What caused the industrial revolution? Several factors culminated at the beginning of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution was a time of great advancement in human history. It began in Great Britain between 1760 to 1840 due to the innovations of machines that improved the production processes and productivity of several industries that were in existence such as the textile industry. It then spread to the United States and the rest of the world between 1850 to 1920.
Although there are debates concerning the timelines, the beginning of the industrial revolution between 1760 to 1840 is often regarded as the first industrial revolution while its spread between 1850 to 1920 is regarded as the second industrial revolution.
As Newton‘s third law of motion states, for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Although the law was regarding nature, it can be applied to the industrial revolution as well because there were certain happenings that caused the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution marked a turning point in human history and not only had effects on production and productivity, but it also had social effects that shaped the world that we currently live in. It is therefore important that we discuss the various causes of the industrial revolution.
Causes of the industrial revolution
- Laissez-faire capitalism
- The imperialism of Europe
- Mineral mining
- The advent of the steam power
- Improvements in agriculture in Britain
- Advancement of science in Europe
- Government policies
- Political influence
- Technological advancements and innovations
- Population increase
- Financial innovations
- Improved transportation
- Better communication
- Political and economic competition
A major cause of the industrial revolution was the shift from mercantilism to laissez-faire capitalism. Mercantilism is an economic system that favors the government and allows them to be in control of the economy. Laissez-faire capitalism is an economic system where individuals in the society are the ones in control of the economy. Essentially, the government is asked to let people carry out economic transactions without the government interfering.
As laissez-faire capitalism began to take root, government involvement started reducing and private sector participation increased. People began to make profits for themselves through the various ventures they partook in, and wealthy entrepreneurs began to invest in the setting up of factories and mines which further enhanced the industrial revolution.
The imperialism of Europe
European imperialism gave Europe access to many resources that could be processed into various finished goods. They also had the necessary fund that could be used in the manufacturing process. Additionally, they had well-established trade routes which meant that they could sell their products to several countries. However, Europe’s population was not large hence they had to look for alternative means to cater to the large-scale production they wanted to undertake. This led to making their production processes less labor-intensive and more machine inclined. This use of machines to enhance production was a major cause of the industrial revolution.
The mining of coal and iron furthered the industrial revolution. The invention of the coal-powered steam engines increased the demand for coal which consequently became part of the causes of the industrial revolution. The increased demand for coal led to improvements in the mining techniques that were in use at the time. Since Britain had vast coal reserves, their mining aided the growth of factories and industries. Coal was a high-in-demand mineral that was also useful in the smelting of iron ores.
The reduction in the cost of iron due to the rising efforts to refine it in England made England’s dependence on Northern Europe for iron reduce once their efforts yielded results. England’s iron industry became the biggest iron industry globally at the time. The availability of iron further made improvements occur in various industries there; Iron became a useful tool in the construction of various tools, shipbuilding, railroads, engines, etc.
The advent of steam power
Another cause of the industrial revolution was the advent of steam power. The steam engine which powered various industries across Britain at the time needed coal to operate. Apart from manufacturing industries such as distilleries, cotton mills, waterworks, flour mills, and ironworks that were powered by steam engines, railroads, and steamships also required coal to operate. With this high demand for coal, ways of increasing its production became necessary; this is where steam power comes in.
Steam power made it possible for coal miners to mine larger quantities of coal as it aided them to go deeper into the mining fields. More quantities of coal translated to more productivity for the manufacturing industries and more fuel for the train on the railroads to operate. This all added to the industrial revolution.
Improvements in agriculture in Britain
The 17th to the mid 19th century brought significant improvements in agriculture. These improvements which began in Holland and Belgium revolved around improved farming methods such as heavy manuring, farming in enclosed fields, an improved version of Chinese plowing, selective breeding, and crop rotation. The discovery of new crops like tomatoes, corn, and potato was also a plus. The easier planting and maintenance methods for potatoes and their high caloric value aided in their being an important plant that curbed hunger.
The enclosure movement saw big firms confiscating a lot of land which gave them the freedom to implement their own agricultural ideas. As peasant farmers lost their land to big firms, most of them migrated to the cities in search of paid employment; because of this, the availability of labor for mines and factories increased which further spurred the industrial revolution.
In the 1730s, Charles Townshend, an English Statesman, discovered that if farmers grew different types of crops year after year (crop rotation), then they will not have to leave the field without planting anything for a growing season. Jethro Tull devised a method of sowing seeds by using a drill instead of dispersing them by hand which was the normal practice then. This new method reduced the amount of labor required and also contributed to higher yields.
These improvements in agriculture allowed British farmers to grow more food, which meant that the people could feed with fewer efforts and at lower prices. This consequently brought about a reduction in the labor required in agriculture and an increase in available labor for the factories and mines. Thus, the advancements in agriculture were another cause of the industrial revolution.
Advancement of science in Europe
Advancements in science occurred in European countries. Some historians attribute this time of the scientific revolution to the times of Nicolaus Copernicus between 1473 to 1543 while others attribute it to the times of Isaac Newton between 1642 to 1727. However, one thing that is certain is these periods saw changes in conceptual, social, cultural, and institutional constructs related to nature, knowledge, and belief.
The heliocentric hypothesis of Copernicus which proposed that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun contradicted the popularly held belief of the Ptolemaic theory which held that the earth is at the center of the universe with the sun, moon, planets, and stars revolving about it in circular orbits at an increasing distance. Although it took time for his theory to become accepted, it opened the door for several other scientists such as Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Christian Huygens, and Isaac Newton.
As Europe became more accepting of scientific ideas, the development and creation brought about by advancements in science became more revolutionary. Hence, it created a fertile ground for the establishment and advancement of new ideas which further established the industrial revolution.
The earlier discussed improvements in agriculture especially the land enclosure movement were also aided by government policies. Furthermore, immigrants were allowed into Britain and this aided the development of various industries as most of the immigrants had skills in various fields. These combined government policies encouraged the rapid industrialization of Britain compared to other European countries. At the time, most European countries had contrary government policies thus, while the industrial revolution blossomed in Britain, it took a long time to bloom in Europe.
Britain was a constitutional monarchy during the 18th Century and was politically more stable than most of its challengers including Spain and France. Its political stability meant it had more room for the formation and implementation of better government policies than the aforementioned countries. Britain maintained a patent system that gave inventors exclusive rights over their inventions for a certain number of years. These patent rights aided in financing and developing new ideas.
Aside from its good government policies, Britain had strong political influence over other nations such as India. At that time, India was the manufacturing hub for cotton all over the world. This fueled the demand for the invention of cotton-spinning machines in Britain. Various other resources from India including mineral, agricultural and human resources wrought a solid foundation upon which Britain stood.
The various other British colonies also provided cheap labor as well as diverse raw materials for Britain and equally served as ready markets for the various products created. All these combined in establishing Britain as a dominant world power for almost two centuries and made way for the industrial revolution.
Technological advancements and innovations
Without the technological advancements and innovations made between 1760 to 1920, the industrial revolution would probably not happen. Britain being a world power at the time was at the forefront of technological innovations. The nation’s sparse population meant there was no availability of labor, hence, there was a need to develop machines that required little human intervention to function.
Britain had a solid woolen industry but cotton had more production advantages; It was cheaper, more easily washed and colored, and stronger than wool or linen. However, Britain’s cold climate and its scant population were not favorable for growing cotton. Hence, the alternative was to trade with countries that produced cotton such as the southern united states. Britain’s control over India’s cotton spurred innovations in the textile industry which began in 1733 when James Kay developed a simple flying shuttle which was an improvement on the traditional handloom that was used for weaving cotton at that time.
By 1764, the spinning jenny was invented by James Hargreaves. This device automated and simplified the process of pulling and twisting cotton fibers, thus, it resulted in stronger threads. It also increased productivity in the manufacturing of cotton threads. Richard Arkwright introduced the water frame in 1769. This was an improvement to the efficiency of the spinning jenny as the jenny was hooked to a water wheel. With this improvement, the processes of manufacturing a finished cloth from raw cotton could be completed at a single point. Therefore, it made way for the establishment of textile factories.
Another defining invention in the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine. It also powered the textile industry of Britain along with numerous others. It allowed industries to reduce their dependence on water. It also made the transportation of goods easier.
See also: Effects of the industrial revolution
As mentioned earlier under improvements in agriculture, the increase in food production aided the population growth of Britain. Before then, Britain’s population was low compared to China, India, and France which were leading economies at the time. During this period, a country’s population was directly proportional to its productivity and economic growth. This was because most manufacturing processes were done manually and required an available workforce.
The improvements in agriculture which reduced the amount of labor needed in the production of food and increased yield meant there was an availability of food. This food availability spurred population growth as the population of Britain grew from an estimated 4 million in the 1700s to over 8 million in the 1800s. This population increase was favorable during the industrial revolution as it provided Britain with more manpower to work in the various industries that sprang up at that time.
Since the early 18th century, Britain had financial institutions such as the stock exchange which helped to finance new ventures and central and country banks. By the 1760s, Britain’s rising political and commercial influence coupled with the booming cotton and trade industries merged together to bring profits to the nation. This meant the creation of wealth and the growth of the banks. With the increase of capitalists, there was an equal increase in the need to secure their wealth, opportunities for new investments and growth opened up and there was the availability of capital for the daily running of the various industries that were in existence.
London welcomed its first Stock Exchange in the 1770s. In the 1790s, New York welcomed its own stock exchange (the New York Stock Exchange). By 1776, Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations where he spoke about the free enterprise economic system which lacked government interference and had private ownership of means of production.
Additionally, Banks that were industry specific began to spring up. These specialist banks had knowledge of the particular industries and areas to which they offered their services. They further made profits by keeping a cash reserve and charging interest on the sums they lend to business owners; this is referred to as the fractional reserve system in recent times.
During this period of industrial growth, the early entrepreneurs were merchants, investors, capitalists, salesmen, and financiers. The businesses in existence were small and individually owned; the system known as sole proprietorship today. As time passed, shareholders and joint stock companies emerged. This set the bedrock for the publicly traded companies that are in existence today.
Another cause of the industrial revolution was the improvements that occurred in the transportation system. As agriculture, science, government, manufacturing, finances, etc grew, the need for improved transportation and better road networks also grew. The Turnpike trusts emerged in the 1750s; they were a group of people who took care of the streets and collected a toll in return for their service. Other groups that functioned in a similar manner emerged until the government took charge of maintaining the roads. Thereafter, the canal system was built. This system soon gained acceptability as they were reliable and economical.
Boats on the canal were pulled by horses that walked on either side of the canal on the towpath. Carriages were pulled by horses. Railways consisted of wooden tracks that linked coal mines to canals and rivers. When the steam engine was invented, and iron became widely used, they were found useful in transportation. Carriages were now pulled by steam engines. Trains were built which were also powered by steam engines. Thus, the industrial revolution kept on expanding from Britain to other parts of the world.
All human interaction is backed by communication, hence better communication was another cause of the industrial revolution. Before the improvements in communication, messages were sent through messengers on horses, ships, coaches, or railways, and letters through the postal service. These communication methods were awfully slow and took days and sometimes months before messages could be passed across.
In the 1830s, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone invented the first commercial electric telegraph. This telegraph was a great improvement in communication as messages were sent using electrical signals. It was introduced to railways to transmit messages, signals, and time. William and Charles developed different systems for railroad signaling which ensured a sophisticated means of train communications.
Furthermore, Samuel Morse and other inventors also developed another telegraph in the 1830s and 1840s. This telegraph worked by transmitting electrical signals over a wire laid between stations. Thus, the telegraph improved communication by reducing the time it took to send messages across regions.
Political and economic competition
Political and economic competition was another cause of the industrial revolution. By the mid-18th century, the nations such as Britain and Europe were competing to rise above their status as emerging colonial power to become world superpowers. Thus, many wars were fought between several countries to gain more political and economic power. Some of these wars include the Austrian war of succession (1740-48), the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), etc.
The more territories that were conquered meant more political influence and an expanded trade route for the victor. The expanded trade route further translated to better economic growth and an increased workforce. As the wars raged, people were killed, which reduced the population. All these further spurred the industrial revolution. These nations had to produce labor-saving machines to enhance their manufacturing processes with as little labor input as possible.
See also: What was the bracero program?
In conclusion, there is no single thing that can be pinpointed as the cause of the industrial revolution, instead, the industrial revolution was caused by a myriad of causes which include laissez-faire capitalism, improvements in agriculture, science, finance, and communication coupled with good government policies all aided the industrial revolution. The improvements in various fields saw increased productivity or a reduction in the labor needed or both. Simply, the industrial revolution moved the production and manufacturing processes from a labor-intensive method to mechanized and mass production methods.
The improvements in agriculture increased the yield from harvest which made food cheaper and readily available. This in turn aided population growth which increased the workforce available to the industries. The invention of steam power and the steam engine were also significant in improving the transportation system, the amount of coal and the iron mined as well helped to power various machines that were in existence such as the water frame. Iron became a major component in the construction of railroads and bridges.
Laissez-faire capitalism and financial improvements encouraged the ownership of property, entrepreneurship, and the establishment of new ventures. Society’s acceptance of new inventions and ideas as well as the exclusivity ascribed to inventors through patent rights further spurred more research and inventions.
A new pattern of dedication, smart work, risk-taking, research, and inventions was cultivated due to the revolution. All these culminated in the spread and establishment of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution further helped in shaping businesses, governments, and countries into their current forms of existence.Last Updated on November 3, 2023 by Nansel Nanzip Bongdap
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