Industrial Revolutions: Summary, Causes, Consequences & Inventions

A 19th century oil painting of a cotton-spinning machine, highlighting its intricate design and mechanical parts. The scene is set in a well-lit, rustic industrial environment, possibly a factory from the Industrial Revolution era, with wooden beams and brick walls. The painting captures workers operating the machine. The artwork emphasizes the textures of the materials, from the softness of the cotton to the hardness of the metal parts, and the lightning is warm to enhance the overall historical atmosphere.
A cotton-spinning machine from the 19th century, that enabled huge productivity increases in the textile industry. © CS Media.

The Industrial Revolutions were a series of processes that began in the 19th century and that made manufactured (hand-made) production turn into machinofactured (machine-made) production. According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, they took the shackles off “the productive power of human societies” because, henceforth, the global economy would be able to achieve rapid and constant growth. Historically, they are usually divided into two phases, or two separate events: the First Industrial Revolution and the Second Industrial Revolution. More recently, some authors have embraced the concepts of Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions, referring to digital advancements and to economic activities without human intervention, respectively. The industrialization of the world began in Britain, and soon spread to Europe, North America and other countries. It has been a defining feature of humanity ever since.


  • The Industrial Revolution was caused by population growth (which increased both the workforce and the consumer market), the expansion of capitalism, and the accumulation of capital enabled by colonialism.
  • Great Britain was the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution, because it had several comparative advantages — such as colonies, capital, qualified workers, and a burgeoning mass market.
  • The First Industrial Revolution began in the textile sector, with advancements that increased the productivity of cotton clothes production. It then spread to metallurgy (iron), transportation (railways and steam boats), and communications (telegraph). Some dissatisfied workers revolted against the mechanization of labor, to little avail.
  • The Second Industrial Revolution was characterized by the usage of steel, electricity, petroleum, automobiles, airplanes, and the wireless telegraph. For the first time, machines were built to control other machines. In addition, new forms of capitalist organization emerged, and new countries began their path toward advanced industrialization.
  • The Industrial Revolutions contributed to decrease the rural population and increase the urban population, which were subjected to equally bad living conditions. Although inequality worsened, workers were able to benefit from their concentration in urban centers to unionize and try to improve their situation. Finally, the spread of industrialization to other countries increased international competition, decreasing prices and workers’ salaries.

Causes of the Industrial Revolution and the Pioneering Role of Britain

In the 19th century, there was a confluence of factors that helped to usher in an era of increasing industrialization. The main factors were:

  • Population growth: Thanks to medical breakthroughs, such as the spread of vaccines and antiseptics, and to agricultural improvements, such as the usage of the seed drill and better plowing methods, Europe’s population grew. This meant a larger workforce and an increased demand for goods.
  • The expansion of capitalism: The growth of capitalist economies, in which individuals owned the means of production and competed for profit, drove the creation of new businesses. In addition, free trade policies encouraged the development of new productive activities in various countries.
  • Colonialism: By profiting from colonial ventures, Europeans had money to spare and there was a class of capitalists in search of opportunities for investing their money. They were main instigators of industrial growth.

Back in the eighteenth century, there was a brief industrial expansion in certain corners of the globe. However, according to Eric Hobsbawm, for an Industrial Revolution to happen, two things were required: “first, an industry which already offered exceptional rewards for the manufacturer who could expand his output quickly, if need be, by reasonably cheap and simple innovations, and second, a world market largely monopolized by a single producing nation”.

Great Britain was the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution, as it found an industry with large profits (the textile sector) and it monopolized the world market. These were the factors that helped the British achieve industrial dominance before any other society:

  • Since the English Revolutions in the 17th century, particularly the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689), the British political establishment adopted the idea that the state had to defend individual rights and private property.
  • The British Empire had the most colonies and was a hegemon power, after defeating the French at the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). This Empire was strong enough to control global markets.
  • The British had accumulated capital over the past centuries, by means of the Navigation Acts (restricting the transportation of British products to British ships, mostly) and of unequal treaties. According to the Treaty of Methuen, for instance, the Portuguese would exchange wines for British textiles — what generated significant commercial surpluses for the British.
  • British nobility was gradually turning into a wealth-based aristocracy, rather than a mere hereditary aristocracy. The noblemen’s profits were usually reinvested in productive ventures, such as infrastructure projects.
  • The agrarian economy that characterized Britain up until the mid-eighteenth century had been progressively eliminated. The Enclosure Acts (1760-1830) turned commonly held lands, into large fenced tracts that were privately owned and commercially exploited. From then on, rural workers lost access to land and had an incentive to find work in urban factories.
  • French Huguenots made important contributions to British industry, for example, in the luxury sector. They were French citizens who had enjoyed religious freedom until the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV, in 1685. Given the ensuing religious persecution of Protestant minorities, these men and women had emigrated to Britain.
  • British society was relatively egalitarian, what permitted the formation of a mass market for industrial goods (rather than a small luxury market catered to serving the country’s elites).
  • Britain had a humid weather and abundant natural resources, what facilitated the cultivation or the extraction of production inputs.

First Industrial Revolution: Inventions & Impacts

The first industry to be revolutionized in the nineteenth century was the textile industry, largely based on cotton products. Historically, this sector had its roots in British overseas triangular trade, which worked in the following way:

  • Britain imported raw cotton from the Indies, through the East India Company — a state-owned firm that gained control of several territories and even had its own armed forces to defend its interests.
  • Then, Britain turned this raw cotton into textiles, and exported them to its colonies in Asia and North America.
  • Finally, Britain poured the profits of this trade into buying slaves for the colonies themselves, where they would work in the cultivation of cotton.

Because the cotton business was based on foreign trade, its potential was limitless — after all, the market for clothes was universal and the rates of profit from slave labor were fantastic. This status quo fostered the mechanization of textile production and its trade, sectors that would eventually dominate the British economy. Even cotton growing in Britain was spurred, to account for any disruptions in the flow of international trade.

A series of technical innovations revolutionized the production of clothing: the spinning machine, the hydraulic frame, the mechanical loom, and the cotton gin, for example, were invented at this time. These machines significantly boosted cotton yield while simultaneously addressing a critical challenge in the textile sector – the shortage of weavers. The demand for cotton products was soaring, but the number of skilled weavers could not keep pace with it. Additionally, because these machines were enormous, they could not be installed inside a worker’s home. As a result, there was the creation of a mechanized ‘factory system’, in which workers congregated in a single place where their equipment was placed and they could be controlled by managers.

In the 1830s and the 1840s, however, there emerged some problems in the cotton sector: both its growth rates and its profit rates were diminishing. This was partially due to capitalism’s tendency to work in waves of expansion and retraction, and due to more intense international competition in the clothing business. Thus, some proletarians and part of the petty bourgeoisie became dissatisfied with their economic condition at the time, and reacted against their predicament under various forms:

  • The formation of mass movements in favor of democratic or republican ideals, like the Jacksonian Democracy in the United States.
  • Chartism: The act of signing petitions to national parliaments demanding political reforms to the benefit of urban workers, such as the institution of universal suffrage, secret ballots and proportional representation.
  • Luddism: The act of destroying certain kinds of cost-saving machinery that replaced skilled labor, thus increasing unemployment rates.

Both in Europe and in North America, governments and companies were unwilling to acquiesce to the wishes of workers and small producers and merchants. Certain repressive measures ensued, such as the Frame Breaking Act of 1812, in Britain, which established harsher penalties for breaking machinery.

Nevertheless, the First Industrial Revolution carried on and changed not only the textile industry, but also various other sectors:

  • With the invention of the steam engine, animal traction was superseded as a means of generating energy. At first, this device was used to pump water from British coal mines. Then, James Watt perfected it, so that it could have multiple uses. For instance, in the cotton industry, the steam engine enabled continuous production by providing a dependable source of power, unaffected by adverse weather conditions. This meant that mills could operate consistently, ensuring steady production levels.
  • The construction of steam engines catalyzed advancements in metallurgy, as heavy machinery necessitated stronger materials. For instance, iron production became more efficient, leading to enhancements in its strength and durability.
  • The advancements in metallurgy facilitated improvements in logistics and transportation. Railways and steam boats were the quintessential means of transport during the First Industrial Revolution. They put to good use the highlights of the period at the same time: steam engines, iron and coal. According to Eric Hobsbawm, the massive investment in railways was a consequence of Britain’s accumulation of capital and of the shortage of better investment opportunities — after all, in his words, most railways “yielded quite modest profits and many none at all”.
  • In terms of communication technologies, the telegraph was invented from three different systems — from the Germans, the Americans and the British.
  • In terms of agriculture, European countries began to cultivate sugar beet and to employ chemicals in their plantations.

Second Industrial Revolution: Inventions & Impacts

From 1860 onwards, began a new phase of the Industrial Revolution, or, according to certain authors, an entirely different revolution. The Second Industrial Revolution differed from the First because of a few developments:

  • Iron was replaced by steel: Thanks to innovations in metallurgy, steel emerged as an alloy of iron and carbon with improved strength and resistance. Its use as a basic metallic material soon proliferated.
  • Mechanical energy was replaced by electrical energy and petroleum: With the invention of the dynamo, it became possible to convert mechanical traction into electricity. Meanwhile, the invention of the internal combustion engine turned oil and natural gas into major sources of energy.
  • Railways were replaced by cars, buses, trucks (and airplanes): With the widespread adoption of oil, common people were able to ride in oil-fueled vehicles such as the Ford Model T, idealized by Henry Ford in 1908. Also, military and commercial aviation emerged as a fledgling industry.
  • The telegraph was replaced by the wireless telegraph: The transmission of text messages by radio waves paved the way for the invention of the radio, the wireless phone, and the television.
This is a black and white illustration of a 1908 Ford Model T. The vehicle is depicted from a side view, showcasing its distinctive early 20th-century design with a tall, upright stance and large spoked wheels. It has a convertible top that's folded down, a simple, bench-like seat for passengers, and is devoid of any doors. The steering wheel is prominent on the right side of the car, and there is an assortment of levers and pedals visible to the driver. The engine is positioned under a raised hood at the front of the car. Below the illustration, there's a slogan that reads, "Ford - high priced quality in a low priced car."
The Ford Model T, one of the most iconic cars of history, in an advertisement in “Life” magazine, in 1908. Public domain image.

One of the hallmarks of the Second Industrial Revolution was the construction of machines to control other machines. Not only did this automate factories, but it also enabled the consolidation of a system of mass production — for instance, extremely efficient automobile assembly plants in the United States.

Meanwhile, new forms of capitalist organization appeared. Industries were henceforth tied to the banking sector, with banks and insurance companies playing a major role in industrial growth. Also, industries began to be owned not necessarily by their managers, but by stockholders. The latter created trusts, cartels, merged corporations and holdings in order to cut down production costs, maximize market share and profits, and avoid regulatory oversight.

Due to the Second Industrial Revolution, several countries began to experience more intensely the benefits of industrialization. For instance, factory production was on the rise in newly-unified Germany and Italy, as well as Eastern European countries and Japan. A case in point was Russia under the leadership of Minister Sergei Witte, who personally spearheaded efforts to improve the infrastructure of the country — and had considerable success in doing so.

Social Consequences of the Industrial Revolutions

The development of industry brought about great changes to societies and economies around the world, particularly in Western Europe.

As the population of Europe grew, so did its food consumption. Yet this happened in tandem with a decrease in the rural population, due to both social and technological reasons. The Enclosure Acts in Britain liquidated medieval cultivation practices, subsistence agriculture and “old-fashioned uncommercial attitudes towards the land” (as said by Eric Hobsbawm). There were attempts to frustrate the introduction of a capitalist mindset to agriculture, such as the Speenhamland system (measures to provide relief for the rural poor) and the Corn Laws (agricultural protectionism), but they all failed.

Facing a hostile environment in the countryside, rural masses migrated in droves to urban areas, where they joined the industrial labor force. They grew accustomed to the rhythm of factory work through stringent regulations and severe living conditions. For example, women and children were often employed in taxing jobs, for they were badly paid when compared to men.

In addition, the Industrial Revolutions led to worsened social inequality. While it is true that the welfare of the proletariat increased substantially, the life of urban workers was far from the comforts enjoyed by the bourgeoisie. Unequal incomes prevailed and many worked as hard as they did before industrialization, otherwise they were not able to earn a living. However, a welcome development was the fact that laborers could benefit from their concentration in urban areas to unionize and fight for improvements to their fate.

Finally, it should be noted that the spread of industries across many countries did increase international competition. Lower prices for consumer goods were beneficial to the masses, but, sometimes, they stood in the way of providing adequate financial support for them. Also, certain states, such as Britain, benefited the most from trading industrialized products, to the detriment of countries that were relegated to having less-developed industrial sectors.


The Industrial Revolutions have profoundly transformed the world since the 19th century. Initially, the textile industry epitomized this wave of innovation, as inventions like the spinning machine drastically enhanced productivity. However, these technological advances quickly permeated other sectors, unsettling skilled workers who found themselves increasingly marginalized in the workforce. The First Industrial Revolution was characterized by significant innovations such as the steam engine, railways, steamships, and the telegraph, which revolutionized communication and transportation. Subsequently, the Second Industrial Revolution introduced widespread use of steel, electricity, oil, automobiles, and wireless communication, marking another leap in technological progress. These periods of rapid advancement led to notable socioeconomic shifts, including accelerated urbanization, exacerbated social inequalities, the formation of the world’s first labor unions, and heightened international competition. More recently, discussions in the 20th and 21st centuries have highlighted a Third and Fourth Industrial Revolution, continuing the legacy of profound change and innovation that characterizes this ongoing historical phenomenon.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *