The Industrial Revolution was the transformation of the old methods of creating consumer goods into new ways of production through introduction of new technologies and machines. In simple words, the Industrial Revolution changed the way people produced the goods for their own consumption and the consumption of other people. Before the Industrial Revolution, many families made their own furniture, clothes, and shoes. All these crafts were handmade, and because the process was slow, craftspeople produced very few items. This in turn made these items very expensive. Only people with enough money could afford to buy things they needed from craftspeople.
The situation dramatically changed when new devices and machines started to replace hand labor. With the help of new devices, craftspeople could produce more goods at a lower price. In addition, the development of bigger machines gave rise to factories. Thus from making goods by hand in small shops or homes, people moved to making them in factories and later on assembly lines. These changes made goods more affordable to a greater number of people.
With the introduction of new technologies and machines, workers became more efficient and pro-ductive, which in turn resulted in higher profits and the rise of national income per capita as well as changes in the distribution of income. It also affected the living and working conditions of the workers. Technology, organization, and manufacturing were key features of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution grew more powerful each year as new inventions and manufacturing processes added to the efficiency of machines and increased productivity.
The Industrial Revolution first began in Great Britain during the eighteenth century and later spread across the Atlantic, reaching the United States by the nineteenth century. Although it began in England, it established what was known by the 1850s as the “American system of manufacturing.” Actually, the transformation of the United States into an industrial nation took place largely after the Civil War. This rapid economic change has sometimes been called the New Industrial Revolution. It had a great impact on American society, turning the country from an agrarian to an urban and industrial society.
More importantly, the Industrial Revolution had changed the face of the United States, giving rise to urban centers. Urban growth was about as dramatic as the growth in production. It meant in turn that during the Industrial Revolution, millions of people abandoned a traditional life in the countryside and moved to cities, which created a specialized and interdependent economic life and made an urban worker more dependent on the will of the employer than the rural worker had been. Moreover, industrial cities themselves changed the landscape, with smokestacks becoming the new urban symbol, dominating the countryside. These fundamental changes took place first in agriculture and then spread to manufacturing, transportation, communication, economic policies, and the whole social structure.
The progress of the Industrial Revolution can be divided into four distinct periods. From 1730 to 1770, cotton textiles were the key industry, and all inventions made at this time were designed to increase production in cotton textiles and make the work of producing textiles faster and more efficient. John Kay constructed the flying shuttle for weaving (1733),Richard Arkwright created a water-powered spinning frame (1769), and James Hargreaves thought up the spinning jenny (1764).
All these tools revolutionized not only textile industries but also such industries as manufacturing and transportation. It was also during this time that Watt developed a steam engine that was more efficient and much safer than the engine developed by Thomas Newcomen in 1705. The application of steam to transportation, for instance, led to the development of the railroad system, vastly increasing the amount of goods that could be moved over long distances, as well as the speed and reliability of their transport.
The advancement of the cotton industry continued during the second period of the Industrial Rev-olution, which lasted from 1770 to 1792.During this time, the earlier mechanical tools were modernized, and new devices were introduced. A spinning mule was constructed by Samuel Crompton in 1779, and later in 1785, Edmund Cartwright came up with the power loom. The major problem that further industrialization faced at this time was the limitation on location of textiles industries. Factories had to be located by water because of the need to use water wheels to drive the machinery. That problem was solved by several innovations that were developed during the next part of the Industrial Revolution.
During the period 1792-1830,more innovations were put to use in the textile and other industries. Steam power, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, Samuel Herrick’s dressing machine, and the throttle made production more efficient. In the early nineteenth century, Eli Whitney, subsidized by the U. S.government, perfected the precision measuring and machining techniques required to create weapons with interchangeable parts. In 1798, Whitney had secured a U. S.government contract (for $134,000) to produce 10,000 army muskets. Whitney refined and successfully applied the “uniformity system” of production, using interchangeable parts. However, he failed to convince army bureaucrats, who delayed implementing his ideas. He overcame these obstacles by convincingly demonstrating to President John Adams the workability of the interchangeable parts concept. He showed Adams that randomly selected parts would fit together as a whole working musket. Previously, a gunsmith had to make all the parts for each musket separately. Whitney showed how he could use the same parts to build ten different muskets. The machine-made parts always fit together perfectly, which made building muskets much faster and cheaper. Whitney then single-handedly designed and built all the machinery to produce the weapons. Soon it was used in building clocks and many other products. Whitney’s idea was the origin of the phrase “the American system of manufacturing.”
Other Americans, including Isaac Singer, who perfected sewing machines, Cyrus McCormick, who developed harvesters, and Henry Ford, who designed automobiles, used Whitney’s concept of interchangeable parts in their own inventions and innovations. More specifically, Elias Howe built the first practical sewing machine in 1845 using Whitney’s invention. Howe’s machine could sew 250 stitches per minute, much faster than humans could sew. It greatly speeded up the work of sewing clothes. Now fewer people could make more clothes in the same amount of time.
Another aspect of the third period of the Industrial Revolution is that the precision of metalworking technology improved steadily, allowing for increasingly accurate stamping, forging, and machining.
During the fourth period, from 1830 to the early 1900s, steam power was further applied to modes of transportation. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, several steam carriages known as locomotives were built and were mainly used for transportation of coal and ore out of the mines.
These locomotives were one of the most important elements in reducing transportation time and costs and in allowing trade to flourish on inland routes. In addition, within decades, steam-powered boats were making transatlantic crossings, providing merchants with an increased ability to exchange their goods for foreign resources. Dozens of other technical innovations brought changes in iron and steel manufacturing, bridge building, and communication.
In the 1840s, the factory system spread from the textile industry to the chemical and metallurgical industries and, by the 1860s and 1870s, to all market-oriented industries. By the end of the nineteenth century, machine processes dominated the American model of manufacturing, which included mass manufacture by power-driven machinery and the use of interchangeable parts. Machine processes dictated the nature and organization of production, although there was no uniformity in production layout or methods between different industries. For example, in the textile industry, machines almost immediately created a sequential manufacturing process that was characteristic of that industry. In iron manufacturing, however, a standard factory layout took a long time to develop, and there was little uniformity in factory organization until the end of the nineteenth century.
By the end of the nineteenth century, electricity and the internal combustion engine opened a door to a new period of automobile production. Thus, the construction of automobiles began the Post-Industrial Revolution era. By the mid-twentieth century, middle-class and working-class people owned automobiles in Europe as well as in the United States, and the motorcar began to transform social patterns. It has been said with some truth that Americans in the twentieth century carried on a love affair with their automobiles. Certainly, motorcars were marketed as status symbols. But at the same time, the growth of the automobile industry created large fields for investment, produced new types of service occupations, and revolutionized road making. These changes occurred in Western Europe as well as in the United States after World War II.
The Industrial Revolution gave rise to the idea of mass production, the process companies use to produce the same product at a very efficient and inexpensive rate. The mechanization movement had a significant impact on how people worked. In the
The technology and manufacturing processes of the Industrial Revolution made workers more efficient and productive, leading to higher profits, goods that were more affordable, and an increased standard of living. (Corbis)
Years just before the emergence of the automobile, U. S. bicycle makers made quantum leaps in metalforming skill. During the same period, engineers in other industries began to use conveyors to move raw materials around in foundries and flour mills. The next great change in the organization of work occurred as a result of the development of scientific management and the assembly line.
The concept of assembly line production is so familiar today that we sometimes overlook that, until the early twentieth century, it was relatively unknown. An assembly line is an arrangement of machines, equipment, and workers for a continuous flow of pieces in mass production operations. In an assembly line, workers attach the same parts day after day along a conveyor belt, knowing that all of the parts taken together will complete the entire product. There is a disassociation between the worker’s job and the final product, since the workers no longer make the entire product. Instead, they work repeatedly on one tiny portion of the manufacturing process. An item is sent down a line, and at each point, there is someone to work on one aspect of it. One person punches a hole, and the next person puts in a screw, and so on, down the line, until the item is completed. Devices used on the assembly line include conveyor-belt systems, monorail trolleys, and various pulley arrangements.
A transfer machine, a landmark in progress toward complete automation, moves pieces from one station to another. A U. S. firm, the Waltham Watch Company, built the first known transfer machine in 1888. It fed parts to several lathes mounted on a single base. By the mid-1900s, transfer machines were widely in use within the automotive, appliance manufacturing, electrical parts production, and many other industries because they cut labor costs and ensured uniformity and precision.
Automatic controls represented an innovation when applied to the aspects of the production process. The cam, a device that automatically adjusted the position of a lever or machine element, was an important device in many early machines. During the nineteenth century, it was used to make many tools automatic, as opposed to manual. However, the cam had severe limitations in range of movement, number of changes, speed, size, and sensitivity. “True automatic control” could not be accomplished unless the machine was sensitive enough to adjust to varying conditions. Nevertheless, even those imperfect assembly lines changed the way things were made. They changed not only the price for consumers but also the working conditions for workers.
The first assembly line ideas came from nineteenth-century meatpacking industries in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Chicago. Overhead trolleys connected with chains were used to make a “disassembly line.” This minimized unnecessary moving and increased productivity. After that, assembly line techniques were used elsewhere in manufacturing, including bicycles and armaments. In the 1890s, Westinghouse used an assembly line for the manufacture of railway brakes. Even before that, assembly lines were used in shoemaking. At one time, a skilled shoemaker did all the work of making a pair of shoes, one step at a time. This process changed in the 1820s, as workers were brought together in shoe factories and organized into assembly lines. On the assembly line, one worker used a machine to cut out heels. A second worker used a sole-making machine. A third made shoelaces. Other workers put the parts together to make the shoes. The assembly line allowed workers to work on lots of pairs of shoes at the same time. It also made it easier to train workers. Each worker only had to learn one task.
Indeed, two key developments led to the creation of the assembly line: standardized parts and the factory system of work. Both of these developments occurred in Europe, but they were merged with the greatest success in the United States. Today, mass production gives us everything from our clothes to our cars, making them affordable to almost everyone. The first cars were so expensive that only rich people could afford to buy them. In the early 1900s, most people still walked or rode horses. Then, in 1913, Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line, and things changed.
Ford’s objective was to create an affordable automobile, and all his experiments with the assembly line were designed to meet this objective. Ford’s use of the assembly line was not necessarily innovative. Nevertheless, his goal to produce inexpensive products on a mass basis definitely was original. Once Ford proved that the assembly line could reduce production costs, his techniques were followed by other industries, and the United States experienced an explosion in the production of inexpensive consumer products. Ford wrote that the assembly line should be based on three basic principles. First, the commodity should progress through the shop in a planned, orderly, and continuous manner. Second, the work should be delivered instead of leaving it to the worker’s initiative to find it. Third, the operations should be reduced to the elements of their constituent parts. Ford began experimenting with his assembly line on April 1, 1913. He had one worker assemble a new magneto using the usual method. He accomplished his task in approximately twenty minutes. This job was then split into twenty-nine individual jobs, which cut down assembly time to thirteen minutes and ten seconds. In 1914, the height of the assembly line in Ford’s factory was raised 8 inches, lowering the amount of time it took to build a magneto to seven minutes. With further experimentation, the time was cut to five minutes.
These results stimulated Ford to apply the technique to chassis assembly. The fastest the preassembly line workers were able to produce a stationary chassis was twelve hours and twenty-eight minutes. Ford experimented with the production of a chassis by drawing one going down the line with an open windlass and a rope. Six assemblers moved along with the chassis and added parts as they went along. This experiment reduced the production time of an individual chassis to five hours and fifty-five minutes. Ford then elevated the assembly line so that it was waist-high and subdivided the work further, reducing the assembly time to one hour and thirty-three minutes. Ford was then able to lower the price of cars drastically, putting the purchase of a car within reach of a working-class person. Ford’s use of the moving assembly line opened the door to mass production and automation.
The term automation was coined in the 1940s within the Ford Motor Company and was first applied to the automatic handling of metalworking processes. It is logically the ultimate step in the evolution of mass production processes. In its ideal form, it implies elimination of any manual labor and the introduction of automatic controls, assuring efficiency among the production of the product. Perfect automation has never really been accomplished, however. Tasks normally performed by workers operating equipment have been replaced with machines that require only maintenance personnel, engineers, and production control specialists. Automation may be described as a “revolutionary” development, but it is actually the result of mechanization, which began with the Industrial Revolution.
U. S. mathematician Norbert Wiener gave automation a broader meaning when he wrote about cybernetics, which he explained as control and communication in the animal and the machine. He predicted the application of computers to manufacturing situations and an increase in unemployment. This caused a considerable amount of alarm in the 1950s and the 1960s, when his prediction became most popular.
Automation “evolved” from three trends in technology: the development of powered machinery to perform production tasks; the introduction of powered equipment to move materials and pieces during the production process; and the perfection of control systems that were used to regulate handling, distribution, and production. The assembly line illustrates the fundamental principles of mechanization: standardization, continuity, constraint, and the reduction of work to simple labor. Taken together, these principles form the core of industrial culture in the mid-twentieth century in the United States. In addition, these fundamental principles form the basis of the “American production system,” which until recently was the undisputed leader in global manufacturing.
There is no doubt that inventions and technology were the key elements of the Industrial Revolution. It changed the way things are made, it changed the prices of things, and it changed the conditions for workers. It was indeed revolutionary. The Industrial Revolution in the United States changed society profoundly. It caused a complete change in working conditions and the relationship between the working and middle classes. Unfortunately, working conditions became very harsh during the Industrial Revolution. Assembly lines led to mass production, which led to the division of labor. The division of labor was a method of working that involved doing the same task repeatedly. It was totally mindless and led the working class to feel bitter toward the middle class. Factory managers, who were members of the working class, became more concerned with profit and expenses after learning about mass production and started to cut wages to make a quick buck, which also led to bitterness on the part of the working class.
The Industrial Revolution affected not only the economy but also the whole stability of a nation. As discussed earlier, it affected not only the relationships between classes, but also the relationships between countries. The most important aspect of the Industrial Revolution is how all of these concepts are very much applicable to today’s economy, which is why the Industrial Revolution was such an important period of time in the history of the world.
The Industrial Revolution has had massive effects on politics, economics, culture, and society. The emergence of the factory system, for instance, radically changed not only the organization of work but also its very meaning. Huge complexes, job specialization, massive increases in productivity, regimentation, and eventually the assembly line all revolutionized the work experience for millions of people. For many, it meant substantial improvements in family income. For many others, the factory system meant the loss of craftsmanship and the de-skilling of the workforce. The reduction of work to the simplest, repetitive motions eliminated the mastery and personal satisfaction traditionally associated with labor and often substituted unskilled for skilled workers.
The mountains of manufactured goods made available through the technological achievements of the Industrial Revolution also altered virtually everyone’s lifestyle and standard of living. More goods in more varieties were available than at any other time in human history. Except for the most impoverished, nearly any ordinary person could afford to own devices, tools, and appliances available only to the wealthiest classes in earlier centuries. Rapid economic growth and spreading prosperity were among the positive effects of the Industrial Revolution.
In addition, the Industrial Revolution affected social behavior. With the development of new forms of transportation, such as railroads, steamships, automobiles, and airplanes, people became used to migration, thus altering cultural norms and values. Although in earlier times it would be unusual for an individual to travel much beyond the county or state of his or her birth, with the appearance of new forms of transportation, whole new prospects of travel, cultural exchange, and commerce appeared. Moreover, improvements in communications technologies, from the early telegraph to the telephone to radios, televisions, and computers, have greatly expanded the array of information sources accessible to ordinary people and have allowed huge improvements in the coordination of very large organizations scattered over the entire face of the globe.
Other cultural changes are more worrisome, however. Where frugality, savings, and staying out of debt were once thought to be fundamental virtues, after the Industrial Revolution, consumption became the watchword. If too few people purchased the rapidly expanding array of goods, store shelves would never be empty, factory orders would fall, and people would be laid off as factories closed. The only way to stave off economic ruin was to reeducate the population to become intensive consumers, buying many things they would never have imagined before.
To encourage such consumption, the advertising industry was created, developing sophisticated techniques for inducing new desires and needs among ordinary people. Often using manipulation, sex appeal, and other emotional inducements, advertisers have been able to get people to purchase objects and services they never felt any need of before the advertising appeared. And they could be induced to throw away still functioning items in order to buy the “latest, improved” models. Rapid improvements in transportation, warehousing, shipping, record keeping, and bookkeeping led to the creation of giant department store chains and supermarkets. And, in the later years of the twentieth century, the booming mail-order catalog market aimed at moving goods rapidly and efficiently from stores to consumers.
But along with these great leaps in technology occurred an overall reduction in the socioeconomic and cultural situation of people. The growth of cities was one of the major consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Many people were driven to the cities to look for work and ended up living in cities that could not support them. With the new industrial age, a new quantitative and materialistic view of the world took hold, which caused people to consume as much as they could. Living on small wages required small children to work in factories for long days.
The Industrial Revolution brought with it an increase in population and urbanization, as well as new social classes. The increase in population was nothing short of dramatic. In the United States, the annual increase was more than 3 percent, which might have been disastrous, had it not been for its vast amounts of land and fabulous natural resources. The general population increase was aided by a greater supply of food made available by the agricultural revolution and by the growth of medical science and public health measures, which decreased the death rate and added to the population base.
The Industrial Revolution and the factory system brought wonderful new products into U. S. homes. But they also created new problems, such as pollution and overcrowded cities. Workers, too, paid a price. Workers in factories worked long, hard hours. They had bosses instead of working for themselves. Often they fought bitterly with their companies over low pay, unsafe conditions, and other problems. In addition, work itself changed. Before the Industrial Revolution, craftspeople took great pride in their skills and in their handmade products. In factories, workers did simpler jobs, repeatedly. They were not attached to the final product and therefore were deprived from having pride for the item they produced.
Each of the three major aspects of the Industrial Revolution—the division of labor, specialization, and mechanization—helped to create modern industrial society, with its vision of mass production and the assembly line. A great deal of what it means to be modern—both good and bad—derives from the Industrial Revolution and the technologies it spawned.
See also American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations; Automotive Industry; Capitalism; Democratic Socialism; Ford, Henry; Garment/Textile Industries; Manufacturing Jobs; Railway Labor Act; Solidarity; Working Class
References and further reading
Hindle, Brooke, and Steven Lubar. 1986. Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Hobsbawm, Eric. 1999. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. Rev. ed. New York: New Press.
Hunter, Louis C. 1979-1985. A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930. Charlottesville: Published for the Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation by the University Press of Virginia.
White, John H.,Jr. 1978. The American Railroad Passenger Car. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Woodbury, Robert S. 1972. History oftheLathe to 1850:A Study in the Growth of a Technical Element of an Industrial Economy. Cambridge: MIT Press.