manchester and Liverpool. By that time, steam-powered boats and ships were already in wide use, carrying goods along Britain’s rivers and canals as well as across the Atlantic.
Communication and Banking in the Industrial Revolution
The latter part of the Industrial Revolution also saw key advances in communication methods, as people increasingly saw the need to communicate efficiently over long distances. In 1837, British inventors William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented the first commercial telegraphy system, even as Samuel Morse and other inventors worked on their own versions in the United States. Cooke and Wheatstone’s system would be used for railroad signalling, as the speed of the new trains had created a need for more sophisticated means of communication.
Banks and industrial financiers rose to new prominent during the period, as well as a factory system dependent on owners and managers. A stock exchange was established in London in the 1770s; the New York Stock Exchange was founded in the early 1790s.
In 1776, Scottish social philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who is regarded as the founder of modern economics, published The Wealth of Nations. In it, Smith promoted an economic system based on free enterprise, the private ownership of means of production, and lack of government interference.