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British Industrial Revolution
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

Incoming: The Industrial Revolution


Around the 18th century, the British tossed the old playbook of human civilization in the trash. In its place was a sexier, if not grimier, modern update. Think of it as Civilization 2.0.


It was in the 1700s that  British industrialists and inventors figured out a way to power their machines using steam power.


After the invention of the steam engine, never again would humans have to use their own labor to get things done. Humans now built machines to do the hard work for them. Humanity was now free to pursue greater things like inventing a hand-held device where cat videos could be instantaneously shared with the world. Welcome to the machine.


Within a hundred years everything that used to be made at home or in small water-powered mills was now being churned out in mass in some large impersonal factory. Machines operated by unskilled workers turned raw materials into consumable goods at such a fast pace that prices dropped dramatically. By 1900, factories were producing everything from guns to breakfast cereal.


But the Industrial Revolution had a dark side. Machines could be operated by people without any practical skills other than the ability to stand on their feet for ten hours a day and perform the same mundane task over and over again. On the one hand, it gave the poorest of society a job. But on the other, the people hired to do this work were single women and children--society's most vulnerable-- who could be used, abused, and spit out when their labor wasn't needed anymore. Imagine the usefulness of Little Timmy Three Fingers--his supple bones would not gum up the machines if he got his arm stuck in them.  Plus you could pay him less.  It was win-win for the industrialists.


Another downside to the Industrial Rev is the sheer amount of destruction to the environment. Massive amounts of natural resources are required to convert raw materials into finished goods.Machines required mountains of coal to turn water into kinetic energy (steam). And as we know, (despite what the reports written by scientists hired by BP have to say) burning fossil fuels like coal and oil has led to acid rain and global warming. The environmental byproduct of two hundred years of industrialization has been ecological destruction on a scale never before seen in human history. Having a walk-in closet full of clothes comes at a price. Or...No longer relying on the time-honored practice of turning your underwear inside out every other day.


Causes of the Industrial Revolution


The invention of the steam engine and the industrial revolution it created didn't come about because of a team of 18th-century tech geeks got a sudden flash of inspiration. In fact, most Britains in 1712 wouldn't realize that something extraordinary was taking place until factories had begun popping up en masse in the 1780s, and by then the steam engine was already celebrating its 70th birthday.


The start and growth of the Industrial Revolution were akin to a bad DIY job that your Uncle Louie always tries to pull off. The noble goal to fix a leaky faucet leads to the discovery that the pipes are corroded which then morphs into a nightmarish kitchen rehab project leaving the family on the verge of bankruptcy and divorce. Okay, bad analogy, we'll own up to that.


Anyway, the point that we failed to make here was that the Industrial Revolution was not the result of some master plan but came about in fits and starts that took centuries to develop. Technically, the Industrial Revolution is still going strong today as the 21st century enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution where computers and robots drive production. Thank you, Roomba. 


The Industrial Revolution came about because business owners faced a series of problems that needed new revolutionary solutions. Take the coal mining industry for example. Before the steam engine, mining was done by hacking the earth's surface with a pickax. Nice and "easy" to get at. But over time the only alternative was to dig deeper and deeper into the earth. By the 1700s some coal mines were so deep underground that it took a full hour of climbing ladders just to reach the work site!


Aside from freak gas explosions, cave-ins, Black Lung, and claustrophobia, flooding has been one of the biggest risks for miners everywhere. After all, any hole that you dig is going to fill up with water when it rains. But in the case of mines, the risks are far greater than getting your skinny jeans muddy.


The traditional method of dealing with excess water had been to attach a horse to a harness (and sometimes people) that would turn a giant wheel and bring water up one bucket at a time; definitely not the model of efficiency.


But In 1712, one British chap, Thomas Newcomen, invented a little contraption called the Atmospheric Engine--the world's first steam engine-- that would solve the coal miners' flooding problem.


The way it worked is the atmospheric engine replaced harnassed animals with a machine that created steam by heating tanks full of water. When trapped in a chamber the steam causes air pressure to build. Air pressure that when released pushes large pistons up and down thus creating energy that can be used to move wheels and pulleys.



The Invention of the Steam Engine


The effect of the Newcomen Steam Engine was that mines could be drained faster and dug deeper. Faster production meant more output and as any Wall Street type can tell you, "time is money".


But, the first model of anything new is guaranteed to have its fair share of "bugs" and the steam engine was no different. The Newcomen Engine 1.0 had one major design flaw: the piston that powered the machine was kept in the same water compartment that used to both heat and cools the piston. Waiting for the water to heat and cool caused delays in the time it took to reheat the compartment and thus a delay in the time it took for the piston to be pushed back up. These delays made the first steam engine inefficient as more coal was needed to continuously reheat the reservoir.


But in 1765  a Scottish lad named James Watt (whom Newcomen had hired as the repair guy) came along created Steam Engine 2.0. Watt was no dummy and instead of just giving Newcomen a better engine he built his design which was so efficient that it cut down a business's coal costs by 75%.


The genius of Watt’s modification was simple but it took Watt long hours of trial and error before that eureka moment finally came. Watts steam engine used two separate compartments (one containing hot water and the other cold) to create the vacuum necessary to drive the piston. This time saver not only sped up the machine but used a lot less coal, making it more efficient and thus cheaper.


It didn't take long before steam engines were flying off the proverbial shelves. Mill owners began replacing their old water and windmills with Watt and Newcomen steam engines. The result is that mills (aka factories) could be built anywhere, had more power, and could be hooked up to more machines than ever before. Thread makers could now hook up dozens of spinning machines to steam engines which caused the production of cotton thread to explode. The same happened with the cloth industry when Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom in 1785. Now anyone with two hands could operate machines that would produce more cotton cloth in one day than a weaver with a hand loom could put out in a month! Mo' production, mo' money.


The Industrial Revolution & Cities


Hands down, the biggest change that came out of the Industrial Revolution was urbanization. The population of cities like London, Paris, and New York doubled and tripled every decade thanks to a steady stream of landless laborers who flocked to the cities in search of a low paying mill job.


But for tens of millions of people, working in a factory for chump wages was still a step up from living on a farm where your survival depended on the weather. For those who made the decision to pull up stakes and move to the cities praying to the gods for enough rain to grow crops on that postage-stamp sized piece of land that your family didn't even own was no way to earn a living. 


As urban fever caught on the world's cities pushed upwards from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions. By 1900 Great Britain and The United States had become the first nations in history to have half of its population living in cities. Today, that number has jumped to 85% of all Americans and Brits living in the concrete jungle.  And urbanization shows no signs of slowing down. In 2007, for the first time in human history, more people on the planet were living in cities than in rural areas.


The 19th Century was the age when steam was king. Anything that could be hooked up to a steam engine was: factories, sawmills, ships, trains. Nearly everything ran on steam until around the 1870s when a new, more efficient source of energy was harnessed: electricity. Experiments with the light bulb and the electric generator led to the Electric Age  ("the second industrial revolution").



The Birth of Sweatshops...


Richard Arkwright is said to be the man who made the Industrial Revolution happen. The father of the factory system was by all accounts a character. Moody, arrogant, and, at least according to his critics, barely able to read or write, Arkwright was not a pleasant man to be around. But what he lacked in people skills he more than made up for in hard work and imagination. Arkwright was always tinkering with new methods of improving things.


In 1769, Arkwright was awarded a patent for his water frame. Using a series of four rollers each one rotating faster than the next, the cotton roving (cotton that’s been carded) was drawn out tighter onto the spindles making a stronger thread. Like the Spinning Jenny, the water frame allowed one operator to do the work of four (eventually, hundreds) which greatly sped up the production of cotton thread. But unlike the Spinning Jenny, Arkwright’s machine was so big and bulky that it couldn’t possibly fit inside a spinner’s cottage.


The contraption was also too heavy to be turned by hand. Arkwright solved both of these problems by putting his machine inside an old flour mill in the town of Nottingham.   The first water frames were powered by a water wheel (sometimes a team of horses) which used the current of a river to turn the gears of the crank. The first factories (more often called mills) had been born.


But there was just one small problem. Arkwright couldn’t convince enough spinners to give up their old cottage ways and work for him at one of his mills. And who could blame them? The cottagers were skilled artisans with the freedom to work at their own pace and set their own. The factory system not only took away their independence but also their pride.


Because Arkwright couldn’t convince enough spinners to move to his factory he began hiring children to operate his machines 16 hours a day. Now you might be thinking that Arkwright was a jerk, and he might have been, but hiring children was nothing new. Children had been working long hours alongside their parents for as long as anyone could remember. The concept of childhood and playtime was still 100 years into the future. Children worked in coal mines, plowing fields, spinning, weaving, cleaning, cooking, the list goes on. So, it was only natural for the factory system to employ children as well. The downside, of course, was that children could be paid much more cheaply and this further drove down the price of cotton cloth. Soon, those stubborn weavers and spinners were finding themselves out of work as people began buying the more inexpensive factory-made cloth.


Life in the Mills


In the factories of the America and Great Britain, life was very different from any time that came before. People that were once skilled in jobs like blacksmiths, coopers (barrel makers), cobblers (shoemakers), weavers, and spinners all could be replaced with people with little or no skills.


The mills and factories often looked like one giant wooden warehouse with a few windows for light and lamps hung for the evening hours. Large iron machines dominated much of the floor space, the noise and heat were incredible. Inside the mill, dust from flying cotton fibers became a blizzard that got into worker’s throats.


The conditions of the factories weren't much to write home about, unless, of course, you were writing to say how bad your life was. Mill workers were cheap and replaceable. Just another part of the machine. The mill owners ran a tight ship with 12-14 hour shifts, six days a week, all for 10 cents an hour.


Machines did the same motion over and over again,  all a worker had to do was stand there for 14 hours and repeat the process over and over and over again. The work was dull, but you weren’t getting paid to think. Talking or singing wasn't allowed and you can forget listening to your I-pod or even a phonograph (a what?); those hadn't been invented yet.


The mill owners ran their factories with military precision. Clocks and whistles told workers when to enter, leave, and go on break. Workers were expected to be at their machines precisely a six o’clock in the morning. Being a minute late would result in a fine. Often the loss of a half day’s wages. Each worker was paid per piece that they produced; if you damaged a product, it would come out of your pay. Need to go the bathroom? A strict factory manager often said no or timed you. Talking could earn you a fine, so could opening a window. Punishment was old school ... Victorian Age old school. Workers could be fined, fired, or even hit.


Millwork was boring at best, at worst, the mills were a very dangerous place. The heat and monotony of the work caused many people to doze off which could end with horrific results. Early machines had little if any, safety features like guards and emergency stop buttons, to prevent injuries like having your fingers mangled in a machine. It's not that such features were not available; it's that they cost money and most factory owners didn't see the point in wasting profit. If you were unlucky enough to be injured (1 in 24 were) at work you could probably expect to be fired without compensation; you were now useless to the company after all.


Many wealthy Americans took the attitude that "hard work was good for the poor because they were naturally lazy and would commit crimes otherwise". The government tended to back this up with laws that favored the owners over the workers.






18th century industrial factory
power loom

young women operating power looms in a 19th century textile mill. 

See the Difference?

Newcomen Engine
Newcomen Engine
Watt steam engine
Watt Engine



Manhattan Then and Now




American Textile mill 1890


child factory worker



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