Industrial Revolution Essay

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The Industrial Revolution (IR) is the rapid increase in the use of machines powered by inanimate forms of energy (waterfalls, wind, coal, oil, or electricity) that began in England in about 1750. The term also refers to the totality of the resulting technological, economic, and social transformations that have conditioned the lives and worldviews of people in industrial societies today.

Origins and Short-Term Consequences of the Industrial Revolution

The IR resulted from the general accumulation of technological information in agrarian societies of Western Europe in the preceding centuries. Innovations in shipbuilding and navigation made possible transoceanic travel and the discovery of the New World, increasing trade activity and infusing the European economy with large quantities of gold and silver. Resulting inflation favored commercial classes relative to the landed aristocracy, motivating the latter to greatly improve agricultural production. The mid-fifteenth-century invention of the printing press facilitated the IR by helping the spread of literacy, the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and perhaps an ethic of frugality and hard work associated with the Protestant Reformation, according to Max Weber.

During early industrialization successive technological improvements in the textile industry led to complex machines too heavy to be operated by muscle power alone. Factory-based production arose from the need to organize work activities near machines connected to a central source of power, such as a steam engine, leading to a decline in home-based production (”cottage industry”) and precipitating an influx of rural population to towns and cities, causing crowding, pollution, and poverty. Despite employment of all household members (including children as young as 6), the average living standards of the population declined, consistent with the belief of many contemporaries, including Karl Marx, that the development of capitalism would result in impoverishment of the working class.

Long-Term Developments of Industrial Revolution

The proportion of the labor force employed in farming dwindled from an overwhelming majority prior to the IR to less than 5 percent by the close of the twentieth century. Employment in manufacturing peaked at a third of the total labor force early in the second half of the twentieth century. Employment in services rose steadily up to some three-quarters of the labor force.

The changing nature of economic firms from predominantly family-owned businesses to corporations run on bureaucratic principles emphasizing technical competence, and increasingly systematic application of science to industrial production resulted in rising demand for skills, from simple literacy to advanced engineering or legal training, and the development of formal education systems. Primary education was well developed by the late 1800s, often with compulsory attendance, but secondary and tertiary (college-level) education would not involve majority proportions of the target age cohorts until the second half of the twentieth century.

Economies of scale entail that a firm producing more units can reduce unit production costs by further subdividing fixed costs (costs of machinery, product development, and advertising). An initial market share advantage thus permits further reducing production costs and capturing an even larger market, resulting in an inherent tendency toward industrial concentration, a trend evident by the late 1800s. As corporations grew in size and complexity they became increasingly controlled by the appointed executives (who had the expertise needed to run the organization) as opposed to stockholders.

Industrializing societies experienced the demographic transition marked by a decline in the death rate followed by a delayed decline in the birth rate. The decline in deaths was due to improved food distribution facilitated by better transportation networks (canals and railroads), better sanitation (sewers and water treatment), and public health measures (vaccination). The decline in births was largely due to a decline in the desire for large families. As the decline in births lagged behind the decline in deaths, industrializing societies experienced rapid population growth followed by stabilization. Rising productivity of labor combined with tapering population growth eventually produced a remarkable rise in living standards for a majority of the population of industrial societies.


  1. Davies, N. (1998) Europe: A History. HarperPerennial, New York.
  2. Esping-Andersen, G. (1990) The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  3. Nolan,   & Lenski,  G.  (2004) Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology, 9th edn. Paradigm, Boulder, CO.

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