Exploring the Causes and Effects of the Industrial Revolution

Map of Europe with factories around Britain main

The Industrial Revolution is the name given to the transition from an agricultural and small-scale manufacturing economy to mass production using machine power. It began in Great Britain in the 1740s and developed throughout the world at various times until the 20th Century. The Industrial Revolution has many causes and major effects on society with implications worldwide as is fitting for a “revolution.”  

Intro to the Industrial Revolution

The Middle Ages involved a feudal system that revolved around agricultural settlements.  The production of goods, manufacturing (industry) of clothing, for instance, was generally small-scale and primarily done by hand.  This resulted in more small-scale societies as well.  

The path into the modern era involved the transition to mass production using machine power.  It was a revolution!  An industrial revolution, to be exact, changing not only how the economy worked but greatly changed society as a whole.  A general summary can be found here

The process started (for various reasons) in Great Britain in the 1740s, and expanded to Western Europe and the U.S. over the next century.  The Soviet Union and China along with other places finished up in the 20th Century.  

Causes of the Industrial Revolution

Increase in available resources, including raw materials and labor force

Raw materials are natural products such as cotton, wood, minerals, and water that are used in manufacturing.  A labor force is the people used to do all that manufacturing.  

Great Britain, an island nation on the Atlantic Coast, had water to use for power and as a natural highway.  It also had an essential item for manufacturing, a rich supply of good coal.  Later has overseas colonies (including the colonial U.S.) rich in raw materials.  India provided cotton too.  

An agricultural revolution helped lead to the industrial revolution in Britain.  Improvements in agriculture such as crop rotations and changes in policy such as closing off open fields (enclosure) led to the consolidation of small farms.  Not only did new methods result in much more food, but fewer farmers were needed. Looking for new opportunities many excess farmers population flocked to cities creating a ready labor supply.  

Technological advances and inventions

The ability to produce things in high quantities in a quick fashion (mass production) required machine power. The invention and improvements of the steam engine by people like the Scottish inventor James Watt were very important.  The Scientific Revolution helped pave the way.

Improvements in iron making were also very important, including the Bessemer process, providing an inexpensive means to mass-produce steel. Steam power and improvements in iron-making led to more powerful machines, allowing for more production as well as more efficient production.  Improvements fed off each other, resulting in more and more success.

Technology also was involved in other areas that were important in the industrial revolution. This included communication over long distances (telegraph), improvements in transportation (railroads), and lighting (gas and electric). 

Population growth

The agricultural revolution we discussed above helped lead to a growth in population.  Europe moved past the Black Death.  Improvements in medical care, a decrease in infant mortality, and people living longer all led to increasing populations.  This provided both workers and customers, which together provide supply and demand that is necessary to run an industrial revolution.  

Expansion in foreign trade

Foreign trade provides raw materials and supplies additional markets for goods.  

Great Britain was well situated geographically to take part in foreign trade.  It became a great naval power. Ships provided both the means to deliver goods and the power to gain/retain overseas colonies.  Colonies meant new sources of raw materials and new markets for goods.  

Shift from family businesses to large manufacturing plants

Pre-industrial societies have family-based businesses and small-scale industries.  

The mass production of goods no longer made it as practical to have separate workers largely in home workshops.  

Larger factories were set up, and additional machinery required more space and sources of power. A “factory system” developed in which products were made by large groups of workers working machinery, overseen by supervisors.  

 Effects of the Industrial Revolution

Creation of wealth and opportunities for business growth

The industrial revolution led to the creation and opportunities for a lot of wealth for some.  

Mass production of goods and industry on a big scale meant large profits.  There was a range of opportunities, including obtaining raw materials, processing them, and providing goods and services for workers.  This led to great wealth for some individuals as well as increased national wealth.  

The dark side of this was that there was an increase in the divide between rich and poor.  People worked long hours, including children, at low pay.  

Profits seemed to be the most important thing with the ups and downs of the market entrusted with the needs of the people (Social Darwinism).  The resulting labor struggles led to seeking out alternatives such as socialism and ultimately led to some reforms.  

Improved quality of life and overall standard of living

The industrial revolution also led to an improved standard of living.  

People as a whole had a ready supply of goods and services.  People had more food and lived longer.  A larger government led to improvements in public life, including such things as better sanitation.  

Increased demand for more efficient methods of production

Pre-industrial societies are by nature conservative. They find a way of life and stick by it a year after year.  Life, which is dominated by religious beliefs, seems steady and not open to change.

“Change” is a major theme after the industrial revolution.  A major concern is efficiency.  If something is more efficient, it will make more things, more cheaply.  This will lead to more profits.  Science and technology always seemed to leave an opportunity to make things better.  

Urbanization resulting in better infrastructure

The growth of cities (urban areas) is a major effect of the industrial revolution.  

People flocked to urban areas, which resulted in a need for homes and infrastructure (roads, public utilities, public sanitation) to serve their needs.  Large city governments developed.  Cities became centers of art and culture. 

Such urbanization had a dark side, including pollution, crowded poorly built tenements, and the resulting health problems and crime.  This led to a progressive push for reform.  

Expansion of global trade networks resulting in cultural exchange

Globalization is the interaction among people, companies, and governments worldwide as part of an interconnected network.  The Silk Road which was formed to connect Asia and Europe is an early example.   Industrialization greatly increases such trade networks.  

The result is the spread of not only goods but a major cultural exchange.  Religions, for instance, were spread among trade networks over the centuries.  The world suddenly starts to seem a much smaller place, especially with improvements in communication and transportation. 

Industrialization Over Time

The industrial revolution was a type of adolescence.  Growing up has some major positives, but they come with a lot of growing pains. And, the process can be rather messy.

Different nations also have had their own paths.  Countries like the Soviet Union and China tried to play “catch up” by means that led to a lot of hardship and pain.  The industrial revolution also led to many inequities, including a “third world” that continues to struggle to find its way.  

We live in a world that arose from all of this.  Understanding the causes and effects of the industrial revolution hopefully will help us enjoy it all better.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.