What was the Industrial Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution is the furnace from which the modern age was forged. It was a time of rapid innovation and change as well as one of extremes. Work opportunities fueled urbanization, mass production and innovations in banking gave birth to industrial capitalism, and the conditions of workers led to political mobilization. Many of the strengths and flaws of modern systems are highlighted and expressed during this period in history.

Cottage industry

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The starting point of the Industrial Revolution was London in the 18th century. Up to the 1700s, the production and trade of textiles had been a staple of British economy. Spinners, weavers, and dyers worked in workshops and homes to produce wool, linen, and cotton. By the middle of the century, inventions like the water frame and power loom had expedited the process and decreased the need for human labor. All of these innovations would be utilized by an upcoming technology that would lead to exponential production.

From the depths

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In 1698, Thomas Savery invented the first commercial steam-powered water pump. It used steam pressure to raise water from mine shafts by creating a vacuum. Savery’s invention was ingenious, but it was limited in application as it could only reach shallow depths. Thirteen years later, Thomas Newcomen improved upon Savery’s design to create an “atmospheric” steam engine that successfully pumped water out of mines.

In 1776, inventors James Watt and Matthew Boulton set to work on further improvements to the atmospheric steam engine. They improved the temperature mechanism and improved its functionality, but more importantly, they created the centrifugal governor – a gear system that produced rotative motion. The centrifugal governor meant that the steam engine could be used to power equipment in everything from the production of cotton and wool to iron works, distilleries and flour mills.

Pillars of steam

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Boulton had joined Watt with a vision in mind: a nation powered by steam. With the invention of the centrifugal governor, his vision soon came to pass. The power of the steam engine was combined with previous innovations, such as those of textile production, and new ones like the lathe and interchangeable parts. Industrial production sky rocketed to levels previously unfathomable.

Mass production led to booming trade, fueling the growth of banking and finance. The stock exchange was established in London in the 1770s, and Adam Smith penned “The Wealth of Nations,” which underpinned the birth of capitalism. By the early 1800s, railways and the steam-powered locomotive engine had proliferated across Europe, and the telegraph had filled the new need for rapid communication. The face of the world was changing.

On the factory floor

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Mass production led to quick development of factories in cities. Likewise, farmers seeking work in factories migrated into cities. Whereas populations had been dispersed preceding the Industrial Revolution, workers were now concentrated in dense urban areas. Wages from factory jobs were meager; child labor was widespread; safety measures were poor. At home, workers lived in overcrowded slums with poor sanitation. Disease spread rapidly without adequate care.

In response to their plight, workers organized into unions and demanded fair pay and better working conditions. It was within this climate that Karl Marx developed his critical theory of class conflict and capitalism, which  later led to the uprising of communism.

Shifting at dusk

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Economic growth, social turmoil, and financial shifts throughout the latter end of the Industrial Revolution eventually led to the emergence of the middle class, labor reform, and the second Industrial Revolution. Though quality of life was dire for workers within the Industrial Revolution, over time, longevity and standards of living saw a dramatic increase compared to pre-industrial conditions.