Origins of the Industrial Revolution

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Origins of the Industrial Revolution

Some revolutions have famous starting dates. On April 19, 1775, a band of North American colonists fired on British soldiers on Lexington Green in Massachusetts—the "shot heard 'round the world" that launched the American Revolution. The next year, on July 4, 1776, these colonists declared their independence. On July 14, 1789, a mob stormed the Bastille prison in Paris, France, sparking the French Revolution. In November 1917, Russian Communists seized power from the monarchy in Moscow to ignite the Russian Revolution.

But the Industrial Revolution did not start with a formal declaration, or with mobs storming a fortress of the old order, or with dramatic speeches and slogans that would move the hearts and minds of men and women for generations afterward.

Instead, the Industrial Revolution took place one small step at a time over a period of more than two hundred years. A pattern developed in which one individual designed a new machine (such as the steam engine or the spinning jenny, a machine used to make cloth), another individual started a business using the machine in a factory, and a family

Origins of the Industrial Revolution: Words to Know


A person learning the basics of a skilled trade, such as masonry (working with brick or stone) or weaving.


Someone who controls land and the people who live on it. Aristocrats generally inherited their positions from their fathers (occasionally from their mothers).

Cottage industry:

The economic system in which skilled craftspeople manufactured goods, such as cloth, from their homes rather than in factories. This scenario was typical of the period before the Industrial Revolution.


A political system in which a majority of the people determine the government and its policies, as opposed to governments determined, for example, by inheritance (such as those run by kings and aristocrats).


The belief that knowledge derives from examining subjects.


A social and political system prevalent in Europe from about 400 to 1500, in which aristocrats, or lords, controlled the land and so-called common people (known as serfs) were legally bound to work on the land under the direction of the aristocrat and with the benefit of his protection.


Associations of skilled craftspeople that set rules and standards for their work. Guild members generally advanced from apprentice (beginner) to journeyman (ordinary worker) to master, the highest level.


A French expression meaning "free to do," referring to the belief that governments should let economic activity take place without interference.

Medieval period:

Another name for the Middle Ages (500 to 1400), the period from about the end of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance.


An economic system in which government manages national economies by regulating trade, agriculture, and manufacturing with the aim of accumulating wealth. It was a system criticized by England's Adam Smith, who argued that people acting in their self-interest would result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Natural laws:

The rules, thought to be taken from nature, by which the universe operates.


A period in European history from about 1400 to 1700 in which classical (ancient Roman and Greek) ideas about art, literature, and other intellectual pursuits began to replace long-held religious beliefs.

moved to a town from the countryside to work in the new factory. Multiplied thousands of times, this series of events was the Industrial Revolution.

In this way, the Industrial Revolution came to touch the lives of nearly everyone, although initially most people did not realize they were living through a "revolution." That phrase came into popular use in the late 1800s after it was introduced by British sociologist Arnold Toynbee (1852–1883) at least a century after the process had begun.

Historians often say the Industrial Revolution started around 1750 or 1760. One symbolic moment for the start of the Industrial Revolution was the morning in 1754 when a Scottish teenager named James Watt (1736–1819) left his home in the small town of Greenock. Jamie Watt was eighteen years old, and he planned to make scientific instruments for a living. He set off for the nearby city of Glasgow to find someone to teach him the finer points of the trade.

It is a modest beginning for a revolution. But in the course of the next fourteen years, Watt tapped into a rapidly growing body of scientific knowledge and designed a new type of steam engine that would revolutionize the world by substituting the energy trapped in coal for muscle power.

It is an oversimplification, though, to say that Watt's design for a more efficient steam engine was the sole cause of the Industrial Revolution. The process was infinitely more complex. His engine, however, was the key invention that got the action started.

Great Britain in 1754 was on the edge of the greatest change in human behavior since prehistoric man fashioned a tool from a stick and stone. The world had been changing rapidly and dramatically for the past 350 years, changes that, taken together, eventually transformed society.

Setting the stage

The Industrial Revolution did not spring up overnight. Instead, it was a logical next step after several hundred years of developments in Europe that gradually replaced the medieval period (also known as the Middle Ages, from 500 to 1400) with the so-called modern era. These changes included dramatic new ways of thinking about the role of human beings in the world, their religion, and their relationships with one another. Without these preparatory changes, it is almost impossible to imagine the Industrial Revolution taking place. In parts of the world that did not undergo these changes, the Industrial Revolution never took root.

The Renaissance

Beginning around 1400, western Europe entered a period of radical alteration after hundreds of years during which little change had taken place. This period of change is called the Renaissance, meaning "rebirth." The Renaissance involved artists, scientists, and political thinkers—initially in Italy, then throughout Europe—who began looking at the world in a new way. Many features of the Renaissance centered on rediscoveries of the cultures of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, hence the name Renaissance.

For almost one thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, religion had been at center stage in almost all aspects of life. With the Roman Empire gone as a center of power, the Roman Catholic Church was the most vibrant and dominant institution in western Europe. Its teachings about virtually all subjects—not only religion but also politics and science—went largely unchallenged. The explanation for natural occurrences was generally religious; according to the Church, events happened because it was God's will. Warriors became princes or kings only with the Church's blessing. Gradually a social and political structure evolved in Europe called feudalism, in which armed warriors (the first aristocrats, prominent landowners called "lords") exercised political power with the blessing of the Church. Most people were farmers, called serfs, who did not own their own land (they worked on land owned by aristocrats). They had no property or legal rights and were required by law to work the land of the aristocrat, their "landlord." Religious teachings, which in Europe meant the teachings of the Catholic Church in the thousand years leading up to about 1400, went largely unquestioned.

Around 1400, a new attitude began to take hold. It started with renewed interest in the writings of Greek and Roman thinkers of ancient history. These writings were never lost in the sense of having disappeared; they were stored as manuscripts in monasteries right through the fall of the Roman Empire and for the duration of the medieval period, starting around the year 500. But in the fifteenth century, they came into renewed prominence as European thinkers began to consider alternative explanations for the natural world.

The term "Renaissance" is often applied to art of this period, particularly the paintings and sculptures of such figures as Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Michelangelo (1475–1564). But it also includes a broad range of other thinkers and philosophers whose names remain famous. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) in Poland and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) in Italy were astronomers who asserted that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Galileo was put under house arrest by Church authorities, who insisted that the Earth (and thus humankind) was the center of the universe. Leonardo da Vinci was not only a famous painter and sculptor but also a designer of ingenious machines. Niccolò Machiavelli (pronounced mack-ee-ah-VELL-ee; 1469–1527) was an Italian writer who described how a successful political leader should behave in order to hold on to his office. At around the same time, in Portugal, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460) sponsored expeditions around Africa, looking for a sea route to Asia in order to buy spices (used in part to prevent meat from rotting in the absence of refrigeration).

The Renaissance marked the beginning of three important revolutions that played key roles in history. One was the scientific revolution; the second was a revolution in religious and political thought; and the third was a revolution in navigation that opened sea trade between Europe and Asia and opened North America to European colonization.

The scientific revolution

The scientific revolution started with the idea that the world around us behaves in a predictable way, and that nature follows laws that can be figured out by close observation. This way of thinking replaced the medieval belief that God is responsible for whatever happens in the natural world, and that God's ways are unknowable or mysterious. Under that way of thinking, the best way to understand the world was to study the nature of God.

During the Renaissance, scholars took a different attitude. They began trying to understand nature by means of close observation. Many scientists believed that God had designed the natural laws that govern nature, but that once these laws were in place, the natural world followed them in a predictable way.

The idea of natural laws was very powerful. At first, people applied the concept to the behavior of physical objects: Why does a rock fall to the ground when it is dropped? Why does the Sun seem to rise in the morning and set at night? What happens to water when it is heated and disappears as steam?

Once the scientific revolution got started, there was no stopping it, even when it challenged religious teachings. Every aspect of the world was subjected to intense scrutiny by scientists. The scientific method involved observing the behavior of objects and recording those observations in detail.

Although it is tempting to think of a scientific revolution as occurring rapidly and dramatically, in fact scientists are still engaged in the process six hundred years later. Gradually, by accumulating thousands of detailed observations and measurements, early scientists learned that most occur-rences do in fact follow patterns. One way of thinking about the Industrial Revolution is to see it as a process of applying natural laws to manufacturing goods.

Two figures associated with the scientific revolution were particularly important to the future of the Industrial Revolution. One was the French scientist René Descartes (pronounced ra-NAY day-CART; 1596–1650); the other was the English scientist Isaac Newton (1642–1727).

Descartes's pioneering approach to solving problems in science requires breaking a problem down into its smallest parts. In considering the unknown, Descartes insisted that scientists must examine every idea and theory and throw out any explanations that they cannot prove for certain to be true, or that rely on many complicated explanations. Eventually, he said, a scientist will come down to one basic truth that can be proved, probably mathematically, and use that basic element to build upon. This approach of breaking a problem down into its smallest parts and building up from there was later used in organizing work in factories.

Isaac Newton was also a mathematician and a physicist, a scientist who studies the physical properties of objects. He pioneered the use of detailed measurements in trying to understand the natural laws of physics. The idea that physical objects consistently obey such laws gave rise to a way of thinking about the world. Scientists began focusing on understanding natural laws by taking careful measurements and conducting experiments to test their theories.

In the Industrial Revolution, some of these newly discovered natural laws were applied to new machines. For example, when water is heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius), it becomes steam. A given amount of water, converted to steam, occupies over 1,300 times as much space as water in its liquid form. The power of this expansion was put to use in the steam engine (see Chapter 2). Over time, with the benefit of scientific discovery, human attitudes toward events changed, from feeling powerless to affect events to feeling that events could be controlled, at least on a small scale, with study and effort.

Widespread literacy

The revolution in scientific thought was gaining momentum just about the time that a German named Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1400–1468) developed the modern printing press. The story of Gutenberg usually mentions his most famous product: Bibles. Previously, Bibles had been painstakingly copied by hand by monks. These valuable manuscripts were chained to tables in monasteries, and lay people (those who were not priests or other members of the clergy) did not have access to them. Gutenberg made it possible for many people to own their own Bible, to read it for themselves, and to interpret it as they liked: another challenge to the exclusive authority of the Church.

Gutenberg's technology—and further innovations that soon followed—had another implication: it made books much more commonplace. Another early printer, Aldo Mannucci (also spelled Manuzio and in Latin Aldus Manutius; 1449–1515), in the city-state of Venice, manufactured books in a smaller size that could be held while reading (like modern books) or carried in a saddlebag. Books were no longer huge volumes copied by hand and occupying a whole table, but instead were small and portable enough to carry elsewhere as a means of spreading knowledge.

The profusion of books that followed Gutenberg's innovation was soon followed by a marked increase in literacy. The ability to read was no longer confined to monks, priests, and other religious figures. With new scientific observations being made constantly, books became a key way of circulating this new knowledge. University students who once would have been limited to studying theology (the study of religious faith) in preparation for a life as a monk or priest in the Church had new career opportunities in science.

The Reformation

Just as the German-invented printing press was expanding the number of individuals able to read, another development in Germany was ending the religious monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe.

In 1517 a German priest named Martin Luther (1483–1546), in the German town of Wittenberg, challenged some teachings of the Church (at the time, the Catholic Church was the only Church) by tacking his famous ninety-five theses to a church door. Luther challenged the Church's teachings in religion much as the scientific revolution challenged Church teachings in science. His challenge soon gained adherents in a movement called the Reformation (so named because it was intended to reform, or change, the Church). People who agreed with Luther's protest against Church teachings became known as Protestants.

Luther's desire to reform the practices of the Roman Catholic Church soon led to arguments that in turn led to military battles in Europe over which church—the Roman Catholic Church or one of the new Protestant churches—would be the official religion of a country. (At the time, people in Europe did not have a choice about which religion to follow: their ruler decided for them.)

These religious conflicts had an impact on the Industrial Revolution, which was still more than two hundred years into the future, in three ways. First, the challenge to the Church's authority in strictly religious affairs was tied to the challenge to the Church's authority in science, making the scientific revolution more likely to succeed. Second, the new Protestant sects allowed followers to charge interest (a fee paid to borrow money that is generally a percentage of the amount borrowed) on money that was loaned. Previously, Catholic teaching forbade charging interest on loans, which discouraged people from lending money since it meant taking a risk (the loan might not be repaid) with no counterbalancing advantage (money earned as interest on the loan). As the Industrial Revolution advanced, lending money (as well as investing money) was critical, since it enabled borrowers to buy expensive machinery to set up factories.

Third, the challenge to the Church's authority in religion paved the way for challenges to political authority, which for centuries had been linked to the Church. Traditionally, the pope, as head of the Church, was thought to be infallible because he was God's mouthpiece on Earth. Thus when he blessed monarchs, he had given them a sort of moral authority as well as military power. But if a king's moral authority comes from God, interpreted by the pope, and the pope's authority is now subject to question, then does it not logically follow that the king's authority is also subject to question? This general line of thought, developed over many decades by a variety of writers, eventually led to the idea that the authority of political rulers does not come from "above"—that is, from God as interpreted by the Church—but instead comes from "below," from the people who are ruled by the king. This idea opened the way for some people, notably the newly wealthy industrialists, to gain significant political as well as economic power (so-called common people remained fairly powerless). Whereas in earlier ages, political power flowed from the monarch and the sword (with the blessing of the Church), in the new industrial world it flowed from wealth, with or without the blessing of the governed.

One key idea that grew out of new attitudes toward political power was the notion that individuals have certain rights the government cannot take away. The Industrial Revolution depended on people accumulating money and investing it in new businesses that required large investments to get started—money needed to purchase machinery to run a factory, for example. It proved crucial that people trusted that a government would not swoop in and seize their property; otherwise, people with money would have been tempted to leave it in vaults in the form of gold or silver bullion (bulk forms of these metals), as they had during the medieval period. In England, especially, the idea of limits on government power had taken root and grown ever since King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, a document that limited his powers as king and gave aristocrats a voice in government. For the English, the idea of sharing power between the ruler and the ruled had become deeply ingrained.

The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) wrote in the second of his Two Treatises on Government, published in 1690, that governments derive their power from the people. Locke's ideas were the inspiration for statesman Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and are largely taken for granted in twenty-first-century America. But in Locke's time, these ideas were considered revolutionary. Locke echoed scientists of his day by insisting that there was a set of natural laws that governed social relations among people, similar to the laws that governed nature. Among these laws, he said, was the right to own property. Property could not be seized by the government without good reason, Locke insisted.


The story behind the discovery of North and South America is familiar to most people: Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), an Italian financed by the monarchs of Spain, was looking for a shortcut to Asia when he discovered the New World, meaning the continents of North and South America. This discovery had many implications, including the expansion of commerce. Businessmen in Europe saw Asia—and eventually the New World—as a new source of raw materials as well as a new market for finished goods.

The voyage of Columbus is not usually thought of as being part of the Industrial Revolution, but it did add to new ideas about the world. It helped expand the horizons of economic activity, leading to practices that would be commonplace three hundred years later, such as importing cotton from North America or India to England to make cloth in new factories.

The Enlightenment

The set of grand theories of science, religion, and politics that marked the era we call the Renaissance culminated in the late 1600s and 1700s in a period called the Age of Enlightenment. In particular, the Enlightenment refers to the period when political philosophers began applying some of the principles of the Renaissance and Reformation to government. The writers of the Enlightenment wanted to apply science and reason to society, overturning ancient ideas about the rights of kings and aristocrats as well as the dominant role of religion in organizing human affairs. The influence of the Catholic Church was central to French society, and thus it was a particular target of some political philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Freedom of religion became an important issue in England as well, where the head of the Church was also the reigning monarch. Prominent names associated with the Enlightenment include French writers Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Voltaire (whose given name was François-Marie Arouet; 1694–1778) and English writers including Locke and David Hume (1711–1776). Together, the writers of the Enlightenment justified significant political changes that occurred in both England and France, the two most prominent European powers at the time, and helped establish an environment in which the Industrial Revolution could take place.

One of the most important ideas to emerge from the Enlightenment was the notion of predictable government. Rather than being subject to the whims of a hereditary monarch or aristocrat, the Enlightenment thinkers advocated government based on reason and consent of the governed: in short, democracy, a political system in which a majority of the people vote to determine the government and its policies. A critical ingredient of the Industrial Revolution was the willingness of wealthy individuals to invest money in building factories. An unpredictable political environment would have put this money at risk, in danger of being seized by the king, for example.

The Renaissance and Enlightenment, taken as a whole, marked the change from a society centered on religion to a society centered on human beings. In the medieval period, only a few individuals at the top of society had the ability to influence events. The great majority of people worked as farmers, often on land they did not own. During the Renaissance, more and more people began living in cities and towns. The discovery of sea routes to Asia and North America in the 1400s and 1500s created new economic opportunities not linked to ownership of land. The trade made possible by these routes generated significant new fortunes in Europe that eventually would be invested in machinery and factories, making possible the process we call the Industrial Revolution.

England in 1750

England is the country where the Industrial Revolution began, and it is worthwhile to consider the particular aspects of English society that led to this development.

David Hume

A Scottish historian and philosopher, David Hume (1711–1776) believed that science could proceed only on the basis of facts that could be seen and tested, a philosophy called empiricism. He also believed that this scientific method could be applied to human affairs. In this respect, Hume believed that experience alone can teach us anything; belief, including religious belief, cannot yield anything certain. Hume was one of many philosophers who contributed to the mind-set that eventually contributed to the growth of the Industrial Revolution, a way of thinking that was generally unfettered by religious restraints.

By 1750 England had already changed significantly from medieval society, but it was not entirely modern. Most people still lived in the country in small villages and seldom traveled far from home. Most "commoners," or people who lived on land held in common, had little influence over government.

England had enjoyed a half century of domestic peace after a civil war in the 1600s that divided the country between Protestants and Catholics. Abroad, England fought repeated wars with France and gradually established superiority. After the Seven Years War (1756–63; called the French and Indian War in the United States), England had gained control of the eastern half of North America and was well on its way to establishing domination over India.

Although England was at peace at home, significant changes were on the horizon. In 1696 there were about five million people living in England (fewer people than lived in New York City at the turn of the twenty-first century), and the population was growing slowly. By 1750 the population had increased by only 20 percent, to about six million. But in the next fifty years, the population grew by 50 percent again, to more than nine million.

The enclosure movement

In the early 1700s, three-fourths of England's population lived in the country. Much of the English countryside was a patchwork of tiny plots called freeholds that were worked by individuals. No one "owned" the land; it was held in common, or shared, and long traditions dictated who worked on which patch. One farmer might work several plots of land separated from one another by similar plots worked by another farmer.

Beginning in about 1500, a gradual process called enclosure (sometimes spelled inclosure) had resulted in the transfer of common lands to individual property owners. The enclosure movement was a process by which wealthy individuals, often aristocrats, petitioned the Parliament (the legislature, or governing body) in London to grant them exclusive title (ownership) to land previously held in common, that is, land with no specific owner. The petitions to Parliament were accompanied by significant sums of money. The petitions usually applied to a parish, a local area served by one church. Several individuals often got together to submit a petition for a parish; they then divided the common lands into larger plots, which were devoted to grazing sheep prized for their wool.

The enclosure process had started in northwestern England around 1500, and it gained momentum after 1760, especially in southern England, to the extent that the period between 1760 and 1850 is sometimes called the second enclosure movement. The second movement coincided almost exactly with the rise of the new factory system that marked the start of the Industrial Revolution. Poor people could not afford to contribute to the fees paid in exchange for title. After title to the land was granted, the new owners typically built fences (sometimes in the form of hedges) around their property and started grazing sheep, which generated a steady supply of wool for England's textile (cloth) manufacturers.

Those who did not buy land lost both a place to live and a place to grow food. These displaced people moved into towns and cities. The enclosure movement resulted in a major shift of population. In 1696 only about one-fourth of the population lived in English cities; by 1760 one-half of the people of England lived in cities. These new city dwellers, most of them poor, provided the pool of labor for the factories about to come into existence.

Even at the beginning of the process, enclosure was sharply criticized as theft of communal land by aristocrats at the expense of poor rural dwellers. In 1516 the English writer Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), in his book Utopia, said that enclosure allowed "one covetous [grasping] and insatiable [never satisfied] cormorant [greedy person] and very plague of his native country . .. [to] compass about and enclose many thousand acres of ground together within one pale or hedge, [while] the husbandmen [farmers] be thrust out of their own."

The agricultural revolution

The enclosure movement coincided with, and encouraged, an agricultural revolution, a term that describes farming practices that emerged in England around 1700. Farming was a conservative occupation in 1700; farmers were cautious about adopting changes. Nevertheless, new attitudes about science began to be applied to farming, as well as to other occupations, resulting in both machinery and new practices that eventually overturned centuries-old ways of working. These changes took place around the same time as the Industrial Revolution and helped support some aspects of English society in ways that benefited industrialization.

As with any significant social and economic change, it is difficult to credit one individual with responsibility for it. On the other hand, certain names have become strongly associated with important changes, especially that of Jethro Tull (1674–1741). Tull was trained as a lawyer, but he instead took up farming with his father, a member of the gentry (prosperous farmers who were not aristocrats). Tull is credited with developing the seed drill, a horse-drawn device that planted seeds in straight lines and then covered them over. Previously, farmers had followed the centuries-old practice of scattering seeds by hand (sowing), meaning that plants grew in a random pattern. Tull's approach resulted in straight rows that could be weeded by a horse-drawn hoe.

Tull's invention was hardly a cure-all, and in fact English farmers were slow to adopt it (although English colonists in North America were more enthusiastic). But his technique did increase the amount of crops that could be harvested from a field.

Technology was just one aspect of the agricultural revolution. British farmers in the eighteenth century also started using a new system of crop rotation. Instead of leaving fields fallow (empty) one year out of four in order to replenish the soil's nutrients, farmers began rotating crops. In year one, they planted turnips (which could be used to feed animals). In year two, the field would be used to grow barley. In year three, clover, which nourishes the soil, would be raised. In year four, wheat would be planted. In this way, a field could be planted each year, instead of just three out of four, and sown-under plants could help keep the soil fertile. This new method resulted in greater output from the land and increased income for farmers.

Private ownership of land resulting from the enclosure movement also led to such improvements as the installation of drainage systems, which added to agricultural productivity.

The agricultural revolution—use of machinery, crop rotation, and land improvements—had several important implications related to the Industrial Revolution. The same amount of land could now raise more crops and support more people. Fewer farmers were needed to achieve the same results, due partly to new machinery. Some of the farmers displaced from the land became available to work as employees in the factories that were being built. And the new techniques worked better on larger fields, and therefore encouraged expansion of the enclosure movement.


English economic life in 1750 was rapidly evolving from an ancient way of doing things. During the 1500s and 1600s, England, France, and Spain had each been striving to achieve superiority over the other two nations. In addition to building up armies and navies and gaining colonies in North America and Asia, the English government tried to establish economic superiority through a government policy called mercantilism, a system in which a government regulates trade and business in a way designed to promote the interests of its own country at the expense of its rivals.

Mercantilism came about during, and just after, the age of exploration in which European sailors opened sea routes to Asia and North America. Merchants and manufacturers were eager to secure government protection and support for their economic interests, and often succeeded. For example, although England had been an important exporter of wool for hundreds of years, the government banned the export of wool between 1660 and 1820, in order to benefit domestic textile makers. Clothiers no longer had to compete with foreigners for a supply of wool, and foreign manufacturers were hurt by their sudden inability to buy English wool. (In this process, those in England who raised sheep in order to sell their wool tended to suffer from the lack of competition. In this respect, they lost out to the manufacturers in competition for the government's favor.) France also frequently placed restrictions on exporting wool. Similar restrictions were placed on food, especially wheat (called corn in England). Restrictive regulations also applied to exporting tools and the immigration of skilled workers to other countries.

Governments often prohibited imports as well, in order to protect industries at home from foreign competition (and to avoid the export of the gold and silver used to pay for the imports). England banned imports of silk in order to protect its silk industry from French and Italian competitors. France barred imports of printed cotton cloth from 1686 to 1759 to protect French manufacturers from the competition offered by cloth imported from India and China.

In 1650 and 1651 England passed the first of a series of laws called the Navigation Acts that were designed to give preference to English merchant ships over the Dutch. They required that imports to England be carried in English ships. They also regulated shipping between England and its colonies, including its North American colonies. These laws were a major irritant to those living in England's American colonies, since the absence of competition in shipping tended to make imports more expensive.

Other European governments also tried to regulate the balance of foreign trade to preserve as much wealth as possible. In the mid-1600s, governments were concerned about the quantities of gold and silver that were being exported as payment for imports. Since gold was a way to finance armies and navies, governments wanted to preserve as much gold as possible and therefore adopted policies to encourage exports and discourage imports. The aim of these policies, such as taxes placed on imports, was to assure that the value of goods sold abroad was greater than the value of goods bought from abroad—called a positive balance of trade.

Thanks in part to the expansion of European colonies following the discovery of North America and the islands of the Caribbean (the "West Indies"), and also to the growth in shipping between Europe and Asia (the "East Indies"), foreign trade was growing rapidly. Between 1715 and 1789, foreign trade grew by around 400 percent.

The guild system

Restrictive rules dating to the medieval period also governed the behavior of merchants and workers. Merchants and workers in various skilled trades that required expertise and training (such as printing, or weaving) joined organizations called guilds. (Some labor unions, especially those representing highly skilled workers, are still named guilds today.) Merchant guilds wrote rules and regulations for conducting their particular trade. The guilds regulated prices, weights and measures, and other conditions of business. The rules were designed partly to assure high standards, but also to prevent price competition.

Trade guilds were a system that supplied training to young men (women were generally not involved in skilled work during this period) and also protected established workers from competition. Boys progressed through three stages. As teenagers, they would become apprentices for several years, learning a skill in a particular trade such as weaving. Once the skill had been learned, they became journeymen and then masters, at which point they might set up a shop of their own and employ journeymen or apprentices.

The guild system was still in operation at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1750. The introduction of machinery powered by steam engines seriously challenged this system in some trades, but not in others.

Many skilled workers worked from their homes, as part of what was called a cottage industry. Manufacturing cloth in particular was largely done by workers at home. Making fabric is a two-stage process: the basic material, fibers like wool or cotton, are twisted tightly to make thread in a process called spinning. Then the thread is woven, on a device called a loom, to make the cloth. It takes several people spinning thread to keep pace with one weaver. Making cloth was often a family enterprise: the children and women of the household spun the thread from wool (and, later, from cotton), while the husband operated the loom that wove the thread into cloth.

Merchants typically dropped off the wool or cotton at a weaver's house and came back later to pick up the finished cloth. Cloth merchants had little or no control over how quickly a family produced cloth from the wool or cotton. This system made it difficult for the merchants to promise delivery of finished cloth to their customers (a clothing maker, for example) at a particular time. On the other hand, the cottage industry system benefited workers, leaving them in control of their lives—how many hours a day they worked, how much their children helped, and so forth.

Spinning and weaving were among the first industries to be affected by the Industrial Revolution. Innovations to the machinery used to make cloth and the rise of the factory system combined to radically change the textile industry (see Chapter 4).


In the 1700s England was expanding its overseas empire, both in North America and in India. This expansion came about primarily as a result of England's rivalries with France, but it happened to contribute to the success of the Industrial Revolution by creating, in the colonies, both a source of raw materials and a source of customers for manufactured goods.

At the same time, England was experiencing a rapid increase in its population due to such factors as freedom of religion. Some people did leave the country for new lives in the English colonies, but their numbers were too low to make a dent in England's overall population. At the time, the increase in population seemed enormous, and some writers worried that England would not be able to feed its population if it kept growing at that rate in the future. But the increases in England's population did supply vast numbers of both workers and consumers, contributing to the vast changes of the Industrial Revolution.

New economic philosophy

Starting in the mid-1700s, thinkers in both England and France began to object to the theory of mercantilism. In France, these thinkers were known as the Physiocrats. In Britain, two Scottish thinkers in particular, David Hume and Adam Smith (1723–1790), opposed government control over the economy.

In 1776 Smith published The Wealth of Nations, which became a best-seller when it was released and continues to be studied today. In it, Smith argues in favor of competition, rather than regulation, as the best means of maximizing a nation's wealth. Smith maintains that no government can fully understand or control economic activity, and that the best way to assure a nation's wealth is to let business proceed without government restrictions or regulations. This same approach was advocated by the French Physiocrats, who used the phrase laissez-faire (pronounced lay-zay-FAIR, a French term meaning "free to do") to describe this philosophy.

In the English colonies of North America, laws designed to enhance the wealth of England at the expense of others became very unpopular. The colonists considered themselves to be English, and they did not see why their government should pursue policies that would enrich Englishmen living in England but not Englishmen living in North America. These economic policies thus contributed to the sentiment for independence, sentiment that broke into open revolution in 1775, just one year before Smith published his famous treatise arguing against mercantilism.

Peace at home, war abroad

After years of strife and civil war in the 1600s, England enjoyed domestic peace in the 1700s, even as it fought a series of wars abroad. From 1740 to 1748 England fought against France, Prussia (a region of modern-day Germany), and Spain in the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1756 the Seven Years War (referred to as the French and Indian War in North America) ended in a British victory over France, giving Britain control of French North America (essentially Canada) and India. The end result for England was that it controlled a wide range of colonies from which it gained raw materials as well as customers for finished goods made in England. Extensive trade with the colonies made many merchants wealthy. They were later able to invest their wealth in new industrial companies that required large sums of money to acquire new technology, such as the steam engine.

In many ways, changes in society in England in the period between 1700 and 1760 set the stage for the Industrial Revolution. Although some of these changes were also seen in other European countries, no other country had the same combination and extent of expanding trade, expanding population, and growing urbanization (people moving from farms into towns) that were present in England.

For More Information


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Campbell, Roy. "Scotland's Neglected Enlightenment." History Today, May 1990, p. 22.

Edkard, E. Woodrow, Jr. "The Free Market Incentive: Self Interest versus Greed." Business Economics, September 1980, p. 32.

Kaufman, Henry. "What Would Adam Smith Say Now? He Would Like Much of What He Sees, but He Would Also Be Worried." Business Economics. October 2001, p. 7.

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Web Sites

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Toynbee, Arnold. "Lectures on the Industrial Revolution in England." McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought. (accessed on February 6, 2003).