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.
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. https://doi.org/10.2307/2599937
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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41262428.
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. https://doi.org/10.2307/1171364.
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. https://doi.org/10.2307/2595506.
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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1c2crfj.9.
Schellekens, Jona. “Nuptiality during the First Industrial Revolution in England: Explanations.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 27, no. 4 1997: 637–54. https://doi.org/10.2307/206538.
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.
You must be logged in to post a comment.