The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transport, and technology had a profound effect on the socioeconomic and cultural conditions starting in the United Kingdom, then subsequently spreading throughout Europe, North America, and eventually the world.

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain and spread to Western Europe and the United States within a few decades.The precise start and end of the Industrial Revolution is debated among historians.Eric Hobsbawm held that it ‘broke out’ in Britain in the 1780s and was not fully felt until the 1830s or 1840s, while T. S. Ashton held that it occurred roughly between 1760 and 1830.

The First Industrial Revolution evolved into the Second Industrial Revolution in the transition years between 1840 and 1870, when technological and economic progress continued with the increasing adoption of steam-powered boats, ships and railways, the large-scale manufacture of machine tools and the increasing use of machinery in steam powered factories.

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Important technological developments

Textiles – Mechanised cotton spinning powered by steam or water increased the output of a worker by a factor of about 1000. The power loom increased the output of a worker by a factor of over 40. The cotton gin increased the productivity of removing the seed from cotton by a factor of 50. Large gains in productivity also occurred in spinning and weaving of wool and linen, but they were not as great as in cotton.

Steam power – The efficiency of steam engines increased so that they used between one-fifth and one-tenth as much fuel. The adaption of stationary steam engines to the rotary motion made them suitable for industrial uses. The high-pressure engine had a high power to weight ratio, making it suitable for transportation. Steam power underwent a rapid expansion after 1800.

Iron making – The substitution of coke for charcoal greatly lowered the fuel cost of pig iron and wrought iron production. Using coke also allowed larger blast furnaces, resulting in economies of scale. The cast iron blowing cylinder was first used in 1760. It was later improved by making it double acting, which allowed higher furnace temperatures. The puddling process produced a structural grade iron at a lower cost than the finery forge. The rolling mill was fifteen times faster than hammering wrought iron. Hot blast (1829) greatly increased fuel efficiency in iron production in the following decades.

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The first Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century, merged into the Second Industrial Revolution around 1850, when technological and economic progress gained momentum with the development of steam-powered ships, railways, and later in the 19th century with the internal combustion engine and electrical power generation. The period of time covered by the Industrial Revolution varies with different historians. Eric Hobsbawm held that it ‘broke out’ in Britain in the 1780s and was not fully felt until the 1830s or 1840s, while T. S. Ashton held that it occurred roughly between 1760 and 1830.

The most important of the changes that brought about the Industrial Revolution were: the invention of machines to do the work of hand tools; the use of steam, and later of other kinds of power, in place of the muscles of human beings and of animals; and the adoption of the factory system.

A major change in the metal industries during the era of the Industrial Revolution was the replacement of wood and other bio-fuels with coal. For a given amount of heat, coal required much less labour to mine than cutting wood, and coal was more abundant than wood.

The British Agricultural Revolution is considered one of the causes of the Industrial Revolution because improved agricultural productivity freed up workers to work in other sectors of the economy. Industrial technologies that affected farming included the seed drill, the Dutch plough, which contained iron parts, and the threshing machine.

Other developments included more efficient water wheels, based on experiments conducted by the British engineer John Smeaton the beginnings of a machine industry and the rediscovery of concrete (based on hydraulic lime mortar) by John Smeaton, which had been lost for 1300 years.

The second Industrial Revolution gradually grew to include the chemical industries, petroleum refining and distribution, electrical industries, and, in the 20th century, the automotive industries and was marked by a transition of technological leadership from Britain to the United States and Germany.

Transportation improvements, such as canals and improved roads, also lowered food costs. Railroads were introduced near the end of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution was the first period in history during which there was a simultaneous increase in population and in per capita income.     

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