Lesson 1: The 1st Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1850)

Welcome to Lesson 1. In this section, the first industrial revolution is presented.

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Historical Context

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, and many of the technological innovations were of British origin. By the mid-18th century, Britain was the world’s leading commercial nation, controlling a global trading empire with colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and with some political influence on the Indian subcontinent, through the activities of the East India Company.

The development of trade and the rise of business were major causes of the Industrial Revolution.

This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system.

Textiles were the dominant industry of the Industrial Revolution in terms of employment, value of output and capital invested. The textile industry was also the first to use modern production methods.

In almost the same timeframe, American Revolution (1765 – 1783) and then French Revolution (1789 – 1799) happened.

The American Revolution was a colonial revolt that took place between 1765 and 1783. The American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies won independence from Great Britain, becoming the United States of America. They defeated the British in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) in alliance with France and others.

French Revolution was caused by widespread discontent with the French monarchy and the poor economic policies of King Louis XVI, who met his death by guillotine, as did his wife Marie Antoinette. Although it failed to achieve all of its goals and at times degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath, the French Revolution played a critical role in shaping modern nations by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people.

Science & Technology

Steam engine

Invented by James Watt, a Scottish engineer, in 1769. Steam engine was useful both for pumping water from mines and for driving machinery.

“The steam engine is now regarded as one of the best examples of a “general purpose technology”: a technology capable of extremely wide application, plus the ability to be improved on” (1).

diagram of the Newcomen steam engine
Figure 1: diagram of the Newcomen steam engine. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newcomen_atmospheric_engine

Iron process innovation

Benjamin Huntsman developed his crucible steel technique in the 1740s. The raw material for this was blister steel, made by the cementation process.

“Huntsman’s was one of the first such techniques used in any industry. Even though it took more than a century for anyone to effect a real improvement on Humtsman’s ideas by combining product quality with high speed, the technique pointed the way forward” (1).

The supply of cheaper iron and steel aided a number of industries, such as those making nails, hinges, wire and other hardware items. The development of machine tools allowed better working of iron, causing it to be increasingly used in the rapidly growing machinery and engine industries.

Production Approach

The 1st Industrial Revolution is characterized by low volume standardization: in 1500, the Venice Arsenal was the first organization to adopt a new kind of production system based on interchangeable parts, and the era continued for around 400 years. Interchangeable parts required some of the production improvements from the first industrial revolution, like advances in precision engineering and metals cutting. However, these technical improvements could seldom be justified unless the savings from standardization were also high. For this reason, products needed to be made in large volumes (1).

Socio-economic impact (2)

  • Factory System

    Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most of the workforce was employed in agriculture. Some early spinning and weaving machinery was affordable for cottagers. Later machinery such as spinning frames, spinning mules and power looms were expensive, giving rise to capitalist ownership of factories. The majority of textile factory workers during the Industrial Revolution were unmarried women and children, including many orphans. They typically worked for 12 to 14 hours per day with only Sundays off. The change in the social relationship of the factory worker compared to farmers and cottagers was viewed unfavourably by Karl Marx, however, he recognized the increase in productivity made possible by technology.

  • Standard of living

    The life expectancy of children increased dramatically. Only in London, the percentage of the children who died before the age of five decreased from 74.5% in 1730–1749 to 31.8% in 1810–1829.

  • Population increase

    According to Robert Hughes in "The Fatal Shore", the population of England had more than doubled from 8.3 million in 1801 to 16.8 million in 1850 and, by 1901, had nearly doubled again to 30.5 million. Improved conditions led to the population of Britain increasing from 10 million to 40 million in the 1800s. Europe's population increased from about 100 million in 1700 to 400 million by 1900.

  • Urbanization

    The growth of modern industry led to massive urbanisation and the rise of new great cities, first in Europe and then in other regions, as new opportunities brought huge numbers of migrants from rural communities into urban areas. In 1800, only 3% of the world's population lived in cities, compared to nearly 50% today (the beginning of the 21st century). Manchester had a population of 10,000 in 1717, but by 1911 it had burgeoned to 2.3 million.


1. Marsh P., The New Industrial Revolution: Consumers, Globalization and the End of Mass Production, Yale University Press publications, 2012

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution#Social_effects [19/01/2019]

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