History of the Industrial Revolution: How It Changed Our Lives

Coalbrookdale by Night

Coalbrookdale by Night. Artist: Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg. Date: 1801.
Coalbrookdale by Night. Artist: Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg. Date: 1801. | Source

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution was a period in Britain from mid-1700s to the mid-1800s in which power-driven machines in factories replaced manual labor. The industrial revolution resulted from advances in applied science and engineering, such as the development of steam engines (especially those of the inventor James Watt).

Much of the laboring population, previously largely employed in agriculture, moved to the industrial towns and cities, where they were housed and employed in often miserable and squalid conditions.

James Hargreaves's spinning jenny (1770) and Edmund Cartwright's power loom (1783) fostered the textiles industry (a key industry of the Industrial Revolution). Coal and steel were used in ever more efficient steam engines.

Vastly improved transport -- canals, roads, railroads, steamships -- allowed quick importation of raw materials and export of finished goods to markets all over the world.

The Industrial Revolution came to other countries (France, Germany, United States, Japan) a little later than to Britain.

The poor conditions of workers led to the rise of socialism and Marxism. Later the free-for-all (laissez faire) capitalism was replaced in Britain and elsewhere by the welfare state.

The Industrial Revolution saw large population increases, the rise of the professions, and, later, improvements to the living standards (due to the cheaper costs of machine-made goods).

Image: This painting entitled Coalbrookdale by Night (Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1801) with its fiery glow and its fumes suggests the eerie and unnatural effects of the Industrial Revolution's invasion of the English countryside

The Industrial Revolution: Moving Mountains

The Spinning Jenny

A faster, cheaper way of making cotton cloth: the spinning jenny.
A faster, cheaper way of making cotton cloth: the spinning jenny. | Source

Innovations in the Cotton Textile Industry

In the 18th century cotton was being grown in India and America. Demand was exploding for cotton products but the cotton industry was very labor-intensive (in America the labor was mostly provided by slaves).

The first great mechanical invention in cotton manufacture was the fly shuttle, which allowed cotton threads to be woven into cloth more speedily.

The next important mechanical invention was the spinning jenny (invented by James Hargreaves) which allowed up to sixteen threads to be spun into cloth simultaneously. This replaced a much slower process using spinning wheels and manual labor.

Then in 1791 the cotton gin (invented by Eli Whitney) permitted the mechanized separating of seeds from cotton fibers.

All of these inventions allowed for faster processing and simultaneous processing -- all done by one cheap machine. One machine would replace the labor of several workers.

And the product -- cotton cloth -- was cheaper and more durable than woollen cloth, so it became very popular.

Steam Power, 1876

The Corliss Engine as seen at the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine of 1876
The Corliss Engine as seen at the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine of 1876 | Source

The Steam Engine

Several decades before the innovations in the cotton textile industry, another invention had changed the world dramatically: the steam engine.

Steam engines were to run the machines in factories and power railway locomotives.

Mines which produced metals (such as iron) were plagued with flooding by water the deeper that the mines were dug. In 1712 Thomas Newcomen invented a simple steam engine that would be used to pump water from the mines. It was designed to burn coal (a much cheaper fuel than wood). Newcomen's steam engine was a single piston engine and thus was very energy-inefficient. It could only be used for pumping water from mines.

In 1769 James Watt invented a steam engine with a separate cooling chamber. This machine would be used in factories, replacing earlier energy sources such as watermills. It would also be used in locomotives pulling two new and more efficient kinds of transport: steam trains and stream boats.

The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830

The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830 (OPUS)
The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830 (OPUS)

The author of this book shows how the Industrial Revolution brought not only great suffering but undeniable progress.

 

Faster and cheaper transport: The opening of the first U.S. transcontinental railroad, 1869

Driving in the last spike: ceremony marking the opening of the first United States transcontinental railroad, May 10, 1869
Driving in the last spike: ceremony marking the opening of the first United States transcontinental railroad, May 10, 1869 | Source

Improvements to Transport during the Industrial Revolution

Before the Industrial Revolution raw materials had to be moved to factories and finished products had to be moved from factories using slow and expensive means of transport moving along poorly built and maintained roads.

Some major improvements were made to transport during the Industrial Revolution:

  • the canal system improved in England
  • old roads were repaired and a system of new, tollroads (turnpikes) were built
  • railways were built from the 1760s onwards
  • steam engines replaced horses for hauling trains from the early 1800s
  • steamships were introduced (e.g. on major American rivers, such as the Mississippi).


The improvements to roads and railways allowed for the cheaper transportation of raw materials and goods and they also permitted workers to get to their factories or other jobs more rapidly.

Children of the Industrial Revolution: A simple introduction to the experiences children had during the Industrial Revolution

Oh my friends, the down-trodden operatives of Coketown! Oh my friends and fellow-countrymen, the slaves of an ironhanded and a grinding despotism! ... I tell you that the hour is come, when we must rally round one another as One united power, and crumble into dust the oppressors that too long have battened upon the plunder of our families, upon the sweat of our brows, upon the labour of our hands...

— Charles Dickens

Good and Bad Effects of the Industrial Revolution

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution the technological changes were viewed by ordinary workers with great fear and trepidation.

Large numbers of people lost their work in the countryside. Many were forced to live in the towns and cities. Their accommodation there was mostly cramped and unhealthy. Jobs, when they could be obtained, were often dangerous and hours were long. Child labor was rampant.

Charles Dickens used to protest in his novels, such as Great Expectations, Hard Times, Oliver Twist and Bleak House, against the grim lot of workers in this period.

As a result there was a lot of unrest among the workers. Machines such as spinning jennies were smashed and factories were burned to the ground by groups such as the Luddites.

The situation was exacerbated by the laissez-faire (free-for-all) form of capitalism which reigned in the 19th century -- in which capital and capitalists ruled the roost and demonstrations for workers' rights were met with repression from the police and (often) the military.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, countries where the Industrial Revolution was operating (United Kingdom, United States, France, Germany, etc.) saw some improvements to living standards due to the efforts of trades unions and to the cheaper cost of machine-made goods.

The Industrial Revolution arrived in other countries in later decades. In many Third World countries workers still work in factory jobs with badly paid and dangerous working conditions that remind one of the bad old days that Charles Dickens used to describe in his novels.

Your Opinion, Please!

Was the Industrial Revolution a good thing or a bad thing?

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© 2014 David Paul Wagner

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5 comments

silvershark profile image

silvershark 23 months ago from Destin, Florida

With new technology comes good and bad.


David Paul Wagner profile image

David Paul Wagner 23 months ago from Sydney, Australia Author

@silvershark I suppose it depends on how many benefits and how much harm new technology brings for people, doesn't it?


silvershark profile image

silvershark 23 months ago from Destin, Florida

Yes of course and how the technology is used.


aesta1 profile image

aesta1 22 months ago from Ontario, Canada

The Industrial Revolution definitely had its share of ill effects but it definitely brought mankind to another stage of development. Can you imagine remaining in the feudal state? I still can because in many countries, the feudal culture is still entrenched. Enjoyed your hub.


David Paul Wagner profile image

David Paul Wagner 22 months ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Thanks, aesta1. I am certainly no fan of feudalism. The Industrial Revolution certainly brought benefits. However, it is important to remember it had many negative effects too, and that those were not just back in the 18th and 19th centuries but also in more recent times. By way of example, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring (1962) could be seen as an analysis of the deleterious effects of the Industrial Revolution in the 20th century.

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