The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-1700s first in Britain and later swept across Western Europe and much of North America, is the most significant ensemble of technological, social, and cultural changes in human history. One noted scholar asserts about the Industrial Revolution: "In two centuries daily life changed more than it had in the 7,000 years before." (Mokyr, 1990:81)

There is a lot of speculation as to why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in Western Europe, and especially in Britain. Historians point to a number of factors. Built upon the economic and cultural developments of the Renaissance, Europe was already relatively more wealthy than other regions of the world, thereby providing the needed capital for investment in new technologies. Britain, the first European state to experience the Industrial Revolution, also lacked the absolute monarchies so characteristic of Continental states, especially France. This meant, among other things, that less of the nation's wealth was used to prop up an extravagant lifestyle for the royal family, and was available for more practical applications. What is more, Europe lacked a central, dominant political power, and had lost the consolidating effect of a single dominant religion with the Reformation. Instead of imperial bureaucracies administering all regions under the control of a single emperor, as in China, Europe was made up of numerous competitive states, duchies, and principalities, each of which jealously sought to expand its influence and to hold off the predations of their neighbors. This gave important impetus to the development of both military and commercial technologies. Also, the religious competition between Catholics and various forms of Protestantism opened up the opportunity for diverse styles of thinking, including the early forms of modern, empirical science.

The heart of the Industrial Revolution consisted of a series of breathtaking technological breakthroughs in 1) the substitution of mechanical devices for human skills, 2) the substitution of inanimate power -- most especially steam power -- for human and animal power, 3) and huge improvements in obtaining and working raw materials, especially in metallurgy and chemistry. Applied first in coal mining and textiles, the new techniques, new machines, and new methods rapidly spread into other industrial areas. The application of steam to transportation, for instance, led to the railroad system, vastly increasing the amount, speed, and reliability of goods moved over long distances, binding the nation into one unified market, and generating dozens of other technical changes in iron and steel, bridge building, communication, and organization.

But in addition to these immediate technologies, the Industrial Revolution had has massive effects on politics, economics, culture, and society. The emergence of the factory system, for instance, radically changed not only the organization of work, but its very meaning in our culture. Huge complexes, job specialization, massive increases in productivity, regimentation, and eventually the assembly line all revolutionized the work experience for millions of people. For many, it meant substantial improvements in family income. For many others, the factory system meant the loss of craftsmanship and the "de-skilling" of the workforce. The reduction of work to the simplest, repetitive motions eliminated the mastery and personal satisfaction traditionally associated with labor, and often substituted unskilled for skilled workers.

The mountains of manufactured goods made available through the technological achievements of the Industrial Revolution also altered virtually everyone's style of life and standard of living. More goods in more varieties were available than at any other time in human history. Except for the most destitute -- and there were many of these! -- nearly any ordinary person could afford to own implements, tools, and appliances only available to the wealthiest classes in earlier centuries. Rapid economic growth and spreading prosperity were among the effects of the Industrial Revolution.

This very tidal wave of goods, however, altered cultural norms and values, as well. While in earlier times, it would be unusual for an individual to travel much beyond the county or state of her birth, with the appearance of new forms of transportation technologies -- railroads, steam ships, automobiles, airplanes -- whole new vistas of travel, cultural exchange, and commerce appeared. So, too, improvements in communications technologies, from the early telegraph to the telephone to radio and television and computers, have greatly expanded the array of information sources accessible to ordinary people, and have allowed huge improvements in the coordination of very large organizations scattered over the entire face of the globe.

Other cultural changes are more worrisome, however. Where thrift, savings, and staying out of debt were once thought to be fundamental virtues, after the Industrial Revolution, consumption, consumption, consumption became the watchwords. If too few people purchased the rapidly expanding array of goods, store shelves would never empty, factory orders would fall, and people would be laid off as factories closed. The only way to stave off economic ruin was to re-educate the population to become intensive consumers, buying many things they would never have imagined before.

To encourage such consumption, the advertising industry was created, developing sophisticated techniques for inducing new desires and needs among ordinary people. Often using manipulation, sex appeal, and other emotional inducements, advertisers have been able to get people to purchase objects and services they never felt any need of before the advertising appeared. And they could be induced to throw away still functioning items, in order to buy the "latest, improved" models. Rapid improvements in transportation, warehousing, shipping, and in record-keeping and bookkeeping led to giant department store chains, supermarkets, and, in the later years of this century, the booming mail-order catalogue market, all aimed at moving goods as rapidly and efficiently from stores to consumers.

Aiding in this shift away from "Yankee thrift" to profligate consumerism is the appearance of hundreds of consumer credit services, charge cards, and easy time-payment plans. Indeed, so dependent upon brisk consumer sales has our economy become that notions of paying cash for each purchase and staying out of consumer debt today seem to be deviant behaviors, where before they were thought to be normal moderation and prudence.

A great deal of what it means to be modern -- both good and bad -- derives from the Industrial Revolution and the technologies it spawned.

Further Reading

Cardwell, Donald. The Norton History of Technology. Norton History of Science. New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 1995.

Cross, Gary, and Rick Szostak. Technology and American Society: A History. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1995.

Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Mokyr, Joel. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Bakkabtube Books, 1991.

Zuboff, Shoshana. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988.