5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a period of extraordinary change and innovation, but these breakthrough developments were among the most essential to our understanding of this radical time in world history.
John Loeffler

The rate of technological progress was steadily increasing at a modest pace for centuries before the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th to early 19th centuries, but it would begin the transformational acceleration that produced the modern era during this roughly 100-year period. It was an age of social upheaval and technological advance that has few equals in human history, and though there are many dozens of major inventions from the Industrial Revolution worthy of extended study and discussion, these five developments left the most lasting impact on the world we live in today.

The steam engine powers the Industrial Revolution

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
A 19th-century steam engine based on James Watts' design.   Source: Nicolás Pérez/Wikimedia Commons

By far the foundational invention of the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine, invented by James Watts in the 1760s. Watts had been studying an earlier machine called an atmospheric engine, invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, to see if it could be improved. Newcomen’s atmospheric engine burned fuel to operate and was designed to pump water out of coal mines and provide ventilation, but Watts was looking for a general-purpose machine and, together with Matthew Boulton, eventually transformed the atmospheric engine from a mining pump and ventilator into something truly revolutionary.


The steam engine design that Watts and Boulton developed would provide the power for nearly all of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution to come and was versatile enough to adapt to any number of use cases. The critical innovation of Watts’ steam engine was its rotary motion, rather than linear motion, as the driving force that gave the engine its power. This allowed the steam engine to remain self-contained and relatively compact while also enabling the technology to be adaptable, and it went on to symbolize the Industrial Revolution itself. Without the steam engine, no other invention of the Industrial Revolution would be possible.

The spinning Jenny and the invention of industrial machinery

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
The spinning Jenny, credited as the first significant 'industrial' machine.  Source: Archive.org

The invention of the Spinning Jenny was the product of incredible necessity. The textile boom in England, beginning in the mid-1700s, caused the demand for cotton and wool yarn, which is used to make woven fabrics on a loom, to soar. The existing cottage-industry system, where semi-skilled workers in their homes spun the yarn into thread by hand to sell to the textile mills, could not keep up with the demand from the industry, so many people raced to create a machine that could speed up this process and produce greater quantities of thread and yarn, and hopefully make a fortune for themselves in the process.

So, James Hargreaves was not, in fact, the first to invent a machine for spinning yarn, others had built theirs first, and his machine was not the one that would become so widely used in textile mills of England during the Industrial Revolution. That honor would go to the water frame. Still, his spinning Jenny, patented in 1770, is widely credited as one of the most critical breakthroughs of the early Industrial Revolution because it was the machine that allowed textile mills to fully industrialize the manufacturing process to produce finished cloth, an item that was at the heart of a historic commodity boom. The spinning Jenny made textile manufactures fabulously rich, and in return, history has made Hargreaves incredibly famous.

And not without cause. Hargreaves may not have been the first to build his machine, and his was not the first machine to be used in the textile making process, but by filling that technological need with his invention, the industrialization of the manufacturing process had truly begun. That industrialization is the very heart of the Industrial Revolution itself, and it would permanently redefine what it meant for people to work. The spinning Jenny and the machines that followed would soon become the machinery of the economy of England itself, and, over time, this industrialization spread to the rest of Europe, North America, and beyond, transforming manufacturing forever.

The steamboat and the locomotive

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
A steam-powered riverboat boarding passengers.   Source: Library of Congress

One of the two most important legacies of the Industrial Revolution is how technology changed the way we transported people and materials over great distances. Rail cars had long been used in mines to transport ore, and goods and people had always traveled by boat since the earliest days of trade and commerce, but the steam engine completely altered the way these activities were both perceived and practiced.

Using the newly-invented steam engine to power a ship was on the minds of many inventors in the late 18th century, and though many tried and some even built prototype steam-powered boats, an American named Robert Fulton is credited as the first to bring the technology into commercial use. Sailing his first working steamboat on the Seine river in France in 1803, it sailed through the river at a speed of just three to four mph, but it was able to do it while traveling upstream.

Until the steamboat, river navigation was entirely dependent on the flow of the river, preventing the efficient use of the river in both directions. Overcoming this limitation allowed goods and people significant flexibility in how they moved around and how far they could travel. Expanding the capacity for people to move around the whole of England was essential to supplying the demand for labor in the growing manufacturing and mining centers in other parts of the country.

Even more transformative was the steam-powered vessel built for crossing the oceans. Since humanity started sailing away from the safety of the shoreline, they had been at the mercy of the weather and the trade winds, making ocean travel risky and unreliable. Steam power changed that overnight. A propellor could be used to push the ship forward using powerful steam engines, allowing a ship to sail across the ocean regardless of the weather. This brought much-needed certainty and regularity to ocean commerce at just the right time for England's textile industries.

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
The locomotive, which revolutionized the way people and goods moved across the land.  Source: State Library of South Australia/Flickr

A similar transportation revolution was happening on land at the same time, as Richard Trevithick, a mining engineer from Cornwall, England, introduced the locomotive in 1801.

Watts’ steam engine was being widely employed in manufacturing and mining, and Trevithick knew how powerful it was, but it wasn’t nearly efficient enough to move a carriage over land. Watts himself recognized the limitations of his engine, which used steam at low pressure to power the rotary motion but was convinced that operating the engine at a higher steam pressure wasn’t safe or even possible. Trevithick, though, believed he could build a high-pressure steam engine, which would make it much more powerful without needing to make it any larger.

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The result of his work was the first locomotive engine, which he created to haul coal from coal-rich regions of England to the coal-poor Cornwall at a much cheaper cost to the mine. It would take the development of steel manufacturing for the railroad as we think of it to arrive on the scene, but, eventually, the locomotive would make parts of the country that lacked a local navigable waterway accessible to businesses hungry for resources. It would also make the people in those formerly isolated parts of the country connected to other parts of the country in ways not seen in the British isles since it was part of the Roman Empire.

For a nation where a person might commonly live no more than a couple of dozen miles away from where their ancestors lived centuries earlier, the locomotive was a revolutionary development that changed how people in England, and soon the world, thought about personal movement and travel.

The factory changed manufacturing forever

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
During the Industrial Revolution, factories blanketed England with smoke and mass-produced goods. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Industrial machinery and steam-powered transportation were the two main ingredients of the single most important development of the Industrial Revolution: the factory.

Large-scale manufacturing certainly wasn’t a new idea, but what made the manufacturing centers of the Industrial Revolution different from anything that came before was the way they produced their goods, the people they employed, the vast quantities of goods they were able to produce, and the social consequences they produced as a by-product.

Due to the Enclosure Movement and the agricultural revolution taking place in parallel to the Industrial Revolution, many farmers and agricultural laborers were pushed off lands their families had farmed for generations and the Commons--areas that were open to all members of the community and which had been vital to a family's survival--continued to shrink as massive estates absorbed these spaces through policy changes aimed at the more efficient use of land and aristocratic consolidation. Suddenly put out of their ancestral livelihood, many turned to skilled trades and worked in cottage-industry manufacturing to produce some sort of income so they could buy food for their families.

This came to a swift and highly-contentious end with the introduction of industrial machinery, which could do the same amount of work as several, or even dozens, of skilled workers in the same amount of time. More importantly, operating this machinery didn’t require the level of skill that cottage-industry manufacturing did, and the goods they produced were of sufficient quality that they quickly took over the entire textile market.

Using large steam engines to power this machinery, business owners built large ‘manufactories,’ later just called factories, to house these machines, which churned out textiles and other goods in unprecedented quantities. The skilled workers of England, unable to compete with the output from the new machinery, resisted this change with every means at their disposal.

Known as the Luddites, these workers rallied together and destroyed the machinery of the factories however they could stop or at least slow the inevitable, but they ended up being little more than a pothole on the road to the industrial era. Unable to compete on the market with their handmade goods, they soon joined the growing ranks of the unskilled and unemployed masses that traveled across the country to the new factories sprouting up all over England in search of work.

Forced into a brutal competition for jobs, almost no wage was too little for many who needed whatever they could get to feed their families. Paid at or below a subsistence wage, and often needing their young children and wives to work in factories as well to make enough to survive on, the impoverished factory worker became the human face of the Industrial Revolution.

The ongoing battle that the Industrial Revolution left in its wake

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
The Revolutions of 1848 were in part a response to social consequences of the Industrial Revoution. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Industrial Revolution is neatly bookended by two opposing revolutions, both are rooted in economic theory for how to organize society, and they are intimately tied to one another.

The arrival of capitalist economics in 1776 provided a launching off point for England's textile industry which was emboldened by the concepts at the heart of the system, like the virtue in pursuing one's self-interest, the superior efficiency of markets, and the principle of government non-intervention in the economy. The adoption of the values of capitalism by business leaders is not at all surprising, but the swiftness with which capitalist economics became the orthodoxy of the British government is staggering.

No doubt, this adoption was helped along by those in government who were deeply invested in the growing list of businesses being founded in the country, but the speed of this adoption was also matched by a genuine zeal to advance this system until it became a matter of religious devotion, as when some British government officials arguing that the unhindered markets reflect the will of God, so to intervene in the markets to attempt to achieve a policy outcome wasn't just bad policy, it was a serious moral evil.

By the end of the Industrial Revolution, a century of this kind of Laissez-Faire economics had created a seething underclass of urban workers and from this mass movement there emerged a proper response to the prevailing capitalism of the day. This response, however, was far more radical than the most radical of liberal reforms from the Enlightenment; it didn't just challenge the status quo, it explicitly stated that the complete destruction and wholesale replacement of the conservative order of Europe was the ultimate goal of a growing international mass movement.

This new scientific socialism was everything that capitalism was not, and that was by design. Developed in the shadow of the unrestricted capitalism of the Industrial Revolution, socialism was a point-by-point critique of the capitalist status quo that grew over time into a complex theory of materialist political economy. Despite the complexity of its theories, it nonetheless inspired the illiterate, unskilled, and justifiably angry working classes of the entire continent of Europe by the millions to directly and aggressively challenge the owners of the factories, the idle gentry, the financiers, and the institutions of conservative rule through revolution.

Adam Smith gives the Industrial Revolution its ideological foundation in The Wealth of Nations

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
Adam Smith, founding father of classical economics and capitalism.    Source: Adam Smith Business School/Wikimedia Commons

In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, the foundational text of classical economics and the first concrete description of the economic system that we call capitalism. It repudiated the system of mercantilism that drove the European age of exploration and firmly committed itself to a liberal economic order founded on individual property rights, individual freedom, and government non-interference in the free market [PDF]. A purely Enlightenment ideology, Smith's work took the principles of the Enlightenment and codified them into an economic system that quickly gained widespread acceptance in England.

As such, the entire the Industrial Revolution developed in tandem with the evolution of this economic framework and the two have become intimately connected in ways that are difficult to disaggregate as advances in one accelerated advances in the other. This system did produce an enormous amount of wealth, and the prosperity that many have achieved under it is often cited as evidence of the system’s superiority to other, competing systems.

Smith describes the ideal economic system as one where individuals make decisions in pursuit of their self-interest in a 'free market,' which he contends will trend toward what is good for society in the long run while producing the greatest prosperity for the most people possible. For this to work, though, individuals must be allowed to make decisions about their investments, how they operate their businesses, and how their goods and services are bought and sold unhindered by interference from the government.

The role of government in this system is restricted to enforcing legal contracts, building public infrastructure, maintaining law and order, and using limited military power to keep trade routes secure from piracy or disruption.

In practice, this meant that the owners of the factories and machinery should be free to pay as little as a worker will take for a job, that workers should assume all the risks for their well-being when it came to workplace safety, and there should be no restrictions on the number of hours or days a worker must work as part of their job. The worker and the owner are considered to be in a personal contract with each other over the terms of employment, from theoretically equal economic positions, and the sanctity of the owner's private property rights should be protected from both the government and his neighbors in equal measure.

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
The February Revolution, Paris, France, 1848, overthrew the monarchy of Louise-Phillipe. Source: Horace Vernet/Wikimedia Commons

Whether it was Smith's intention or not, this led to a particularly rapacious embrace of 'Laissez-Faire' capitalism during the Industrial Revolution. It produced incredible social upheaval and economic deprivation as the swelling population of wage workers in industrializing countries saw their prospects for earning a modest living grow dimmer and dimmer.

Even more egregious, however, was how the capitalism of this era incentivized and enabled the growth of the Atlantic slave trade that was exploited to extract the raw materials from colonies in North America and the West Indies to feed the demand of the new capitalist industries back in England. No small part of the wealth of nations, it turns out, is the result of the stripping another human being of their freedom and stealing their labor on pain of torture until they die of exhaustion or despair.

It is fitting, then, that as the Industrial Revolution came to a close in the middle of the 19th century, revolutions swept over Europe in 1848 that saw the lower and middle classes of several European nations taking to the streets in response to the 'social question;' a term used to euphemize the economic, political, and social deprivation of the lower classes brought on by the industrialization of the economy and the expansion of Laissez-Faire capitalism into every sphere of economic life.

Elites recognized the brewing discontent as far back as the French Revolution of 1830, but nothing was done to ease the displacement and suffering of this new urban working class. Instead, the impoverished working class was disparaged as morally suspect, dismissed as lacking the industriousness demonstrated by the owner of the factory they toiled in, and needed to be dealt with using a firm hand from the government, business, and society at large to 'encourage' them to lift themselves out of poverty through self-reliance and more hard work.

How much of this was a product of the Industrial Revolution, unfettered capitalism, or just being horrible people is tough to say, but the culture that developed in response to the Industrial Revolution and Laissez-Faire capitalism among the elites in England was devastating for the working class of England and especially the people of colonial Ireland.

The Industrial Revolution through the lens of the Great Famine in Ireland, 1845-1852

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
A memorial to the Great Famine of 1845-47, Dublin, Ireland.    Source: Ron Cogswell/Flickr

The most famous example of this neglectful and indifferent attitude towards the plight of the lower classes was the British response to the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. Beginning in 1846, a potato blight swept over Europe, ravaging the potato crops on the continent and the British Isles alike; but none suffered like the people of Ireland. Essentially, the entire potato harvest was wiped out in 1846 by the blight, and the blight kept coming back every year for the remainder of the decade.

The potato harvest in Ireland in the 1840s represented 60% of the nation's food needs, so the ensuing famine was always going to be terrible. But the British government in power expressed such a level of deliberate and willful indifference to the suffering of the Irish people--who they were ultimately responsible for since Ireland was a colonial possession at the time--that it is borderline sociopathic.

At the height of the famine, British business interests refused to give any of their cereal crops, which were unaffected by the blight, to the millions of starving Irish men, women, and children. They instead exported it off the island for sale on the open market, which meant that if they wanted the grain, the Irish would have to buy it at market value, which they could not afford. Sporadic deliveries of some food assistance made it to the island, but it was so haphazard and without any organization that food relief never reached those in need and the deliveries of parcels of food just ended up distorting the prices of the food available on the markets, cutting off additional sources of food.

The British government, meanwhile, could have ordered that those crops be kept on the island to address the famine, but the prevailing Laissez-Faire policies that were considered to be received truth in elite circles saw any such order as an unacceptable interference in the free market. It also didn't help that the British press was producing all kinds of anti-Irish propaganda depicting the Irish as lazy, immoral, or worse at the height of the famine, discouraging any sympathy for the plight of their neighbors.

Soon, once the massive migration to the United States began in the late 1840s, officials in the British government expressed their satisfaction that the Irish were leaving the island and there was some talk of whether the migration should be more actively encouraged. One official recommended that the Irish who had been recently evicted from their homes on account of the famine be assisted in migrating to the US since many poor Irish could not pay for passage.

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
A close up of a statue from the memorial to the Great Famine, 1845-47, Dublin, Ireland.  Source: Tim Sackton/Flickr

Up to 400,000 Irish in the province of Connacht were believed to be too poor to make the journey, according to the British viceroy for Ireland, but the government did not want to spend public money to send the Irish to America and left them to their fate. Nothing was done to stop the evictions on the island either since the British saw the evictions as a positive disruption of the 'backward' agrarian culture and economy of the island. Once the Irish we dispossessed, British businesses could go to Ireland and introduce capitalist reforms of Irish society that would otherwise be too difficult to impose.

If there is still any question about the government's feelings toward the starving Irish population, the British civil servant in charge of administering food relief to the island, Sir Charles Trevelyan, wrote that: "The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated...the real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people."

There were those in the British government who did try to help the people of Ireland, including two Prime Ministers for the government during the famine, but they were blocked by those who had an economic interest in doing nothing, hoping to capitalize on the opportunity for a land grab after the famine is over and the island had been severely depopulated. Then, there was the problem known as 'famine fatigue.' 

Even given the cruel bigotry toward the Irish that the British have demonstrated throughout their 800 years of shared history, probably the most damning thing about the British response to the famine is that in the end, the educated, politically-active parts of the British public--who could have exerted some leverage on their government to help the victims of the Irish famine--simply got bored of reading about all the Irish that were starving to death and wanted to talk about something else instead.

It is hard to know how many people in Ireland died of starvation during the famine, but it is estimated that over one million Irish perished while at least another two million fled the country for the United States. In total, the famine shrank the population of Ireland by about 25%. The Irish writer Tom Pat Coogan recently leveled a charge against the British government of the era, accusing them of actively attempting to commit genocide against the Irish people, and documenting the various ways the British government through incompetence, indifference, and outright malice perpetrated one of the worst crimes against humanity of the modern era.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels introduce Europe to the specter of Communism in The Communist Manifesto

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
Workers from all over England gather in Kennington Common in 1848 to press for economic reforms. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was the climate that inspired a new and very radical critique of the status quo, published only a few months before the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848, that brought the 'social question' out into the open and issued a resounding call for a global revolution against the ruling classes of Europe. The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, sketches the outlines of a political economy under the name of scientific socialism, one where the workers overthrow the owners of the factory and the landed aristocracy in the political hierarchy, slave labor is abolished, and the working class takes collective control of the economy to ensure the just distribution of gains from their collective labor.

In practice, this meant launching a revolution that ends with the appropriation of the assets and property of the capitalist class and putting it into the hands of the workers and laborers of the factories who--according to Marx--were the ones who extracted the value from those assets and property through their labor in the first place. This new system also demanded the abolition of all slavery and rejected the principle of private property rights over the means of production, such as machinery, factories, or land used as a means of generating income through rents.

Marx and Engels also argued that women were the equals of men in all ways that mattered, which inspired their advocacy for their sexual liberation from Europe's patriarchal Christian morality and the institution of marriage as well as explicitly advocating for international, class-based solidarity among the working classes of every nation. In theory, at least, this solidarity would transcend all racial, ethnic, or national distinctions and would unite the workers of the world under a single system of political economy.

5 Most Transformative Developments and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
Barricades of the February Revolution, Paris, France, 1848, which creates the Second Republic.  Source: Thibault/Wikimedia Commons

The ruling class weren't just nervous, they were terrified. The socialist movement would go on to take many forms, but in none of them does the capitalist class get to keep all of their stuff, and the most militant communists wanted to take everything they owned and were non-commital about whether they would get to keep their lives.

The year 1848 is a watershed year in Western history for many reasons, but the most important reason for us today is that 1848 was the year the governments and business leaders of Europe started taking the social question seriously. Some compromised and instituted powersharing arrangements, others waged literal war on the communists and other subversives in their countries. Ever since, this clash between the socialist and capitalist political-economic theories has dominated the politics of most of the world, producing all kinds of permutations in different countries, regions, and even municipalities.

The contest between the two ideologies has led to all manner of war and revolution, turning bitter enemies into begrudging allies to fight against their common enemy. The inventions and advances of the era were numerous and important, but this fight over the role of the owner and the worker in the political economy of the nation was and is still visceral and lasting, the lingering consequence of the social upheaval the Industrial Revolution created and the failure to address the imbalances it entrenched.

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