Industrial Revolution, The

views updated

Industrial Revolution, The This term is used to refer to the period of rapid social, economic, demographic, and technological change which took place in Britain from the latter half of the eighteenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century. There is much debate and disagreement over the precise characteristics of the Industrial Revolution, but broadly speaking it defines the transformation of Britain from a predominantly rural and agrarian society to an increasingly urban one based on manufacturing and industry. Although the term always refers to Britain (usually England), which was the first industrial nation, the phrase ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ is sometimes used to refer to the industrialization of other countries, especially Germany and the USA, during the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The most important features of the revolution in Britain were as follows: first, there was a so-called ‘demographic transition’ from the late eighteenth century, which was characterized by a decrease in mortality rates, a declining age at marriage, a marked growth in population, and an increasing rate of migration from rural to urban areas. The escalating numbers of people who came to the rapidly expanding urban areas provided much of the labour-force for the new manufacturing industries, and formed the basis of a new industrial working class.

Second, there was a revolution in transportation. In the eighteenth century this was effected through the construction of canals and an improved road system, while from the first half of the nineteenth century the invention and development of the railway system radically improved the ease and speed with which goods could be transported. This meant food could be brought more readily from rural to urban areas, thereby satisfying growing demands from the new and expanding urban centres. As industry developed, the improved transportation network also became crucial for the extraction and transportation of raw materials, and the distribution of finished industrial products.

Third, an agricultural revolution improved farming techniques, which generated both increased agricultural production and growing prosperity for the farming classes. This resulted in rising demand in the countryside for better clothing and household goods, which stimulated urban industry and distribution, and was in turn aided by improved transportation facilities. As farmers became wealthier, they increasingly adopted the ways of, and identified with, the urban middle classes, and boundaries between the two groups became even less clear through intermarriage. Farmers often provided capital for industrial enterprises, their sons frequently trained in urban-based professions, and the urban middle classes tended more and more to idealize the rural way of life, often moving into the countryside when they could.

Fourth, increasingly large investments of capital, particularly in textiles, coal mining, and metal industries, partly facilitated by the expansion and development of colonial markets and outposts, enabled the growth of powerful manufacturing industries which in turn relied on, and were strengthened by, both expanding internal markets and exports overseas. The textile industry, for instance, relied on raw material from America; finished goods were sold internally but also abroad, especially in India, where British colonial rule was able virtually to destroy the once flourishing Indian textile industry by forbidding the export of Indian textiles.

Fifth, technological inventions and developments, in particular that of steam power, were crucial to the operation of trains, ships, and the larger factories, although recent research suggests that much industrial production was on a small scale and often not mechanized until late in the nineteenth century.

These radical changes, deemed revolutionary because of the speed at which many of them occurred, were all interrelated, although they developed at varying rates and in very different ways according to region and area. The desire to understand and analyse such sweeping and unprecedented change provided a catalyst for early sociologists to develop a raft of theories relating to the division of labour, capitalism, and bureaucracy. Comte, Spencer, Marx, Engels, and later Durkheim and Weber were all arguably responding to, and seeking to explain, the changes which accompanied industrialism, and altered not only the infrastructure but also the whole way of life of Britain, over an unusually short period of time.

There are long-standing controversies (mainly involving historians) about the causes and consequences of the Industrial Revolution (see, for example, R. M. Hartwell ( ed.) , The Causes of the Industrial Revolution in England, 1967
). Among numerous available statements one lasting classic is E. J. Hobsbawm's Industry and Empire (1968). Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, in Family Fortunes (1987), give a detailed historical account of the interrelationships between the development of capitalism, urban industrial society, class, and family structures.

About this article

Industrial Revolution, The

Updated About content Print Article