British Empire: Great Britain and the Industrial Revolution

The earliest Industrial Revolution was set off in Great Britain in the middle of the 18th century. Ahead of the opening of the Industrial Revolution, nearly 80% of the population of Britain lived in the countryside, working on farms. Industrialists, on the other hand, lived as merchants, buying and selling goods all over the world mainly through the East India Company. Owing to the increase in labour and land productivity during the middle of the 17th century, agricultural production and trade increased. Over time, efficient machines were employed on farms. As more machines were used on farms, fewer farm workers were needed. Because of this set of circumstances, a lot of people left the countryside, seeking work in the industrial towns. On top of the movement of a lot of people into Britain’s industrial towns, numerous inventions and industries developed. As one invention or industry developed, its development set the development of further inventions and industries in motion. This, in essence, was the world’s earliest Industrial Revolution, industrial development that transformed British society, making Britain the world’s richest country during the 18th and 19th centuries.

A picture taken during the Industrial Revolution of two young boys working in a British factory.
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Industrial Development

Several industrial developments were introduced into British society throughout the Industrial Revolution. Among these developments were the inventions of the textile industry which enabled Britain to develop into a global leader of the textile industry, producing nearly 40% of the world’s production of cotton goods by the opening of the 20th century. These textile inventions included the flying shuttle by John Kay in 1747 which quickened the process of spinning on a loom. Although the machine enabled weavers to expand their production, the machine produced yarn shortages. Because of this drawback, in 1770, James Hargreaves developed the spinning jenny which allowed weavers to expand their yarn production. A year earlier, however, in 1769, Richard Arkwright developed the water frame. Using elements of the spinning jenny as well as the water frame, in 1779, Samuel Crompton created the spinning mule, increasing the production of yarn all the more. Causing the weaving of cloth to rise to the spinning of yarn, in 1787, Edmund Cartwright created the power loom. All of these textile inventions contributed significantly to helping Britain develop into a global leader in the textile industry.

Furthermore, as evidenced by these inventions, the development of one invention triggered the creation of new and even more advanced inventions, expanding production even further. A central discovery that transformed and expanded the production of cotton goods was the steam engine. The steam engine, developed by James Watt between 1763 and 1775, from Thomas Newcomen’s steam pump, was used to spin cotton. The use of the steam engine in the textile industry caused an increase in cotton mills as well as an increase in the amount of cotton brought into Britain. The growing use of the steam engine caused an increase in the demand for coal. As you would expect, the rise in the demand for coal triggered an increase in the production of coal and, as the amount of coal produced increased, practices using coal caused an increase in the rise of further industries such as the iron and steel industries.

Concerning the iron industry, new processes of melting iron ore to produce cast iron were developed using coke from coal. During the 1780s, iron-maker, Henry Cort, developed a more improved class of iron through two iron-making processes. The first process was wrought iron rolling, developed in 1783. The second process was puddling, developed in 1784. While the process of wrought iron rolling involved heating iron and then working it with tools, the process of puddling involved using coke to burn flaws in pig iron to produce excellent iron. Owing to Cort’s iron-making processes, the iron industry developed and thrived, producing ever more iron over time. The superior iron produced through the process of puddling grew to be the most commonly used metal up until the production of low-cost steel in the middle of the 19th century. Henry Bessemer’s process of producing steel from iron developed in 1855, is a fine example of low-cost iron and steel during this era. The rising supply of low-cost metals inspired the use of new machines in other industries, for example, the transportation industry.

The developments in the iron and steel industry coupled with the growing need for efficient methods of moving goods and resources gave rise to the development of various means of transportation. As follows, roads and waterways were created and improved upon. Water transportation was also built. In time, roads and waterways were passed by railways. While wooden railways were found in coal mines before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, by the 19th century, wooden railways were changed and iron railways were implemented. Significantly, the development of the steam engine was the invention that truly transformed railways in Britain. The earliest steam-driven locomotive was invented by Richard Trevithick in 1802. During the early 1820s, the Father of Railways, George Stephenson, built Hetton Railway – the world’s first railroad line. Throughout the period of the Industrial Revolution, a single invention, every so often, inspired the development of superior and progressive discoveries and industries. The steam engine, for example, was not only important to the expansion of the textile industry, it was also incredibly important to the growth of the transportation industry, moving engineers and inventors to greater and higher levels of thought.

Great Britain

The Industrial Revolution started in Britain and spread to other European countries and North America. Industrial development originally occurred in Britain for several reasons. First, Britain was already in a position of power. Britain stood as one of the most powerful countries in the world socially, politically, and economically throughout this era. The East India Company, the British global trading empire, dominated the seas during a time when sea power was important and valued. Furthermore, the British Empire occupied many regions across the world, ruling and extending the British way of life in their colonies, in addition to extracting valuable resources from their colonies. Thus, Britain was, in a lot of ways, already in a position of considerable power prior to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Second, unlike other countries, Britain also had the resources that enabled it to engage in industrial development. Britain had a great supply of coal which powered inventions like the steam engine. Moreover, there were scores of well-educated and creative engineers and inventors, prepared and willing to drive industrial development forward in Britain. These engineers and inventors also had the support of rich industrialists and businesses who were prepared and willing to support and further the work of these engineers and inventors. Third, the relative sense of strength and stability that the country experienced during this era allowed it to have the kind of climate from which the Industrial Revolution that could arise. Even though well-resourced countries that traded with Britain like China and India could have also set off the Industrial Revolution, they did not, however, own the kind of strength and stability that Britain enjoyed. This perhaps is also among the most important reasons why it was possible for it to occur in Britain and not anywhere else.

Impact of Industrial Development

The Industrial Revolution not only produced ever more technologies, factories, and with time, more production, it also brought about several great developments throughout British society. Urbanization increased during the age of industrial development and as urbanization increased, so did businesses. The creation of more businesses meant that lots of jobs were also created, increasing people’s chances of making more money in industrial towns than on farms. As people earned better wages, the quality of life for most people improved. Although the quality of life improved for most people, the standard of living, however, only improved for a lesser and richer part of the population.

Moreover, as educational opportunities expanded, several fields also developed, which had a positive impact on British society. For example, the development of the field of medicine, led to a decline in the death rate of infants and children, in the end, increasing the population over time. In 1801, the population stood at 8.3 million. By 1850, the number had increased two-fold, standing at 16.8 million. In the same way, in 1901, the population stood at 32.5 million, two times what it was nearly 50 years earlier. What’s more, the expansion of educational opportunities meant that more and more children were in school, removing them from working in harmful environments, bringing them into environments intended to prepare them to be productive citizens in the world that would develop from this age of industrial development. The British economy also developed, growing the country’s wealth throughout the age of industrial development as well as in the years that followed.

Meaningfully, the Industrial Revolution moved beyond Britain, spreading to several European and North American countries.
While the age of the Industrial Revolution resulted in great developments in Britain, it also had negative effects. The world and idea of work were transformed by industrial development. People were expected to work long hours, around 12-14 hours a day, 6-days every week, for low wages, in poor and unhealthy conditions. Although this was the case, women and children worked for even lower wages. Children normally fell ill, lost their ability to see, lost their limbs, and some even died because of the poisonous energy and conditions that they were expected to work in. This toxic energy and conditions were not only harmful to children, but it was also harmful to the environment.

Concerning women, although their lives transformed and improved, they were still largely discriminated against. Though trade unions were formed to fight for worker’s rights and interests, very little changed for the majority of workers, growing tensions between the middle class who lived comfortable lives as merchants and farmers, and the working class who either received low wages in mines or factories or those who received none at all because their jobs had been taken over by machines. As ever more people moved into the industrial towns, cities were overwhelmed and overcrowded. Poverty and illnesses like cholera and tuberculosis spread as more and more people made their way into the industrial towns, in search of a better life. Even though there were negative effects from the earliest Industrial Revolution, industrial development in Britain did, however, lead to the complete transformation of British society and, in time, the transformation of the rest of the world. It also inspired the beginning of the technological world as we know it today.

References and Further Readings

Allen, R. C. (2009). The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. Cambridge University Press

Griffin, E. (2010). A History of the British Industrial Revolution. Macmillan Education UK

Hobsbawm. E. (2000). Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day. Peter Smith Pub Incorporated

Mohajan, H. K. (2019). “The First Industrial Revolution: Creation of a New Global Human Error”, Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, 5(4), pp. 377-387. [Online]. Available:

Stearns, P. (2016). The Industrial Turn in World History. Routledge

Weightman, G. (2010). The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World 1776-1914. Grove Press

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