Introduction to the Industrial Revolution
Why Study the Industrial Revolution?
The Industrial Revolution resulted in the most profound, far-reaching changes in the history of humanity. And its influence continues to sweep through our lives today. The last 250 years of industrialization have altered our lives more than any event or development in the past 12,000 years: in where we live, how we work, what we wear, what we eat, what we do for fun, how we are educated, how long we live and how many children we have. The Industrial Revolution provided the countries that first adopted it with the technological and economic advantages necessary to eventually rule most of the world. In short, the Industrial Revolution is the “game changer” of modern world history. More than anything else, it’s what makes the modern world, well, “modern.”
Consider a few global consequences of industrialization. When the Industrial Revolution started in the 18th century, the great majority of people lived in the countryside. But, the growth of cities coincided with the growth of industry, and rapid urbanization continues to increase in contemporary times. By 2008, for the first time in human history, more people in the world lived in cities than in rural areas (“World Population”). The same 250-year-old process has also resulted in modern technological innovations that generations of people have grown accustomed to—such as steam engines, railroads, cars, modern appliances, and computers. Average life expectancy has more than doubled in industrialized nations, while average incomes have increased even more. To be sure, industrialization has improved life in many ways for many people.
On the other hand, industrialization has not spread wealth evenly across the globe, and the consequences have often been unjust. For example, in 2010, in developing countries, where 85% of people in the world live, 16,000 children die each day from hunger-related causes—that's one child every five seconds (“Global Hunger”). This tragedy is just one of the far-reaching consequences of the wealth and income inequality in our contemporary world. But how did it come about that, as of 2006, 10% of the world’s wealthiest people controlled 85% of the world’s wealth? (Brown) Because getting a head start matters: the wealthiest countries in the world today are those that industrialized first.
So why study the Industrial Revolution? Study it to understand the major challenges, trends, and successes of the world today—high-tech innovations, increased global wealth, social injustices, global migration patterns, and environmental degradation. In short, we cannot hope to understand the modern world without understanding the Industrial Revolution.
In this text we pose an essential question that focuses our inquiry: Did the Industrial Revolution improve life? To investigate this quesion we will look at what changes occured in society and what the consequences were for various groups. Was life better for the average person? Was life better for children? Women? Workers? Business people? And how did industrialization change society? Did industrialized societies grow economically and become wealthy? Did the response of the government improve life? As you read this text, evaluate the evidence on your own and decide whether or not industrial societies improved life over pre-industrial socieites.
What is the Industrial Revolution?
So what exactly is the Industrial Revolution? An Industrial Revolution at its core occurs when a society shifts from using tools to make products to using new sources of energy, such as coal, to power machines in factories. It’s a shift from the home to the factory, from the country to the city, from human or animal power to engines powered by fossil fuels (coal and, later, oil). The industrial process occurred gradually, but the social and economic changes were so far reaching over generations that, looking back, it becomes clear that they were nothing short of revolutionary.
The revolution started in England, with a series of innovations to make labor more efficient and productive. In the new industrial cities, advances in technology and organization allowed the average worker to produce much more than ever before. For example, one low-skilled worker in a spinning factory in Britain in 1820 could produce, with the help of a steam-powered spinning machine, a hundred times the spun thread of a pre-industrial worker (Stearns 8). Though it started with labor-saving devices in England, the revolution spread incrementally to other regions of the world.
The Industrial Revolution is an era that began in England at the end of the 18th century, but it has yet to end. We can distinguish three phases of the Industrial Revolution in modern world history, based on when various countries and regions went through the process:
- The first phase (1770s to 1860s) started with Britain and then spread to other countries in Northern and Western Europe and the United States.
- The second phase (1870s to 1950s) brought in Russia, Japan, other parts of Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
- The third phase (1960s to present) brought in the so-called Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea) and has seen tentative development in key economic sectors in Turkey, India, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.
Watch this video for a brief overview of the Industrial Revolution