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What Was the Industrial Revolution?

By Jane Harmon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The phrase 'Industrial Revolution' is applied to a period from roughly 1750 to 1900, and refers to the massive social and economic upheavals attendant upon the shift from a primarily agricultural economy to a manufacturing one.

It was preceded by a revolution in agriculture, with the invention of the Tull seed drill that expedited planting; the enclosure movement, in which large landowners enclosed previously common grounds for their own farming use; and the discovery that rotating crops meant that allowing land to lie fallow periodically was no longer necessary. Many former farm workers were forced off the land and into the cities by these developments.

Inventions in the textile industry are seen as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The 'spinning jenny', the 'flying shuttle' and the steam engine to drive them, led to vast increases in the speed with which cotton could be spun into thread and the thread woven into fabric. Since the machinery was so large and expensive, they required a significant capital investment and a factory to house them, making spinning and weaving an occupation that could no longer be pursued at home in one's cottage.

Power looms displaced many workers, which lead briefly to the rise of the Luddites, followers of "General" Ned Ludd, who broke into factories and destroyed looms. But the technological advances were here to stay.

The Industrial Revolution took place first in England and spread through Europe and to the British colonies in America. Nowhere was the transition painless. Formerly independent producers of goods were now employees of impersonal, frequently exploitative companies. This new class became known as 'the working class', which had little power until the early part of the Twentieth Century, when labor unions and collective bargaining redressed the balance somewhat between capital and labor.

The Industrial Revolution was the start of a long consolidation of population in cities and away from rural areas, which continued until the present day. Now with the ubiquity of the Internet and communication networks, the forces which necessitated population consolidation are starting to lose their power.

With manufacturing automation and the rise of information as a product, many see the Information Revolution, currently ongoing, as a social and economic upheaval to rival or exceed that of the Industrial Revolution.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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