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Industrial Revolution



Industrial Revolution, a term first used in the early 19th century to describe major changes in modes of production in Britain since the mid-18th century and their social consequences. However, it was quickly recognized outside as well as inside Britain that the consequences of the introduction of machinery, driven by steam power, would be felt worldwide.

Agriculture, backed by commerce, would no longer be the main source of wealth, and material wealth would increase through greater productivity. More than technology or resources were involved: enterprise was required, as was capital. The formation of capital depended on rates of profit and interest. How incomes would be distributed in future would raise difficult questions, for the relationships between employers, who owned the machines, and the workers, men, and women (they were sometimes called “hands”), who operated them, would be different from the relationships between landowners and the agricultural workers dependent upon them. Karl Marx, who claimed that new industrial workers, separated from the products that they made, were alienated, less than full human beings, nonetheless believed in the unparalleled power of industrial advance and treated the invention of the steam engine as the beginning of a new era in human history.

By the end of the 19th century, when the term “industrial revolution” had passed into general circulation, other countries besides Britain, including Germany, the United States, and post-Meiji Restoration Japan, were already undergoing what were also called industrial revolutions. Enterprise, as had been forecast, continued to generate vast new wealth. There were signs by then, however, that in some industries Britain’s lead in production and marketing had already been lost. In many industrializing countries, there was evidence also of organized working-class pressure to influence conditions of work exerted through cooperative societies, trade unions, and political parties.

Those socialists (a new 19th-century word) who followed Karl Marx believed that it was inevitable in the new economic conditions that the “capitalist system”, which was associated with the exploitation for profit of new technologies, would give way in time, following crises, to a socialist system. There were few British industrial workers, however, who subscribed to this view, although Marx had based his economic analysis on the British industrial revolution.

British experience did not serve as a model in other countries. The state usually played a bigger role elsewhere than it had done in Britain, and so, too, did science. In the United States, however, while tariff protection supported early industry, its expansion depended on the dynamics of capitalism. International trade, crucial to Britain as an island, had expanded rapidly before the Industrial Revolution, setting the revolution within a world frame, and during the 19th century, Britain was the most active proponent of international free trade. In the 18th century imports of cotton from across the oceans were the basis of the most rapidly developing of the new British machine industries, mechanized cotton spinning, in the process disturbing and destroying the older Indian handicraft cotton industry. British mill owners depended for their profits on the opening up of African markets for cheap cotton goods through triangular trade between Britain, Africa, and America, in which the movement of slaves was part of the system. Britain subsequently took the lead in the movement to abolish the slave trade, but by then its industrial lead seemed secure. As other countries industrialized—some, particularly the United States, with far greater resources at the disposal of their manufacturers—competitive trade rivalries directly or indirectly influenced politics. So, too, did recurring business cycles, with booms at their peaks and depressions at their troughs.


However marked the contrasts in the timing and sequences of industrialization in different countries, all “industrial revolutions” had a number of elements in common.

A Power

The quest for new sources of inanimate power—steam first, electricity second—was fundamental to industrialization. Hitherto people had depended on natural power—wind, water, and human backed by animal power, and water employed in early British cotton mills continued to be used in parallel to steam until and after the beginnings of the age of electricity. Inanimate power was measured at first in units of horsepower. In late 18th-century Birmingham, where the Scots engineer James Watt worked in partnership with the businessman Matthew Boulton, the latter told the visitors to his works that he was selling what all the world wanted—”power”.

The gospel of steam, proclaimed as forcefully in the 19th century as the gospel of work, rested on the conviction, not shared by all workers tied to it, that steam was a universal boon; and writing after it had been applied not only to driving machines but to locomotion (railways and ships)—considered its greatest triumph—a Yorkshire poet, Ebenezer Elliott, popular critic of agricultural protection, wrote in verses called “Storm in the Desert”:

Steam—if the nations groe not old—
Why dost not thouthy banner shake
O’er sea-less, stream-less lands, and make
One nation of mankind?

B Materials

The exploitation of existing materials and the discovery of new materials, accompanied by advances in technology and in chemistry, were other key elements in the industrial revolutions. Metals, particularly iron, acquired new uses. So, too, did glass. Coal was demanded in large quantities. One chemical product, sulphuric acid, was deemed so important that the German chemist Justus Liebig suggested that the commercial prosperity of a country might be measured by its consumption. Chemical products included caustic soda, chlorine (used for bleaching), soap, dyestuffs, and paints.

C Mechanization

The increasing use of machines as a complement to or a substitute for human labour became almost the defining feature of the new industrial economics. It made possible what was called the division of labour, increasing productivity. In the British industrial revolution, but not the first stages of the Japanese industrial revolution, machines were associated with the invention, a quality greatly praised in the last half of the 18th century. From the start, however, they were sold abroad as well as at home. For the operatives who worked them, machines were associated during these early years of industrialization not with ingenuity but with discipline. The machine set the pace. In a worker’s poem, “Hand-loom versus Power Loom”, addressed to cotton workers, was written:

So come to all you cotton-weavers, you must rise up very soon,
For you must work in factories from morning until noon;
You mustn’t walk in your garden for two or three hours a day,
For you must stand at their command, and keep your shuttles at play.

These were relatively light-hearted lines. As most machines were operated by women and children, however, the sense of people being yoked to machines could become bitter, while handloom weavers, supplanted by machines, regarded themselves as victims of “progress”.

For Thomas Carlyle, writing about the industrial society of the 1830s and 1840s, when factory labour (and factory ownership) had become a matter not associated with the invention but with routine, the main characteristic of that society was the presence of the machine. It affected feelings as well as ways of working. Yet not everyone complained of what was happening. In 1832 Charles Babbage, who was to invent one of the most remarkable 19th-century machines, the Analytical Engine, a mechanical precursor of the electronic computer, dwelt on the increase in productivity that machines made possible in his Economy of Manufactures (1832); and Andrew Ure in his Philosophy of Manufactures (1835) went so far as to suggest, in a pre-computer age, that “the most perfect manufacture is that which dispenses entirely with manual labour”.

After the application of steam power to machines, which at first were made individually rather than to uniform designs, the most important feature of further change affecting production was the development of machine tools, making it possible through the standardization of metal parts to reproduce machines. Standardization was pushed further in the United States, leading to mass production, known at first as the “American system”. The standardization of parts began with guns and sewing machines and then spread to bicycles and motor cars. Henry Ford brought up on a farm, began work as a machinist’s apprentice, and his assembly-line approach to production influenced not only Americans but also Soviet Communists, pledged to carry through their own industrial revolution under state orders.

D Organization

New approaches to industrial management and marketing, going through different phases at the same time, were as important as technological changes. In the 18th century, since there was no highly organized local or national capital market that employers could fall back on for funds, and no limited liability company organization to spread risk, they had to be prepared to plough back their own profits for the acquisition of machines. These were concentrated in factories, later in what was described as “plant”. They had also to be able to supervise and manage workers, being prepared to “tame” what was now described as a “labour force”. As management was separated from ownership, it became more specialized. So too did marketing. In the 18th century, there were owners whose marketing flair could be described as genius. Josiah Wedgwood, for example, who built up a flourishing pottery business with worldwide connections, was a master of publicity, as was the iron founder John Wilkinson, who helped to make Britain “iron-conscious”. His iron boat, which cynics remarked would be sure to sink, was as well known as his iron coffin. In the century that followed, new generations of entrepreneurs developed financial management and marketing skills geared to their own changing societies and cultures. It was not until the late 20th century, however, in an age of increasing scale, that the term “corporate culture” began to be used.

E New Thought

The use of the term “corporate culture”, like the use of the early 20th-century term “scientific management” in industry, and like Carlyle’s attack on the machine, was merely one manifestation of the changing nature of thinking and feeling associated with continuing the industrial revolution. Industrialization also demanded new structures in banking, insurance, and allied services.

In the 18th century, “industry” was not thought of as a sector of the economy, as it was to be thought of everywhere in the 20th century, but as a human quality, individual and collective, contrasting with idleness. Until it became associated with machines and mills there could have been no sense of an “Industrial Revolution”. There was another necessary shift in thinking—the idea of taming or even conquering Nature. For centuries, Nature had been thought of as a source, an erratic source, not only of materials but of power—never entirely under human control. It was studied by philosophers, seeking to discover its laws, including the 17th-century English philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon, who had dreamt of taming nature through increased understanding of its mysteries. Looking back from a 19th-century vantage point, when the British industrial revolution was well advanced, the scientist Sir John Herschell—”scientist” was another new term of the early 19th century—commented that, “it seemed”, on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, “as if the genius of mankind, long pent up, had at length rushed eagerly upon Nature”. Watt himself had claimed in the revolutionary fashion that “Nature can be conquered if we can but find her weak side”. Such an approach was completely opposed to Chinese and Indian views of Nature, where the balance was stressed, not conquest. It was European, rather than British, however, and the adjective “Faustian“ was sometimes applied to it, an adjective derived from an old legend of power.

There were two other associations that influenced the term “industrial revolution”. The first was the political revolution in France that ran parallel to the economic one from 1789 onward through the Napoleonic Wars. The second was the “revolution” in the ancient world from hunter-gatherer subsistence to settled agriculture, later described as the “Neolithic Revolution”. Both “revolutions” were rightly deemed to have had more than local or national consequences. (For some historians, there were intermediate “industrial revolutions” in Britain, such as a 13th-century change in techniques in the textiles industry.)

The first person to use the term “industrial revolution”, Adolphe Blanqui, compared explicitly the social and political changes that happened in France in the 1780s and 1790s with the social and political changes that happened in Britain. He could compare Watt with Georges Jacques Danton. The British diffused techniques, the French ideas. It was the French historian Paul Mantoux, writing in his book The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century (1906; trans. 1928), who described it as “one of the most important moments in modern history, the consequences of which have affected the whole civilized world and are still transforming it and shaping it under our eyes”. By the time that Mantoux studied it in detail, the British Industrial Revolution seemed to have much in common with the French Revolution, different though they were in their origins. Factories and barricades were part of the same stage set. Thanks to Marx (and others), the new industrial proletariat, created by the factory system, were thought of (misleadingly) as carriers of continuing and ultimately worldwide revolution.

The parallel with the “Neolithic Revolution” focused on production, although it had implications too for historians of ways of life. While Watt was compared topically with Danton, Sir Richard Arkwright, inventor of the spinning frame, was compared across the centuries with an unknown early prehistoric man. “Arkwright”, it was urged, “well deserves to live in honoured remembrance among those ancient master-spirits who persuaded their roaming companions to exchange the precarious toils of the chase for the settled comforts of agriculture.”


There is no single date to attach to the beginning of the British Industrial Revolution. Nor can a single date be given for the invention of the steam engine. A sharp rise in the production of coal, iron, and cotton textiles during the 1780s points to this decade as the most exciting burst of activity in what was a long process that needs to be studied across time, in conjunction with the Agricultural Revolution. Yet it was in 1754 that a Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce had been created in London to encourage “invention”, and there were many examples of invention long before that. Even in 1700, there were pockets of industry—”proto-industry” as it is now called—before the introduction of steam power.

A terminal date cannot be given for the Industrial Revolution either. Even in the mid-19th century, when Britain was hailed as the workshop of the world, many areas of the country, and indeed many forms of economic activity, had been left untouched. In 1860 only 30 per cent of people in a greatly expanded population were employed in occupations that had been radically transformed in their techniques during the previous 80 years. More was to change in the rest of the 19th century and, of course, in the 20th century.

Industrialization, another new 19th-century term, like “industrial revolution” and “industrialism”, had proved to be a dynamic but uneven process, involving continuing change, some of it in bursts, with the essence of development to be found in fluidity in techniques of production and in the allocation of resources. The term “Second Industrial Revolution” has been used subsequently to describe British industrial development in an age not of iron and steam but of steel and electricity. With the intervention of computers and robots, the slogans now are “post-industrial society”, “information age”, “digitalization”, and “globalization”.

Nonetheless, however far-reaching recent transformations may be, what happened during the 1780s seemed once and for all, and the excitement of that decade when much else was happening, including the loss of the American colonies in 1783, and the French Revolution, is still infectious. It was then that Watt, working in Birmingham, in its early stages of growth as an industrial city, invented—in stages—a reverberatory steam engine capable of powering machinery. This was a genuine breakthrough, yet a century earlier there had already been increasing interest in the power of steam, and in the first decade of the 18th century Thomas Newcomen, a blacksmith, had built a steam engine capable of driving a pump, a source of power that made it possible to clear coal mines of water. In the same decade, Abraham Darby had smelted iron for the first time in history using coke instead of charcoal in his furnace. Changes in cast-iron refining in the forge followed later. Further development of iron manufacture again took place in stages. Encouraged by military demand in times of war, sometimes to the point of over-expansion, it was an industry subject to sharp fluctuations as well as open to innovation. It was during the 1780s that Henry Cort made possible the cheaper production of wrought iron, iron that could be forged and shaped while hot. The molten iron in his new reverberatory furnace, kept separate from raw coal, and, therefore, purer, was “puddled”, that is to say, stirred with an iron bar. Cort also took out a patent for rolling—the idea was not a new one—that extended the uses of iron, now the master material of the first Industrial Revolution. Cast-iron rails were introduced in the 1770s. The world’s first cast-iron bridge, Ironbridge, was constructed in the Midlands across the River Severn in 1777-1779 near the Darbys’ ironworks at Coalbrookdale, a place whose name speaks for itself and which has been called “the cradle of the Industrial Revolution”. Even the gravestones in the local churchyard were made of iron.

The widespread application of steam power depended on an increase in the production both of iron and coal, which was facilitated by improved pumping of water. Methods of working coal differed regionally, with north-eastern England a key area. Already by 1765, there were 100 steam engines at work in the coal mines there. Steam power was used at Coalbrookdale too. A Newcomen engine, installed by the Darbys in 1776, remained in use for 100 years, and two Watt engines were built by the Darbys in 1787 and 1789 from drawings supplied by Watt himself.

By then, the cotton textiles industry had undergone the substantial transformation, at first mainly using not steam but water-power. Richard Arkwright, the pioneer of the factory system, who started life as a barber, used horses in his first cotton-spinning mill, but in 1771 turned to water at a handsome and impressive new mill at Cromford. The cotton industry, using a raw material imported from abroad that was hailed as a “magic shrub”, developed faster than any other industry in the economy. This was under the stimulus of growing foreign markets. “We want as many spotted Muslins and Fancy Muslins as you can make”, a northern cotton spinner was addressed by his London agent in 1786, “You must look to Invention. The industry you have in abundance … As the Sun shines let us make Hay.”

A sequence of inventions followed. John Kay‘s flying shuttle for weavers in 1733, followed in 1764 by James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny, encouraged interrelated invention in weaving and printing, although the development of the power loom, first invented by Edmund Cartwright in 1785, was relatively slow. It was estimated that there were not more than 2,300 of these in 1813. The older woollen industry developed far less rapidly than the cotton industry, which centred on Lancashire. The patenting of inventions, including the steam engine itself, was a complex process and generated legal disputes, while among the other problems confronting investors was labour resistance. Kay had to flee the country. In the early 19th-century Luddite Rising, Luddites, named after a mythical King Ludd, smashed machines. The machines’ makers, mechanics, constituted a new skilled labour force, what one writer in the 1840s called “a new race of men”. By then, they were employing a whole new range of machine tools. The so-called “father of the machine tool industry”, Henry Maudsley, a blacksmith by original occupation, made the first all-metal lathe and fitted it with a slide rest that held the tool in the best position. He went on to devise a micrometer screw gauge that could measure thickness down to a ten-thousandth of an inch by turning a screw. One of the men who worked with him for seven years, Sir Joseph Whitworth, set up his own business in Manchester and carried forward Maudsley’s work, inventing the self-acting planing machine that could cut metal in both directions and a micrometer that could measure down to a hundred-thousandth of an inch. He also worked out a standard system of screw sizes, based on the number of threads to each diameter of the screw, known as the Whitworth standard, which was being used by the end of the 1850s in most engineering works. The need for precision had become as important in industry as the provision of power.

So had the need for improved transport. In the 18th century, the industry had depended on canals. The great invention of the 19th century was the railway. The first person to use high-pressure steam to power a vehicle was Richard Trevithick in 1801, but the first engineers to usher in the railway era were a father and son, George Stephenson and Robert Stephenson. By 1855 there was over 12,870 km (8,000 mi) of the track, and all the great cities, some of them—such as Birmingham, Sheffield, and Manchester—industrial centres, had been linked. The railway linked smaller cities and other towns also and ran through the hitherto open countryside. Everyone felt the consequences, and more people owned railway shares than had ever before had a stake in industrial ownership. It was not easy, however, during the 1840s the years of railway boom, to distinguish between speculation and investment, and many people lost money.

Railways depended on engineering skill as well as on finance. “We who lived before railways and survive out of the ancient world,” wrote the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, “are like Father Noah and his family out of the Ark,” locomotives were “iron horses” with dazzling power. The tracks, cutting through tunnels that required not only engineering skill but teams of unskilled workers to construct, had provided a national network. Two running parallel to each other constituted a system, complete with signals, serving the needs of passengers as well as of the movement of freight, much of it heavy or perishable. It was a system that, like the factory system, rested on a new sense of time. Workers were called to their factories by hooter at regularly precise times. Railways ran according to timetables. By the 1850s, railways were taken for granted, as were machines in factories and the routines necessary to work them. By then, indeed, many of the once-and-for-all consequences of the first Industrial Revolution were apparent. Ways, not only of producing but of the living, thinking, and feeling, had been remoulded. Markets had expanded in an age of competition. Landscapes had been transformed. Systems of transport, banking, and insurance had evolved. The new industrial cities and towns, some completely new like Middlesbrough and Crewe, appeared on the map. Agriculture lost labour to industry. New structures of business and, equally significant, of labour, emerged: they included trade unions. Technologies themselves continued to change, with new industrial revolutions dependent not on coal, iron, and steam, but on steel and electricity.

The successful making of cheap steels—there was soon to be a whole range of them—marked a turning point in the history of the first Industrial Revolution. Henry Bessemer, subsequently knighted as Arkwright had been, developed a new process in 1855 for converting crude iron into steel. Air was blown through Bessemer blast furnaces to burn away impurities. British inventors developed other processes that, ironically, were more quickly adapted to overseas iron fields than to those in Britain. The United States, with huge deposits of raw iron and other metals, now forged ahead. Steel was a more adaptable metal than iron, and its efficient production came to depend increasingly on applied science. The role of science was enhanced also as the uses of electricity multiplied. The scale of the organization in both industries grew, and it was within this new context that management, by then separate from ownership, became more specialized. Britain now seemed to be a country of “old industries” such as textiles (Japan became the main competitor in the 20th century) and coal. Exports of coal-sustained the British economy long after other countries had gone through the early stages of their own industrial revolutions. By 1914, the year of the outbreak of World War I, which was to greatly increase world demand for metals, both Germany and the United States were producing more steel than Britain, the United States almost four times as much.

In retrospect, the climax of the British Industrial Revolution had been reached in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition of All the Nations in the Crystal Palace, when Victorian Britain was proudly described as “the workshop of the world”, and the benefits of new machines and of the application of steam power were extolled. Industrialization, it was claimed, had made possible both the “conquest of Nature” and “the betterment of the species”. The popular writer Samuel Smiles, who, like most of his mid-Victorian contemporaries, did not use the term “industrial revolution”, wrote proudly in his Lives of the Engineers (1861) that: “England was nothing, compared with continental nations, until about the middle of the last century when a number of ingenious and inventive men … succeeded in giving an immense impetus to all the branches of national industry … We are an old people but a young nation.” By 1914 there were more, still younger nations, including Germany, newly united following German unification, which had added new chapters to the story.


One effect of industrialization was to focus attention on facts, particularly the statistics of growth, including comparative growth. The motives behind industrialization could be private—mainly, but not exclusively, the pursuit of profit (and this depended on the provision of capital); regional—the improvement of local facilities and wealth; and national—the buttressing of power. Whatever the motives, one effect of industrialization was to focus attention on the facts of growth, including comparative regional and national growth.

The collection and interpretation of statistics, including those concerning population, were now treated as official tasks. For British contemporaries, facts concerning late 18th-century and early 19th-century economic growth were particularly striking, although they were for the most part alarmed rather than excited by the rise in population. Between 1750 and 1800 coal production doubled, and in the 19th century, it was to increase twentyfold. Pig-iron production quadrupled between 1740 and 1788 and quadrupled again during the next 20 years, stimulated by war demand. Raw cotton imports quintupled between 1780 and 1800 and were to rise again thirtyfold during the 19th century. For the novelist Charles Dickens, one of whose novels, Hard Times (1854), was set in a cotton mill town, such facts were less impressive than they were in the eyes not only of mill owners but of teachers who believed that everything could be reduced to fact. For Dickens, feelings mattered more, and education was more than amassing facts.

The relationship between population growth and industrial growth was a matter not of fact but of speculation, even controversy. The fact of growth was obvious. The population of England and Wales in 1700, before returns were kept, has been estimated at around 5.5 million, and in 1750 at 6.5 million. By the time of the first census in 1801 it was 9 million, and in 1831, 14 million. It was because Britain had the agricultural capacity to support an abundant and rising population that its industrial economy could grow. Labour was plentiful and therefore cheap, and industrial workers could be fed. As the national income rose, a greater volume of imports could be financed from internal growth and exports, mostly carried in British ships. Population growth, measured from 1801 in decennial censuses, facilitated migration from one region to another. There remained marked contrasts between regions in fertility and mortality rates and in standards of living.

Immigration underpinned later American industrialization, where agriculture was transformed not only to feed the growing American population but also to export cereals and other agricultural products to other parts of the world. In the process, agriculture itself was said to have been “industrialized”.

Workers in the industry were both producers and consumers, and as Charles Babbage observed in 1833, “if machines went on improving for 500 years at the rate they have done for the last century … [there could be no] limit to the wants of the consumers”. The “great mass of facts” that he had assembled in his book The Economy of Manufactures “must have shown that the cheaper an article of necessity becomes, the more of it is used”. “The first great object of every invention,” Babbage wrote, “is to confer a benefit upon the consumers—to make the commodity cheap and plentiful.” The “working man”, therefore, stood “in a double character” as “both a producer and a consumer”.


Nonetheless, as producers, industrial workers were often restless as the number of machines multiplied. Sometimes they destroyed machines. The Luddites considered them a threat to their independence and livelihood. A different reaction was to develop collective bargaining through unions (and if necessary enforced by strikes) to raise wages. While industrial workers were paid higher wages than farm labourers and there was thus an economic incentive for individuals to find industrial jobs and move into industrial towns, there were many signs of family and social unrest as rhythms of work changed along with patterns of the community.

Since industry developed through alternating booms and slumps, there were also large numbers of unemployed in “bad times”, which often coincided with bad harvests when the price of food rose. The demand for cheap bread was not new, but it was louder than ever before. Yet when a large section of the new employing class, in their campaign against the Corn Laws, claimed that bread would be cheap if imports of grain were allowed into the country free of commercial duties and employment would rise with the increased exports thereby generated, many industrial workers refused to cooperate with them in attacking the landed interests as the source of all the country’s troubles. Chartism was the world’s first specifically industrial working-class movement, with industrial workers demanding political rights along with bread.

The years of most active and open protest followed the start of what was to be Britain’s first prolonged industrial slump in 1837, a depression that lasted until a boom, generated by railway expansion, in the mid-1840s. These were years when the Anti-Corn Law League, with middle-class leadership, agitated in parallel to the Chartists, both conscious of the new significance of “class” in an industrial society. The Corn Laws, protecting British agriculture from foreign imports, were finally repealed in 1846, but the Chartist demands for votes and other political rights were not conceded until later in a complex political process.

One of the working-class agitations that merged into Chartism was that of anti-Poor Law demonstrators, who campaigned against the abolition of outdoor relief for the poor and the building of workhouses, enshrined in a new Poor Law of 1834. In Britain, and even more conspicuously in industrialized Germany later in the century, the demand for social security was to figure on the political agenda.

So, too, was the demand for regulation of hours of labour and conditions of labour, beginning with the hours and conditions of work of women and children in the new textiles factories in the earliest Factory Reform Acts. It was through a vigorous Ten Hours agitation, backed by philanthropists concerned especially with the “plight” of children, that a Ten Hours Act was passed in 1847. Already there had been earlier acts, based on investigative inquiries, introducing the essential machinery of inspection, and through a sequence of later acts of Parliament, a network of controls was introduced that by the beginning of the 20th century had become a factory code. If Britain had launched the world’s first specifically working-class movement, it had also carried through, therefore, never without opposition, the first attempts to regulate conditions of work through legislation and administration. The opposition to reducing hours had been led by one of the most influential British political economists, Nassau Senior, and it was a radical minister, Charles Poulett Thomson, who urged that: “In pursuing a gradually progressive but steady approach to a liberal system, we must tamper as little as possible with manufacturing or commercial industry by legislative regulation. Like love, its workings must be free as air; for at sight of human ties, it will spread the light wings of capital and fly away from bondage … The elements of the industry may be expressed in one word—competition.”


How people have interpreted the Industrial Revolution depends in large part on their vantage points in space and time. Like most historical transformations, the Industrial Revolution has not only encouraged investigation and analysis but has provoked controversy. The first British social historians to popularize the term “industrial revolution”, following in the wake of earlier critics of industry such as John Ruskin, claimed that while changes in methods of production had increased wealth they had not increased “well-being”. They dwelt more on the “victims” of industrialization than on those who benefited from it. Some later economic historians focused instead on inventors and entrepreneurs, some of them treating the Industrial Revolution as a success story. For others “revolution” was the wrong term, “evolution” the right one. The extent and spread of economic and social transformation had been exaggerated.

Detailed studies of particular industries, even particular business, and of particular regions are essential if “industrialization” is to be assessed, and they make generalization difficult. In any assessment, however—and it must relate not only to Britain but to other countries—what happened to the environment as well as to human relations must form part of the reckoning. So, too, must human aspirations as well as grievances and memories of often mythical “golden ages” before the “intrusion” of steam power. It was as a result of industrialization that the early British socialist Robert Owen, who was himself a mill owner, dreamt of a cooperative “new society” and Karl Marx envisaged what to him would have been the decisive revolution in human history. In retrospect—and in a new age of even greater unprecedented change associated with the rise of the computer—the first British Industrial Revolution, for long abandoned as a model for other countries to follow, now belongs to what seems a distant past.

Contributed By:
Asa Briggs

Credited images: Yesstyle