What Was the Industrial Revolution?

Industrial Revolution

Hi, and welcome to this Mometrix video on the Industrial Revolution. This is a very broad topic that we could take in any number of directions, but for today we’ll focus our attention on a particularly important part of the industrial revolution: the British textile industry. In this video, we’ll trace the origins of the industrial revolution, examine the social changes that new technology brought about, and see some of the negative effects of industrialization. We’ll also take a look at the fascinating story of the Luddites, an infamous but often misunderstood protest movement in northern England.

So what was the Industrial Revolution and when and where did it occur?

Put simply, from around 1760 to 1840 a series of technological advances in steam power, iron, and textiles dramatically altered the industrial output and economies of Western Europe and the United States. We should also note that historians tend to refer to this period as the first Industrial Revolution. The second Industrial Revolution, sometimes known as the Great Acceleration, took place from 1870-1914 and was defined by chemistry, electricity, and steel. Depending on who you ask, we are either presently in the third Industrial Revolution or just about to enter the fourth. But that’s a discussion for another day.

The Industrial Revolution was the transition of manufacturing from muscle to steam power. The limitations of animal and human labor gave way to the seemingly boundless possibilities of mechanical production. In the textile industry, innovations such as the flying shuttle and the spinning jenny greatly increased output while sharply reducing costs and labor. Each improvement built upon past advances and prompted further innovation. The development of steam power demonstrates this process as well as any.

In the early 17th century, some time before the period associated with the Industrial Revolution, the first steam engines were used to pump water from mines. Thomas Newcomen devised the first widely-used engine in 1712. Scottish engineer James Watt greatly improved the efficiency of Newcomen’s design over several years after first tinkering with one of the machines in 1763. In partnership with Matthew Boulton, an English businessman from Birmingham, the Boulton-Watt engines required 75% less fuel and made steam-powered engines viable for commercial use in other industries.

The first steam-powered mills opened in Manchester in 1783 and by 1800, 42 such manufactories, as they were called, were in operation. The use of coal to power engines soared, so methods of extracting and transporting coal also developed accordingly. Canals and eventually railways, which of course were made possible by steam power, made the transportation of goods far quicker and cost-effective. Innovations led to better machine tools which led to better machines which led to better machine tools which led to … Well, I think you get the idea. Of course it was not just coal which powered the Industrial Revolution but also investments.

James Watt’s quest to produce an efficient steam engine was made possible by the resources and financial backing of Matthew Boulton. This was far from the only instance of an inventor benefiting from the support of a business partner. The London Stock Exchange was founded in 1770, and the New York equivalent in 1790, which allowed businessmen to invest in new ventures. A savvy investment in the latest technology promised a handsome return to an investor while an inventor would be afforded the resources to make that technology a reality. We can see from these examples that the key technological advances of the period came from building upon existing designs and were greatly aided by concurrent events.

The Industrial Revolution transformed the world and raised the standards of living for some, but not everyone benefited from the changes. Mechanized production required less labor which meant that wages and working conditions of the factories that sprung up were usually terrible. With no regulations to abide by and an abundance of easily replaceable workers available, factory owners had little incentive to offer good pay or working conditions. Factories were hot and dangerous places to work; a 14-16 hour workday was quite common. If the male workers were overworked and underpaid, things were even worse for women and children. Women earned considerably less than male colleagues and young children toiled for even less.

We should be careful not to overstate just how widespread changes to working practices were as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Agriculture and domestic service were still the top two employers of British workers by 1851. There were about 5.5 million non-mechanized workers compared to 1.5 million factory workers and coal miners. In some areas of the country, working patterns changed very little. A six-day week was the standard until after the First World War, but workers tended to have a pretty relaxed attitude towards showing up on a Monday. Saint Monday, the tradition of skipping the first working day of the week, was common in some areas right through the Industrial Revolution. Employers had little option but to tacitly accept that, in the words of one mining pit owner, “it was beyond all probability that any number of men could be got to work on a Monday.”

So while we should acknowledge that the working conditions of some people were slow to change or weren’t especially brutal, a great many workers were subject to the worst excesses of factory work. Resistance to dismal working conditions took different forms. There were numerous instances of workers banding together to fight for better wages and working conditions. In April of 1820, 60,000 workers across central Scotland went on general strike. The strike was put down by the British Army and the ringleaders were either executed or exiled. A similar outcome awaited those who participated in the 1831 Merthyr Rising in Wales. Violent clashes between the army and protestors resulted in 24 killed and death sentences passed on two leaders. One of those sentences was reduced to exile to Australia.

One of the better known protest movements against the ills of industrialization was the Luddites.

Today, the term Luddite is used to describe a person who fears or dislikes technology, and the common perception of the 19th century group has been of workers who, threatened by technological progress, took to destroying machines. The Luddites were not, in fact, opposed to new technology but to the tendency for factory owners to bypass acceptable labor practices of the time and underpay skilled workers. They believed that skilled workers who had served apprenticeships should operate certain machines and produce quality goods for fair pay.

The origins of the term come from the legendary character Ned Ludd, a young apprentice who destroyed machines in protest of poor treatment and working conditions. An outlaw and source of inspiration, Ned Ludd followed in the tradition of mythical English folk heroes. In homage to Robin Hood, Luddites claimed to have received orders from General Ludd by way of Sherwood Forest. There was a certain sense of merriment in the movement; some followers even took to marching in drag as the “wives of General Ludd.”

For a few short years the Luddites engaged in protests which sometimes turned violent. Destruction of property was met with harsh punishment in order to deter others, generally execution or exile. A handful of clashes between Luddites and soldiers took place across Yorkshire in 1812, and three Luddites were executed for the murder of a mill owner. By 1813 the group had largely vanished.

In truth the Luddites owe their enduring legacy not so much to their achievements as to effective branding. A catchy name and sense of swagger and style greatly overstated their influence at the time. Machine-breaking was hardly a new form of protest, nor did it end with the dissolution of the followers of General Ludd after 1813. The Luddites personified the worries of the people that technological advances also came with a loss of humanity. The 19th century essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle wrote at the time that “men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” It’s not difficult in the present day to empathize with the thought of being concerned by the human costs of technological progress.

To quickly review, we looked at the Industrial Revolution from the perspective of the British textile industry and examined the social changes and the different reactions to industrialization.

Here are a couple of review questions before we go:

1. Which of the following was NOT a driver of the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840)?

  1. Steam
  2. Textiles
  3. Iron
  4. Steel

The answer is D).

Steel was one of the drivers of the second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914).

2. The Luddites were motivated by:

  1. A fear and hatred of technology
  2. A desire for fair wages
  3. Communist propaganda
  4. None of these

The answer is B). A desire for fair wages

The Luddites did not oppose technology but sought fair wages for skilled work.

Thanks for watching, and happy studying!

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by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: October 24, 2019