Industrial Revolution Definition: History, Pros, and Cons

Industrial Revolution

Investopedia / Matthew Collins

What Was the Industrial Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution was a period of major mechanization and innovation that began in Great Britain during the mid-18th century and early 19th century and later spread throughout much of the world. The British Industrial Revolution was dominated by the exploitation of coal and iron.

The American Industrial Revolution, sometimes referred to as the Second Industrial Revolution, began in the 1870s and continued through World War II. The era saw the mechanization of agriculture and manufacturing and the introduction of new modes of transportation including steamships, the automobile, and airplanes.

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 followed in the late 19th century and was an engine of economic growth in the U.S.
  • The Industrial Revolution led to inventions that included the assembly line, telegraph, steam engine, sewing machine, and internal combustion 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, and child labor.

How Did the Industrial Revolution Impact Society?

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 creating capitalism and the modern cities of today.

Before this period, most households made their living farming and lived primarily in small, rural communities. With the advent of factories during the 18th century, 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 such businesses still paid a better living wage 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 Industrial Revolution developed in conjunction with the capitalist economies. Under capitalism, business owners (capitalists) began to organize labor centrally into factories and introduced a division of labor to increase output and profitability. Compared to the craft and guild systems that preceded it, capitalist production incentivized technological change and innovation at an unprecedented rate.

The Industrial Revolution was driven, in part, by the adoption 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.

What Were the Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Tariffs?

The Industrial Revolution was not always organic or directed alone by free market forces. The United States government, for instance, helped domestic industry at the time by instituting tariffs—taxes on foreign imported 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 of Industrialization

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 cities, populations migrated to urban areas searching for jobs, often overwhelming the available housing supply. This led to significant improvements in city planning.

Increased innovation also led to higher levels of education, often resulting in several groundbreaking inventions 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, incandescent light bulb, and modern assembly line used in manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution changed how people worked, the technologies available to them, and in turn 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.

Disadvantages of Industrialization

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

The sharp increase in the number of factories caused an increase in urban pollution. Pollution wasn't contained only in the factories; as people flocked to the cities, 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 significant 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

What Key Innovations Took Place During the Industrial Revolution?

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.

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.

How Is the Industrial Revolution Best Defined?

The Industrial Revolution shifted societies 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.

When Was the Industrial Revolution?

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 drove greater efficiency.

What 3 Things Played a Role in the Industrial Revolution?

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

What Were the Most Important Inventions of the Industrial Revolution?

Among the most important inventions of the first Industrial Revolution include the steam engine, the spinning jenny, cotton gin, and the telegraph. This was followed by the second Industrial Revolution, which saw the advent of the internal combustion engine, controlled electricity, and the lightbulb.

Article Sources
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  1. Peter N. Stearns. "The Industrial Revolution in World History." Routledge, 2020.

  2. The Library of Congress. "The First American Cotton Mill Began Operation December 20, 1790."

  3. Stanford University-News. "First Transcontinental Railroad and Stanford Forever Linked."

  4. United States Library of Congress. "Collection: Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793 to 1919."

  5. United States Library of Congress. "Everyday Mysteries-Who is Credited with Inventing the Telephone?"

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