Britain and the Origins of the Industrial Revolution – Part 1.

The Industrial Revolution marks the most fundamental transformation of human life in the history of the human life in the history of the world recorded in human documents. Eric Hobsbawm

The mid-18th century to the first decade of the 20th century brought fundamental changes in people’s lives and thoughts.  During this time, Western Europe changed from a mainly agricultural region to an industrial one. These changes began in Britain and then spread to Western Europe and the U.S.  Russia, East Europe, and the Balkans came later.  The Industrial Revolution, as this period is called, is considered by many historians to be the most significant development in human history.  It involved, among other things, the creation of new technologies and economic systems as populations shifted from farms and villages to cities. Political systems, economic exchange, social relations, and warfare underwent drastic transformations.  New words like factory, railroad, middle class, capitalism, science, and engineers shaped how people saw themselves and their world (Winks 65).  How did this revolution begin, and how did it fundamentally change human life?  Why did it begin in Western Europe and, more particularly, Britain? 

In this 7-part series of blogs, we will examine the following:

Part 1: Introduction: Defining the Industrial Revolution

Part 2: Population Growth and Improved Food Production

Part 3: Access to Foreign Markets and Capital Investment

Part 4: A (Pre-mechanized Factory) Domestic Manufacturing Economy

Part 5: Technology, the Mechanization of Production and Alternative Sources of Energy (e.g. coal)

Part 6: Land and Water Transport

Part 7: The Textile Industry. 

Defining the “Industrial Revolution”

Scholars continue to debate various aspects of the Industrial Revolution. Even the chronology poses fundamental challenges.  Historian Lindeman writes that the Industrial Revolution offers “no easily identifiable beginning and no discernible end. (Lindeman, 44). Some scholars identify the beginning as the mid-eighteenth century.  Others, like R.C. Allen, go back to the 16th century. 

Considering the topic’s complexity, we need to define our terms.  “Industry” refers to the large-scale processing of raw materials and manufacturing goods in factories. “Revolution” is more problematic as it offers multiple meanings.  In one sense, revolution can be sudden, radical or change.  Historical examples include the French and American Revolutions that fomented sudden political and social change. However, “revolution” also refers to fundamental change. This might be political and socioeconomic change or ways of thinking, such as the Copernican revolution that revealed the Sun (rather than Earth) as the center of the universe or Darwin’s work on evolution.  Such events virtually pervade all aspects of human life, altering how we think and interact with the world.  This certainly applies to the Industrial Revolution.    

Although timelines are still debated, historians agree that the revolution was not sudden but occurred over a long period (150 years or longer), so they focus more on “revolution” as a fundamental change over time.  Donald Kagan writes that the Industrial Revolution “was revolutionary less in its speed, which was on the whole rate slow, than its implications for future of European society.” (Kagan 497) R.C. Allen writes that the Industrial Revolution “is no longer the abrupt discontinuity that its name suggests, for it was the result of an economic expansion that started in the sixteenth century.” (2). Accordingly, some scholars refer to an Industrial Evolution.

Of course, this extended period saw a profound change. The Industrial Revolution, Eric Hobsbawm points out, “was not merely an acceleration of economic growth, but an acceleration of growth because of, and through, economic and social transformation.” (13). The operative word here is transformation.   

What changed?

So, what was this “transformation” or “fundamental change?  One answer is that the Industrial Revolution altered a world ultimately dependent on the earth’s resources and organic means of production – dependencies that limited growth. Food production, for instance, involved people and animals toiling in fields, their productivity limited by land availability and technological limits.  Watermills used water flow but required proximity to a river.  Wind-propelled ships and windmills depended on the wind.  People burned wood to cook, heat homes, and metallurgy this but required access to trees – a rapidly dwindling European resource.  At the beginning of the 1700s, more than 90 percent of the European population lived in rural settings and engaged directly in animal husbandry and agricultural activities.” (MIII, 301) Few urban dwellers worked in factories. 

All of this would change – albeit gradually and in the beginning, only in particular parts of the world. Over time the focus on organic labour and agriculture shifted to alternative sources of energy -especially coal – and the factory-based and mechanized production of goods. (MIII,296) To better understand how this transformation happened, we must explore the preconditions that facilitated these changes. It all began in Britain.

So, this series of blogs will focus on the factors that led to Britain’s gradual transformation into the world’s first industrial nation.

Our next blog: Part 2 Population Growth and Improved Food Production


Allen, Robert. 1994. “Agriculture During the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1850.” In Roderick Floud and Donald N. McCloskey, eds., The Economic History of Britain Since 1700. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Vol. I. Ashton,

Allen, R. C. (1999). Tracking the Agricultural Revolution in England. The Economic History Review, 52(2), 209–235.

Allen, R. C. “Why the Industrial Revolution Was British: Commerce, Induced Invention, and the Scientific Revolution.” The Economic History Review 64, no. 2 2011: 357–84.

Cardwell, D.S.L. 1994. The Fontana History of Technology. London: Fontana. Crafts,

Cipolla, Carol M. The Fontana Economic History of Europe: Vol. 3, The Industrial Revolution. London: 1973.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. New York: The New Press, 1999.

Kagan, Donald.   The Western Heritage. Toronto: Pearson Education LTD., 2007.

Komlos, John. “Nutrition, Population Growth, and the Industrial Revolution in England.” Social Science History 14, no. 1 1990: 69–91.

Landis, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich, and Some are so Poor. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Marks, Robert B. The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Biological Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century. Lanham, Maryland: Bowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 

McCloskey, D. N. 198-. “The Industrial Revolution in Britain 1780- 1860: A Survey,” in Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey, The Economic History of Britain since 1700.

Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe: From the French Revolution to the Present. Volume Two. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010. 

O’Brien, P. K. “Agriculture and the Industrial Revolution.” The Economic History Review 30, no. 1 1977: 166–81.

Osbourne, Roger. Iron, Steam, and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution. London: Random House, 2013.

Pelz, William A. “Becoming an Appendage to the Machine: The Revolution in Production.” In A People’s History of Modern Europe, 52–63. Pluto Press, 2016.

Schellekens, Jona. “Nuptiality during the First Industrial Revolution in England: Explanations.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 27, no. 4 1997: 637–54.

Vries, Peer. (2008). The Industrial Revolution. Pdf file downloaded

Winks, Robin and Joan Neuberger. Europe and the Making of Modernity, 1815-1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 

Eugenics: An Introduction

Eugenics. The science of improving the population by controlled breeding for desirable inherited traits. From the Greek eugenes, meaning well-born.

Animal Husbandry.  The science of breeding.

In 1883, Francis Galton, first cousin to Charles Darwin, coined “eugenics”, a pseudoscience that advocated controlled reproduction to ensure the healthy evolution of human societies.  Eugenics became increasingly popular in the early 20th century, solidifying racial hierarchies and categories of the unfit – criminals, the mentally ill, and the feebleminded.  Programs in various countries encouraged the “fit” to reproduce while discouraging the unfit through measures ranging from segregation to elimination.

Francis Galton (1822-1911) Francis Galton grew up in England and inherited a significant fortune after his father died.  His extensive travels to places like Africa reinforced his sense of a rigid hierarchy of human categories.  He was not alone in this thinking as racial and ethnic determinism pervaded Western thought during the 19th century.  Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species (1859) further inspired Galton to pursue social betterment through selective breeding. Galton believed that humans evolved through the natural selection of inborn traits, and parents transmitted intellectual and moral qualities to their children. He acknowledged social factors but insisted that inherited talent (or lack of) persevered.  

Turn of the Century:  Eugenics takes off. Various factors played into eugenics growing popularity into the 20th century.  The “rediscovery” of Gregor Mendel’s claims of heredity as the dominant determinant in human life bolstered eugenic claims of biological determinism.  Visible signs of poverty, crime, and mental illness accompanied urban growth evoked concerns about societal “degeneration” – an oft-used term at the time.  As Diane B. Paul writes, “Middle-class people of every political persuasion – conservatives, liberals, and socialists, were alarmed by the apparent profligate breeding of what in Britain was called the “social residue.” (Paul, 235)

Alarmed by these developments and confident in their theories of selective reproduction, eugenics advocates began implementing practices to realize their visions.  Scholars have identified these practices as “positive” and “negative” eugenics. 

Positive Eugenics. Positive eugenics involved the promotion and practice of the selective breeding of the “fit.”  He pointed to the example of animal husbandry as a model to follow.  “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains,” he said, “were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breeding of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of geniuses might we create!  (Larson 180).

Negative Eugenics in Practice. The early focus on positive eugenics would give way to prohibitive measures in the twentieth century.  In the United States, Canada, and much of Northern Europe, as well as Britain, the central question was how best to discourage breeding by moral and mental defectives.” (Crook, 235)  The practice of eugenics ranged from segregation to extermination.  Practices also varied over time and from country to country.  Generally, the initial approach involved the segregation of male and female “defectives”. Some feared another option, sterilization, would promote images of extremism—however, institutional expenses coupled with improved sterilization technology made this alternative a more popular choice.  Accordingly, governments legalized the practice. Sterilization laws, for instance, had been passed in 30 American states and 3 Canadian provinces. (Paul, 236) 

Not surprisingly, the worst expression of eugenics occurred in Nazi Germany.  The Aktion T-4 programme and subsequent programs “euthanized” up to 200,000 of the country’s institutionalized mentally and physically disabled, some with the tacit consent of the families. (Paul, 236)  

Opposition.  Predicably, eugenics attracted virulent opposition from the Catholic Church, labour groups, liberal politicians, and scientific community members. The Catholic Church, already opposed to abortion and contraception, vehemently opposed sterilization. Labour groups spoke out against eugenics, knowing that many working and lower classes, especially immigrants, fell into eugenic categories of unfit.  Scientists readily challenged eugenic claims and the Mendelian foundation by highlighting the nurture side of the nature vs nurture debates of the time. 

Conclusion.  Blatant Nazi atrocities in the name of racial hygiene, coupled with scientific exposures of its falsities, undermined eugenic claims.  However, it did become one of the most influential and devastating of the broader social Darwinist movement.

This blog offers a rudimentary introduction to eugenics.  Future blogs will address more specific aspects of this topic.

Selected Bibliography

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. Francis Galton and the Study of Heredity in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Garland, 1985.

Crook, Paul. Darwin’s Coat-Tails: Essays on Social Darwinism.  New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2007.

Larson, Edward J.  Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory.  New York: Modern Library, 2006. .

Paul, Diane B. “Darwin, Social Darwinism, and Eugenics.”  Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick eds.  The Cambridge Companion to Darwin.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009

Social Darwinism. An Introduction

 In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.  In it, Darwin convincingly argued that all species evolved by adapting through an ongoing struggle for survival.   The book is considered one of the most influential in the natural sciences.  However, Darwin’s influence would go well beyond the biological.  Shortly after the Origin of Species publication, people began speculating on the social implication of Darwin’s theories.  

“Social Darwinism,” a term for various social theories allegedly based on Darwin’s work, described individuals and societies competing for limited resources where the fittest survived and reproduced.  These theories provided intellectual fodder for racism, imperialism, militarism, political and economic conservatism, and misguided public health practices.   

What is Natural Selection?  In other blogs, we go into more detail about Darwin’s theories.  For now, here is a 5-point synopsis of natural selection.   

  1. More species exist than their environments can sustain.
  2. As a consequence of 1, all species are in a perpetual struggle for survival.
  3. Individual members of each possess variations or traits. 
  4. Those with favourable traits survive and reproduce, passing on these traits.
  5. Over generations, as traits pass, species evolve to survive in their environment—those who don’t perish.  

Origin of Species focused on plants and animals and did not address human evolution.  However, social theorists enthusiastically applied Darwinian biological concepts to human society, identifying societies as individuals competing in a struggle leading to the evolution and improvement of nations, classes, and races.

Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer. The notion of competition between individuals and groups as inevitable and necessary predated Darwin and increasingly pervaded the 19th century.  Adam Smith advocated an economic model based on competition and minimal state intervention in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations (1776).  In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798),Thomas Malthus, a clergyman, argued that people competed as populations outstripped limited resources – food, land, wealth.  Some, of course, would fall, but the strongest would survive. This competition, he insisted, led to social betterment, so state or private efforts to alleviate poverty were against nature.  Perhaps the strongest advocate of Social Darwinism was Herbert Spencer, who coined “survival of the fittest” in his Principles of Biology (1864).  The term helped bring attention to Darwin’s work and led to more applications to human society, including race, politics, economics, and medical practice like eugenics and euthanasia.

Politics, Social Inequality, Economics. Conservatives, concerned with the rising population of lower classes, cited natural selection as justification for refraining from poor relief in towns and cities.   Malthus and Spencer, two vehement individualists, insisted that poverty arose from flawed character and that state support for the poor contradicted the rules of nature and weakened society.  Similarly, industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie justified low wages and laissez-faire business practices that exploited weakness.  In The Gospel of Wealth (1900), Carnegie applauded “the concentration of business, industrial, and commercial, in the hands of a few and the competition to the progress of the race.” (4)

Race and Imperialism.Jacque Barzun writes that “The 19C was the heyday of physical anthropology, which divided mankind into three or more races” and “taken for an exact science in spite of its conflicting statements.” (577). Social Darwinism offered “scientific” support for racial categories that hardened in the latter part of the 19th century. Theorists applied Social Darwinist principles to nations.  Nationalists and imperialists appealed to social Darwinism to explain and justify colonial control of inferior ethnic groups and races, offering a rationale for displacement, unfair laws and even genocide.  For example, British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace supported European expansion at the expense of the “savage” and “inferior” indigenous peoples in the Americas and other continents.  Karl Pearson argued that the higher state of civilization arose racial struggle and the resulting survival of the physical and mentally fittest race. (Perry, 594)

An Infamous Legacy. Social Darwinism extended into the 20th century carrying its flawed reasoning and destructive implications with it.  Eugenics, founded by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, inspired the sterilization and euthanizing of people deemed “unfit” – the mentally ill, criminals, developmental delayed, and people of colour – in countries like Canada, the United States, and especially Germany.  Marvin Perry contends that “The Social Darwinist notion of the struggle of the races for survival became a core doctrine of the Nazi Party after World War 1 and provided the scientific and ethical justification for genocide.  (596). Social Darwinist theories began to wane by the middle of the 20th century, mainly as Nazi atrocities realized many of the morbid implications of Social Darwinist thinking, including sterilization and, of course, the Holocaust. 

Selected Bibliography

Barzun, Jacques.  From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.  New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.

Carnegie, Andrew.  The Gospel of Wealth. New York: Century, 1900. 

Hofstader, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. 1955.

Koch, H.W. ed.  The Origins of the First World War. New York: Taplinger, 1972. 

Olson, Richard, ed., Science as Metaphor.  Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1971. 

Perry, Marvin. Ed. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.