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 time 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.

Industrial Revolution Explained

Although the Industrial Revolution occurred approximately 200 years ago, it is a period in time 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. Prior to the revolution, most Americans earned a living farming, and with the advance of factories, people began working for companies located in urban areas for the first time. Although the wages were low and conditions were often harsh, working for businesses paid a better living than farming.

Production efficiency improved during the Industrial Revolution with inventions such as the steam engine, which dramatically reduced the time it took to manufacture products. More efficient production subsequently reduced prices for products, primarily due to lower labor costs.

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

Key Takeaways

  • The American Industrial Revolution commonly referred to as the second Industrial Revolution, started sometime between 1820 and 1870.
  • The Industrial Revolution led to inventions that included the telephone, sewing machine, X-ray, lightbulb, and the combustible engine.
  • 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.

Increased Employment and Innovation

The Industrial Revolution created an increase in employment opportunities. As factories became widespread, additional managers and employees were required to operate them. Since most of the factories and large companies were located near the cities, the U.S. population migrated to urban areas often overwhelming the available housing.

Increased innovation led to higher levels of motivation and education that resulted in several ground-breaking inventions that are still used today such as 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.

Pitfalls of the Industrial Revolution

Although there were numerous advancements due to 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 by farms.

The sharp increase in the number of factories led to an increased amount of pollution. Pollution wasn't contained to the factories as people flocked to the cities, the living conditions were 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.


  • Numerous advancements such as factories, new technologies, and production improvements

  • Innovations and inventions that included the telephone, combustible engine, and steel mills

  • People could earn higher wages in factories than they could farming


  • Factories often had deplorable working conditions

  • Unsanitary living conditions existed in urban areas

  • American's rights were violated for the sake of profits particularly with child labor

Real World Examples of 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.