What Was the Industrial Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution was a period of major industrialization and innovation that took place during the late 1700s and early 1800s. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain and quickly spread throughout the world.

The American Industrial Revolution, commonly referred to as the Second Industrial Revolution, started sometime between 1820 and 1870. This period saw the mechanization of agriculture and textile manufacturing as well as a revolution in power, including steamships and railroads, that affected social, cultural, and economic conditions.

Key Takeaways

  • The first industrial revolution began in Great Britain in the 1700s and 1800s and was a time of significant innovation.
  • The American Industrial Revolution, commonly referred to as the Second Industrial Revolution, started sometime between 1820 and 1870.
  • Both Industrial Revolutions led to inventions that included the telephone, the steam engine, the sewing machine, the X-ray, the lightbulb, and the combustible engine.
  • Working for businesses during the Industrial Revolution paid better wages than agricultural work.
  • The increase in the number of factories and migration to the cities led to pollution, deplorable working and living conditions, as well as child labor.
  • Due to the innovation witnessed during the period, production efficiency improved dramatically for businesses, leading to higher profits.

Understanding the Industrial Revolution

Although the Industrial Revolution occurred approximately 200 years ago, it is a period that left a profound impact on how people lived and the way businesses operated. Arguably, the factory systems developed during the Industrial Revolution are responsible for the creation of capitalism and the modern cities of today.

Before the revolution, most Americans made their living farming and lived in widespread rural communities. With the advance of factories, people began working for companies located in urban areas for the first time. Often the wages were low and conditions were harsh. However, working for businesses paid a better living than farming.

Production efficiency improved during the Industrial Revolution with inventions such as the steam engine. The steam engine dramatically reduced the time it took to manufacture products. More efficient production subsequently reduced prices for products; primarily due to lower labor costs, opening the marketing doors to a new level of customers.

The United States government helped businesses by instituting tariffs—taxes on foreign goods—so that products like steel made by U.S. companies were cheaper than foreign imports. Cheaper steel prices encouraged the development of infrastructure such as railroads and bridges during the American Industrial Revolution.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Industrial Revolution


The Industrial Revolution created an increase in employment opportunities. Wages at factories were higher than what individuals were making as farmers. As factories became widespread, additional managers and employees were required to operate them, increasing the supply of jobs and overall wages.

Since most of the factories and large companies were located near the cities, populations migrated to urban areas in search of jobs, often overwhelming the available housing supply. This led to significant improvements in city planning.

Increased innovation also led to higher levels of motivation and education that resulted in several ground-breaking inventions that are still used today. These inventions include the sewing machine, X-ray, lightbulb, calculator, and anesthesia.

Due to the Industrial Revolution's advancements, the nation saw the first combustible engine, the first incandescent light bulb, and the first modern assembly line used in manufacturing.

The Industrial Revolution changed how people worked, the technologies available to them, and often where they lived. It made life comfortable for many though living conditions for workers remained abhorrent, which eventually fueled the rise of labor unions that led to improved working conditions and fair wages.


Although there were numerous advancements during the Industrial Revolution, the rapid progress caused many issues. As workers left their farms to work in factories for higher wages, it led to a shortage of food being produced.

The sharp increase in the number of factories led to an increase in urban pollution. Pollution wasn't contained only to the factories; as people flocked to the cities, the living conditions became deplorable as the urban resources were overwhelmed.

Sewage flowed in the streets in some cities while manufacturers dumped waste from factories into rivers. Water supplies were not tested and protected as they are today. As a result, regulations and laws were enacted to protect the population.

The Industrial Revolution provided an incentive to increase profits, and as a result, working conditions in factories deteriorated. Long hours, inadequate remuneration, and minimal breaks became the norm. Child labor was a major issue. Health issues arose for many of the factory workers giving rise to the labor movement throughout the U.S.

  • Advancements in production

  • Growth in innovations and inventions

  • Workers earned higher wages

  • Improvements in transportation networks

  • Deplorable working conditions and child labor

  • Unsanitary living conditions and pollution

  • Food shortages

Real-World Examples

The first cotton mill was built after Samuel Slater brought Britain's manufacturing technology to the United States. The mill was powered by water bringing jobs and commerce to the Northeast. In the following years, many factories and mills were built using the same technologies. 

The Industrial Revolution was primarily driven by the use of coal as an energy source. Before the use of coal, wood was the primary energy source; coal provided three times more energy than wood, and Britain had large coal deposits.

In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was completed and was a major accomplishment for the U.S. since it allowed the transportation of goods, people, and raw materials nationwide.

Also, during the American Industrial Revolution, Samuel Morse created the telegraph, which sent electric signals over a wire allowing the nation to communicate. Andrew Carnegie built the first steel mills in the U.S. while Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

Industrial Revolution FAQs

How is the Industrial Revolution best defined?

The Industrial Revolution was a shift from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy where products were no longer made solely by hand but by machines. This led to increased production and efficiency, lower prices, more goods, improved wages, and migration from rural areas to urban areas.

What was the Industrial Revolution (short answer)?

The first Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in the mid-to-late 1700s when innovation led to goods being produced in large quantities due to machine manufacturing. This spread around the globe and the Second Industrial Revolution began in the U.S. in the late 1800s that saw further advancements in technology that led to greater efficiency.

When did the Industrial Revolution start?

The first Industrial Revolution began in the second half of the 18th century while the Second Industrial Revolution began in the late 19th century.

What 3 things played a role in the Industrial Revolution?

Technological changes, such as the use of iron and steel, and new energy sources such as coal and steam, and the factory system, which led to a division of labor and specialization, which increased efficiency.

What were the 3 most important inventions of the Industrial Revolution?

The three most important inventions of the first Industrial Revolution include the steam engine, the spinning jenny, and the telegraph. The three most important inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution include the combustible engine, electricity, and the lightbulb.