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Industrial Revolution


The Industrial Revolution (18-19th Century)
The Industrial Revolution (18-19th Century)
A Roberts loom in a weaving shed in 1835. Textiles were the leading industry of the Industrial Revolution, and mechanized factories, powered by a central water wheel or steam engine, were the new workplace.

The Industrial Revolution, now also known as the First Industrial Revolution, was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States, in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power and water power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the mechanized factory system. The Industrial Revolution also led to an unprecedented rise in the rate of population growth.

Textiles were the dominant industry of the Industrial Revolution in terms of employment, value of output and capital invested. The textile industry was also the first to use modern production methods.

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, and many of the technological innovations were of British origin. By the mid-18th century Britain was the world's leading commercial nation, controlling a global trading empire with colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and with major military and political hegemony on the Indian subcontinent, particularly with the proto-industrialised Mughal Bengal, through the activities of the East India Company. The development of trade and the rise of business were among the major causes of the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution marks a major turning point in history; almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way. In particular, average income and population began to exhibit unprecedented sustained growth. Some economists say that the major effect of the Industrial Revolution was that the standard of living for the general population in the western world began to increase consistently for the first time in history, although others have said that it did not begin to meaningfully improve until the late 19th and 20th centuries.

GDP per capita was broadly stable before the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the modern capitalist economy, while the Industrial Revolution began an era of per-capita economic growth in capitalist economies. Economic historians are in agreement that the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants. Although the structural change from agriculture to industry is widely associated with the Industrial Revolution, in the United Kingdom it was already almost complete by 1760.

The precise start and end of the Industrial Revolution is still debated among historians, as is the pace of economic and social changes. Eric Hobsbawm held that the Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 1780s and was not fully felt until the 1830s or 1840s, while T. S. Ashton held that it occurred roughly between 1760 and 1830. Rapid industrialization first began in Britain, starting with mechanized spinning in the 1780s, with high rates of growth in steam power and iron production occurring after 1800. Mechanized textile production spread from Great Britain to continental Europe and the United States in the early 19th century, with important centres of textiles, iron and coal emerging in Belgium and the United States and later textiles in France.

An economic recession occurred from the late 1830s to the early 1840s when the adoption of the original innovations of the Industrial Revolution, such as mechanized spinning and weaving, slowed and their markets matured. Innovations developed late in the period, such as the increasing adoption of locomotives, steamboats and steamships, hot blast iron smelting and new technologies, such as the electrical telegraph, widely introduced in the 1840s and 1850s, were not powerful enough to drive high rates of growth. Rapid economic growth began to occur after 1870, springing from a new group of innovations in what has been called the Second Industrial Revolution. These innovations included new steel making processes, mass-production, assembly lines, electrical grid systems, the large-scale manufacture of machine tools and the use of increasingly advanced machinery in steam-powered factories.


The earliest recorded use of the term "Industrial Revolution" seems to have been in a letter from 6 July 1799 written by French envoy Louis-Guillaume Otto, announcing that France had entered the race to industrialise. In his 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Raymond Williams states in the entry for "Industry": "The idea of a new social order based on major industrial change was clear in Southey and Owen, between 1811 and 1818, and was implicit as early as Blake in the early 1790s and Wordsworth at the turn of the [19th] century." The term Industrial Revolution applied to technological change was becoming more common by the late 1830s, as in Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui's description in 1837 of la révolution industrielle. Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 spoke of "an industrial revolution, a revolution which at the same time changed the whole of civil society". However, although Engels wrote in the 1840s, his book was not translated into English until the late 1800s, and his expression did not enter everyday language until then. Credit for popularising the term may be given to Arnold Toynbee, whose 1881 lectures gave a detailed account of the term.

Economic historians and authors such as Mendels, Pomeranz and Kridte argue that the proto-industrialization in parts of Europe, Islamic world, Mughal India, and China created the social and economic conditions that led to the Industrial Revolution, thus causing the Great Divergence.

Some historians, such as John Clapham and Nicholas Crafts, have argued that the economic and social changes occurred gradually and the term revolution is a misnomer. This is still a subject of debate among some historians.

Important technological developments

The commencement of the Industrial Revolution is closely linked to a small number of innovations, beginning in the second half of the 18th century. By the 1830s the following gains had been made in important technologies:

Textiles – mechanised cotton spinning powered by steam or water increased the output of a worker by a factor of around 500. The power loom increased the output of a worker by a factor of over 40. The cotton gin increased productivity of removing seed from cotton by a factor of 50. Large gains in productivity also occurred in spinning and weaving of wool and linen, but they were not as great as in cotton.

Steam power – the efficiency of steam engines increased so that they used between one-fifth and one-tenth as much fuel. The adaptation of stationary steam engines to rotary motion made them suitable for industrial uses. The high pressure engine had a high power to weight ratio, making it suitable for transportation. Steam power underwent a rapid expansion after 1800.

Iron making – the substitution of coke for charcoal greatly lowered the fuel cost of pig iron and wrought iron production. Using coke also allowed larger blast furnaces, resulting in economies of scale. The steam engine began being used to pump water and to power blast air in the mid 1750s, enabling a large increase in iron production by overcoming the limitation of water power. The cast iron blowing cylinder was first used in 1760. It was later improved by making it double acting, which allowed higher blast furnace temperatures. The puddling process produced a structural grade iron at a lower cost than the finery forge. The rolling mill was fifteen times faster than hammering wrought iron. Hot blast (1828) greatly increased fuel efficiency in iron production in the following decades.

Invention of machine tools – The first machine tools were invented. These included the screw cutting lathe, cylinder boring machine and the milling machine. Machine tools made the economical manufacture of precision metal parts possible, although it took several decades to develop effective techniques.


The Black Country in England, west of Birmingham
Model of the spinning jenny in a museum in Wuppertal. Invented by James Hargreaves in 1764, the spinning jenny was one of the innovations that started the revolution.
The only surviving example of a spinning mule built by the inventor Samuel Crompton. The mule produced high-quality thread with minimal labour. Bolton Museum, Greater Manchester
Interior of Marshall's Temple Works in Leeds, West Yorkshire
A Watt steam engine. James Watt transformed the steam engine from a reciprocating motion that was used for pumping to a rotating motion suited to industrial applications. Watt and others significantly improved the efficiency of the steam engine.



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Published in 18/09/2020

Updated in 19/02/2021

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