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Economic developments that began in Britain around 1750 have led to the mechanization of the manufacturing process, a huge increase in the amount of goods produced per worker, and the increased urbanization of society. These changes are often referred to as “The Industrial Revolution.”
However, the term “revolution” needs to be used with some caution. Radical, but not necessarily rapid, changes characterized the industrialization of England, which began about 1750 and took a century to mature. Some parts of the world—principally the underdeveloped countries of the Third World—are still experiencing the first stages of industrialization today.
Several factors influenced the push to industrialize. In the English case, agricultural change was an important prerequisite for industrialization. Thanks to the revolutions of the seventeenth century, large landowners dominated parliament. In an effort to increase their incomes, these landowners passed several laws enclosing or fencing in lands that had formerly been open fields or common lands for villagers. As large landowners assumed ownership of these fields, they experimented with new methods of stock breeding and uses of fertilizers. Many of the small farmers who were driven off the land provided surplus labor for the industrial revolution. Total food production greatly increased, thanks to the new methods and the economies of scale permitted by the enlarged farms. As food production increased, the population increased, encouraging even more food production. The populations of England, Ireland, and Scotland combined probably tripled from about 10 million to 30 million in the period from 1750 to 1850.
In 1776, Adam Smith had spoken disparagingly of the “mercantile system’’ and the tools of mercantilism. But England’s thriving commerce and established colonies supported the process of industrialization. The accumulation of gold and silver helped to provide the capital for buying new machines. Colonial and other trading links helped to insure the raw materials and markets needed for developing industries.
Credit should also be given to the entrepreneurial (risk taking) drive and inventiveness of those who helped develop new industries. Developments in the cotton textile industry illustrate the new spirit. British hand labor could not compete with Asian workers in the production of cotton cloth. Instead, the English captured the world market for cottons by mechanizing the production of cotton cloth. John Kay, in 1733, invented the flying shuttle, which made it possible for one person to weave a double width of cloth. James Hargreave’s spinning jenny (1765) increased the output of yarn. In 1769, Richard Arkwright used a water frame for multiple spinning of many threads to any thickness desired. Edmund Cartwright, in 1787, invented a steam-driven power loom. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney, an American, increased the supply of raw cotton to feed these machines. By 1820, cotton textiles made up half of all British exports. It should be noted that the much older woolen industry was mechanized much more slowly and did not enjoy the same gains in quantity produced.
The steam engine played an important role in industrialization. Before its use became widespread, factories were often located near sources of water power. Around 1712, Thomas Newcomen developed a steam engine used for pumping water out of mines. Significant improvements in steam engines, making them practical to use in factories and with a wide variety of applications, was achieved by the Scottish engineer, James Watt. By the 1780’s, Watt’s engines were widely used in England and abroad. In the first half of the nineteenth century, steam engines saw use in improving transportation—first in steamboats (by 1807) and later in locomotives (by 1825). Between 1850 and 1890, Britain’s railroads expanded from 6,635 to over 20,000 miles. The use of steam increased the demand for coal and iron.
Although the Industrial Revolution developed over several decades from textile manufacturing to mining to transportation, industries clamored for iron with fewer impurities to give machines strength, precision, and durability. Fortunately for Great Britain, they were endowed with the natural resources of coal and iron ore and the entrepreneurship of innovative ironmasters. Abraham Darby (c. 1678-1717) discovered a process for smelting pig iron using coke instead of charcoal. Henry Cort's (1740-1800) puddling process made a cheaper, more workable iron. Then John Wilkinson (1728-1808) built one of the world’s first iron bridges in Britain in addition to creating precision cylinders for cannons. His name is still a household word for razor blades and cutlery.
The process of technological innovation continued in the second half of the nineteenth century. The invention of the Bessemer Process (after the Englishman Henry Bessemer) in the 1850’s made possible the mass production of steel, while allowing the construction of new types of machines, bridges, and buildings. The telephone (1876), the electric light bulb (1878-9), and the automobile (powered by an internal-combustion engine in 1885) followed.
Belgium, with its rich coal deposits, began to industrialize in the 1820’s, France began industrialization in the 1830’s, and the quickening tempo in the 1840’s contributed to the Revolution of 1848. Germany, led by Prussia, industrialized rapidly after the Customs Union or Zollverein of 1834 had established a large free trade zone. By 1871, when it was unified, mineral-rich Germany had easily surpassed France. The United States industrialized in the second half of the nineteenth century. It had vast mineral wealth, a good supply of labor fed by continuing immigration, and business interests in firm political control after the Civil War. By 1900, the U.S. had surpassed England in producing iron and coal and in consuming raw cotton!
The organization of work was changed by the reliance on power-driven machines in the production process. The textile industry was the earliest example. Before industrialization, the cottage or domestic system predominated in the making of clothes. An employer provided the yarn and looms to spinners and weavers, who worked at home. The employer later collected and sold the products of the cottage or “putting-out” system.
In the new textile industry, machines that required large, complex buildings doomed the work-at-home system. Sizable groups of workers were brought together, often in one place. Organizing the flow of work through the factory in a series of steps resulted in the imposition of discipline and close supervision upon the workers. Human needs and activities were subordinated and shaped to meet the needs of the machines, whereas in the previous rural environment workers often set their own pace and standards of performance.
Women and children were less resistant to the harsh discipline required of early factory workers than adult males. Consequently, many of the male workers displaced by economic change found themselves at home, while their wives and children went out to work. In England, where we have the reports of parliamentary commissions, the working conditions were horrible by modern standards. Fourteen-hour workdays were common. Working class children began factory toil at the age of five or six. Floggings and other physical abuse were common for minor work infractions. Safety conditions were poor, and it was not uncommon for workers to fall into their machines and suffer grave injuries. The conditions at the coal mines appear to have been worse than in the factories. The mines were cramped and wet. It was common for the men to work naked, despite the presence of women hurriers (coal carriers).
The development of factories led to the growth of industrial cities. In nineteenth century England, the Midlands and the north, where coal and iron were located, saw a vast rise in population. Manchester was the first of these industrial cities. It grew from 25,000 in 1772 to 455,000 in 1851. All over Britain, the Industrial Revolution brought town growth. In 1801, there were 106 towns of 5,000 or more population. By 1851, there were 265 such towns, and by 1891 the figure had more than doubled again to 622 towns. Workers lived in close quarters near their factories, and at times whole families lived in a single room. Because sanitary conditions were extremely poor, there were frequent outbreaks of typhoid, cholera, and other diseases. Tuberculosis was common. Charles Dickens described these poor conditions in his novel Hard Times:
It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.
This has been a very dismal picture of the social conditions attending industrialization. It should be remembered, however, that industrialization ultimately brought an increase in the standard of living for all classes. Many who, at the time, moved from the rural areas to the new cities also enjoyed a rise in their standard of living.
In any case, reforms did eventually better the conditions of the workers. In England, the first child labor act, passed in 1802, was ineffective because of the lack of enforcement. The first effective child labor law was the Factory Act of 1833, which prohibited the use of children under nine in textile mills and restricted child laborers under thirteen to a 48-hour week and nine hours a day. The Reform Bill of 1832 extended the right to vote to about an eighth of adult males. By 1884, about three-fourths of adult males in Britain could vote. The extension of the political suffrage was a way to contain worker dissatisfaction with economic conditions. Labor laws were passed and voting rights extended in much of the industrialized West. These served to blunt the appeal of such movements as socialism and communism.
Britain in the latter part of the nineteenth century was dominated by two political parties. The leader of the Conservative Party (formerly the Tories) was Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881). Disraeli was an ardent defender of British imperial interests and the continued union of Ireland with England and Scotland. He served as prime minister in 1868, and from 1874 to 1880. The Liberal Party (formerly the Whigs) was led by William Gladstone (1809-1898). Gladstone was a moralist bent on reforms. Unlike Disraeli, Gladstone had supported the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which resulted in cheaper grain for the masses but hurt the interests of the landed gentry. He was prime minister in the periods 1868-1874, 1884-1885, 1886, 1892-1894. Much of Gladstone’s time in office was preoccupied with electoral reform and obtaining home rule for Ireland.
Earlier mention was made of the Reform Bill of 1832, which got rid of many rotten boroughs. The act only extended the suffrage to an eighth of the adult male population. After the Liberals had failed, it was the Conservatives, under Disraeli, who succeeded in getting the Second Reform Bill passed in 1867. The Conservatives hoped to enlarge their base of voters. The act added about a million eligible voters. Over a third of adult males could vote, including most home owners and city workers.
In 1884, under Gladstone, another reform measure extended the franchise to an additional two million males, including most agricultural workers. In 1885 election districts were redistributed to more closely conform to actual population. It was not until 1918 that the right to vote in Britain was extended to women over thirty (the age was lowered to twenty-one in 1928). A vigorous women’s suffrage movement and the important role women played on the home front in World War I were factors in getting women the right to vote.
Another important change in the English political structure took place with the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911. The act was proposed because the House of Lords had been resisting progressive income and inheritance taxes. The threat that the king would create enough new lords to guarantee approval, induced the lords to approve the act. This legislation provided that the House of Lords would have no power to amend or reject a money bill and could only delay other public bills for a period of two years. With the passage of the Parliament Act and the granting of the suffrage to women, England was more fully a democracy and a model of parliamentary government for the world.
Educational reforms followed electoral reforms. Free elementary education for children ages five to ten became mandatory with the passage of the Elementary Education Act of 1870. Later, children were required to stay in school until they are sixteen. The Education Act of 1902 recognized responsibility to provide free secondary education. The English also have “public” schools, but these are elite schools for the upper strata of society.
England was considerably less successful in solving the so-called “Irish Question.” The Irish had many grievances. In 1801, as a reaction to the United Irish revolt of 1798, the British insisted that the Irish give up their separate parliament and accept incorporation into the United Kingdom. Because of the great potato famine of 1845-47, a million Irish died and another million emigrated. The British, given their anti-Irish Catholic and pro free enterprise prejudices, were quite hesitant to give relief. The Liberals under Gladstone were more sympathetic. There was also an uprising of the Fenian Brotherhood in 1867 to urge the reformers on. In 1869, Irish Catholics were freed from the obligation to provide financial support for the Anglican Church of Ireland. In 1870, provision was made that evicted tenants should be compensated for the improvements they made on the landlord’s property. But the Irish agitated for more, particularly for HOME RULE, or the right to have a separate Irish parliament. Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) and other Irish representatives in the British House of Commons began a campaign of parliamentary obstruction to force the passage of a measure creating an Irish parliament. Gladstone attempted in 1886 to pass a Home Rule bill, but the measure was defeated. Several other attempts at a Home Rule bill were also defeated. It was not until 1914, on the eve of World War I, that a Home Rule measure was finally passed in the British parliament. When the Protestant Ulstermen made clear their vehement objections, implementation of the measure was postponed for the duration of the war. With the Easter Rising of 1916 and subsequent events, demands for Home Rule were replaced with demands for independence—which was obtained in successive stages for most of Ireland, with the exception of Ulster.