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The Industrial Revolutions

Each of the Industrial Revolutions all started in the UK. In each case its was not a sudden explosion of technology but a slow growth over a period, spreading from specific centres.

The manufacturing aspect started around 1750, with Britain setting the pace for Europe. In part this was due to having large numbers of creative inventors, often able to apply knowledge from one field into another,  also perhaps the church having less of a stranglehold than in some other countries, but it was also due to the structure of society and what was already happening at the time.

Britain had a wealthy agricultural society, with a vast amount of wealth in the hands of landowners.  Agriculture at the time was so successful that is grew to fully meet the food needs of the nation and landowners had ample funds left over to invest in other areas.  So although many think of the industrial revolution being a shift from the land, it started due to the success of British farmers and landowners. The first part of the industrial revolution and essential for other stages was the revolution in farming methods and efficiency.

The industrial revolutions, are linked developing on the needs of the one before, providing a need for new services or facilities that is also the driving force for new developments.

Industrial revolutions, has nothing to do with uprisings or sudden acts, but merely the cyclic effects of things going around and generating needs that is in turn met, creating more needs and opportunities.

The first/second revolution -
spinning and weaving

In 1756 the water-driven Spinning Jenny was able to turn 8 spindles, at the time a great step forward but to soon be overtaken. At about the same time the world's first cotton mill was built near Nottingham in Cromford.

In the same mill, 20 years later a steam-driven engine was installed powering tens of thousands of spindles  bobbing up and down on the looms.

About another 20 years passed before the workers were able to process the thread produced mechanically.

Another 10 years and the first large mechanical weaving mill was set up in Manchester in 1806. Following this the county of Lancashire was to become a booming textile region. Imported raw material, mostly Indian cotton, and it arriving by newly-built canals linked to the nearby port of Liverpool. This became a dynamic shipbuilding centre, especially from the time it became possible to process iron on the wharfs.  So each development feeds and generates a need for the next.

The second/third revolution - Ironworks

The discovery of coke in 1709 lead to the second Industrial Revolution, this allowed the mass production of iron to occur. By removing the bi-products, coke could be used instead of coal with less pollution occurring in the metal produced. With vast amounts of all the raw materials required available, ironworks developed rapidly across the Midlands.

The next major development in 1874, the puddle furnace oven, allowed the creation of a new form of iron which replaced the brittle pig iron.  By stirring the molten smelt it was possible to produce wrought iron on an industrial scale. This allowed the developments of pipes, ploughs, weapons, machines and far more to be made.

The Iron Bridge in the Shropshire coalfields was the first iron bridge in the world, and the first iron ships began to be constructed in Liverpool.

Major supporting feature - steam power

The other development, running alongside these, was the steam engine, without these the other developments would not have been able to have occurred.

The first working steam engines pumped pit water from the mines of Cornwall in 1776.

The major advance is said to have been the realisation that they could convert the up-and-down movement of the pistons into a rotational movement. It is difficult to understand why this view is held as water driven corn mills had been around from at least the time of William the Conqueror, and many of these had a variety of hoists and other devices driven from the waterwheel that I would have thought would indicate that the basis of this technology existed.

The steam engine began to be widely used as a driving unit, applications included getting looms and spinning machines into motion, blasting hot air into furnaces, power to drive saw mills, corn mills and many other types of factory.

Transportation canals and the railways

Another ingredient was transpiration, tramways, canals, and then railways each making its predecessor redundant.

Much of the cansll system expansion was to fill the need to move both raw materials and finished goods around. Some routes were also developed across country avoiding the need to go around the south coast and into the range of warships from other countries.

With iron, coal, and steam engines the opportunity and need for railways developed. The first section of line was opened in 1825 to link the Durham coalfields in Northern England with the sea.

Railways provided a major boost, moving goods faster, but also creating another industry in its own right, with a panic rush to develop vast numbers of railways. This also provided a boost in the demand for iron, coal and speeded up the industrial revolution.

The quickening pace

Each stage and factor increasing the pace, and replacing what had come before.

Taking large numbers of people away from agriculture, into manufacturing, and the increase in population drove further developments in agriculture, and increased food production.

Ships to bring in raw materials and take out supplies, bridges and aqueducts to carry canals, roads and railways, all metal machine tools, chemical production, printing and publishing, photography, gas lighting, glass, architecture, and the development of many sciences, development of commerce, advertising and new consumer products.... and through to toady with something new out on a fairly regular basis.

Although today other countries have lower cost labour forces with less red tape and other restrictions, making it more profitable to manufacture elsewhere, very many of the developments are still originating here.

No real change has occurred in society, the majority of the wealth is still in the hands of a small percentage of the population, made up of large land owners speculators and bankers, all still having a disproportionate parentage of political influence, and society is still run for their primary benefit.


How it came about

The term industrial revolution came about in the 1830's, although it only become popular after a series of lectures given in 1881.

Before this time, we had in the 17th century the English Civil War, which is part brought about through the tightening of border controls that it then reduced movement, and this had the effect of cutting the spread of disease and predestining epidemics common before this point. The number of children to survive infancy greatly increased, and the population likewise rose far faster than at any time before.

Population of England and Wales

1700-1740  population stable at 6 million

1801  3.3 million

1851 16.8 million

1901 30.5 million


Children who died before age 5 in London

1730-49 74.5%

1810-29 31.8%

The enclosures and agricultural revolutions made food production more efficient and allowed manpower for the development of cottage industries including spinning and weaving. Other developments in the 17th century was the colonial expansion, and the development of a range of new scientific areas. The granting of monopolies with the first Patent Act (statute of monopolies 1623) rewarded speculators and inventors. The rediscovery of how to make concrete in 1756, although known before, and lost for 13 centuries, allowed larger buildings.

The developments are thought to have occurred in Europe rather than elsewhere as there were far more consumers with buying power, at the time the British consumer was on average a third better of than the average across Europe, and over 4 times that of the population of China. Finance was also available far cheaper at 5% interest in Britain, compared to 30% in China. Capital was available in Britain at the time. Britain also had a well developed merchant base, with a lot trading capacity. The slave trade and income from Caribbean investments amounted to only 5% of national income, but 12% of industrial output went there.  The concept of study tours and transfer of knowledge speeded up developments.

It fits therefore into the sequence, meeting a need, with opportunities available based to a degree on what had come before. Occurring in Britain first due to a range of reasons from finance available, to available raw materials to having available markets for products and services.


By: Keith Park   Section: Heritage Section Key:
Page Ref: Industrial_revolutions Topic: Industrial Last Updated: 09/2009

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