The Industrial Revolution was one of the most profound and impactful events to occur in human history. Taking place during the 1700’s and 1800’s, the revolution shifted millions of people from their traditionally agrarian lifestyles in the countryside to industrial lifestyles in urban settings. Before the massive factories were set up, most manufacturing was done on a small scale by craftsmen, often at their homes with rudimentary tools and machines. The shift to purpose-built machinery and mass production allowed many countries to greatly expand their wealth and take dominant roles in new industries and the global economy. These are but a few facts about the industrial revolution.
From improved transportation systems powered by steam and fossil fuels to faster communication across the ocean to centralized banking in the major metropolises, the Industrial Revolution synthesized and simplified many seemingly disparate areas of life. While many in the upper classes saw their standard of living improve, many of the poor and working classes were thrown into the dingy squalor of overcrowded, unsafe factories and forced to work long overtime by whip-cracking bosses. To find out about what shaped modern-day history and what we have to thank for the automobile, condominiums, and even smartphones, check out this list of 25 Facts About the Industrial Revolution.
Birthplace of Industrial Revolution
Great Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Primarily a rural, agrarian society up to that point, most British people grew most of their food and produced most of their clothes and tools. The Industrial Revolution led to specialization in which workers would focus on specific tasks and sell their products for other people’s products.
Britain's shady dealings
Besides its eager-to-work populace, Britain also had the largest colonial empire in human existence. These colonies provided raw materials which were shipped to the U.K., made into the finished product, then sold back to the colonies. Sounds like a scam if we’ve ever seen one!
Why didn't other countries industrialize first?
One of the greatest advantages Britain had above other countries was political stability. More-unstable countries would not have been able to effectively organize themselves into the structured systems needed to make production and distribution cost-effective.
A yarn-spinner changes history
One of the most-impacted industries was textile (clothes and garment) production. While a decentralized “cottage industry” existed prior, it was widely inefficient. In 1764, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny – a machine which dramatically reduced the amount of time it took to make a spool of yarn. Though basic, Hargreaves’ invention proved to be one of the most useful products of the Industrial Revolution.
Not everyone was happy with the technological changes happening to British society. The Luddites were citizens united against change. The name often refers to a group of workers in the early 1800’s who destroyed factories and machinery to protest the inevitable industrialization.
Metals change the game
Cheaper clothes alone wouldn’t drive Britain forward. The work of Abraham Darby in reducing the cost of making cast iron and Henry Bessemer in reducing the cost of mass-producing steel formed a bedrock (of metal) that British dominance would be built upon.
Rise of fossil fuels
Though the machines were built, they couldn’t be powered without energy. The discovery and rapid adoption of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal allowed societies to move past man-and-beast-power and energize machines much more efficiently.
Steam starts powering the machines
Though the steam engine was first created by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, it was mostly used to pump water out of mines. Scotsman James Watt built on his work and 60 years later had produced an efficient machine which could power machinery, train locomotives, and ships. (Beyond the steam engine, Watt was a massively influential engineer, formulating the concept of horsepower and the modern metric system.)
The first steam locomotive
One hundred years after the first steam engine was made by Newcomen, Brit Richard Trevithick built the first steam locomotive. Railways in the U.K. first began operating in 1830 with a Liverpool-Manchester line.
America jumps in the game
Crossing the Atlantic, we find American Robert Fulton who build the first commercially successful steamboat. Named “Clermont”, the ship took passengers from New York City to Albany. Fulton was also the creator of the first practical submarine in history, the “Nautilus”, commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte.
The States dominate cotton
Harnessing the power of steam, the Americans linked an engine to their cotton machines. The result was a massive increase in their production of cotton, even outpacing India, the largest producer of cotton until the early 1800’s.
Developments in the field of electricity led to the first commercial electric telegraph, created by William Cooke & Charles Wheatstone in 1837. Less than 30 years later, an undersea telegraph cable was laid from Britain to America, significantly reducing communication times between the two.
The banking industry jumps on the wagon
The latter half of the 18th century was a prime time for the emergence of a stronger banking industry. Stock exchanges were established in London and New York in the 1770’s and 1790’s, respectively. During the year of American independence, Scot Adam Smith published his book “The Wealth of Nations” which, with its emphasis on private ownership, free enterprise, and a hands-off government, has become one of the primary economic philosophies of our time.
Slums spring up
Despite the fat cats and middle class improving their standard of living, the poorer classes were thrown into squalor. The massive immigration from the countryside to urban areas meant housing couldn’t keep up, leading to overcrowded, polluted, and disease-ridden slums in the middle of most major cities.
Countryside left empty
In 1750, 85% of the British population lived in the countryside with 15% living in cities. By 1900, the numbers had reversed with over 8/10 Brits living in major cities, forcing Britain to quickly innovate in agricultural production to feed the dense cities.
Child labor was rampant
It’s a well-known fact about the Industrial Revolution that working conditions were poor and hazardous – and that child labor was common. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 textile workers in Britain were younger than 15 years old during the early 1860’s.
Machine smuggling begins
Other countries were eager to experience the benefits brought to Britain through industrialization. Some even sent representatives to the Isles where they stole and smuggled out machines in rowboats.
Industrialization ends the power of Russian elites
Late to the industrialization game, Russia entered the race in the 1860’s. While the power of the monarchy and upper class gradually declined in Great Britain, Russia resolved to keep a strong czar and nobility. Their overburdening of factory workers and the peasantry led to their downfall when the Bolshevik Revolution erupted in 1917, largely over workers’ rights.
Industrialization fosters colonialism
As countries developed, so did their hunger for raw materials to grow and outpace their rivals. Massive colonialism resulted. While Europeans occupied 34% of global land in 1800, the number increased to 84% by the outbreak of World War I.
Downsides of industrialization
Industrialization hasn’t found a friend everywhere, and many are seeing its negative effects. Some of the most obvious negative effects are major issues in today’s world such as overpopulation, environmental degradation, and climate change.
Many other important inventions came out of the Industrial Revolution, including Alessandro Volta’s battery in 1900, John Dalton’s discovery of the atom in 1803, Henry Talbot’s invention of photography in 1835, Isaac Singer’s sewing machine in 1851, and Richard Gatling’s machine gun in 1862.
First World's Fair
To show off their technological prowess, Britain put on the first World’s Fair in 1851. The event mostly focused on Industrial Revolution machinery including sewing machines, telegraphs, and steam hammers.
America takes over from Britain
Though the Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, by 1900 the United States became the world’s leading manufacturer, producing 24% of global output.
It may not have been such a revolution after all
Various historians dispute the view that the Industrial Revolution could be characterized as a rapid jump of growth between 1760-1830. These scholars argue that industrialization affected Britain more slowly, over a period from 1700-1900, claiming significant industrialization occurred before 1760 and that the rates of growth during these 70 years have been overstated.
Industrial Revolution's modern-day impact
Despite the Industrial Revolution’s shortcomings and errors, it led to the fastest growth ever experienced in human history. From 1700-2000, Earth’s population grew by 10-fold. In the 1900’s alone, the global economy grew 14-fold, energy use grew 13-fold, and per capita income grew 4-fold. The effects of industrialization are still in full swing, especially as some countries (Brazil, India, China, South Africa, Vietnam, for instance) are focusing their growth efforts on manufacturing and industrialization.