5.1 The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in England, which was by 1750, one of the wealthiest nations in the world and controlled an empire that covered one-quarter of the world’s land mass. It started with England’s textile industry, which was struggling to produce goods cheaper and faster for growing consumer markets. Making cloth, by hand, for pants, shirts, socks, bedspreads, and other domestic items had always required lots of skill and time.

As the population grew in England, more people needed textile goods. In the late 18th century, a series of innovations created by savvy businessmen and factory workers solved many of the difficulties in textile production. As the scale of production grew, the factory emerged as a centralized location where wage laborers could work on machines and raw material provided by capitalist entrepreneurs. Moreover, cotton led the way. In the 1700s, cotton textiles had many production advantages over other types of cloth. The first textile factory in Great Britain was actually for making silk, but since only wealthy people could afford the product, production remained very low. Cotton, on the other hand, was far less expensive. It was also stronger and more easily colored and washed than wool or linen.

By the late 18th century, steam power was adapted to power factory machinery, sparking an even more significant surge in the size, speed, and productivity of industrial machines. Heavy industries like ironworking were also revolutionized by new ideas, and new transportation technologies were developed to move products further and faster. Growing businesses soon outstripped the financial abilities of individuals and their families, leading to legal reforms that allowed corporations to own and operate businesses.

There were several factors which allowed England to lead the Industrial Revolution. Scholars may disagree, which was the most important. However, they agree that the confluence – a coming together – of many factors gave England an enormous commercial and technological head start over the rest of the world.

Nineteenth-century industrialization was closely associated with the rapid growth of European cities during the same period. Cities grew because of the influx of people desiring to take advantage of the factory jobs available in urban areas. Urbanization extended industrialization as factories were built to take advantage of urban workforces and markets.

Industrialization changed the relationship that existed between cities and their surrounding rural areas. In preindustrial times, cities consumed foodstuffs produced in rural areas but produced little that rural areas needed in return. As a result, some historians describe preindustrial cities as “economically parasitic.” Following the Industrial Revolution, cities became urgent centers of production and were able to offer a wide variety of manufactured goods to rural areas, becoming vital centers of production as well as consumption. Europe experienced the development of the major cities of its realm during this period. In England, for example, in 1800 only 9 percent of the population lived in urban areas. By 1900, some 62 percent were urban dwellers.

Factors Leading to the Industrial Revolution in England

Agricultural  Revolution
  • Increased food production to support an increasing population.
Population Growth
  • More people from the countryside being freed up to work for wates in the new cities.
  • Increased demand for textile products.
Financial Innovations
  • Such as central banks, stock markets, and joint stock companies – encouraged people, especially in Northern Europe, to take risks with investments, trade, and new technologies.
Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution
  • Encouraged scholards and craftspeople to apply new scientific thinking to mechanical and technological challenges.
Navigable Rivers and Canals
  • Quickened the pace and cheapened the cost of transportation of raw materials and finished products.
  • Plentiful in England and Western Europe.
  • Used in enormous quantities as a source of power – particularly for the steam-powered machinery in textile factories and locomotives.
Iron Ore
  • When Englishman Henry Cort created a way to make iron cheaper and stronger, England no longer needed to import iron ore from other countries.
  • Essential to the development of new machines in factories and transportation.
Government Policies
  • Legal reforms that allowed corporations to own and operate businesses.
  • Patent laws allowed inventors to benefit financially from the “intellectual property” of their inventions.
  • Expanded the Navy to protect global trade.
  • Granting monopolies – exclusive rights – to companies who agreed to explore the world and find resources.

While industrialization alone cannot account for the rapid growth of the European population during the nineteenth century (this growth was underway before industrialization), it is believed to have been responsible for changing patterns of population density on the continent. Between 1750 and 1914, most industrialized nations (England, Belgium, France, Germany) also acquired the highest population densities. This correlation reflects not only the rapid urbanization of these countries but also the high population densities of their urban areas and the improved standards of living associated with industrializing economies.

Working in new industrial cities influenced people’s lives outside of the factories as well. As workers migrated from the country to the city, their lives and the lives of their families were utterly and permanently transformed. For many skilled workers, the quality of life decreased a great deal in the first 60 years of the Industrial Revolution. Skilled weavers, for example, lived well in pre-industrial society as a kind of middle class. They tended their gardens, worked on textiles in their homes or small shops, and raised farm animals. They were their bosses. However, after the Industrial Revolution, the living conditions for skilled weavers significantly deteriorated. They could no longer live at their own pace or supplement their income with gardening, spinning, or communal harvesting.

In the first sixty years or so of the Industrial Revolution, working-class people had little time or opportunity for recreation. Workers spent all the light of day at work and came home with little energy, space, or light to play sports or games. The new industrial pace and factory system were at odds with the old traditional festivals which dotted the village holiday calendar. Plus, local governments actively sought to ban traditional festivals in the cities. In the new working-class neighborhoods, people did not share the same traditional sense of a village community. Owners fined workers who left their jobs to return to their villages for festivals because they interrupted the efficient flow of work at the factories. After the 1850s, however, recreation improved along with the rise of an emerging the middle class. Music halls sprouted up in big cities. Sports such as rugby, cricket, and football became popular. Cities had become the places with opportunities for sport and entertainment that they are today.

There was a necessary trade-off in the Industrial Revolution for the working-class. Material standards of living were in some ways, improving more material goods were produced, so they were available at lower costs, and factories provided a variety of employment opportunities not previously available. At the same time, working conditions were often horrible, and the pay was terrible, and it was often difficult for unskilled workers to move to higher skill levels and escape the working class. The traditional protections of the medieval and early modern eras, such as guilds and mandated wage-and-price standards, were disappearing.

Gradually, very gradually, middle class, or “middling sort,” did emerge in industrial cities, mostly toward the end of the 19th century. Until then, there had been only two major classes in society: aristocrats born into their lives of wealth and privilege, and low-income commoners born in the working classes. However new urban industries gradually required more of what we call today “white collar” jobs, such as business people, shopkeepers, bank clerks, insurance agents, merchants, accountants, managers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. One piece of evidence of this emerging middle class was the rise of retail shops in England that increased from 300 in 1875 to 2,600 by 1890. Another mark of distinction of the middle class was their ability to hire servants to cook and clean the house from time to time. Not surprisingly, from 1851 to 1871, the number of domestic servants increased from 900,000 to 1.4 million. This small but rising middle class prided themselves on taking responsibility for themselves and their families. They viewed professional success as a result of a person’s energy, perseverance, and hard work.

In this new middle class, families became a sanctuary from stressful industrial life. The home remained separate from work and took on the role of emotional support, where women of the house created a moral and spiritual safe harbor away from the rough-and-tumble industrial world outside. Most middle-class adult women were discouraged from working outside the home. They could afford to send their children to school. As children became more of an economic burden, and better health care decreased infant mortality, middle-class women gave birth to fewer children.

Ironically, life in the middle class still had its downside. Stuck in a new position in the middle of society, the new middle class were hostile both to the aristocracy and to the lower classes. They were angered by their political exclusion from power in a system that still favored aristocrats they felt they had the wealth and education to deserve a political voice. They also had contempt for the lower classes, particularly the growing mass of urban poor. In their lifestyles and political positions, they tried to separate themselves from this uneducated and politically powerless herd, with whom they had less and less culturally in common (and who often worked for them in their factories).

By the early twentieth century additional countries, usually culturally associated with Europe, began to industrialize, including Russia, Japan, other nations in Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Britain and the other previously industrialized countries became highly urbanized. The last craft industries, such as shoemaking and glassmaking, became industrialized. The most developed countries, such as the United States, mass-produced consumer goods – such as dishwashers, furniture, and even houses – for the growing middle classes. The service sector grew and matured with jobs for teachers, waiters, accountants, lawyers, police, and clerks. Essential inventions included the assembly line, the automobile, and the airplane. Western countries and businesses typically controlled world trade and took direct or indirect control of critical industries in less developed countries, enriching themselves in the process.

The Industrial Revolution, an era that began in England at the end of the 18th century, has yet to end. Since the 1950s the so-called “Asian Tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea) rapidly industrialized by taking advantage of their educated and cheap labor to export inexpensive manufactured goods to the West. Other countries in Asia and the Americas, such as China, India, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, began to develop key economic sectors for export in the global economy.

The world moved gradually toward global free trade. Western countries in Europe and North America turned increasingly to service and high technology economies as manufacturing moved to the cheap labor markets of developing countries. The important new inventions of this phase were the computer and the Internet. This era is now referred to as the “Post-Industrial age,” since the most developed countries focus on service jobs rather than manufacturing, called the “Information Age.” With only a few exceptions, most impoverished nations have not become wealthy in the fiercely competitive global market. There is an increasing wealth gap between more developed and less developed countries in the world.


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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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