Historians consider the Industrial Revolution to be one of the two most important changes that have taken place in the history of the world. Just as the start of agriculture did 10,000 years ago, the Industrial Revolution marks a turning point in history. The Industrial Revolution is, of course, a more recent change. Just 300 years ago, people could do work or produce goods only by using their own muscles, the muscles of animals, or unreliable sources of power such as wind (in windmills) or water (in water mills). As a result, production was limited. The Industrial Revolution made it possible to do more work and produce goods in abundance.
Now people could use machines driven by fuels such as coal and oil, and the supply of these fuels seemed unlimited. This remarkable change in production began at a particular time, the late 1700s, and in a particular country, Great Britain. Why did this change in production start then and there? Historians suggest that all of the pieces of the puzzle, as it were, happened to exist in Britain, and only in Britain. For one thing, after the mid-1700s, the demand for manufactured goods such as cloth grew rapidly and outran the capacity of individual, rural spinners and weavers, who often worked in their own homes. In addition, the population grew faster than the supply of goods.
Moreover, if Britain could produce goods quickly and cheaply, it had existing markets, both at home and overseas. Britain’s empire included parts of North and South America, Asia, and Africa. The demand was there. The problem was how to satisfy it. Here Britain had an advantage over its European neighbors. Because of advances in agriculture, Britain had better farm machinery and more scientific methods of cultivation than most of Europe. The process of consolidating small landholdings into larger, more productive farms was already well under way. This paved the way for industry because fewer farmworkers were needed, and more workers were available for other jobs. If labor is one necessary resource, raw materials are equally important resources. As it happened, Britain’s plentiful underground supplies of coal became the key to Britain being able to support its own new industries. Another piece of the puzzle fell into place.
Already wealthy because of trade with the outside world, Britain could afford to invest in new ventures. In addition, the British government safeguarded property against seizure by the government. Both these facts provided a perfect climate for individual and industrial innovation. Thus, a talented inventor such as James Watt, who devised an efficient steam engine, found himself richly rewarded-in a country where such wealth was secure. The other wealthy countries of western Europe could not match Britain’s advantages-they did not have all the pieces of the puzzle. For example, France, by 1763, had lost much of its empire to Britain. Lacking an empire, there were no instant markets that would create demand for French-made products. Britain was a country with limited government, enthusiasm for change, and stimulating contact with the outside world. By the 1780s, the Industrial Revolution had begun to transform the textile industry.
Developments in that industry spurred other advances. More than any other invention, the steam engine drove the Industrial Revolution forward by providing a source of power that did not depend on human muscle or the power of the wind or moving water. The increase in power now available to produce goods was remarkable. Industrial change spread in two important ways. First, new industries sprang up as people applied the steam engine to new uses. Second, the Industrial Revolution crossed from Britain to other countries. Between 1815 and the 1850s, steam engines, factories, and railroads began to appear in parts of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and northern Italy.
After 1870 the Industrial Revolution entered still another phase. It is the period that extends to the present; some historians call it the Second Industrial Revolution. Electric power and the internal combustion engine joined the steam engine. Many products of industry-telephones, automobiles, radios, and television sets-became available to most citizens of industrialized countries. The great industrial transformation that had begun in the special conditions of Great Britain soon encircled the globe.