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Great Britain Leads the Industrial Revolution

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  • 0:02 A Major Power
  • 1:02 Why Great Britain?
  • 2:43 Textiles Lead the Way
  • 3:42 More Game Changers
  • 4:42 The Results
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. We will look at reasons for Britain's industrial leadership, trends in its industry, and the results of industrialization on British society.

A Little Island but a Major Power

Great Britain is just a little island, only about the size of Louisiana, but as the 19th century approached, it had become a major economic and military power. Its empire covered about a quarter of the land in the entire world and controlled trade networks and colonies all over the globe. How could this happen?

Great Britain became a powerful empire because it was the birthplace and leading force in the Industrial Revolution, which was a cultural and economic shift from home-based production, traditional agriculture, and manual labor to a system of factory-based manufacturing that included complex machinery, continual technological growth, new energy sources, and developments in transportation. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, Great Britain turned its attention from the rural home to the urban factory and from human power to mechanical power, and it grew so wealthy that it was able to expand and extend its influences across seas and continents.

Why Great Britain?

What was so special about Great Britain that the Industrial Revolution started there? Historians identify several factors that converged in Britain in the mid-18th century and created just the right environment for the rise of industrialization. Let's look at a few of them:

  • Agricultural changes - British farmers were making good use of new agricultural techniques and tools that allowed them to increase their productivity. Fewer people could grow more food, even enough to feed a large labor force.
  • Population boom - Britain's population doubled between 1750 and 1800. The nation had more people to work in factories and more people to purchase manufactured goods.
  • Economic innovations - Britain had developed an economic framework, including banks and a stock market, which could handle increases in economic activity.
  • New ideas and a scientific viewpoint - The British people were explorers who believed in human progress and scientific advancement. They were constantly making new discoveries about how the world worked.
  • Transportation foundations - Britain had plenty of navigable rivers, decent roads, and canals that could transport raw materials to factories and products to consumers.
  • Natural resources - Britain's large deposits of coal and iron provided power for new factories.
  • A supportive government - The British government encouraged commerce, gave patents to protect inventors, offered financial perks to industrialists, and maintained a hands-off policy that pleased businessmen.
  • A trade network with numerous colonies - These colonies provided raw materials and a market for finished goods.

Textiles Lead the Way

The British population was growing fast by the mid-18th century, and the nation needed more textiles to make more clothing for more people. Inventors got to work and soon developed a series of machines that helped meet the ever-growing demand. These advanced rapidly and included:

  • The flying shuttle, which allowed one weaver to do the work of two.
  • The spinning jenny, invented by James Hargreaves in 1764, which could produce several spools of thread at the same time.
  • The water frame, created by Richard Arkwright in 1769, which used water power to spin 91 spools of thread at once.
  • The spinning mule, which combined spinning and weaving into one machine.
  • The power loom, which used steam power to weave cloth.

The textile industry embraced this new technology, built factories, hired thousands of workers, produced cloth at ever-increasing rates, enjoyed massive profits, and essentially led the way in Britain's industrialization.

More Game Changers

Another industrial game changer developing in 18th-century Britain was steam power, which could be used to operate new machinery. In the early 1700s, Thomas Newcomen created an engine that used steam to push a piston up and down and pump water out of coal mines. In the 1760s, Scottish inventor James Watt made Newcomen's engine more efficient, and in 1782, he added a rotating action that could power machines in factories.

At the same time, Britain's iron industry was growing and changing. Early in the century, inventors discovered a more efficient, less expensive method for making cast iron. A few years later, Henry Cort developed a process of refining iron that created a strong product that could easily be used in all kinds of factories and manufactured goods. In the 1850s, Henry Bessemer discovered a way to mass produce steel. Materials were now readily available to manufacture everything from buildings and ships to tools and machines to newfangled appliances and trains.

The Results

The Industrial Revolution made a major impact on British society. Factories popped up throughout the country, gathering production into centralized locations, employing hundreds of workers, and turning out massive amounts of manufactured goods. Cities grew rapidly, springing up near factories to house industrial workers who needed a place to live. Urban life tended to squeeze workers into cramped housing and expose them to poor sanitation, disease, and crime. On top of that, laborers put in long hours in dangerous, harmful environments for very low wages. It was not a healthy life.

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