Industrial Revolution Research Paper

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Scholars have labeled the mid-to-late-eighteenth-century change in England, France, and the United States—from an agricultural-based society to one focused on the production of goods in factories—as the first Industrial Revolution. Although they disagree whether the development of steam power was its predominant cause, they do agree that industrialization and growing urban populations placed undue demands on fossil energy sources and natural resources.

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The Industrial Revolution marked the shift from agriculture-based economy and the production of goods in homes to the production of goods in factories; it corresponded with the growth of population centers and transportation networks for the distribution of those goods. The first Industrial Revolution occurred in eighteenth-century England. Economists generally assign a starting date between 1740 and 1780. Scholars disagree about whether the Industrial Revolution was truly a sudden development or rather the result of changes that had been accumulating for centuries. Similarly, they disagree on the extent to which the Industrial Revolution was a consequence of the development of the steam engine as a source of power. But from the standpoint of the environment, the significance of the Industrial Revolution was the increased use of fossil energy sources and other natural resources, placing ever-increasing demands on the environment. The increased use of resources resulted not only from the energy needs of manufacturing itself, but also from the higher population densities that industrialized regions could support as well as the need to transport workers to the workplace and manufactured goods to market.

Preconditions for the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution could not have occurred until the “agricultural revolution” had gotten underway in England, making it possible to produce increased amounts of food using fewer workers. The agricultural revolution had a number of causes, including the enclosure of grazing lands, the invention of the seed drill and improved plows, and a more productive system of crop rotation. The potato, imported from the Americas, produced a higher yield of food per acre than cereal grains.

Industrialization in its turn had positive effects on agriculture and the economy. Inventions such as the spinning jenny and the cotton gin increased the profit that could be gained by planting cotton. The mechanical reaper increased the speed with which crops could be harvested. The development of machine tools made the manufacture of farm implements easier. Canals and railroads facilitated the transport of food into urban areas and brought manufactured goods to local markets.

Also necessary for industrialization were a stable currency and banking system. Industrial workers needed to be confident that the coins or banknotes with which they would be paid would be generally accepted in exchange for goods and services. Industrialists often needed to borrow the funds to build and equip factories. Banks and other lenders needed to be sure that the currency in which they would be repaid would have the same buying power as at the time it was borrowed.

Also contributing to the Industrial Revolution were the earlier scientific revolution, associated with English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, and religious thought of the Protestant Reformation, which established a positive correlation between material prosperity and divine favor.

The Coal Industry and the Steam Engine

A case can be made that the precipitating event of the Industrial Revolution was a change in the ecology of England—the depletion of English forestland resulting from the burning of wood for warmth and cooking and its use in construction and in such activities as glassmaking. Coal, the first fossil fuel to be widely used, was an even more efficient source of heat than was wood, and iron would turn out to be a far more durable building material. But coal and iron had to be mined, and mines tended to fill up with water. A primitive steam engine, known as the “miner’s friend,” was patented in 1698 by Thomas Savery (1650?–1715), an English engineer from Devonshire, and could be used to remove water from mine shafts. Savery’s engine was improved and made much safer by Thomas Newcomen (1663–1729), a Devonshire blacksmith. Newcomen’s engine was highly inefficient, however, because much of the energy released by burning coal was wasted reheating the engine’s one cylinder, which was cooled as a part of its operating cycle. It remained for the Scottish inventor James Watt (1736–1819) to introduce a second cylinder for condensing the steam, allowing the power-generating cylinder to remain warm. Watt produced a working model by 1775, and Watt’s company had installed forty engines in the mines of Cornwall by 1880. Watt continued to improve the steam engine, which found increasing use in factories as well as mines. By 1800 more than five hundred steam engines were in commercial use.

The steam engine represented the first use of heat energy to perform mechanical work. Prior to its invention, the only power sources available to industry were those of human and animal muscle and the energy of flowing water and the wind, the availability of which were somewhat restricted by geography. A steam engine, however could be installed anywhere water and fuel were available. The steam engine is a good example of the interaction of science and technology during the Industrial Revolution. The earliest versions, those of Savery and Newcomen, were the products of a process of trial and error, with little base in scientific theory. Indeed, a proper scientific theory of heat was not available until the mid-nineteenth century. Watt, although not a university graduate, worked at the University of Glasgow and was acquainted with some of the leading scientific minds of his time, in particular Dr. Joseph Black (1728–1799), who introduced the concepts of latent heat and specific heat, which were essential to understanding the operation of the engine. Watt’s designs also required that workers be able to produce parts to exacting tolerances, requiring that they master more sophisticated tools and measuring devices.

Building better steam engines would become one of the primary motivations for the development of the science of thermodynamics, which connects heat and mechanical energy. In 1824 the French physicist Sadi Carnot (1796–1832) published “Essay on the Motive Power of Heat,” in which he showed that there is a fundamental limit to the efficiency of any heat engine, a limit that is set by the temperature of the environment. Thus any process in which heat is produced for conversion into mechanical energy results in the release of heat to the environment.

The Textile Industry

The climate and terrain of Britain and Scotland were highly suited to sheepherding, and many farm households were involved in the spinning of wool and manufacture of woolen garments. They had also begun the manufacture of cotton cloth. Cotton was available to the English from plantations in the southern United States, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Whereas the cost of growing a pound of cotton was much less than that of a pound of wool, converting cotton into cloth was a more labor-intensive process. The importation of cotton fabric from India led to interest in the possibility of manufacturing cotton garments in England.

The basic operations in the production of cloth are spinning, in which short fibers are wound into a continuous thread or yarn, and weaving to form cloth. The first major invention in textiles during the Industrial Revolution was that of the flying shuttle loom, patented by the English inventor John Kay (1704–1768) in 1733. The improved loom greatly improved the speed with which thread could be woven into cloth, creating a demand for more production of yarn, a demand met by the spinning jenny, introduced by James Hargreaves (1720–1778) in 1764, making it possible to create multiple strands of yarn at the same time. Hargreaves’s spinning jenny produced a relatively weak yarn, however. Sir Richard Arkwright (1732–1792) invented a machine in which, by careful control of tension in the fibers, a much stronger thread was produced. Both Hargreaves and Arkwright were forced to relocate by their neighbors, who felt that they would be driven out of the market as producers of thread and cloth. By 1778 twenty thousand spinning machines were in operation. Steam engines were installed as “prime movers” in the textile factories, providing mechanical energy to the spinning machines and, later, power looms. In 1793 the American inventor Eli Whitney (1765–1825) began production of the cotton gin, a device that greatly speeded the removal of cotton seeds from cotton fiber, assuring an increased supply of raw cotton, which English textile manufacturers eagerly imported.

The Iron Industry and Transportation

The extraction of iron from its ores and its use in construction greatly expanded during the Industrial Revolution. Iron production is very costly in terms of energy. Wood does not burn at a high enough temperature to be used directly to heat the ore, so charcoal had been used instead. The copper industry had begun using coke, a purified form of coal, as a more reliable heat source. Abraham Darby (1678?–1717), an English engineer working in that industry, realized that coke could be used effectively in iron extraction as well. In 1708 he opened the Bristol Iron Works Company and within a few years was manufacturing the huge cylinders needed for the Newcomen steam engines being installed in numerous coal mines.

Numerous advances in land and water transportation facilitated the Industrial Revolution. Canal building by private landowners had been a tradition in England. In 1760, however, Parliament approved using public funds for the construction of the Bridgewater Canal, which was about 16 kilometers long, to carry coal from the coal mines at Worsely to the manufacturing city of Manchester. This reduced the cost of coal to the textile manufacturers by about 50 percent. The success of the Bridgewater Canal was followed by a period of extensive canal building, with nearly fifty additional canals being built by the end of the century and industrialists establishing factories on sites that would reduce their transportation costs.

England also enjoyed a strong navy and a merchant marine fleet. Navigation on the open sea was rendered much safer by John Harrison (1693–1776), a carpenter and clockmaker who invented a chronometer that remained accurate on ship and thus could be used, together with astronomical observations, to determine longitude. Sailing remained dependent on wind, however, and thus somewhat unpredictable until the invention of a practical steamboat by the American inventor Robert Fulton in 1787. By using Watt’s steam engine to power a paddlewheel and later a propeller, Fulton made water travel faster and more dependable.

The steam locomotive appeared in 1802 when English inventor and engineer Richard Trevithick (1771–1833) commissioned Darby’s Bristol ironworks to produce the first locomotive engine. The railways would become the biggest consumer of industrial iron, required both for the steam-powered trains and the rails they rode on. Although only 320 kilometers of rail were operating in 1820 (all of it in Britain), thousands more would be installed by midcentury.

Social Consequences

The Industrial Revolution occurred in England at roughly the same time as the American and French Revolutions. Although the three revolutions were dissimilar in many regards, they all had the effect of greatly diminishing the power of a landed and hereditary aristocracy: in France by execution, in America by political action, and in England by the accumulation of wealth by a new class of entrepreneur. As a result, social mobility greatly increased, and a new class of technically skilled working men, machinists, draftsmen, and engineers emerged. At the same time the status of unskilled or semiskilled workers diminished. Factory workers were required to report for work seven days a week, ten or more hours a day. Many procedures had to be completed while the machines were still running because it was too costly to interrupt production. Many workers, including many children, were maimed as a result. Eventually child welfare laws and unionization would reduce the human toll of industrialization while more enlightened manufacturers came to appreciate that well-paid and healthy workers would be more productive and ultimately an important part of the market for manufactured goods.

The Developing World

The prosperity of the United States, England, and countries of northern Europe as industrialized nations is widely envied by nations in the developing world, and many poorer nations have set upon an agenda of industrialization. Becoming an industrial power, however, is difficult without a stable currency and government and a literate population. Cultural considerations also come into play; not all cultures share the European notion of progress. Because industrialization requires energy sources, industrializing nations and the international community must weigh the benefits and risks of the increased use of fossil fuels, if available, against those of nuclear power plants that might be built. There are also limits to the role that governments can play in stimulating industrialization. The leadership of the former Soviet Union was able to industrialize the production of military hardware and farm machinery but had little to offer in the way of consumer goods. Industrialization is making headway in the Pacific Rim as multinational corporations find it easier to manufacture electronic goods in countries with cheaper labor and less stringent environmental laws. How best to facilitate the industrialization process without further deterioration of the global environment remains an issue of international debate.


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