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The Industrial Revolution – a New Direction for Humankind

The Industrial Revolution, also known as the First Industrial Revolution, was a period of global transition of human economy towards more efficient and stable manufacturing processes that succeeded the Agricultural Revolution, starting from Great Britain, continental Europe, and the United States, that occurred during the period from around 1760 to about 1820–1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines; new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes; the increasing use of water power and steam power; the development of machine tools; and the rise of the mechanized factory system. Output greatly increased, and a result was an unprecedented rise in population and in the rate of population growth. The textile industry was the first to use modern production methods,: 40  and textiles became the dominant industry in terms of employment, value of output, and capital invested.

On a structural level the Industrial Revolution asked society the so-called social question, demanding new ideas for managing large groups of individuals. Visible poverty on one hand and growing population and materialistic wealth on the other caused tensions between the very rich and the poorest people within society. These tensions were sometimes violently released and led to philosophical ideas such as socialism, communism and anarchism.

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, and many of the technological and architectural 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. Britain had 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 marked a major turning point in history. Comparable only to humanity’s adoption of agriculture with respect to material advancement, the Industrial Revolution influenced in some way almost every aspect of daily life. In particular, average income and population began to exhibit unprecedented sustained growth. Some economists have said the most important 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 improve meaningfully 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 agree that the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in human history since the domestication of animals and plants.

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 industrialisation first began in Britain, starting with mechanized textiles 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 Industrial Revolution’s early innovations, 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, and hot blast iron smelting. 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.

Industrial Revolution and the Progressive Era

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The early 20th century was an era of business expansion and progressive reform in the United States. The progressives, as they called themselves, worked to make American society a better and safer place in which to live. They tried to make big business more responsible through regulations of various kinds. They worked to clean up corrupt city governments, to improve working conditions in factories, and to better living conditions for those who lived in slum areas, a large number of whom were recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Many progressives were also concerned with the environment and conservation of resources.

This generation of Americans also hoped to make the world a more democratic place. At home, this meant expanding the right to vote to women and a number of election reforms such as the recall, referendum, and direct election of Senators. Abroad, it meant trying to make the world safe for democracy. In 1917, the United States joined Great Britain and France–two democratic nations–in their war against autocratic Germany and Austria-Hungary. Soon after the Great War, the majority of Americans turned away from concern about foreign affairs, adopting an attitude of live and let live.

The 1920s, also known as the “roaring twenties” and as “the new era,” were similar to the Progressive Era in that America continued its economic growth and prosperity. The incomes of working people increased along with those of middle class and wealthier Americans. The major growth industry was automobile manufacturing. Americans fell in love with the automobile, which radically changed their way of life. On the other hand, the 1920s saw the decline of many reform activities that had been so widespread after 1900.

World Wars Era

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The widespread prosperity of the 1920s ended abruptly with the stock market crash in October 1929 and the great economic depression that followed. The depression threatened people’s jobs, savings, and even their homes and farms. At the depths of the depression, over one-quarter of the American workforce was out of work. For many Americans, these were hard times.

The New Deal, as the first two terms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency were called, became a time of hope and optimism. Although the economic depression continued throughout the New Deal era, the darkest hours of despair seemed to have passed. In part, this was the result of FDR himself. In his first inaugural address, FDR asserted his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” As FDR provided leadership, most Americans placed great confidence in him.

The economic troubles of the 1930s were worldwide in scope and effect. Economic instability led to political instability in many parts of the world. Political chaos, in turn, gave rise to dictatorial regimes such as Adolf Hitler’s in Germany and the military’s in Japan. (Totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Italy predated the depression.) These regimes pushed the world ever-closer to war in the 1930s. When world war finally broke out in both Europe and Asia, the United States tried to avoid being drawn into the conflict. But so powerful and influential a nation as the United States could scarcely avoid involvement for long.

When Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States found itself in the war it had sought to avoid for more than two years. Mobilizing the economy for world war finally cured the depression. Millions of men and women joined the armed forces, and even larger numbers went to work in well-paying defense jobs. World War Two affected the world and the United States profoundly; it continues to influence us even today.

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