The First Industrial Revolution: Causes, Inventions & Effects

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  • 0:00 Industrial Revolutions
  • 1:00 Causes of the First…
  • 2:00 New Inventions and…
  • 4:10 Improvements in Infrastructure
  • 5:12 Legacy of Industrialization
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

For thousands of years, much of the world made objects in about the same way. Then, just over 250 years ago, something changed in England. Learn about how the First Industrial Revolution came about, then test yourself.

Industrial Revolutions

Do your older relatives ever go on and on about the old days, and how much things have changed? Granted, the world has changed a lot in the past 50 years. In fact, the very act of watching this video would have been unthinkable when your parents, much less your grandparents, were children. But imagine if you were part of a generation that saw the world change in ways that had not been seen for hundreds of years? That's what happened to the people who lived during the First Industrial Revolution, a period from approximately 1760 to 1840, that saw a rapid growth of machines and industrialization.

But wait, why are we calling it the 'First' Industrial Revolution? In short, because there was another one from 1840 to 1890, but this second revolution was much more widely spread. By contrast, the First Industrial Revolution largely centered on Britain and parts of the northeastern United States.

Causes of the First Industrial Revolution

So what caused this Industrial Revolution? Britain especially was growing rich off of its large empire. While losing the American colonies in 1783 was a considerable setback, it had finally managed to gain control over much of the trade coming out of India. With this increase in trade, people were growing wealthier, and they wanted to spend that money on new things. As a result, demand for all sorts of goods shot up considerably.

Meanwhile, the groups that were best positioned to profit off of this increased trade were the colonies themselves. Britain was already seeing the results of letting colonies grow too rich in North America and was determined not to make the same mistakes twice. This was especially true since India was able to produce textiles at a very low cost. Meanwhile, much of the small business throughout the English countryside had long been textile production. If Britain was going to save its industry, it would have to increase its efficiency.

New Inventions and Mass Production

As a result, much of the innovation from this period, especially early in the Industrial Revolution, had to do with the textile industry. Soon, new inventions were filling factories throughout the great industrial cities of Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham. While these innovations would not save small business, they did save the British textile industry, which meant that the Indian textile market was soon buying British cloth! In fact, one of the only places that could compete with the British dominance of the textile industry was the United States. This was due to the invention of the cotton gin, a machine that removed seeds from cotton fibers, which meant that Northern U.S. factories had a cheap supply of cotton from Southern plantations.

These new factories often used the same types of tools and machines throughout, which made it easier for repairmen to service them. It also made them much easier to buy. As a result, new factories were built to create the machines necessary to make textiles. These new factories were built on their own revolutionary idea, that of replaceable parts. For centuries, if someone needed a new part for a machine they would have to find a blacksmith who could hopefully fit the original shape and composition. Now, both the machines and the parts were produced in large amounts, and for the first time ever, everything from iron fittings to screws were manufactured to be absolutely identical.

These great new machines required an equally great amount of energy to run. Early in the Industrial Revolution, power from water mills ran much of the equipment. However, because the water came from rivers and streams, that severely limited the number of sites where factories could be built. Also, watermills were dependent on a steady flow of water, which was not always possible. Steam engines, on the other hand, could produce a consistent amount of energy by burning wood. Smokestacks soon filled the skylines of the industrial powerhouses, but it was really coal that took them to new literal and metaphorical heights. No longer dependent on heavy loads of wood or nearby forests, location now could be prioritized based on economic reasons.

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