The Industrial Revolution - Overview
If a European person from the Middle Ages were somehow magically transported to
the early 1750’s, she would see people living and working in familiar ways. Before 1750,
most Europeans still lived in the countryside and worked on the land. They made the goods
they needed, such as clothes and furniture, by hand or with small simple machines. They
didn't travel much, and when they did, the going was slow, on foot or on horseback.
But, if our time-traveler from the Middle Ages were .to land around 1800, she would
find herself in a strange and surprising world. She would see new machines that could do the
work of hundreds, even thousands, of people. She would see people leaving the countryside
and trave1ing on fast; noisy, smoke-belching machines that would probably frighten her, but
which you'd recognize as railroad trains. These trains carried many people to the rapidly
growing cities, where the workers tended the new machines in large buildings called
All of these changes make up what we can the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial
Revolution began in England around 1750, and then spread gradually to other European
countries. Partly because of its head start in the Industrial Revolution England became an
especially powerful country in the 1800s.
The Industrial Revolution was, as we will see, a revolution with both good and bad
effects. Let's look at the industry that first adopted the new and faster ways of making things:
the textile industry in England.
The English Textile Industry
Today if you need a new shirt, you probably go to a store with a clothing section. On
shelves or racks you can see dozens of piles of shirts in many different sizes and colors. But
who made those shirts? - not to mention the pants, dress, socks, and hundreds of other
articles of clothing in the store? Most likely not the people in the store. The shirt you buy is
the end-product of manufacturing processes that were developed for the first time back in
England during the Industrial Revolution.
In the mid-eighteenth century one of the main products produced by English workers
was cloth, especially cotton Cloth. Have you ever seen raw cotton? It doesn't look much like
cloth. It looks like a puffy, web of thin, fuzzy strands. To make cloth you must first spin
these fuzzy strands into yarn. Then you can weave the yarn into cloth: In the 1760’s,
Eng1ish inventors developed new machines that made it possible to spin the cotton much
faster than ever before. For a while, these new machines made it possible for workers to spin
cotton into yarn much faster than the weavers could turn the yarn into cloth. Then, in the
1780’s, another English inventor came up with new, more powerful loom (weaving
machine) that made weaving just as fast as spinning.
But now, the spinners and weavers couldn't get enough cotton fiber to feed their
speedy new machines. The cotton fiber, as you may know, grows on a plant: when you pick
the fiber, you also get a lot of seeds along with it. Before the fiber can be used, it must be
separated from the seeds. In the 1790s, an American, Eli Whitney, invented a machine called
a cotton gin, which quickly separated the cotton fiber from the seeds. Now the whole process
of making cotton was rapid and efficient.
What happened first in the textile industry happened over and over in other industries
during the Industrial Revolution: one invention led to another, and another, and another...
The Steam Engine
Factory owners now had big, powerful new machines that could do the work of many
people. But it took a great deal of energy to run the machines. The first factories were run by
water power. Workers built a large wheel alongside a river or stream: the flowing water
would turn the wheel, creating energy to drive the machines. But to take advantage of
waterpower, you had to build a factory next to a river or stream, which limited where you
could build a factory and how many you could build.
All this changed, however, in the late 1700’s, when a man named James Watt
invented a new kind of engine run by steam. Because steam can be made anywhere by
boiling water, steam-powered factories could be built anywhere. By 1800, there were over
one thousand steam engines in England, and factories were spreading all over the country.
Steam remained the most important source of energy until the 1900’s when electrical energy
same into widespread use.
The steam engine also made possible a dramatic new form of transportation: the
railroad. Even before 1800, England had railways, but these were just lines of iron track
along which carts could be pulled by horses. Then, in the early 1800’s, English engineers
invented the locomotive, a steam engine on wheels that could pull much heavier loads than"
any horse, and pull them more swiftly. Early locomotives traveled between 20 and 40 miles
an hour-not as fast as a car travels on a modern highway but much faster than a horse.
Soon trains were being used to carry passengers as well as goods. By 1850, Britain
had more than 6,000 miles of railroad track. The railway system made English industry more
successful by making it faster and cheaper to transport goods. It connected remote, distant
parts of the country with the great cities. Because railway travel was cheap, it allowed even
poor people to travel and experience new things.
Most people were delighted by this new form of transportation. One Englishman
remembered how he would visit the countryside just to catch a glimpse of passing trains:
I went into the country for a week. . . and saw the white steam shooting
throughout the landscape of trees, meadows "and villages, and the long train,
loaded with merchandise, men and women and human enterprise, rolling along
under the steam. I had seen no sight like that; I have seen nothing to excel it
since. In beauty and grandeur, the world has nothing beyond it.
But not everyone welcomed the railroad. Some people insisted that trains were too
noisy, too dirty; and too dangerous. They worried that a rock on the tracks might cause a
train wreck, that a spark from an engine might cause a forest fire, or even that cows in the
fields might be driven crazy by the noise of passing trains! But such fears did not stop the
railroad. Soon it was England's most important form of transportation.
The Plight of the Factory Workers
Gradually the Industrial Revolution spread and most of the world's nations began to
change to the new ways of manufacturing and transportation. The Industrial Revolution
came to different countries at different times, and took different forms. By the middle of the
1800’s, Western Europe and the northeastern United States were becoming industrialized.
Southern and Eastern Europe followed decades later. It was not until the 1900’s that most
Asian and African nations began to industrialize.
As the Industrial Revolution spread, it brought great benefits, but it also brought great
hardships to many people. While the Industrial Revolution created new jobs, especially jobs
tending the new machines, it also did away with old jobs. For example, making furniture
once required skilled craftsmen who worked carefully and slowly by hand; the new
machines, however, put these skilled craftsmen out of work. In the early 1800s, some of the
unemployed workers turned to violence. Some of these people were caught by the authorities
and were severely punished; some were even hanged.
Many people, hoping to find high-paying jobs and a better life, moved from the
country to the towns and cities where factories were springing up. These factory towns, as
they were sometimes called, were not ready for so many people at once: from about 1800 to
1850, in one English town, Birmingham, the population grew from 1,000 to 250,000! There
were not enough jobs or housing for all these people. Whole families crowded into a single
room, while others were left homeless, wandering the bleak, polluted streets of towns like
this one described by the English writer Charles Dickens in his novel called Hard Times
It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and
ashes had allowed it…It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of
which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and
never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with
ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of buildings full of windows where there was a
rattling and trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam engine
worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of
melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one
another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people
equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the
same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every
day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of
the last and the next.
Every day and every year was the same: life for the factory workers was an exhausting
routine. What are you doing at five o'clock in the morning? If you were a factory, laborer in
the early 1800’s, you would be on your way to work, trudging through dark, dirty streets.
Once in the factory you would stand in one place all day, running a machine. You wou1d
work for very low pay from fourteen to sixteen hours a day, six days a week (more than
twice as long as the average American- works today). Your ears would hurt from the
constant noise, your lungs wou1d grow weak from the stale air, arid your spirit would sink
from the same dreary routine, day after day.
But you wouldn't dare miss a day or show up late for work. If you did, you might have
to pay a fine. For showing up only twenty minutes late, you could lose a quarter of a day's
pay. You could also be fined if you were caught talking to another worker, or sitting down
on the job. And if you complained or talked back to your boss, you would be fired on the
Your work, besides being dreary and low-paying, might also be dangerous. Standing
on your feet sixteen hours each day, year after year, could lead to crippled legs or a
deformed spine. If you let your mind wander for just a moment, part of your body might get
caught in the machine, and, like thousands of workers each year, you could lose a finger,
hand, or arm. If you were injured or crippled in an accident at work, then you were out of a
job, with no way to make a living. (In America today, a disabled worker can receive a
payment from the government.)
You might think that, if you had lived in the early 1800’s, all this wouldn't apply to
you since you're probably not much more than twelve years old, with a lot of school left
before you hold a fulltime job. But one of the worst aspects of the early factories - and what
led many people to call for changes and reforms - was the shocking mistreatment of the man,
laborer who were your age and younger.
Because factory workers earned such low wages, they often had to put their children
to work in order to make ends meet. Even before the Industrial Revolution some children
had helped support the family, but they usually did so by helping on the farm, in the home,
or in the shop. Now children-some as young as five years old were sent off to work in the
factories. There they would work the same long hours as adults, be exposed to the same
dangers and diseases, and of course receive no education. .
Some factories were kind to their child workers. But others treated them very harshly:
One Englishman, who had worked in a factory when he seven years old, recalled that his
hours were from five in the morning to eight at night, with one solitary break of thirty
minutes at noon. He had to eat any other meals in snatches, without interrupting his work.
He remembered that, starting at about three in the afternoon, he would get very tired, and
cou1d hardly keep his eyes open by six or seven in the evening. But if he started to doze off,
he would be painfully awakened by an “overlooker" whose job it was to "strap" the children
- to beat them, in order to keep them alert.
When stories like this became widely known, people were outraged. In the 1830’s the
English government began making laws to protect child workers. One law said that no one
under the age of nine could work in the factories. Another law, passed in the 1840’s, said
that children under thirteen could work no more than thirty-six hours a week. Things
gradually became better for children, who worked until, in the 1900’s, England and other
countries passed laws doing away completely with most child labor. (Today in Europe and
the United States, children are not allowed to work in most jobs. Some are permitted to
work, usually by helping on the family farms, but only if they also go to school.)
1. Where, when, and why did the Industrial Revolution start?
2. What was the first industry to really benefit from the Industrial Revolution?
3. See how far you can follow the chain of events:
a. What was one of the first “inventions”? What problem did it solve, and then
b. What came next?
c. Then next? And so on….
4. What were a few of the major inventions of the Industrial Revolution mentioned? Do
you agree with their list?
5. What was one of the first groups to be hurt by the Industrial Revolution?
6. Why did cities grow during this period?
7. What do you think happened to wages and living conditions as more people flooded
into the cities?
8. How might the influx of immigrants, seeking to escape poverty of conflicts, help or
hurt this situation?
9. What were working conditions like?
10.Why were children often found working in factories?
The Idea of Laissez-Faire
At about the same time that society was changing because of the Industrial
Revolution, many people's ideas were changing because of a popular new economic idea
called laissez-faire (LESS-ay FAIR). Laissez-faire-which is French for "to let alone" – it is
the idea that government should not make rules or laws to affect the economy, but instead
should just leave it alone.
Until the late 1700’s, the economy of England was tightly controlled by the
government, which limited the amount of interest that banks could charge, laid down ru1es
about the way employers should treat their workers, and set strict standards for how some
products should be made. The government set up trade monopolies, giving certain
companies the sole right to trade with certain parts of the world. (Do you remember the
English East India Company?) To protect English manufacturers, the government set high
tariffs, or taxes, on goods imported from foreign countries.
Then in the late 1700s, an English writer named Adam Smith published a book called
The Wealth of Nations, in which he argued that government controls were hurting the
economy. Smith said that individuals should be let alone to make their own economic
decisions - to decide what products to make, how to make them, and what to charge for
them. Smith believed this economic freedom would make people more creative and hard-
working, because they would be motivated by' the opportunity to try new ideas and make
more money. If the government would leave people alone to pursue their own economic
goals, said Smith, then more people would get involved in inventing, manufacturing, and
trading products, and as a result, society as a whole would become wealthier..
In the years after Smith’s book was published, the idea of laissez-faire became more
and more popular. Many of the old laws controlling the economy were abolished. The new
freedom to invent and invest helped- spur the Industrial Revolution, creating, as Adam
Smith had predicted, vast new wealth.
But it also created the harsh conditions some employers maintained in the factories.
These employers were believers in laissez-faire. They fought against laws that would make
things better for factory workers, saying that it was none of the government's business how
much their workers were paid or how many hours a day they worked. For obvious reasons,
the idea of laissez-faire was more popular among employers than their workers.
Capitalism and Socialism
As the Industrial Revolution spread and laissez-faire economic ideas grew more
popular, England and other nations grew wealthier. But that wealth was not equally shared.
An English politician and novelist named Benjamin Disraeli (diz-RAE-Iee), wrote that
England was becoming "two nations, between whom there is no sympathy"; these two
nations, said Disraeli, “were like rich and the poor."
Many people began to argue about what kind of economic system would be best for
the industrialized nations with their growing wealth and inequality. Most people argued for
one of two economic systems: either the existing system, called" capitalism," or a very
different system, called "socialism.”
What is the "capital" in capitalism? Capital is wealth, either in the form of money or
what money can buy: land, ships, factories, works of art, etc. A capitalist economic system is
built upon the idea of 'private property,' meaning that individuals or groups of individuals
can own capital, and can decide how they want to use their wealth. Those who believe in
laissez-faire capitalism say that people should be free to do whatever they want with their
wealth, without any government control. In a capitalist system, people often use their wealth
to try to make more wealth: they are driven by what is called the "profit motive," a desire to
acquire more wealth.
In a capitalist economy, people are free to buy and sell just about anything. What will
people buy and sell? How much will a buyer pay? How much profit can a seller make?
These and other questions depend upon what is called "the law of supply and demand."
Imagine, for example, that you were one of the first manufacturers to supply new machines
to spin cotton. Many people were demanding to buy such machines, so you could charge a
high price and make a big profit. But as more people bought the machines, the demand for
them would go down; as other manufacturers offered similar machines for sale, the supply
would go up and soon you would be making smaller profits, and probably looking for
another way to gain wealth.
In a capitalist economy, people sell more than machines and .products: they also sell
their labor. They offer their skills and time in exchange for pay. How much pay? That
depends on supply and demand. How did the law of supply and demand affect the thousands
of laborers who flooded English cities like Birmingham in the 1800s? (How does it affect
many teenagers today who are out of school during the summer looking for summer jobs?)