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READ: The Global Transformations of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution transformed life in Britain. But the transformation of the British economy had consequences for people in every corner of the world.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How did the Industrial Revolution change family structures in Britain?
  2. What role did women and children play in the industrial economy? Did they benefit from factory labor?
  3. What kinds of benefits or opportunities did the Industrial Revolution create for people in Britain?
  4. How did the Industrial Revolution affect the daily lives and labor of people outside of Europe such as enslaved Africans or colonial subjects?
  5. In the article, the author cites historian Thomas Finger who argued that “wheat—as much as coal—powered England’s factories.” What does he mean by this? How did wheat power England’s factories, and how did the demand for wheat transform wheat-producing societies around the world?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. According to the author, the changes ushered in by the Industrial Revolution had a ripple effect around the world. Using the evidence surrounding either sugar, wheat, or copper provided in the article, trace and explain one of these ripples.
  2. Imagine you are a new wage-laborer that recently moved from a rural farm community to an industrial city. Using information from the article, explain how your life has changed. What new hardships or opportunities might you face?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Global Transformations of the Industrial Revolution

A drawing depicts the construction of industrial machinery. A cargo train holds supplies and several stand in the construction site, working.
By Bennett Sherry
The Industrial Revolution transformed life in Britain. But the transformation of the British economy had consequences for people in every corner of the world.

Industrial connections

Though the Industrial Revolution started in Britain's factories, its innovations were entangled globally. We often think of coal, steam engines, cheap cotton clothes, steel, and agricultural advances as the seeds that grew into the Industrial Revolution. But they were less like separately grown seeds and more like nuts, bolts, and wires. Together, they created connections and links that enabled this massive change in how humans work and live.
How did these entanglements shape the lives of people in Britain, and how did these changes ripple around the world? We'll start by examining how industrial production changed British economics, labor, and culture. Then, we'll go global and examine how three industrial commodities changed communities, production, and trade all over the world.
It's important to realize that different people in different places experienced the changes of the Industrial Revolution in different ways. Some wealthy and middle-class people in northwestern Europe really benefited, enjoying new wealth and opportunity. For people in Europe's colonies, industrialization brought new and painful exploitation, as European imperialists sought to maximize profits. And for the working poor in industrialized countries like Britain, it was a pretty mixed bag. Working conditions and life expectancy dropped for most people moving to cities in the nineteenth century.
A painting depicts an industrial skyline behind an otherwise lush, green area. The skyline features tall buildings and smokestacks, emitting great louds of smoke that has turned the sky grey.
The skyline of Manchester, England. By the nineteenth century, Manchester had become the heart of British textile manufacturing. The factories of industrialization transformed the skyline. Manchester from Kersal Moor, by William Wyld, 1852. Public domain.

Britain’s “dark satanic mills”

We can thank the Industrial Revolution for all shiny new tech, and for cotton underwear, which beats scratchy wool. We can get fresh fruit in winter almost anywhere on Earth. Fun, right? But for the people living through it—especially poor workers—the Industrial Revolution was degrading and dehumanizing. The millions of working poor who migrated to cities found a dismal life of exploitation as wage laborers. The poet William Blake famously referred to the factories of Britain's Industrial Revolution as "these dark Satanic Mills." He was not alone in expressing horror at industrialization. Friedrich Engels, the son of a German businessman, visited England as a young man. What he saw inspired him to write The Condition of the Working Class in England. He concluded that English workers were not treated as human beings. "They were merely toiling machines in the service of the few aristocrats who had guided history down to that time." In other words, though the Industrial Revolution improved conditions for the middle class, it mostly enriched a few at the expense of the many.
A black and white photograph of people working in a large, industrial factory. People are working at large, yarn spinning machines.
Magnolia Cotton Mills spinning room, 1911. Public domain.
But Engels's analysis wasn't just about economics. The Industrial Revolution destroyed communities and culture. The patterns of rural life were shattered by so many people moving to cities to work in factories. Extended family communities in villages ensured stability. Community and family support provided a safety net. But as rural farmers became urban wage laborers, extended family communities were replaced by nuclear families—often with a single parent (usually the mother). Without the stability of extended family networks, urban families lacked support in times of crisis, meaning poverty and homelessness for many.
The disintegration of family networks and the rise of factories endangered children and unmarried women. Early nineteenth-century England had over a million child laborers, many of whom made their way from orphanages to workhouses. Historian Jane Humphries estimates that up to 15 percent of England's industrial workforce were children. Some children were forced to work for no money in exchange for food and a bed.
Women's lives changed as industrialization moved production out of the home. In rural England, women spun textiles for use at home and for sale at market. Women also worked in agriculture and domestic service. The Industrial Revolution didn't really change the work women did, just where they did it. One of the few opportunities for women to improve their financial status was to work in factories, often in textile production. Married women often left the workforce, either because their husbands demanded it or because they had few prospects of rewarding work outside factories.

Social mobility

Despite its new burdens, the Industrial Revolution opened up new horizons for new people. Factory life was brutal, but people had their reasons for abandoning their farms and moving to the city. For some people, urban wage labor provided a chance at social mobility and financial freedom.
The Industrial Revolution made some social progress precisely because of the misery it produced. Britain became the wealthiest nation on Earth. Soon, British workers, politicians, and writers started looking around and wondering why—in the world's richest country—so many people lived and worked in such poor conditions. These were the seeds of the reform movements that pushed children out of factories and into public education. Reformers fought for a minimum wage, safe working conditions, and an eight-hour work day, among other causes. However, these reforms often did not spread to the colonized world, where Britain was putting lots of people to work extracting raw materials.
A young girl, wearing ragged clothing and without shoes, standing in front of a spinning machine at an industrial textile factory.
A child laborer in a textile mill, New England, 1910. Image by Lewis W. Hine via the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Processed and colorized by Kelly Short. Public domain.

Industrialized sugar comes home

Production and profit in one part of the world relied on extraction and exploitation in another. To understand this, let's consider the impact of the Industrial Revolution on three global commodities: sugar, wheat, and copper.
You've read about how Europeans brought sugarcane to the Caribbean from Southeast Asia. They forced enslaved people to harvest and refine that sugar. The world got addicted to the sweet stuff and demanded more. Then, at the start of the nineteenth century, the British government outlawed the slave trade, and enforced that law with gunboats roaming the Atlantic on the lookout for slavers. This meant that sugar plantations—which relied on forced labor—became less profitable. In response, European colonizers and financiers took their business to Southeast Asia, where sugar got its start. The Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia) were especially productive. The Dutch forced colonized peoples to turn farms toward sugar production. The Dutch built sugar factories on an industrial scale. Farmers became wage laborers, and farms became sugar factories.
Forcing people in the Indian Ocean to grow sugar didn't just hurt those people; it also devastated Caribbean societies that relied on sugar. Enslaved people in some Caribbean islands may have been freed, but they still needed cash crops like sugar to sell on the global market. The rise of industrial sugar production in the Indian Ocean drove prices down and devastated Caribbean economies.

Wheat-fueled industrialization

Historian Thomas Finger argues that wheat—as much as coal—powered England's factories. Coal fed the machines, but wheat fed the workers. Global wheat production was revolutionized in the nineteenth century to feed English wage laborers.
Painting of a busy port. Many large ships are nearby, and a long cargo train holds goods near the dock.
The Port of Odessa, Russia, 1890. From the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Public domain.
In the early nineteenth century, bread prices soared. This created unrest in Britain's cities, where a bunch of working-class people now lived and depended on cheap bread. If they wanted to keep factories open, the British needed cheap bread. Their efforts to import more wheat transformed wheat-producing regions around the world, particularly in Russia, Argentina, and California.
British capitalists funded railroads in southern Russia near the Black Sea. This made it easier to get Russian wheat to British ships in the port of Odessa. British demand for cheap wheat transformed this part of Russia into one of the world's major wheat producers. Russian peasant farmers were connected to English wage laborers by hundreds of miles of rail tracks. In Argentina, British financiers funded new railroads and ports, transforming subsistence farms into industrial wheat farms. In California, nearly all wheat exports made the 17,000-mile sea voyage from San Francisco to Liverpool, England. This lucrative exchange (and the British financing that came with it) changed California's landscape. Gold miners became wheat farmers and vast stretches of inner California became wheat fields.

Copper connects the world to Wales

For thousands of years, humans smelted metal ore near where it was mined. The historians Chris Evans and Olivia Saunders explain that industrialization changed that. The city of Swansea, in Wales, was a center of British copper smelting. It had always gotten its copper from nearby mines. Around 1830, steamships made it possible for Swansea to import copper ore from the Caribbean, South America, Australasia, southern Africa, Algeria, the United States, and Canada. This tiny corner of Wales became the center of a global copper network that touched every continent.
Black and white drawing of a copper factory near a body of water and against a hillside. Two people are waving, from the other side of the water, facing toward the factory.
Bristol company copper works near Swansea, 1811. Public domain.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Swansea produced 50 percent of the world's copper. Its copper network included enslaved Africans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese indentured laborers, British and Indian financiers, and sailors from all over the world. They were all connected to satisfy Britain's demand for this orangish metal. Copper also connected with the wheat and sugar industries. The steam engines that moved sugar and wheat around the world relied on copper components. Copper vats were essential to sugar refining. The demand for copper transformed Swansea into a fouled landscape reeking of sulfur and choked with smoke from copper furnaces.
A photo of a large, round, copper bowl. It is weathered with age, with moss growing on the pot and a green vine sitting inside it.
An old copper vat in an abandoned sugar mill in the British Virgin Islands. Public domain.


Each of these three industries—sugar, wheat, and copper—depended on British steam engines, financial systems, and wage laborers. In each case—from British children forced to work in factories, to colonized people forced to farm sugar, to the peasant farmers of southern Russia, to the thousands of forced and free laborers who smelted copper—the global connections forged by the Industrial Revolution restructured local communities, trade networks, and the lives of workers.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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