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READ: The Industrial Revolution

Abundant fossil fuels like coal led to innovative machines, like engines. These inventions launched an era of accelerated change that continues to transform human society.
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. Where do fossil fuels come from?
  2. How did the existence of fossil fuels like coal make industrialization possible in Britain beginning in 1750, but not in other parts of the world, like China?
  3. What were some of the global forces that influenced the development of industrialization in Britain?
  4. Examine the chart “Percentage of Urban Population growth, 1600 to 2000 CE.” Based on data in the chart and information in the article, why do you think urbanization has been on the rise since 1600, and why have some areas of the world become more urbanized than others?
  5. According to this article, what are some of the positive and negative consequences of the Industrial Revolution?

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. How did the Industrial Revolution transform human communities in different ways throughout the world?
  2. The Industrial Revolution transformed production and distribution all around the world. Look around the room you’re in. What elements of the room are made possible through the burning of fossil fuels?
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 Industrial Revolution

By Cynthia Stokes-Brown (for BHP)
Abundant fossil fuels like coal led to innovative machines, like engines. These inventions launched an era of accelerated change that continues to transform human society.

The transformation of the world

Try to imagine your life without any machines working for you. Make a list of the machines in your house. You might be surprised how many there are. Now imagine young people who grew up before machines. How did they move from place to place? How did they communicate? What foods did they eat?
At one time, human communities provided most of their own energy. They ate plants and animals to fuel their bodies, burned wood for warmth and cooking, and used domestic animals for help with chores. Windmills and waterwheels captured some extra energy, but little could be saved. All life depended on the energy the Sun sent to the Earth.
However, in the 1700s, everything started to change with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Now, people found an extra source of energy that could work for them. That source was fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas. These fuels had been forming from the remains of plants and animals from much earlier geologic times. When they were burned, they released energy, originally from the Sun, that had been stored underground for hundreds of millions of years.
Take coal, for example. This useful fuel was formed when huge trees from the Carboniferous period (345 to 280 million years ago) fell and were covered with water, so that oxygen and bacteria could not decay them. As other materials covered them over time, they were compressed into dark, carbonic, burnable rock. Oil and gas were made from a similar recipe, formed over 100 million years ago from tiny animal skeletons and plant matter that fell to the bottom of seas or were buried in sediment. The weight of water and soil compressed this organic matter until it turned into the oil and gas that we now use for energy.
While coal, oil, and gas are relatively common on Earth, they are not evenly distributed. Some places have much more than others because of the diverse ecosystems that existed long ago. This uneven distribution of suddenly valuable resources, essential for industrialization, led to inequalities around the world that are still felt today.

Early steam engines

The story of the Industrial Revolution begins on the small island of Great Britain. By the early eighteenth century, people there had cut down most of their trees either to build houses and ships or to burn for heating and cooking. So now they needed something else to burn. They knew those hunks of black stone near the surface of the Earth were flammable, so they dug deeper to see how much there was. These coal mines were not an instant success. They were so deep in the Earth that they would fill with water as you were digging. Miners tried using horses to pull up buckets of water, but that was too slow. In 1712, Englishman Thomas Newcomen created a coal-powered steam engine capable of pumping water from the mines. More than fifty years later, James Watt, a Scottish instrument maker, designed a better version. This steam engine— which would have a long career powering trains, ships and other things—was first used to efficiently pump water out of coal mines. After his patent ran out in 1800, others further improved on his engine. By 1900, engines burned 10 times more efficiently than they had a hundred years before.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, British colonies in North America were producing lots of cotton. Machines, which were usually powered by hardworking people in their homes but also by waterwheels and windmills situated near rivers, were used to spin the cotton thread on spindles (rods) and to weave it into cloth on looms. Attaching a steam engine to these machines was like trading a bicycle for a jumbo jet. The work went much, much faster. One steam engine could power many spindles and looms. But you can't park a jumbo jet in a bike rack. Now people had to leave their homes for work because the steam engines were so large and expensive. As a result, textile work shifted from a primarily home-based occupation to factories.
Engraving of Boulton and Watt’s steam engine, 1781, from Robert Henry Thurston’s A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine. New York: D. Appleton, 1878, p. 104. By Robert Henry Thurston, Public Domain.
Early in the nineteenth century, the British also invented steam locomotives and steamships, which revolutionized travel. In 1851, they held the first world's fair where they exhibited telegraphs, sewing machines, revolvers, reaping machines, and steam hammers to demonstrate that they were the world's leading manufacturer of machinery. By this time, the characteristics of industrial society—smoke rising from factories, bigger cities and denser populations, railroads—loomed large in many parts of Britain.

Why Britain?

Britain wasn't the only place that had deposits of coal. So why didn't the Industrial Revolution begin somewhere else that had coal, like China? Did it start in isolation in Britain, or were there global forces at work that shaped it? Did geography or cultural institutions matter more? Historians have vigorously investigated these questions.
Possible reasons why industrialization began in Britain include:
  • Shortage of wood and an abundance of convenient coal deposits
  • Britain had “wet coal”—mines flooded and they had to devise a way to get the water out of the mines, which led to the invention of the steam engine
  • Elites who were interested in business, a limited monarchy
  • A capitalist system; limited government involvement
  • Government support for business projects and a strong navy to protect ships
  • Cheap cotton produced by Africans enslaved in North America
  • Profits from the transatlantic slave trade provided Britain with capital to invest in industrialization
Possible reasons why industrialization did not begin in China include:
  • Location of China's coal—the north—while economic activity was centered in the south
  • China had “dry coal” that was deeper in the ground than Britain’s “wet coal”
  • A large, rapidly growing population, allowing for human labor instead of machines
  • Confucian ideals that valued stability and discouraged experimentation and change
  • Lack of Chinese government support for sea explorations, thinking its empire seemed large enough to provide everything needed
  • China's focus on defending itself from nomadic attacks from the north and west
Global forces influencing the development of industrialization in Britain include:
  • Britain's location on the Atlantic Ocean
  • British colonies in North America, which provided land, labor, and markets
  • Silver from the Americas, used in trade with China
  • Social and ideological conditions in Britain, and new thoughts about the economy, that encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit
Of course, that burnable rock we call coal wasn't the only fossil fuel mentioned earlier. What roles did oil and natural gas play while coal was powering the Industrial Revolution? They had been discovered long before and were already in use, but mostly just for lamps and other light sources. It wasn't until the mid-twentieth century with the invention of the internal combustion engine that oil caught up—and surpassed—coal in use. And if you've ever been in a car that's not electric, you've used a combustion engine for transportation.

The spread of the Industrial Revolution

Britain wanted to keep secret how its machines were made. But visitors soon learned about them and took the techniques back home. Sometimes they smuggled machines out in rowboats while others memorized factory and machine plans. The first countries after Britain to develop factories and railroads were Belgium, Switzerland, France, and the states that became Germany, all between the 1830s and 1850s. Building a national railroad system was an essential part of industrialization, as trains could transport raw materials and coal to factories at an accelerated rate.
Children working in a mill in Macon, Georgia, 1909. By Lewis Hine, Public Domain.
Industrialization came to the United States in 1789. That was the year Samuel Slater left Britain for Rhode Island, where he set up the first textile factory on U.S. soil. He couldn't bring any notes or plans from Britain, so he had to set up the factory from memory. Once factories were built, railroad construction in America boomed from the 1830s to 1870s. The American Civil War (1861–1865) was the first truly industrial war in that factories mass-produced supplies and weapons for the war effort, troops were transported by rail, and the telegraph was used to send remarkably fast communications. The increasingly urbanized and factory-based North was fighting against the agriculture-based South. After the war, industrialization grew explosively and by 1900, the United States had overtaken Britain in manufacturing, producing 24 percent of the world's output. Four decades before that, both Russia and Japan gave up their feudal systems to compete in the industrializing world. In Japan, the monarchy was flexible enough to survive early industrialization. But in Russia, a rural country, the czar and nobles tried to industrialize the country while keeping a grip on their dominance. You'll read more about industrialization in other regions of the world later in this era and in Era 7.

Consequences of the Industrial Revolution

As industrialization took off in Europe and the Americas, nations began to use their strong armies and navies to colonize many parts of the world that were not industrialized. The industrialized nations then began exploiting colonies for their natural resources, labor, and potential new markets. This would lead to the age of imperialism. The negative consequences of these activities would be felt for generations. These topics will be covered extensively in the remaining lessons of Era 6.
The effects of industrialization on global population are staggering. In 1700, before fossil fuels were in use, the world's population was 670 million. By 2011, it was 6.7 billion, a tenfold increase in only 300 years. In the twentieth century alone, the world's economy grew fourteenfold, per capita income grew almost fourfold, and the use of energy expanded at least thirteenfold. In addition, from 1900 to 2000, urban population growth increased substantially, as more people left rural areas for cities. This kind of growth has never before occurred in human history.
Table 1: Percentage of urban population growth, 1600 to 2000 CE
Western Europe12%13%21%41%75%
North America1%2%7%38.5%79%
Source: Population data adapted from Goldewijk, K.K., A. Beusen, and P. Janssen. “Long-term dynamic modeling of global population and built-up area in a spatially explicit way: HYDE 3.1.” The Holocene 20, no. 4 (2010): 568.
Many people around the world today enjoy the benefits of industrialization. With extra energy flowing through the system, many of us do much less physical labor than earlier generations. Child mortality rates have decreased, as more people are able to feed their children and get medical care. Life expectancy has increased, with the largest gains having occurred after the 1850s. Many people vote and participate in modern states, and these states provide education, social security, and health benefits. Large numbers of people enjoy levels of wealth, health, education, travel, and life expectancy unimagined before industrialization.
The benefits of industrialization, however, have come at great cost. For one thing, the rate of change (acceleration) is now so rapid that individuals and social systems struggle to keep up. In addition, the natural resources that industrialization depends on are being undermined. Humans continue to use fossil fuels at rates that exceed the time it takes for these resources to replenish. The burning of these fuels also leads to environmental impacts that will continue to impact the Earth for generations to come.
Author bio
Cynthia Stokes Brown was an American educator-historian. Stokes Brown wrote Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. Using the term big history, coined by David Christian at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, Stokes Brown told the whole story from the Big Bang to the present in simple, non-academic language to convey our common humanity and our connection to every other part of the natural world.

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