by ProfDave, ©2022

(May 20, 2022) — Industrialization is an obvious part of our world, and “the Industrial Revolution” is a term that appears in most textbooks, invented by Arnold Toynbee in 1884.  What was it?  The concept (as elaborated by T.S. Ashton early in the last century) described a gradual series of changes in the ways of traveling, working and living.  It featured manufacturing by power machinery, division of labor, ownership by capitalists, factory organization, and mass production [Rule, Dowd & Snell, 630 ff].  It took place in England 1750-1850, over the 19th century in North America and continental Europe and is still going on in the developing world.  It is only fair to note that every aspect of this definition has been traced back to an earlier time.  All the boundaries have been broken down.  Yet it remains a useful way to talk about the material, economic, and social changes that made the modern world – at least as it was a century ago.

Capitalism is an economic system wherein privately owned, relatively well organized, and stable firms pursue complex commercial activities within a relatively free market, taking a systematic, long-term approach to investing and reinvesting wealth (directly or indirectly) in productive activities involving a hired workforce, and guided by anticipated and actual returns” [Stark 56].  Note that it requires free markets, secure property rights, and free labor. 

The rise of capitalism dates back to the early Middle Ages, as monastic industries turned from subsistence to specialization and improvement of production for distant markets.  Pre-capitalist attitudes (both German and Roman) devalued labor and turned wealth into immediate consumption.  Under despotic regimes or barbaric anarchy, there was too much risk of confiscation to make capital improvement worthwhile.  As a matter of principle, however, monasteries restricted consumption, required manual labor, and reinvested their proceeds.  Furthermore, they found moral justification for lending money to make money.  And finally, they developed the use of wind and water power to operate machinery.

The “Commercial Revolution” has also been backdated until it can no longer be called a revolution at all.  The physical transfer and transportation of large sums in metal coinage over distance was dangerous and impractical.  Bills of exchange were developed in the middle ages [Stark 113] and were followed by the development of great commercial banking houses in 13th century Italian city states, with branches all over Europe. Extraterritorial colonies of Italian merchant-financiers brought capitalist business techniques to Flanders, Holland and England.  [Stark 117 ff]   

So, as you can see, “Industrial Revolution” is a relative term.  Perhaps “industrial evolution” would be better.  But why did it begin in England rather than France or China?  Actually, an industrial revolution began in northern China in the 10th century, fueled by private enterprise in iron and coal mining, iron smelting, and iron agricultural implements.  But the Imperial court found the enrichment of commoners and peasants objectionable to Confucian values, made iron a state monopoly, and confiscated everything [Stark 71-72].  In France, industry was discouraged by taxation (and tax evasion) and over-regulation.  Under the “old regime,” status was more important to investors than profit [Stark 193].  Spanish elites likewise despised labor and trade.

Let’s look at the English case.  The roots of the industrialization of England go back to the 13th century.  The Magna Carta, while designed primarily to protect the aristocracy, guaranteed property rights throughout England to a degree only present in certain privileged cities on the continent.  About that time occurred a decisive shift from wood (and charcoal) to coal in industry.  Then came the invention of the fulling mill, a mechanical means of beating out wool cloth (it also worked with flax and hemp) in water, powered by water.  It revolutionized the woolen industry and gave English textiles a decisive market advantage.  Continental industries had freedom and security only in the cities; English mills could locate in the countryside, where the water power was accessible [Stark 153]. 

But rapid change came only in the latter part of the 18th century.  Two great developments contributed.  A population explosion led the way.  The population of England in 1700 was 5 ½ million, 1750 6 ½ million, 1801 9 million, 1851 17 ½ million.  The primary driver seems to have been a rising birthrate, perhaps due to earlier marriage.  Importantly, most of this population increase migrated to urban and industrial areas, providing an increasing supply of free labor.  Simultaneously, something of a revolution was taking place in agriculture.  A variety of improvements were being adopted, consolidation of small holdings and the enclosure of common lands.  While some of these changes were painful for marginal farm labor, the overall results were dramatic increases in production by fewer farmers – a surplus of both food and of people.  England was becoming better fed, while rural population drifted to London and industrial areas [A. J. Taylor, reprinted in Rule, Dowd & Snell, 631-39 ff]. 

England in 1700 was a vast sheep plantation for Europe.  Cotton, imported in bales from India and America, became even more important in the 19th century.  Under the putting-out system, entrepreneurs would subcontract various portions of the textile process to small shops and individuals who would raise the sheep, card the wool, spin the yarn, weave the cloth and so on, with their own equipment.  As mechanization advanced, individuals and small shops could not afford the machines that did the job faster and better.  Enter the factory system: investors built mills where there was water power, purchased the machinery, and hired operatives to work on the premises. Note: large scale enterprises had been around for centuries in some industries, such as shipbuilding and mining, but this was now extended to just about everything.  The flying shuttle mechanized weaving in 1733, the spinning Jenny mechanized spinning in the 1760’s, then the water frame and the power loom improved weaving again.  The cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in Connecticut in 1793 greatly increased the supply of useable cotton.  Cotton, by the way, produced a sartorial revolution: washable underwear!  The market for cheap, high-quality textiles seemed unlimited.  In Europe and in Asia, British cloth buried local production.  Expectations of profit escalated.  So did the spirit of invention and innovation [Stark 155-157.  This and the following paragraphs are broadly based on my lecture notes, 1972-79.  Outlines can be found in textbooks, but opinions are pretty much my own.]

Iron, steam, and railroads are intertwined developments.  We have already seen the shift from wood (a rapidly dwindling commodity) to coal as a heating medium.  It was applied to iron smelting by the Darby process in 1708.  It was now possible, not only to work iron, but to melt and pour it, producing a much higher quality product.  Steel became practical, as well.  The 19th century can truly be called the age of iron.

The Newcomen steam engine was invented in 1702 but was so inefficient that it was practical only for use at coal mines.  The story is told that some Scottish professors were tinkering with one of these when they broke it.  The university janitor, James Watt, was called in to fix it.  In the process, he made improvements and the rest is history.  In 1760 he and investor friends laid the foundation of the steam powered Carron Iron Works.  Some take that event as the official start of the Revolution.  Coal and steam set the factory system free from falling water but transporting coal could still be a problem.

Enter the railroad.  Industrial towns already had railroads.  Iron rails greatly reduce the friction of moving heavy loads, such as coal and ore, by horse drawn carts.  Steam engines were placed in boats in the 1820’s and the first rail locomotive, “the Rocket,” travelled at 16 mph in 1830.  By 1850 there were 2000 miles of railroads in England.  Railroads were possible because of cheap iron, cheap coal, and large-scale investment.  Textiles had led industrialization in England, but for the rest of the world, the rails led the way – supported, to a large extent – by British investors. 

How did industrialization change the working experience of the working classes?  This subject is one of great controversy, not a little muddied by ideology.  Engels and Toynbee, relying on contemporary writings rather than statistical measures, characterized it as a “dark and disastrous” period of history.  The idyllic (?) world of communal village and guild was swept away, and a new and unforgiving mass society took its place.  All the power seemed concentrated in the hands of a few, with no claims to noblesse oblige and little sense of social obligation.  Greed held the throne of science and the countervailing voice of Christian charity seemed feeble and marginalized.  On the one hand, industrialization gave rise to unprecedented class hatred between urban business and laboring classes while on the other, no one on this side of industrialization would want to go back to prior conditions

Factory work was indeed a great change for a large number of people moving to town from the countryside or from a guild workshop.  A new social class, the industrial proletariat, was created.  In the country the whole family worked together from sun to sun, according to the seasons.  They had multiple sources of income and sustenance, a garden, a trade, and probably a loom or a spinning wheel in the back of the cottage for rainy days and winter.  In the factory, they worked by the clock, not the sun.  A new level of discipline and regimentation was required.  When the steam was up and the whistle blew, the machinery started, and they had to be there and keep pace until it stopped at night.  Sixteen-hour days were the rule for men, women, and children.  Women were paid less than men, and children were even cheaper.  Conditions were unregulated and safety was the responsibility of the worker.  There was no time for a garden, if there had been space, and most families were totally dependent on one employer.  If that employer faltered, there was no safety net.

A new kind of poverty came into being that English institutions struggled to understand.  Poverty had been the condition of the majority of mankind for centuries, but destitution – being without any means of livelihood – was another matter.  The word “unemployment” had not been invented yet to describe the massive effects of business cycles.  People were “idle” and that was a moral problem requiring punishment, not relief.  Technological dislocation was another painful feature of the times.  Much has been written about the plight of handloom weavers, for example.  They could not compete with the economy and quality of mass production and faced the choice of starvation at their looms or humiliating loss of independence in low skill, low paying factory jobs.  For many, industrialization represented the dehumanization and de-family-ization of labor.  Marxists talk of the alienation of the means of production.  Working men no longer controlled their working lives. 

Urbanization was a concomitant of industrialization.  Medieval cities, bad enough already, became more crowded, more crime ridden, more unhealthy and unsafe than ever.  Coal fires and factory smoke turned everything a dull gray.  London didn’t have a regular police force until the 1840’s.  Fire protection was ineffective at best.  Municipal lighting and water were minimal.  Sewage (at best) was collected in latrines, emptied with shovels, and dumped into the river.  There was little or no provision for garbage or for the byproducts of horse drawn transportation.  Early nineteenth century cities were an environmentalist’s nightmare.  Urbanization meant social disorganization and the breaking up of community and parish ties.  But what would those “huddled masses” have done without industrialization?

While there is no denying the suffering and dislocation of many – particularly in times of economic “correction” – in the end the industrial revolution meant more and better goods for all.  Real wages improved over the century and public health and services finally overtook urban sprawl.  Products were standardized and mass produced for mass markets.  The objective, even of the lowest classes, was no longer mere survival, but enjoyment of life.  Soon they were decorating their homes (tastelessly perhaps) with the mass-produced knick-knacks so typical of the Victorian age.  Managers and shopkeepers could afford to leave their wives at home to take care of children – in turn, better pampered and protected than ever before.  And great wealth was accumulated and reinvested by capitalists and entrepreneurs.

Wikimedia Commons, public domain

There was a wide range of responses to industrializationGuilds were largely successful in resisting change in some countries, only to have their industries shrivel and die in the face of English competition or survive only at the whim of state monopoly.  In England, hand-craftsmen sometimes resorted to machine breaking and violence (called Luddism) to hinder the advance of technology.  Others tried to ameliorate the negative effects of industrialization through reform legislation, charity, cooperatives, and trade unions.  The Methodist movement, founded by John and Charles Wesley, reached out to the poor, organized them in religious societies (a nursery for working class leadership), and created the “evangelical conscience” of Britain.  In the second generation, the Clapham Sect (a group of Wesleyan parliamentarians and socialites) sponsored a wide range of reforms of factories, mines, prisons, asylums, and other aspects of society, including the abolition of slavery.  Another religious response, later in the 19th century, was William Booth’s Salvation Army, aimed at rescuing the “submerged tenth” of the urban work force by “soup, soap, and salvation” – as someone quipped.  Christian socialism sought to bring about social change on the basis of shared humanity.  Marxism and anarchism sought the overthrow of the new social system by class warfare – but we are getting ahead of the story.

The Theory of Industrialization was expressed by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776).  It was a manifesto of classical liberal scientific economics.  The economy, like nature, was a machine operating on fixed laws which could be known and mathematically expressed.  Traditional merchantilism – state effort to maximize state wealth by restrictive regulation – was counterproductive.  The enlightened self-interest of individuals, operating in a de-regulated, free market would naturally tend to prosperity.  Another name for the principle is laissez faire – let it be.  And indeed, economic freedom and free trade seemed to work very well for England and later for the United States.

There are several other economic thinkers of the early nineteenth century you should know.  The ideas of Thomas Malthus, Principle of Population, are still with us today.  He described a cycle of population.  It would inevitably grow until it exceeded the food supply, resulting in famine, reducing population again.  War and pestilence were the natural limiting factors of this cycle.  He suggested birth control – particularly for the lower classes.  David Ricardo published his essay on “the iron law of wages” in 1817, applying Malthus principles to wages.  Increasing wages would lead working people to have more children, leading to food shortages and increased misery.  Therefore, wages should be allowed to naturally sink to the level of subsistence.       The actual history of the period did not bear out these theories, however.   Productivity growth greatly exceeded population growth in the nineteenth century and rising wages gave the English working-class buying power to fuel cycles of prosperity instead of misery.

One interesting and practical response to industrialization was the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham.  He applied social engineering to the problems of his day and tried to establish a new secular basis for ethics in what he called “the principle of utility” and the “calculus of happiness.”  To solve social problems, one had only to calculate what would provide the greatest good for the greatest number.  The difficulty of his schemes was that they neglected individual human rights and political realities.

Industrialization came to France and Belgium in the 1830’s.  The French economy remained luxury oriented and slow to seize technological opportunities.  Government protection of certain industries played a major role.  Germany industrialized in the 1840’s, hampered by political and economic fragmentation.  But state commitment to technological education, research and innovation and generally aggressive support of industry accelerated the process once begun.  In Germany industrialization did not change the old order but was supported by it.  Industrialization came to the northeastern United States in the 1850’s and played a role in the sectional conflict which led to the Civil War.

Did the industrial revolution ever end?  From the middle of the 18th century until the present business and technology have taken a commanding role in world civilization alongside politics, ideology, and religion.  Some writers have identified a second industrial revolution from 1870 to 1914.  The Bessemer process replaced the age of cast iron with the age of steel.  A whole new chemical industry developed an unlimited array of synthetic products and plastics.  Electricity and petroleum replaced steam and coal.  Railroads and steamships bound the world together – and don’t forget the Suez (1869) and Panama (1914) canals.  The internal combustion engine followed in 1887, the telegraph (1844) was joined by the telephone in 1876.  Monopolies and cartels, department stores and catalogues, street lights and sewers and subways – and the list goes on [Sherman & Salisbury 644 ff].  Today, whenever we think about how things have changed, we immediately think of the technology that we did not have back then.  Will it ever end?

Works Cited:

Rule, John C, Dowd, David L., and Snell, John L.  Critical Issues in History; 1648 to the Present.  Boston: D.C. Heath, 1967.

Sherman, Dennis and Salisbury, Joyce.  The West in the World, 3rd edn.  New York: McGraw Hill, 2008.

Stark, Rodney.  The Victory of Reason.  New York: Random House, 2005.


Booth, William.  In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890) on line.

Clark, G. Kitson.  The Making of Victorian England.  (1971)

Craig, Gordon.  Europe Since 1815 (1963)

Halevy, Elie.  England in 1815 (1961)

Himmelfarb, Gertrude.  The Idea of Poverty (1985)

Plumb, J. H.  England in the Eighteenth Century (1950)

Smith, Adam.  The Wealth of Nations (1776)

Thompson, E. P.  The Making of the English Working Class (1963), excerpted in Rule, Dowd & Snell.

David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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