The word revolution conjures up images of rapidly unfolding events that result in massive changes. There can be no denying that the Industrial Revolution was the source of vast economic, social, and cultural changes. Only the agricultural revolution of Neolithic times equaled the Industrial Revolution in the way it transformed human life. At the same time, however, the Industrial Revolution was not a single event but a complex process that unfolded over a span of many decades. In the course of those decades, industrialized modes of production took hold, but at first they did not produce a greatly accelerated pace of economic growth.
From 1760 to 1820, British industrial output grew at a rate of 1.5 percent per year, about the same growth rate for the economy as a whole. (Hay, 65) Historians sometimes use the year 1760 as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but this date is rather arbitrary. It is equally difficult to discern a precise end point for the Industrial Revolution; indeed, it can be argued that this is a revolution that continues to the present day. (More, 80)
Despite an immense amount of writing about it, the Industrial Revolution remains an elusive subject. It was an economic revolution, a technological revolution, a social revolution, and a cultural revolution. The changes produced by these revolutions interacted with one another in an exceedingly complex fashion. The long span of time occupied by the Industrial Revolution meant that there was no abrupt break with the past, and industrializing nations contained paradoxical mixtures of the traditional and the modern. In mid-19th century England, decades after the onset of the Industrial Revolution, half of the population still lived in the countryside, and half of the labor force continued to use pre-industrial production methods. (King, 129)
Although the timing of the Industrial Revolution does not lend itself to precise dates, its place of origin is evident. The technological and organizational changes that transformed the traditional economy first emerged in Great Britain, reaching their most concentrated form in the Midlands of England where the growth of the textile industry provided the model for industrial modes of production. (More, 82)
Why the Industrial Revolution first appeared in Great Britain is a question that continues to challenge economic historians. Great Britain was favored by abundant deposits of coal and iron ore, adequate stocks of capital, a fair number of people with mechanical ability and/or an entrepreneurial spirit, and a government less intrusive than most, yet it cannot be said for certain that these advantages put Great Britain in a class by itself.
In any event, the Industrial Revolution soon moved beyond the confines of Great Britain into Western Europe and North America. (O’Brien, 43) By the latter part of the 19th century, an industrial revolution was beginning to take place in Japan, the first non-Western nation in which this occurred. In the Soviet Union and later the People’s Republic of China, an industrial revolution took place under government aegis and amidst a great amount of needless suffering. (Hay, 68)
Today, there are many countries that have only recently begun to experience their own industrial revolutions. Although Great Britain provided the first model of industrialization, history never repeats itself exactly. Every industrialized country (indeed, every region) has had an industrial revolution with its own distinctive features, and any attempt to find a single, unvarying pattern of industrialization is doomed to failure.
Many different enterprises were profoundly changed in the course of the Industrial Revolution, everything from steel mills to breweries. But most emblematic of the Industrial Revolution was the large factory with machines run by an external source of power. Of these, the most significant were those producing textiles. The mechanization of many phases of textile production, most notably spinning and weaving, completely transformed an industry that for centuries had resided in small-scale enterprises based on handiwork, simple technologies, and human muscle power. A plethora of inventions, many of them based on new sources of power, contributed to this transformation. (O’Brien, 43)
Although the Industrial Revolution is sometimes thought to have been the creation of the steam engine, in actual fact the majority of mechanized operations were powered by waterwheels and water turbines. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that steam engines collectively supplied more industrial power than falling water. Steam, however, made long-distance railroad transportation possible. In conjunction with canals and improved inland waterways, the railroad greatly enlarged the size of the market served by individual firms. This in turn stimulated the growth of individual enterprises and attendant economies of scale. (King, 129)
According to one famous assessment, “science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to science.” More generally, it often has been claimed that science had little to do with the key innovations that made the Industrial Revolution possible. This statement is true in regard to mechanical devices like spinning jennies and power looms; these contrivances could be, and usually were, designed and built by artisans with no scientific training. (More, 83)
In similar fashion, the construction of early steam engines owed little to scientific principles. But in a fundamental sense, the steam engine owed its existence to the scientific discovery that air has weight, and that this weight could be used for practical purposes. Also, James Watt’s invention of the separate condenser, while not directly motivated by a scientific principle, nonetheless took place in an environment strongly influenced by scientific approaches to understanding the world. (Hay, 71)
Finally, although the machines that industrialized textile manufacture did not directly result from scientific ideas, other aspects of the cloth-making process were deeply indebted to scientific discoveries. Most notably, chlorine bleaching, a process directly descended from chemical research, opened up a major bottleneck in textile production.
Impact on the life of workers
While the Industrial Revolution was propelled by a series of technological innovations, no less important were changes in the way production was organized. In the place of a few workers weaving cloth or making cutlery in a small cottage, there were now hundreds of people employed in a single factory. The high cost of centralized sources of power and specialized machinery contributed to the concentration of the labor force, but no less important was the desire to keep workers under close supervision.
Hired through an increasingly impersonal labor market and lacking capital of their own, workers had no personal connection to the enterprise in which they worked. (King, 129) The face-to-face contact and personal attachments found in the traditional craft shop gave way to impersonal managerial methods. Hierarchical authority, division of labor, formal rules, and strict work schedules became the typical means of organizing work. (O’Brien, 44)
Many of the workers who labored in these early factories were women. The presence of women workers was especially evident in the textile industry; in the cotton industries of Europe and the United States, half of the labor force was comprised of women, while in Japan it was even larger. (More, 85) Often confined to routine operations and barred from many skilled or managerial positions, women workers bore a disproportionate share of the costs of industrialization.
Children too were an important segment of the Industrial Revolution workforce. Children as young as 6 were put to work in mines and factories where they put in long hours for very low wages. Although many children were hired as adjuncts to their parents, their working lives were often marked by exploitation. In 1833, this deplorable situation began to be addressed in Great Britain by the first of a series of child labor laws. (Hay, 71)
Reference to child labor forces a consideration of some of the unfortunate aspects of the Industrial Revolution. Long working days were the norm: 12 hours a day, frequently including Saturdays, were by no means unusual. In many factories, the pace of work was unrelenting, leaving little time for relaxation and socializing. Work was not only long, monotonous, and fatiguing, it could also be dangerous. Among the prominent features of early industrialization were miners killed in underground explosions, workers maimed by machinery, and operatives debilitated by lung diseases caused by the inhalation of cotton dust. (O’Brien, 45)
Time spent away from work was often unpleasant, marked by cramped living quarters, inadequate ventilation, poor diets, and periodic epidemics. At the same time, however, while the life of workers during the Industrial Revolution was harsh, not all of the problems were the result of industrialization per se. (King, 131)
The growth of industrial production was accompanied by rapid urbanization; for example, the English textile town of Manchester grew from 25,000 inhabitants in the 1770s to more than 365,000 by the middle of the following century. (King, 132) The rapid growth of the urban population jammed people together, overwhelmed sanitation facilities, and created perfect conditions for the spread of disease. In some cases, government policies made bad situations worse, as when the British government levied a tax of window glass, needlessly making dwellings dark and badly ventilated.
At the same time, the in-migration and high birth rates that generated the growth of industrial cities show that, for all its shortcomings, industrial life had its benefits. (O’Brien, 46) Life as a factory operative was hard, but life in the countryside was surely not the idyll it is often made out to be. For many former rural dwellers, a factory job and an urban tenement represented an improved standard of living, however bleak it may seem to us today.
In conclusion, it is clear that the working classes suffered immensely within this time of Industrialization. People clearly were oppressed to satiate the needs and aims of the country and its government.
The Industrial Revolution may have been a step towards civilization, modernity, and a contributing factor to why Britain is so rich compared to most of the rest of the world. This may be good, but many of our forefathers’ lived in hardship, and had an unbearable way of life. The Industrial Revolution was also making the gap between the rich and the poor wider, giving the rich an excessive amount of power over the poor.
It is debatable whether or not the Industrial Revolution was a good occurrence or not. I hope that I have shown that I think that the Industrial Revolution is not just a few inventions, but a change to the whole society of Britain. In terms of life as a whole, the step was needed for us to be where we are at present, and I am thankful for that.
Hay, D. and Rogers, N. ‘Eighteenth-Century English Society’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997: 65-71.
King, S. and Timmins, G. ‘Making Sense of the Industrial Revolution’, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2001: 129-132.
O’Brien, P. and Quinault, R. ‘The Industrial Revolution and British Society’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993: 43-46.
More, C. ‘Understanding The Industrial Revolution’, Routledge, London, 2000: 80-85.