What Was The Industrial Revolution?

World economic history in one picture.

Between the mid-1700’s and the early 1800’s, a remarkable number of innovations took place in transportation, machinery, chemical engineering, mining, manufacturing and agriculture in Europe and the Americas. This was The Industrial Revolution. People immigrated to the cities in massive droves, revolutionizing daily life and morality shifted from being incentivized by a rural to an urban mentality.

It was the birth of the modern world, and none of the technology or standards of living we now take for granted would’ve been possible without it. The Industrial Revolution is important to understand because “the dead hand of that past still exerts a powerful grip on the economies of the present,”–and it’s effects continue to govern our lives today.

The groundwork for the coming shift was laid in 1440’s by Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Before then, books were not widely written or read. There were many reasons for this: education was hard to attain, the Church preserved ancient writing but squelched creative thought; and books were prohibitively expensive, with each one having to be written out by hand. The going rate in Italy was about one florin (a gold coin worth about $200 in today’s dollars) per five pages. Because of this, knowledge was destroyed or forgotten easier than it was accumulated. But almost overnight, the cost of producing a book fell by about 300%. Printing presses spread rapidly throughout Europe; almost every European city had one within 30 years. The span of human knowledge grew rapidly as books became more numerous with each passing year.

Gutenberg’s invention made information accessible to more people. Over time, the Church and the Crown ceded power to the merchant and the miller. The Western World emerged from the Middle Ages into an age of Enlightenment, thanks in no small part to the greater accessibility of ancient and new ideas. As the Age of Reason gave way to the Age of Science, a revolution in technology was inevitable.

The Industrial Revolution is commonly associated with the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. In fact, that was only one innovation among many, but it did make cotton production feasible on a massive scale, not to mention incredibly profitable. Within a few decades, cotton was America’s leading export–the cash crop was the pillar of innumerable Southern plantations, Northern textile mills, Wall Street and shipping fortunes made possible by the horror of slavery.

Meanwhile, workers in the Northern United States slogged away in factories converting raw cotton into textiles. Improvements in Gas and oil lighting permitted factories to be open after dark. The population in northern cities grew exponentially every year, with immigrants coming from overseas and rural families coming looking for work.

In short, the new technologies were innovations that exploited resources more efficiently than ever before, from coal mining, steam locomotion, and agriculture to metalworking, glass making, and cheap labor.

Of course, I’m oversimplifying. There are too many technological advancements and side-effects reverberating down from this time to cover in a simple blog post (please refer to Wikipedia for an exhaustive list, as well as the sources below for a more nuanced discussion). Nonetheless, the good and the bad parts about modern life are rooted in this time period. Among other things, we can thank the industrial successors of the early 19th century for the abundant food and consumer goods that we take for granted today; as well as less desirable things like income inequality, pollution, and the 9 to 5 work week. Despite the ills, more people enjoy a higher standard of living today than ever before.

 Sources: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World
100 Diagrams That Changed the World
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t

This was before photography (1825), but many detailed paintings of the period exist:

Iron and Coal, 1855–60, by William Bell Scott

Coalbrookdale by Night by Philip James de Loutherbourg, painted 1801. This shows Madeley Wood (or Bedlam) Furnaces, which belonged to the Coalbrookdale Company from 1776 to 1796.

Over London by Rail Gustave Doré


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