The Industrial Revolution

A series of events in England in the 1700s let up to the magical period from 1760 to 1830 called The Industrial Revolution. It changed England and the world forever.[i]  Farming had gotten much more efficient in the 1700s and England experienced a population explosion. The industry most important in the rise of England as an industrial nation was cotton textiles. Prior to 1760 all the work with cotton was done in people’s homes.  A merchant would deliver raw cotton to a household. The cotton would be cleaned and spun into yarn or thread. Soon, the merchant would return, pick up the yarn and drop off more raw cotton. The merchant would then take the spun yarn to other households where it was woven into cloth in hand looms.

The growth of population needing clothing resulted in a constant shortage of thread so entrepreneurs began to focus on ways to improve the spinning of cotton. The first solution to this problem occurred in 1765 when James Hargreaves (c.1720-1778), a carpenter by trade, invented his cotton-spinning jenny. At almost the same time, Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) invented another kind of spinning device, the water frame. Thanks to these two innovations, ten times as much cotton yarn was manufactured in 1790 than had been possible just twenty years earlier. Hargreaves’ jenny was simple, inexpensive and hand-operated. The jenny had between six and twenty-four spindles mounted on a sliding carriage. The spinner (almost always a woman) moved the carriage back and forth with one hand and turned a wheel to supply power with the other. Of course, now that one bottleneck had been relieved, another appeared — the weavers (usually men) could no longer keep up with the supply of yarn.

Arkwright’s water frame used several hundred spindles and demanded more power than could be provided by hand. It used water power from flowing rivers. The water frame used large, specialized mills employing hundreds of workers. The result was that cotton goods became much cheaper and found a huge market.  Cotton became the miracle fiber — it was easy to clean, spin, weave and dye and was comfortable to wear. For the first time millions of people who had worn nothing under their coarse clothes could afford to wear cotton undergarments.

Although the spinning jenny and water frame managed to increase the productive capacity of the cotton industry, the real breakthrough came with steam power. Developed in England by Thomas Savery (1698) and Thomas Newcomen (1705), these early steam engines were used to pump water from coal mines. In the 1760s, a Scottish engineer, James Watt (1736-1819) created an engine that could pump water three times as quickly as the Newcomen engine. In 1782, Watt developed a rotary engine that could turn a shaft and drive the machines to spin and weave cotton cloth. Because Watt’s engine was fired by coal and not water, spinning factories could be located virtually anywhere.

Steam power also promoted important changes in other industries. The use of steam-driven bellows in blast furnaces helped iron makers switch over from charcoal (limited in quantity) to coke, which is made from coal, in the smelting of pig iron. In the 1780s, Henry Cort (1740-1800) developed the puddling furnace, which allowed pig iron to be refined using coke. Skilled ironworkers (“puddlers”) could “stir” molten pig iron in a large vat, raking off refined iron for further processing. Cort also developed steam-powered rolling mills, which were capable of producing finished iron in a variety of shapes and forms.

The industrial revolution was an unplanned and spontaneous event. It happened because there were men (entrepreneurs) who saw opportunities not only for advances in technology, but also the profits those advances might create. The English, like the Dutch of the same period, were a very commercial people. English society looked favorably on those men who made money. Many of these entrepreneurs obtained the funds for their investments by borrowing money or selling shares in their new projects.    English entrepreneurs had a much wider scope of activities than did their Continental counterparts at the same time.

Effect on the working population

As the number of factories grew people from the countryside began to move into the towns looking for better paid work. The wages of a farm worker were very low. There were less jobs working on farms because of the invention of new machines such as threshers.[ii]

Meanwhile, thousands of new workers were needed to work machines in mills and foundries. The factory owners built houses for them. Cities filled to overflowing. London was particularly bad. At the start of the 19th Century about 1/5 of Britain’s population lived there, but by 1851 half the population of the country lived in London. London, like most cities, was not prepared for this great increase in people. People were crammed into already crowded houses. Rooms were rented to whole families or perhaps several families.

The coal mines were dangerous places where roofs sometimes caved in, there were explosions and workers got all sorts of injuries. There were very few safety rules. Cutting and moving coal which machines do nowadays was done by men, women and children.  The Mines Act was passed by the Government in 1842 forbidding the employment of women and girls and all boys under the age of teen down mines. Later it became illegal for a boy under 12 to work down a mine.

Thousands of children worked in the cotton mills. The mill owners often took in orphans to their workhouses. These youngsters lived at the mill and were worked as hard as possible. They spent most of their working hours at the machines with little time for fresh air or exercise. Even part of Sunday was spent cleaning machines. There were some serious accidents. Some children were scalped when their hair was caught in the machines. Other’s hands were crushed. Some children were killed when they went to sleep and fell into the machines.

Transportation Developments

The mid-1700s began the first construction of canals in England which were used moving bulk goods. With the invention of steam power more entrepreneurs experimented with development of railroads.

In 1825 George Stephenson built the Stockton and Darlington Railway between those two towns. The result was the first public railroad to use locomotive traction and carry passengers, as well as freight. In 1829 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway sponsored a competition to determine the best type of locomotive.  Railroads dominated transportation in England for nearly a century. By 1836 there were 1,000 miles. By 1852 these had expanded to more than 7,000 miles.

 Effect of the industrial revolution

Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776 right in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. He provided the economic philosophy that explained the intellectual basis of the revolution. For the first time in world history people began to realize that by pooling savings from thousands of people, entrepreneurs could use new inventions plus water and coal power to put millions to work making and delivering products at amazingly low prices that resulted in a better life for everyone. The problems of child labor and unsafe working conditions were eventually solved. We owe our prosperity today to that wonderful period from 1760 to 1830.


[i] Much of this material is taken from The History Guide chapter 17 by Steven Kreis  http://www.historyguide.org/

[ii] http://www.nettlesworth.durham.sch.uk/time/victorian/vindust.html

About Arthur Middleton Hughes

Arthur is currently Vice President of The Database Marketing Institute based in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Arthur is the author of 11 books, the latest of which is Strategic Database Marketing 4th Edition (McGraw-Hill 2012). A BA graduate of Princeton with an MPA in Economics and Public Affairs, Arthur taught economics at he University of Maryland for 32 years. He is an Austrian Economist.
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