12 Industrial Revolution Facts that Changed the World

The industrial revolution created a new class - the working poor - and led to a re-evaluation of capitalism and the creation of socialism.
Marcia Wendorf

Before the Industrial Revolution, people around the globe lived off the land by farming and animal husbandry. Manufactured goods, such as clothing, furniture, and metalwork, were created within people's homes by blacksmiths, weavers and furniture makers. The Industrial Revolution was the process of change from that agrarian and handicraft economy to one of industry and machine manufacturing.

By the late 1700s, Britain was the world's leading colonial power, with colonies in the United States, Canada, India, Australia, Egypt, the Caribbean, East, and South Africa, East Asia, China,  and the Middle East. These colonies produced a great many raw materials, and Britain herself had large deposits of coal and iron ore.

Map of British colonies
Source: General History Map of British colonies circa 1920

The Textile Industry Leads the Way

As the demand for manufactured goods increased, English inventors, especially in the textile industry, stepped up. In 1733, Englishman James Kay improved upon handlooms with his flying shuttle, however, a way was still needed to pull and twist cotton fibers to make a strong thread.

In 1764, James Hargreaves invented the spinning "jenny", which did just that. The "jenny" greatly reduced the amount of effort required to make cloth, and it allowed the simultaneous production of up to 120 spools of thread. That process was improved by Lancashireman Samuel Crompton, who between the years 1775 and 1779, invented the spinning mule, which spun thread on 1,320 spindles.

The spinning
Source: Markus Schweiß/Wikimedia Commons

In 1785, Edmund Cartwright patented the power loom, which used water power to speed up the weaving process. That design was so popular that by 1850, there were over 260,000 power looms in operation around Britain.

From Pig Iron to Steel

Advancements were also being made in the iron industry. Earlier in the 18th century, Englishman Abraham Darby had developed a method for producing pig iron in a blast furnace that was fueled by coke instead of charcoal.

It wasn't until the 1850s when British engineer Henry Bessemer developed the famous Bessemer Process, which inexpensively produced steel from molten pig iron. The key principle of Bessemer's was blowing air through the molten iron, which caused oxidation and removed impurities from the iron. Iron and steel were becoming increasingly necessary to build machines, tools, ships, and buildings.

The Bessemer process
Source: The Bessemer process/Wikimedia Commons

The Steam Engine

During the 1770s, Scottish inventor James Watt improved upon an earlier steam engine that had been created by Thomas Newcomen. The steam engine was initially used to pull water from tin mines but, it quickly came to power textile mills with the power mule and power loom. Watt’s steam engine went on to power machinery, railroad locomotives and ships.

Watt steam engine
Source: Nicolás Pérez/Wikimedia Commons

The unit of power, the watt, is named after James Watt. It is defined as: "the power conveyed by a current of an Ampère through the difference of potential of a Volt." So, the next time you buy a 150-watt light bulb, you know who to thank.

The Steamboat

Before the steam engine, transportation was by horse-drawn wagons and canal boats. Then, a young American painter named Robert Fulton went first to England, and then to France. In France, he proposed the first submarine, to be called the Nautilus, which could be used in France's war against the British. The French thought the idea a dishonorable way to fight.

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Undeterred, Fulton built the Nautilus at his own expense and conducted trials on the river Seine. Then, Fulton met Robert Livingston, who was a U.S. minister to France. Together, Fulton and Livingston built a prototype steamboat using Fulton's design. It had a side paddlewheel, was 66-feet (20-meter) long, and had an eight-horsepower engine, which was eventually upgraded to 24-horsepower.

Returning to New York on December 1806, Fulton set to work building a new steamboat that would have two side paddle wheels, and by early August 1807, the 150-foot- (45-metre-) long Steamboat, as Fulton called it, was ready. The boat traveled 150 miles (240 km) between New York City and Albany, NY in 32 hours, while sailing ships required four days to cover that same distance. Eventually, Fulton's steamboat was christened the Clermont.

The Clermont
Source: NYPL The Clermont

In the early 1800s, British engineer Richard Trevithick constructed the first railway steam locomotive, and in 1830, England’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway became the first to offer regular passenger services. By 1850, Britain had more than 6,000 miles of railroad track.

Catching a Killer

During the 1830s, the first telegraph was invented by Englishmen William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, and their design continued to be used for the next 100 years. Their invention was even used to catch a killer.

In 1814, John Tawell, a Quaker, was charged with possessing forged banknotes. He was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment and transported to England's penal colony at Sydney, Australia. Once released, Tawell was joined in Australia by his wife and children, and he opened the colony's first pharmacy.

Following his return to London in 1838, Tawell began an affair with his wife's nurse, who he installed in a cottage in the town of Slough. On January 1, 1845, Tawell traveled to Slough where he poisoned his mistress, but he had been seen leaving her house and boarding a train headed to Paddington Station in London.

The police used the new telegraph to send a message to Paddington Station and Tawell was arrested and eventually hanged for his crime. The telegraph transmitter and receiver used to apprehend Tawell can be seen today in the Science Museum, London.

Prior to 1760, people lived off the land, farming and raising animals. After the industrial revolution, which took place between 1760 and 1840, the nature of work changed from small workshops and home production to massive factories where all the steps for making a product could be performed in a row.

This became called "assembly line production", and while workers were more productive, the effect of it continues to be felt to this day.

The Rise of Cities

One of the defining characteristics of the industrial revolution was the rise of cities. In pre-industrial England, over 80 percent of the population lived in rural areas. By 1850, as people flocked to cities to take jobs in factories, more people lived in cities than those who lived in rural areas.


The city of London grew from a population of two million in 1840 to five million by 1880. In America, by 1920, more people lived in cities than in the countryside.

Working-class neighborhoods were bleak, crowded, dirty, and polluted. Houses were densely packed, poorly constructed and poorly ventilated. Homes lacked toilets and sewage systems, and as a result, drinking water was often contaminated.

London slums
Source: Gustave Doré/Wikimedia Commons

Outbreaks of cholera, tuberculosis, typhus, typhoid, and influenza were frequent. In three months of 1849 in London, 10,000 people died of cholera. In each decade of the 19th century, tuberculosis claimed 60,000 to 70,000 lives.


In 1841, the average life expectancy in rural areas of England was 45-years-old, but in London, it was 37, and in the industrial city of Liverpool, it was only 26-years-old. During the first half of the 19th century in England, 25 to 33 percent of children died before their 5th birthdays.

Poor Working Conditions

The owners of the new factories realized they could set any terms of work they liked because workers had no bargaining power to demand fairer work hours or better working conditions.


From 1790 to 1840, working conditions were not only tough, but they could also be tragic. Most laborers worked 10 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, and they had no paid vacation or holidays.

Each industry had its own safety hazards. During the process for purifying iron, the Bessemer Process, workers toiled in temperatures as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and that was in the coolest part of the ironworks. Workers injured on the job were often abandoned.

A report commissioned by the British House of Commons in 1832 noted that workers were often "abandoned from the moment that an accident occurs; their wages are stopped, no medical attendance is provided, and whatever the extent of the injury, no compensation is afforded."


The industrial revolution led to widespread pollution and environmental damage, some of which we're just feeling today. The new machines required energy to fuel them, and fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum were burned. This burning caused smog and air pollution during the 19th Century, and it is causing global warming today.

A satire on the coming age of free-running steam carriages
A satire on the coming age of free-running steam carriages by H. T. Alken
Source: H. T. Alken/Wikimedia Commons

Chemicals were needed for various industries, such as dyeing cloth, and following their use, these chemicals were dumped into lakes, rivers, streams and within cities.

During a hot spell in August 1858 in London, the untreated human waste and industrial effluent left along the banks of River Thames caused such a stink, that it became known as "The Great Stink."

Child Labor

During the industrial revolution, children were part of the labor force, often working long hours. Due to their small size, they were used for such hazardous tasks as cleaning the machinery. In 1789, in Richard Arkwright’s new spinning factory, two-thirds of the 1,150 factory workers were children.

By the early 1860s, an estimated one-fifth of the workers in Britain's textile factories were younger than age 15.

English doctor Turner Thackrah, described the children leaving the Manchester cotton mills as "almost universally ill-looking, small, sickly, barefoot and ill-clad. Many appeared to be no older than seven."

Children factory workers
Children working in a factory
Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

The British government moved slowly with reforms. The Factory Act of 1833 included provisions that said that children 8-years-of-age and younger could not work in factories, children between the ages of 9 and 13 could work for no more than 9 hours a day, children between the ages of 13 and 18 could work no more than 12 hours a day, and children could not work at night.

However, only four factory inspectors were appointed to investigate the thousands of factories throughout Britain.

Working Women

Prior to the industrial revolution, families worked together, with both men and women tending to fields and animals, and creating clothing. After the industrial revolution, there was a division of labor, with men going out to work in factories, and women relegated to taking care of the home and children.

Women saw their economic role sharply decline, and it wasn't until the late 1960s in the U.S. that the so-called "women's liberation movement" brought to the forefront women's desire for equal rights and greater economic opportunities.

During the industrial revolution, many young women worked in Britain's factories, often starting out as children.

In 1842, when an English parliamentary commission interviewed a woman named Betty Wardle, she stated that she had worked in a coal pit since the age of six, that she continued to work while she was pregnant, and that she delivered a child in the mine "and I brought it up the pit shaft in my skirt."

A New Middle Class

Before the industrial revolution, England had only two major classes: aristocrats born into lives of wealth and privilege, and low-income commoners born into the working classes.

However, the new urban industries required what we call today "white collar" jobs, such as shopkeepers, bank clerks, insurance agents, merchants, accountants, managers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers.

This new middle-class earned monthly or yearly salaries, as opposed to the hourly wages paid to factory workers.

A symptom of this rising middle class was an increase in the number of retail shops in England. Their number grew from 300 in 1875 to 2,600 by 1890. This new middle class was able to hire servants to cook and clean for them. From 1851 to 1871 in England, the number of domestic servants increased from 900,000 to 1.4 million.

From 1790 to 1840, real wages, adjusted for inflation, stayed fairly steady, but after 1840 or 1850, as England entered the second phase of its industrial revolution, real wages began to rise. One study showed that real wages, adjusted for inflation, increased 50% between 1830 and 1875.

Political Power

The exploitation of the working class caused a re-evaluation of economic systems. Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production, and their operation for profit.

During the industrial revolution, a new middle class was created that was comprised of factory owners and white-collar workers. They controlled the means of production.

As this new middle class became very rich, and they used their money to further invest in technology and more industry. These industrial capitalists began replacing England's large landowners as the leaders of the nation’s economy and power.

Cartoon of a capitalist
Source: John Miller Baer/Wikimedia Commons

In Great Britain, only the wealthy, about 3%, were eligible to vote. In 1799 and 1800, the British Parliament passed the Combination Acts, which made it illegal for workers to unionize, or combine, as a group to ask for better working conditions. With the government overwhelmingly favoring the wealthy, it was inevitable that social tensions would rise.

Concern for the condition of the working class led to the rise of socialism. Socialism is an economic theory which advocates that all people are equal and should have shared ownership of the country's wealth.

The most influential socialist thinker was undoubtedly an economist and philosopher named Karl Marx (1818-1883).

While Marx was born in Germany, he spent most of his time living in England, learning about and critiquing the established capitalist system. His ideas challenged the very foundations of the capitalist world and inspired uprisings against that model.

Map of socialist states between 1979 and 1983
 Source: Smurfy/Wikimedia Commons

Today, several countries have adopted the socialist model, while in the rest of the world, we have even more economic inequality. An estimated 10% of the world's wealthiest people control 90% of the world's wealth, and there has been a continued rise in consumerism and materialism, and the exploitation of the poor.

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