The Industrial Revolution and the Birth of Capitalism
The Industrial Revolution refers to the era in which economic production shifted from the use of hand tools to the use of power machinery, fueled primarily by coal and steam.
Most of this process took place between 1750 and 1850 in Europe, although the most intense changes occurred in Great Britain in the half-century after 1780.1 The Industrial Revolution occurred at about the same time as the French Revolution, although the two were quite separate. The former affected mostly England and mostly the economy; the latter affected France and the European continent, mostly in the political sphere. England was relatively immune from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, and Europe did not fully engage the Industrial Revolution until after 1820.
The impact of the Industrial Revolution was at least as great as that of the French Revolution. It soon spread from England to Western Europe, then to Eastern Europe, and then to the rest of the world, initiating a broader process of modernization that was to extend through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The mechanization of production allowed a huge increase in productivity and economic output, thus laying the groundwork for modern industrial society. It also had far-reaching social and political consequences, with the advent of assembly-line factories, urbanization, the transformation of the family, and the rise of a new social class, the urban working class, or proletariat.
Causes of the Industrial Revolution
When compared to the rest of late-eighteenth-century Europe, England seems a natural location for the birth of the Industrial Revolution. What’s more, the attributes that fostered the Industrial Revolution there are the very same that helped secure England as the world leader in industrialization well into the nineteenth century. The island nation had an educated and mobile population; a ready supply of coal and iron; an extensive trade network of rivers, canals, and coastal sea-lanes; small internal distances; a growing population; and political stability. It also managed to avoid the disruptions of warfare and political upheaval created by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.
The Industrial Revolution was preceded, and in part caused by, an agricultural revolution that had two components: the development of scientific agriculture and the enclosure movement. We saw earlier that the Scientific Revolution laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment; it also led to many practical inventions and innovations, including some in agriculture. In about 1700, Jethro Tull developed a seed drill that planted seeds in neat rows, replacing the much less efficient method of scattering seeds by hand. In the mid-eighteenth century, British farmers began planting turnips, which not only enriched the soil but provided food for livestock during the winter months, which previously had been slaughtered at the onset of winter. Scientific breeding of cattle and sheep was also introduced about this time.
These new agricultural techniques dramatically improved productivity and made it possible for England (and the rest of Europe) to feed its rapidly growing population. The revolution in agriculture staved off, at least temporarily, the gloomy predictions of Thomas Malthus, the English economist who argued, in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798), that poverty and famine were unavoidable because population increases geometrically whereas food production increases only arithmetically.
The other aspect of the revolution in agriculture, the enclosure movement, involved the efforts of landowning aristocrats and country gentry to enclose common lands with fences, walls, and hedges, so that they could be used for private pastures. This gradually eroded the medieval practice, hitherto protected by common law, of providing free access to grazing lands and woodlands. In the late seventeenth century, however, when large landowners controlled the British parliament, they pushed through hundreds of enclosure acts that legitimized this practice. Ownership of land thus became concentrated in the hands of a relatively few wealthy landlords. Overall farm sizes increased, allowing economies of scale, increased productivity, and greater food production. These changes in agriculture had two major consequences: With fewer people workingthe land, many left the countryside to find work in the cities, and the more efficient farms produced more food for the urban markets. Both of these processes fueled urbanization and industrialization.
Industrialization itself began in Britain with cotton. Before the mechanization of the textile industry, Britain produced mostly linen and wool at home and imported cotton textiles, primarily from India. In 1707, the British government banned the import of Indian textiles in order to protect and support the domestic cotton industry. This had the desired effect, but several important eighteenth-century inventions, namely the flying shuttle, spinning jenny, and spinning mule, increasingly mechanized the cotton-spinning and weaving processes, making them vastly more efficient and thereby providing even greater stimulus to cotton output. Cotton clothing, less expensive and easier to clean than wool and other fabrics, allowed poor people to become adequately clothed, and quickly grew popular in all social classes.
The increased production of cotton in England eventually exceeded domestic demand, however, so, for the industry to continue growing, it needed markets outside the country. It found these markets in the New World, especially after the American War of Independence. The growth of slavery in the United States generated a need for cheap cotton textiles, which British merchants supplied, in which to clothe the slaves. The cotton trade became a two-way enterprise after Eli Whitney’s 1793 invention of the cotton gin, a machine for separating cotton seeds from fiber, a process previously done by hand. Before then, Britain had imported most of its raw cotton from the Ottoman Empire and the Caribbean, but the cotton gin made American cotton much less expensive. So, after this point, British cotton manufacturers imported most of their raw cotton from the United States and exported their finished cotton textiles back to that country, thus creating a boom in British cotton-textile production and stimulating trade and economic growth in both countries.
Although the English spinning machines and the American cotton gin were important inventions for jump-starting the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine was the single most crucial invention of this era.
Thomas Newcomen had created an early, but clumsy, version of the steam engine in England in 1711, as a practical solution to help pump floodwaters from coal mines. A Scot, James Watt, improved the machine immensely in 1763. At first, the steam engine was used, as before, to facilitate the extraction of coal. But it soon became clear that the engine could be used for other purposes as well. In the 1790s, the cotton spinning mule was adapted to steam power, instantly increasing output to a hundred times that of a worker on a manual spinning wheel. This was indeed a revolutionary change in the single most important and widespread industry in Britain.
These new machines led to another innovation, the factory. Steam and water power required the concentration of labor close to the power source, and the heavy equipment (spinning machines, power looms, and steam engines) necessitated large buildings in which to house them. Manchester, a textile-manufacturing center in the English midlands, became the first modern industrial city. With the proliferation of factories and the increased productivity afforded by mechanization and the assembly line, Manchester’s output of textiles surged, and the city was soon outcompeting India. Although earlier in the eighteenth century an effort had been made to restrict trade through a ban on Indian imports, now that English cotton no longer needed protection, British manufacturers lobbied for free trade, a term that became a byword of early capitalism.
The steam engine became a motor of economic growth in other ways as well. In 1825, a steam engine was placed on a trolley that carried coal from a mine in Darlington to the port city of Liverpool along a seven-mile track.
This was the beginning of the railroad, which was to revolutionize transportation just as it did industry. By 1850, more than six thousand miles of railroad track were laid in Britain. The railroad not only facilitated and accelerated transportation but also contributed to further industrial growth. Its rapid expansion fueled demand for coal, steam engines, iron, and steel. Each mile of newly laid railroad track, for example, used three hundred tons of iron. Between 1830 and 1850, the years of the so-called railway mania, iron output in Britain more than tripled. So, the textile factories of towns like Manchester were soon followed by factories for the production of iron, steel, and steam engines, thus laying the groundwork for a modern industrial economy.
The innovations and inventions of the early industrial era were, by and large, the products of practical men searching for ways to increase efficiency and make profits. Hardly any of the inventions mentioned above were conceived of by scientists. However, the intellectual and philosophical underpinning for industrialization and early capitalism had been provided by the philosopher and economist Adam Smith, in his 1776 publication The Wealth of Nations. We pointed out in how Smith’s theory of the natural laws of economic exchange coincided with broader currents of Enlightenment thinking, but Smith was as much a creature of the Industrial Revolution as he was of the Enlightenment, and his book both reflected what was happening economically in England at the time and reinforced and legitimized these trends.
In The Wealth of Nations, Smith contends that there are natural laws of production and exchange and of supply and demand and that, if left to their own devices, these laws will naturally regulate the economy in the best possible way. Similarly, each individual should be allowed to follow his own economic self-interest, unhampered by regulation. The natural laws of supply and demand will respond to the expressions of this self-interest, and the sum total of individual acquisitiveness will be an overall improvement in the general welfare (private vice yields public virtue).
The government, in this view, should largely stay out of economic management or regulation, limiting itself to providing a stable environment for the economy: maintaining political stability, providing legal protection for private property and contracts, and enforcing the laws. All of this, of course, was perfectly consistent with the interests of the new entrepreneurs in Britain, who chafed under the restraints of the old mercantilist system and favored free trade, legal protection for their new factories, and minimal government interference in their businesses.
The Crystal Palace
The Great London Exhibition of 1851, the first world’s fair, was a celebration of industrial progress and a symbol of both the Industrial Revolution and British power. The exhibition was held in the Crystal Palace, a huge iron and glass structure resembling a greenhouse and a triumph of prefabrication. It was 1,851 feet long-one foot for each year of the Common Era-with exhibits covering a wide range of industrial, commercial, and artistic products from all over the world. Six million people visited it during the six months of the exhibition. One of the most popular displays was the “Hall of Moving Machinery,” with newfangled steam engines and other mechanisms laid out like works of art or sculpture for the viewers. The exhibition also had many new mass-produced products for home use, such as elaborate furniture and silver-plated utensils, statues, and vases. In this sense, the Crystal Palace also celebrated and inaugurated the era of mass consumption. Similar exhibitions soon followed in Paris, Vienna, New York, and other cities.