Industrial Revolution

The world has seen several Industrial revolutions until now. Some state the existence of four or even five of them. We’ll read about the features and impacts of the first three and main revolutions in this article.

The Industry Revolution of the 18th century, now precisely referred to as the First Industrial Revolution, is a part of modern history. The process is called a ‘revolution’ because it got a dynamic (characterised by constant change or progress) change in the economy, technology and culture-shifting it from agrarian (an economy which is agriculture-based, i.e. most of the people earn income from agriculture) and handicraft based to one dominated by industry and machine production.

The term – “Industrial Revolution’ was first made popular by the British economic historian Arnold Toynbee (1852 – 83) to describe Britain’s economic development and mechanisation from 1760 to 1840. Now, the term is not only used with respect to Britain but for the entire world.

This revolution first began in Britain in the 18th century and from there, travelled to the other parts of the world.

As mentioned earlier, the main changes brought by the Industrial Revolution were socioeconomic (relating to the interaction of social and economic factors), technological and cultural.


Changes brought by the Industrial Revolution

Technological Changes

Some important technological changes brought by the revolution included:

  1. Increase in the use of metals, such as iron and steel
  2. Use of new types of fuels such as coal (engines), steam (eg.-steam engines), electricity and petroleum
  3. Developments in transportation and means of communication, like the steam-operated vehicles (ships, engines, etc), automobiles, airplane, telegraph, radio, etc.
  4. use of new machines – both simple and complex in nature. For eg.- a simple machine that came widely into use was the spinning jenny. An example of complex machinery is a power loom, which permitted efficient and fast production with minimum expenditure of human energy.
  5. The introduction of a new system to organise the division of work( the course of tasks assigned to, and completed by, a group of workers), called the ‘factory system’. This ensured to increase the division of work between the labourers
Division of Labour | Credit: Market Businessnews

Cultural, Societal and Political changes

Some developments in non-industrial areas were:

  • The technological advancements helped in increasing food production. Can you guess how?   More use of machines and advanced tools helped the farmer to grow more crops quickly. The extra output was now adequate to be used by the population who did not engage in agriculture themselves
Plough being used to increase soil efficiency| Credit: Foundations Of WesternCulture
  • Increase in international trade (trade between several countries). With the use of machinery, good quality goods could be manufactured quickly and cheaply. These products attracted several international buyers because of their cheap prices.
  • Political changes– changes in the state policies with respect to the needs of an industrialised society
  • Social changes such as the growth of cities and rise in the population living in urban areas, development of working-class movements (eg.- labour movements), the emergence of power amongst new groups (for eg.- owners of these factories got rich and thus had social and political power)
  • Workers acquired new and distinctive skills; instead of being craftsmen working with hand tools, they learnt to operate machines and became factory labourers

Some of these changes advanced during the second and third Industrial Revolutions.

The first Industrial Revolution that occurred between 1760 to 1830 was largely confined to Britain. To make huge profits exclusively, the British tried very hard to restrict the export of industrial techniques, machinery and skilled workers to the rest of the world. But these efforts couldn’t last forever as the British industrialists saw huge and profitable deals in industrial opportunities abroad.

Spread throughout the world

Two Englishmen, William and John Cockerill, brought the Industrial Revolution to Belgium (around 1807), making it the first country to be transformed economically in continental Europe. Similar to the British, the Belgian Industrial Revolution centred in iron, coal, and textiles.

The Industrial Revolution in France was rather slower than in either Britain and Belgium. While Britain was establishing its industrial efficiently and modernity (the state of being modern), France was busy with its own revolution (the French Revolution- 1787-99). Chaotic and uncertain political situations discouraged large investments in industrial development. By 1848, France had become an industrial power, but despite this growth, it remained behind Britain for several decades. Most of the European countries lagged far behind the British. One major reason for this gap between most of the other countries and Britain was political conditions in those countries. For example, Germany, despite having huge resources of coal and iron, didn’t begin its industrial expansion until 1870. But once the industrial revolution started in Germany, it grew so rapidly that by a century, the nation was producing more steel than Britain and had become the world leader in chemical industries. The entry and rise of U.S.’s industries in the 19th and 20th centuries also left Europe behind. Soon Japan joined and showed huge success in this field.

Map showing the spread of Industrial Revolution through Europe decades |Credit: Brtiannica

The eastern European countries were behind from the rest of Europe in gaining industrial excellence. It was not until the five-year plans (a plan for economic or industrial development specifying goals to be reached within a period of five years) that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) became a major industrial power.

The mid of 20th century saw the spread of the Industrial Revolution in non-industrialised countries such as China and India.

The Second Industrial Revolution

Though there is no defined line that divides the first and second wave of the Industrial Revolution, generally, the ‘new’ Industrial revolution started in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The industries in this period did not confine its raw materials to those used during the first revolution but started using lighter metals, new alloys (alloy: a metal made by combining two or more metals), and synthetic products such as plastics, as well as new energy sources.

By 1900s, 40% of the US population lived in cities, compared to just 6% in 1800. Inventions such as electric lighting, radio and telephones transformed the ways in which people lived and communicated.

There were several developments in machines, computers and tools, giving rise to automatic machinery in factories that required even less human labour.

Ownership of means of production, such as machines, computers, tools, etc, also underwent changes. The means of production could be owned by a group of people through purchasing stocks or a share in its ownership. These stocks could be purchased by individuals as well as institutions such as insurance companies.

The Third Industrial Revolution

The third revolution comprised of a digital revolution.

It began in the 1950s and brought several important innovations like semiconductors, mainframe computing, personal computing, and then most useful and wide known – Internet. It was a great step in the rise of electronics, telecommunications and of course computers. Several things that used to be manual (done with the hands)before were automatic now. This reduced the demand for workers even further.

An Illustration showing the third Industrial Revolution| Credit: TheEconomist

Quiz Time!

1.Where did Industrial Revolution first start?

a. Britain             b. France         c. Belgium         d. USA

2. Which of the following changes did first Industrial Revolution bring?

a. increase in hand labour

b.use of coal and steam as a fuel

c. factory system

d.decrease in urbanisation

3. Brief about some non-industrial changes brought by the Industrial Revolution.

4. Which major country had Industrial Revolution in it after the introduction of five year plans?

a. China         b. Japan         c. India         d. USSR

5. When did the ‘new’ Industrial Revolution start?

a. 18th century           b. early 19th century            c. late 19th early 20th century         d. not sure

6.  What, according to you, is the major invention of the third Industrial Revolution?


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