The term was first used in English by the historian Arnold Toynbee in 1884. However it had been used earlier by a French diplomat in 1799 who claimed that his own country had already embarked on ‘la révolution industrielle’. Clearly he saw this as a parallel to the political revolution in France. Yet it is misleading to treat these two movements as the same type of revolution. The Industrial Revolution was a set of cumulative changes in Britain’s economic and social structure. The long time-scale has led some historians to question the word revolution and substitute evolution instead. However, arguably such an enormous change merits the title of revolution as it was a change in world history comparable to the neolithic revolution in Mesopotamia c. 10,000 BC.
The historiography of the Industrial Revolution has been beset with debates.
1. Why did the revolution begin first in Britain and not in another European country or in India, China, the Ottoman Empire?Pre-industrial Britain
2. Should the revolution be ascribed primarily to geographical or social factors?
3. Were its consequences disastrous or beneficial? Did the standard of living of the workers rise or fall?
4. Was it a major discontinuity in society or were the changes more gradual?
5. Did it bring about a new separation between work and home, and confine women to the separate sphere of home?
6. Has the 'take-off' model (a metaphor derived from aeronautics and space exploration) any validity?
7. How far should global trends such as the collapse of the Mogul Empire and the defeat of Ottoman power be factored in?
8. What was the role of the British state? Did the state provide the conditions for industrialization or did it stand back from the process?
It is misleading to make a rigid distinction between industrial Britain and pre-industrial Britain. Before the industrial revolution, domestic industrial production was widespread in Britain. It was dominated by cloth manufacture based on wool and woollen products such as worsteds. Spinning and weaving in the home provided an important addition to the family budget. In 1700 more than half Britain’s exports were of woollen cloth. In Scotland linen was the main manufacturing industry.
Great expansion was also apparent in the metal trades before the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Iron had been smelted with coke since 1709 at Coalbrookdale, where the Quaker ironmaster, Abraham Darby I, perfected the process. In 1759 the Carron ironworks at Scotland became a major manufacturing centre.
In the 18th century Britain experienced significant urban development, though not all of it was attributable to manufacturing. Ports expanded rapidly to cater for both overseas and domestic trade. Newcastle supplied London with coal. West coast ports developed quickly because of trade with America. Urban society demanded an increased number of consumer goods. These factors provided some of the preconditions for industrial expansion.
In the late 18th century the economy was already well-developed. In 1750 income per head was £12 pa - higher in real terms than any other country. This led to a rising demand for manufactured goods, which was clearly one of the factors behind industrialization.
The nature of industrialization
(1) The rationale for the industrial revolution was mass production.Cumulatively the industrial revolution generated
(2) This went hand in hand with urbanization. In 1750 Britain was already a heavily urbanised country with about 15% of its population living in towns. By 1800 this was 25%, by 1880 80%.
(3) The pattern of employment changed. By 1801 combined employment in industry and commerce was 36% of the occupied population; employment in agriculture was 37%. However there was not a rigid separation between industry and agriculture and many industrial workers also occupied small farms. A miner or weaver might head a mixed family economy in which his wife and children worked on the family small-holding. But the trend was away from this type of economy even though it continued until well into the 19th century.
‘a fundamental and irreversible structural change in the economy’. (John Rule, The Vital Century, Longman, 1992, p. 93)However, the British Industrial Revolution was uneven and entailed decline as well as expansion. South-east Lancashire and central Scotland exploded into vigorous industrial and commercial life, but the Weald of Kent and Sussex, prime suppliers of iron, glass, timber and textiles in the 17th century de-industrialised. The same thing happened to the woollen cloth industry in the West Country which was outstripped by that of the West Riding.
Huge areas of the economy were unchanged by 1851 - for example, techniques in the building industry. Most units of production were not factories. Most rural counties were untouched. There was a continued use of traditional forms of energy - the diffusion of the steam engine was slow.
The British population grew substantially from c. 11 million in 1760 to c. 16 million in 1801. (A possible cause was a lowering of the age of marriage for women.) This provided a potential work force and also rising demand. But it came to be seen as a problem. In 1798 Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population argued that demographic growth must, sooner or later, overtake the resources available to sustain it. The inevitable outcome will be famine or social catastrophe.
Malthus’s pessimism was a reversal of earlier thinking , which tended to assume that a rise in population was beneficial. He wrote at a time of economic crisis. Population had risen progressively since the mid-century and food prices had reached unprecedented peaks, accentuated by war and harvest failure. Wages had not kept pace with prices and the 1790s was a decade of widespread distress. But Malthus proved a false prophet and his threatened crisis did not emerge. Even in the bad years of 1795 and 1800 no part of the British Isles experienced famine comparable to that of France in the 1780s.
The role of the colonies was vital. Between 1716-20 and 1784-88 exports and re-exports increased by 240%. The independence of the American colonies did not break this pattern. Following the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 the southern states of the USA became Britain’s chief supplier of raw cotton. About 2/3 of all cotton manufacturers were exported, with the American market taking the lion’s share. In the first decade of the 19th century finished textile goods represented 3/5 of Britain’s total exports.
However the overseas market remained smaller than the domestic one. The home market remained vital. This required a population wealthy enough to buy mass-produced goods. It also required a strong agricultural sector as an increasingly urbanised population needed to be fed.
There is no doubt that English agricultural productivity grew during the second half of the 18th century yet no agreement on how much. Older studies that concentrated on the improvements of Charles ‘Turnip' Townsend and Thomas Coke of Holkham (who used nitrogen-fixing clover and turnips as a field crop for cattle) ignore the wide regional variation. But livestock husbandry seems to have been important, both as a source of manure and of power. England had perhaps 700,000 farm horses, compared with France which had a million horses to work an arable area approximately four times as large. French travellers commented on the numbers of cattle, sheep and horses in England.
In spite of the difficulties of getting the data, it seems that the British agricultural base was more efficient than in other European countries. Recent estimates put French agricultural productivity in 1801 at half that of England.
What part did enclosure play in this? Enclosure was the replacement of open fields whose strips were owned individually (see left) by smaller individually owned fields. It transformed a traditional method of agriculture into a system of holdings by physically separating one person’s land from another’s. It also meant the subdivision of commons, heaths and wastes into separate landholdings and again involved the abandonment of obligations, privileges and rights.
Eighteenth-century parliamentary enclosure was only part of a long movement. It has been estimated that only about a quarter of England and Wales remained to be enclosed after 1700. The south-west, the border counties and the south-east were hardly affected. But the traditional open-field areas in the south and east Midlands (Oxfordshire, Northants, Cambridgeshire) saw a huge change in the eighteenth century.
To many historians the enclosure movement was seen as a form a class expropriation of the landed interest. The loss of the common rights was certainly a blow to the very poor, and substantially added to the number of landless labourers. In pre-enclosure times there seems to have been a reasonable prospect of farm servants saving enough to gain some sort of holding, which, with common grazing rights, was more or less adequate to support a family. The hardships caused by enclosure were condemned by the agriculturalist Arthur Young. To an unknowable extent, enclosure must have added to the numbers of those seeking waged employment. Large numbers were reduced to total wage dependency. This did not necessarily mean a huge rural exodus to the towns (there was still plenty of work in the countryside), but the contribution of the agricultural sector towards the feeding of the growing population was made with a declining share of the total labour force.
Geographical and social factors
Britain had certain innate geographical advantages. She was a small country with fertile land and plenty of navigable rivers to facilitate movements of bulky goods. Access to the sea is easy from most parts of the country. The fast flowing streams of the north and north Midlands, Wales and Scotland provided motive power for the early mills. When water gave way to steam, coal was available in South Wales, the East Midlands, South Yorkshire, the North-east and central Scotland. The climate of the North-west was conducive to the processing of raw cotton. Britain’s varied topography enabled a rich variety of agricultural specialisation to develop.
Each single advantage could be replicated in other European countries, but no other nation enjoyed such a rich combination.
The social origins of the entrepreneurs were diverse. Many of them began as apprentices. Some rose socially. Richard Arkwright was the first manufacturer to be knighted. Robert Peel (father of the future prime minister) bought the Staffordshire manor of Tamworth in 1790 which formed the basis of his and his son's parliamentary careers.
Dissenters such as the Darbys of Coalbrookdale and Wedgwood of Etruria. played an important role. Exclusion from public office spurred able Dissenters, though the Protestant work ethic can be exaggerated. Quakers and Unitarians were among the most prominent though this may be due to rank (they were the most socially superior of the Dissenters) than religion. Modest wealth, allied to a kinship network, could help to establish a business on a sound footing.
Aristocratic and land-owing entrepreneurs, such as the duke of Bridgewater cannot be ignored. Unlike their European counterparts, they owned the mineral rights on and under their land. The inter-connection of land and industry is one of the most important factors behind industrialisation.
Josiah Wedgwood was ahead of his time in developing his own sales strategy. He pandered to royal and aristocratic knowledge, relishing his description as ‘Queen’s potter’. He made North Staffordshire the ceramic centre of the world.
The role of the state
In contrast to the late 19th century German and Russian industrial revolutions, the role of government was indirect and this has led free-market ideologists to argue that only a laissez-faire economy can produce economic growth. But from the Cromwellian period there had been the notion of a large, publicly financed navy. The National Debt was a product of the Glorious Revolution. From 1783 to 1825 there was havoc in other economies, and Britain with its massive investment in the navy was poised to take advantage. Government stimulated industrial production by its frequent wars. War-time production stimulated the production of armaments and to a lesser extent the textile industry.
The government also contributed by failing to uphold the various statutes restricting trade. The new metal towns like Birmingham and Sheffield operated almost in conditions of free labour. The absence of internal tolls and tariffs also made Britain, since the union of 1707 the largest integrated market in Europe.
Aspects of industrialisation
The transport infrastructure
A revolution in transport took place between 1760 and 1820. Before 1760 high transport costs were a major hindrance to the development of the market.
The most familiar mode of transport was the turnpike road. In the early 18th century the principle that the user pays began to be widely applied to road usage. Turnpikes were administered by bodies of statutory commissioners. By the mid 18th century there was a particularly dense network of turnpikes in the industrial Midlands, Lancashire, Yorkshire and the south-west. Stage coach services averaged less than 5 miles per hour in the 1750s; by 1790s speeds were 6.7 mph. In 1792 it was possible to travel from Bristol to London by an all-night mail coach, though this was very expensive.
In 1761 the self-taught millwright-engineer, James Brindley, constructed a canal which linked the Bridgewater mines at Worsley with Manchester. The Barton aqueduct, depicted here, was regarded as one of the wonders of the world. Capital for this high- cost ventures was provided by the duke of Bridgewater; when the canal was opened, it immediately halved the price of coal in Manchester.
The involvement of aristocrats indicates the entrepreneurial nature of British landowners, who were unhampered by constraints of custom and caste.
In 1761 the potter Josiah Wedgwood, then 29 years old, began to look into the possibility of creating a canal to link his works to the coast. In 1766 the Grand Trunk Canal (later known as the Trent and Mersey Canal) received its Act of Parliament and a massive celebration was held in the Potteries. (For a vivid description see Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men (Faber and Faber, 2002, pp. 111-117). Wedgwood cut the first sod, and James Brindley was employed as engineer. By the time Brindley died in 1772 the stretch of the canal fr the Trent to the Potteries was finished. The Trent and Mersey met the Bridgewater Canal at Preston Brook Tunnel (right). Wedgwood's famous Etruria works were built on the canal and the carriage costs of coal and raw materials from Liverpool, including the china clay shipped from Cornwall, fell dramatically in price.
In the 1770s the construction began of the 127 mile Leeds and Liverpool Canal, which by the time of its completion in 1816 linked Liverpool to the Humber estuary. By the 1820s, 4,000 miles of navigable waterway were open to trade. Canals made it possible to overcome the restrictions of nature and topography which had previously advantaged waterways and navigable rivers.
The appearance of steam-powered ships and railway locomotives by 1815 was the culmination of incremental transport innovation.
Together all these improvements gave early 19th century Britain the world’s most efficient and reliable transport infrastructure.
By 1800 perhaps 20% of the mechanical energy generated in Britain came from steam engines powered by coal rather than human animal, wind and water power. This is a huge break with the past. Newcomen's engine (left) was a major break-through. In 1763 James Watt, a mathematical instrument maker in Glasgow, produced an improved version by constructing a separate condenser. He went into partnership with John Roebuck, who owned the iron works at Carron. But Roebuck had no money for further trials and the partnership was broken up. For eight years Watt earned his living as a canal surveyor. In 1774 he entered into partnership with Matthew Boulton, who owned a metal-goods factory at Soho in Birmingham. By 1786 it was estimated that a Boulton and Watt steam engine was doing the work of 24 relayed horses and was well worth the cost of a bushel of coal an hour. By 1795 the Watt steam engine (right) was used in coal-mining, canals, (mainly for pumping), the breweries and (above all) cotton. Watt’s patents were defended by Parliament until 1800 when the field was thrown open.
But Watt had become increasingly conservative with success. He was reluctant to experiment with road or rail traction or engines for boats, and set his face against the development of high pressure steam engines. By 1790 engineers such as Richard Trevethic were developing steam engines, but Watt’s engine was still the most reliable.
By this time Britain was leading Europe in the use of coal. A quarter of this coal came from Scotland and Wales. The largest English coal field was the Northumberland and Durham. Coal mining was a labour-intensive industry. In 1700 15,000 miners were employed and the number had reached 50,000 by 1800.
The time-scale of the switch to coal-fired steam power was not uniform. The big change came in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and in some areas progress was slower. Before 1800 most textile mills were water-powered, and even in 1830 2,230 British textile factories still used waterwheels, as against some 3,000 steam engines. But however modest its beginnings the steam engine’s ability to turn heat into power represented a ‘wholly new, massively potent and extremely versatile source of mechanical energy’.
The gadgets which revolutionized textile and metal production were invented to meet specific demand. But it is misleading to focus too much on individual inventors. ‘
The names that have reached the text books are those few out of a large crowd who were feverishly working on every one of the major inventions developed. ... Progress is always impossible at a speed greater than that at which the economy created demand for new techniques, and at a speed greater than technical standards allow’. (Wilfred Prest, Albion Ascendant, Oxford, 1998, p. 247)James Watt, trained at Glasgow university, under Joseph Black, who undertook specific experiments on the elasticity of steam and the conductivity of metals. Watt was one of the few university trained entrepreneurs and inventors. The majority were amateurs.
The first genuine textile factory was a silk throwing mill (which prepared yarn for weaving) put up on the River Derwent in Derby in 1719 by Thomas Lombe, whose brother had brought back the secrets from Italy. But raw silk was still inelastic in supply and expensive. The silk market was a narrow luxury market.
Cotton had the advantage of a rising demand. There was an enormous market in Britain. Moreover it adapted more easily to machinery than more delicate complex fibres, such as cotton and wool. It was also a new industry set up in green field sites in Lancashire, in areas free of guild control. As early as 1733 the Bury weaver John Kay invented the flying shuttle. This made the weaver’s work easier and less tiring, but many feared they would be put out of worth. After his house was raided, Kay fled abroad and never benefited from his invention.
In 1766 James Hargreaves, a Blackburn weaver, invented the spinning jenny (left) which, by fixing a handle to the spinning wheel, enabled a single workman to turn six or eight threads simultaneously and still work at home. This should have rendered the spinning wheel obsolete, but he lacked the sense of market opportunity to capitalise on his invention. In 1768 domestic spinners wrecked his home. To escape trouble he moved to Nottingham and opened a jenny workshop there. But he went bankrupt.
The jenny was compatible with cottage industry. It could be worked by hand by the single worker in cottages and small workshops and fitted into a traditional family economy. The great innovation came in 1769 when Richard Arkwright, a Preston barber and wig-maker, patented a machine for roller spinning (drawing the thread through pairs of rollers). In 1762 he had heard about the attempts being made to produce new machines for the textile industry. He met John Kay, a clockmaker from Warrington, who had been busy for some time trying to produce a new spinning-machine with another man, Thomas Highs. Kay and Highs had run out of money and had been forced to abandon the project. Arkwright was impressed by Kay and offered to employ him to make this new machine. He also recruited other local craftsman to help, and it was not long before the team produced the spinning frame. Arkwright's machine involved three sets of paired rollers that turned at different speeds. While these rollers produced yarn of the correct thickness, a set of spindles twisted the fibres firmly together. The machine was able to produce a thread that was far stronger than that made by the jenny.
The spinning-frame was too large to be operated by hand and so Arkwright had to find another method of working his machine. After experimenting with horses, he decided to employ the power of the water-wheel.
In 1771 he set up a large factory next to the River Derwent in Cromford, Derbyshire and his machine now became known as the Water-Frame. Local workers soon finished a single building with four storeys of low rooms, where more than 300 hands were employed - several hundred child and female workers, together with male mechanics and overseers; by 1791 he was employing 900. When Arkwright died in 1792 he was a wealthy man with a knighthood. By then many had copied him. His partner, Jedediah Strutt built huge spinning mills in Derby. Arkwright’s massive machinery made unprecedented capital demands, of a different order of magnitude from those made by any previous innovation.’ He was the father of the factory system though it was established only for one part of British industry.
Arkwright’s spinning innovations caused a problem of location, which was determined by the existence of massive water power. Because the factory system was pioneered on water power rather than steam, industrialists were forced away from the centres of population. But once steam power had been harnessed to a cotton mill at Papplewick in Nottinghamshire in 1785 power became mobile. From 1800 the water frame was no longer the dominant technology in the industry. Other forces slowly took charge of location and factories went up in towns on the plain, such as Stockport. Even so the progress was slower than one might imagine. In 1838 a fifth of cotton mills were still water powered.
The dominant cotton-spinning machine by 1800 was the mule, invented in 1779 by Samuel Crompton, a Bolton cotton weaver. A cross between a water-frame and a jenny, it spun a strong but finer thread, which, from 1790, was driven by the new Boulton and Watt steam-engines just coming onto the market. By 1811 there were more than 4 million steam-mule spindles spread over more than 50 mills in the Manchester district alone. As a result of the improved technology of cotton spinning, raw cotton imports soared and the price of cotton yarn plummeted, while cotton textile exports rapidly outstripped those of woollen cloth. Cotton cloth sold well because it was cheap and light, but also because it could be as brightly coloured and patterned as the much more expensive silks.
Weaving continued to be domestic-based, creating a bottle-neck which, in the short-term benefited the handloom weavers, an elite, skilled male labour force. In 1785 Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, but he had no success in selling it. The first successful looms were patented after 1813 by William Horrocks, a Stockport manufacturer. But and they were not widely used in weaving until the 1820s. It was only after this period that the handloom weavers began to be supplanted by factory workers.
Iron, coal and steam
Abraham Darby I probably chose Shropshire for his iron works because it gave access to the Severn and there was coal and iron ore in the vicinity. The iron works probably cost about £3500 to set up as an operating concern. From his first year at Coalbrookdale he smelted with coke. But his innovation was not taken up widely by other iron-masters until 1760. His innovation of 1709 released the blast furnace from charcoal but not from water power for its bellows. In 1779 his grandson Abraham Darby III constructed the world's first iron bridge. Left is Philip de Loutherbourg's 'Coalbrookdale by Night'. The Coalbrookdale furnace was one of the sights visited by tourists on a quest for the 'sublime'.
In 1784 Henry Cort invented the puddling furnace (a reverberatory furnace) and a rolling mill. This made it possible to convert brittle-cast pig-iron into malleable bar iron used for tools and precision parts. It released the second stage of manufacture from charcoal and water power. After this the iron industry came together in integrated concerns at sites determined by coal and ore. Watt’s steam engine by then had made its main power-source mobile. Soon after this Staffordshire, Yorkshire and South Wales began to dominate the location of iron manufacture. Between 1788 and 1806 there was a four-fold growth in the output of pig-iron, which ended Britain’s dependence on Swedish bar-iron. This made iron and steel production far more directly dependent on coal and steam than was the cotton industry, thus encouraging the growth of ever larger and more capital-intensive plants on the coalfields.
At a seminar at the Institute of Historical Research held on 30 October 2002 Professor Patrick O'Brien argued that the Industrial Revolution was a case of slow, unbalanced growth of confined technological change that rested on (a) favourable natural endowments and (b) massive investment in geopolitical power.