Industrial Revolution

The process of transition from a handicraft and agrarian economy

Author: Parul Gupta
Parul Gupta
Parul Gupta
Working as a Chief Editor, customer support, and content moderator at Wall Street Oasis.
Reviewed By: Osman Ahmed
Osman Ahmed
Osman Ahmed
Investment Banking | Private Equity

Osman started his career as an investment banking analyst at Thomas Weisel Partners where he spent just over two years before moving into a growth equity investing role at Scale Venture Partners, focused on technology. He's currently a VP at KCK Group, the private equity arm of a middle eastern family office. Osman has a generalist industry focus on lower middle market growth equity and buyout transactions.

Osman holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of Southern California and a Master of Business Administration with concentrations in Finance, Entrepreneurship, and Economics from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Last Updated:November 14, 2023

What Was the Industrial Revolution?

The process of transition from a handicraft and agrarian economy to one dominated by machine manufacturing and industry is the basis of the Industrial Revolution.

The technological changes paved the way for fundamental transformations in society.

This transition was observed in Great Britain, the United States, and continental Europe. The period for which this was seen was somewhere from 1760 to 1820 - 1840. 

People, mainly historians, still debate when the Industrial Revolution exactly happened. 

A change from hand production techniques to machines, iron production processes, and chemical manufacturing. Along with excessive usage of steam and water power, the rise of the mechanized factor system, and the advancement of machine tools.

What Key Innovations Took Place During the Industrial Revolution?

Some of the developments in key areas are:

1. Textile manufacture 

Mechanized cotton spinning technique with the help of steam or water resulted in increased workers' output. The cotton gin increased the efficiency of productivity of removing seeds from cotton.

a. British textile industry: In 1750, Britain was a mass importer of raw cotton, around 2.5 million pounds which were spun and woven in Lancashire's cottage industry, and the work done was completed by hand.

Over time the amount of cotton consumed by the British textile industry increased to 588 million pounds in 1850. Wages in Lancashire were six times the wages in India, with overall productivity three times that of India.

b. Cotton: Countries like India, China, South America, Central America, and the Middle East have the cotton industry as their major after 1000AD. Cotton was a mode of paying taxes in China in the 15th century. 

In most areas, cotton played the role of a medium of exchange. Professional weavers produced significant quantities of cotton textiles that were of exceptionally fine quality.

c. Trade and textile: Following the discovery of trade routes to India, the Dutch East India Company was established. It was the first transnational cooperation and a multinational enterprise.

Later, the East India Company was founded by the British, who worked towards establishing smaller companies with varied nationalities and trading posts. A large number of people were employed to engage in trade.

d. Pre- Pre-mechanized European textile production: Earlier European centers of cotton spinning and weaving were in Italy and southern Germany, which saw a decline due to supply cuts.

On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, spinning and weaving were done in households either for domestic purposes or on a contractual basis for merchant sellers. It required at least 4-8 spinners to supply one handloom weaver.

d. The invention of textile machinery

(i) The flying shuttle, 1733, by John Kay, doubled the output but worsened the spinning and weaving balance.

(ii) The roller spinning frame and flyer-and-bobbin system, Lewis Paul, a system for drawing wool to even thickness. Machine-made came into use in 1743 in Northampton.

(iii) The carding machine, 1748, Lewis Paul and Daniel Bourn, two sets of rollers moving at different speeds. 

(iv) The spinning jenny, 1764, James Hargreaves, was the most practical multiple spindles spinning frame.

(v) The spinning frame, 1769, Richard Arkwright.

(vi) The Spinning Mule, 1779, Samuel Crompton, was a combination of a spinning jenny and the water frame.

(vii) Power loom, 1785, Edmund Cartwright. 

  • Wool: Productivity improved in wool spinning, but the level of efficiency was far less than in cotton.

  • SilkJohn Lombe’s water-powered silk mill was the first mechanized factory that came into use in 1721 in Italy. To eliminate competition, the supply of raw silk was cut.

2. Steam power

The most crucial element was the development of a stationary steam engine. These were fixed engines used for driving mills, pumping, and power generation. By 1815 steam power grew to 210,000 horsepower.

Thomas Savery, 1698, gave the first commercially successful industrial use of steam power. The vacuum and pressure water pump was economical in small ranges but prone to explosion in large sizes.

Newcomen, before 1712 gave the first successful piston steam engine in Britain. It was widely used for draining hitherto unworkable deep mines and providing power to municipal water supply pumps. 

Scotsman James Watt, along with Englishman Matthew Boulton, brought a perfect steam engine which was incorporated with a series of improvements like using a steam jacket or having separate steam condenser chambers.

Watt’s steam engine was later 1783 developed into a double rotative type enabling direct driving of rotary machinery of a mill or a factory. The engine was commercially highly successful.

The development of machine tools facilitated easy and accurate cutting of metal parts of the engines, which enabled the building of large and more powerful engines.

3. Iron making

Iron was widely used for making various hardware products. The primary objective is to release iron from a chemical combination with oxygen.

Mainly the raw material used was bar iron—products like hinges, nails, horseshoes, wires, etc., along with varied structural shapes. 

Another type of iron, cast iron, was used to produce stoves, pots, etc. The bloomery process was the most dominating iron smelting process till the end of the 18th century. 

A major transformation in the iron industry was observed because of the replacement of wood and biofuels with coal. Coal was available in abundance as compared to wood.

By 1750 charcoal was replaced by a coke for smelting lead and copper. Coke was also used in the production of glass and the smelting and refining of iron. Cokes are observed as a minority of coals.

The usage of coal came into existence in 1678, a little before the revolution, with the developments laid down by Sir Clement Clerke. His major contribution was cupolas which a reverberatory coal furnaces.

Abraham Darby, 1709, created blast furnaces at Coalbrookdale. His son also built furnaces at Horsehay and Ketley. Coal with low sulfur content was made available.

The Dale company came up with a large amount of Newcomen Steam engines for coal extraction and also produced these engines for selling around. High pressure and volume blasts looked like a practical phenomenon.

John Wilkinson 1757, the ironmaster, introduced a hydraulic-powered blowing engine for blast furnaces. A blowing cylinder came later in 1760 and is said to be used at Carrington in 1768 first.

There were sulfur problems in the industry, and this was cured with the addition of sufficient limestone to the furnaces, which required a higher temperature for the formation of free-flowing slag.

In 1778, Iron Bridge was built with cast iron, which was easily and cheaply available then. Many other bridges and buildings were also constructed from it. Cast iron was mostly converted into wrought iron.

Europe, which mainly relied on bloomery, shifted to the potting and stamping method, which was taken over by the puddling process given by Henry Cort. Puddling is a way of decarburizing molten pig iron with the help of oxidation.

Puddling could never be mechanized successfully as it required high human skills to identify the iron globs. Rolling, a part of puddling, was used excessively in the production of iron sheets.

Hot Blast, 1828, was an important development made by John Beaumont Neilson in the 19th century. It came with the advantage of saving energy in making pig iron. With improvements in technology efficiency of industry increased.

4. The invention of machine tools

The increased demand for metal parts encouraged the development of machine tools. The first large tool was invented in 1774 by John Wilkinson. It was a cylinder boring machine for steam engines.

The milling machine, the planning machine, and the shaping machine were a few early inventions. The slide rest lathe was used for making machine screws of different thread pitches and made use of changeable gears.

5. Chemicals

During the Industrial Revolution, large-scale production of chemicals was witnessed. Production of sulphuric acid, alkali like sodium carbonate, hydrochloric acid, sodium sulfate, soda ash, and potash increased.

Chemicals were used in the production process of industries like soap, glass, textiles, paper, etc. In the iron and steel industry, it was used for removing rust from iron, and in the textile industry for bleaching cloth.

6. Cement

Joseph Aspdin, 1824, patented the procedure of making portland cement. This cement was largely used in the construction of the London sewerage system and many other buildings.

7. Gas Lighting

The first gas lighting system was established in London and became a major consumer of coal. The process included large-scale gasification of coal, its purification, storage, and distribution.

8. Glass making

In the 19th century, the Cylinder process, a method of producing glass, was developed in Europe. This was used by Chance Brothers for creating sheet glass. Large panes of glasses could easily be created with this advancement.

9. Paper machine

Nicholas Louis Robert patented a machine that could make a continuous sheet of paper in 1798. The method of continuous production paved the way for the development of continuously rolling steel and iron also.

10.  Agriculture

The British Agricultural Revolution is said to be a cause of the Industrial Revolution. Technologies like the seed drill, the threshing machine, and the Dutch plow affected farming. 

A mechanized seeder for planting and plotting seeds at the correct depth was an important invention. Mass agricultural production is a result of machine tools and metalworking techniques

 11. Mining

Drift mining and shaft mining were done in many areas. The steam pumps facilitated deeper shafts which enabled increased extraction of coal with easy removal of water. Safety from firedamp was improved by the safety lamp. 

12. Transportation

The first horse railway was introduced with steam locomotives. Raw materials and final products moved more freely, quickly, and cheaply than in the era before the industrial revolution.

Canals and waterways came up as an economical transport for long-distance as they could carry dozens more than what was transported using carts. The Bridgewater canal, England, opened in 1761.

France had an excellent road system. Increased productivity of road transportation resulted in a decline in the cost of travel, hence why long-distance carrying increased rapidly.

Availability of inexpensive puddled iron, rolling mills, and high-pressure steam engines promoted railways. Wagonways, known as horse-drawn railroads or railways, started in the 17th century for moving coals. 

Large cities and towns were connected widely by the end of the Industrial Revolution. Workers could easily migrate from rural to urban places to work in factories.

Advantages of Industrialization

The Industrial Revolution came up with various advantages and disadvantages. The economic transformation changed how goods were produced as well as how the work was performed.

Advantages are:

  • Since production became faster and cheaper, the supply increased numerous times resulting in the goods becoming more affordable and accessible.

  • Goods like shoes, household stuff, clothing, etc. enhanced the quality of life of the people as these goods became more common and available at a lower price.

  • An increase in the foreign markets for the goods added to the wealth of the companies and increased the government’s treasury with higher tax revenue collection.

  • The rapid increase in the production of tools facilitating the growth of roads, railways, and waterways made the movement of goods and labor easy and quick.

  • Agricultural techniques, manufacturing techniques, energy production, medical techniques, and electricity-driven home appliances served as labor-saving machines.

  • Mass production of goods led to increased availability of goods at a cheaper cost, which resulted in savings and the building of personal wealth.

  • With the construction of new factories and the invention of manufacturing machines, the creation of employment opportunities increased much-fold.

  • An increase in investment in profitable businesses was witnessed as people invested a certain portion of their saved income.

  • The growth of the middle class was observed as now they possessed greater importance in society and higher buying power. They became a part of the economic power that was held by the aristocrats. 

  • The rise in specialist professions was seen as increasing the overall efficiency of factories and availing market opportunities workers were professionally trained to perform specialized tasks.

  • The rapid expansion of cities and towns, increase in demand for specialists like lawyers, physicians, builders, etc., and increase in the governmental bureaucracies with new departments like sanitation, traffic, etc. were also seen.

Disadvantages of Industrialization

Disadvantages are:

  • Better wages attracted migrants, but failure to handle them resulted in overcrowding of cities and industrial towns. 

  • Rapid construction to meet the increased demand for housing resulted in poor quality housing construction with contaminated drinking water and poor sewage and sanitation system.

  • Outbreaks of diseases like cholera, typhus, smallpox, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases were seen as people didn’t get ideal living conditions.

  • An increase in the number of factories and excessive usage of natural resources resulted in a reduction of the stock of natural resources, a rise in air and water pollution, deterioration of wildlife habitats, reduced biodiversity, and global warming.

  • An increase in the human population and human needs disturbed ecosystem services.

  • Workers' safety and wages were at the least of the priority. Factory workers earned better than agricultural workers but with the expense of time and unhealthy working conditions. 

  • The rise in unhealthy habits was observed as people depended on less strenuous physical activities, which reduced thot physical exertion. 

  • The sedentary human behavior and increase in intake of salt and sugar processed food caused diseases like obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart diseases.

To sum up, it can be said that the Industrial Revolution changed the way of operation of the companies and left an everlasting impact on the society, which is seen today as well, where streamlining of businesses through economies of scale created more products.

Researched and authored by Parul Gupta | LinkedIn

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