The Industrial Revolution in Europe and the U.S.: Events & Innovations

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

The Industrial Revolution, spanning from the late-18th to the mid-19th century, was an era that saw major advancements in production, technology, manufacturing and much more. This lesson will explore the key developments that arose during this period and how the Industrial Revolution impacted innovation around the world. Updated: 10/04/2021

What Was the Industrial Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution was exactly what it sounds like: a revolution in industry and manufacturing. But it was also so much more because it had a profound impact on society as a whole. Let's explore this pivotal time in modern history.

The Industrial Revolution describes the tremendous advances in production, manufacturing, and other fields of engineering occurring between the late 18th century and mid-19th century. It's a little bit tricky because there is no precise beginning and ending date for the Industrial Revolution. In fact, there is quite a bit of debate among historians over when the Industrial Revolution began and ended.

Some historians even argue the term is a misnomer and there was no 'revolution.' They insist it was a paced, gradual transformation, not nearly as rapid and explosive as we tend to think today. Many historians suggest the Industrial Revolution began around the 1760s and lasted up to about the 1840s. Others theorize a second Industrial Revolution lasting between the 1840s to 1870s or 1880s. So, you see, there are many different views on the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain and spread to the United States. The developments in the two countries did not take place simultaneously, at least not initially. In the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the United States lagged behind developments in Great Britain. A good example of technology spreading from Great Britain to the United States is illustrated by the contributions of Samuel Slater.

Samuel Slater (1768-1835) was an Englishman who mastered textile machine operation and illegally brought that technology to the United States. See, during this time, Great Britain had extremely advanced textile-producing machinery and naturally wanted to maintain a monopoly on this type of technology. There were, therefore, British laws against importing textile machinery. Young Slater memorized the designs for cotton-spinning machines and reproduced them in the United States with wild success. For this, he is remembered in the U.S. as the 'Father of the American Industrial Revolution' and in Great Britain as 'Slater the Traitor.' Pretty funny.

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  • 0:02 What Was the…
  • 2:45 Key Developments
  • 7:43 Industrial Revolution Impact
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Key Developments

The Industrial Revolution was wide-ranging. It affected numerous areas, but its impact was especially felt in the areas of iron production, machine tools, textiles, and steam power. Let's look at these areas in more detail.

Throughout the late 18th century, blacksmiths discovered various processes for producing higher quality and more affordable iron. Improvements in blast furnaces and the use of better quality fuels, like coke, greatly enhanced iron production. In the 1780s, Englishman Henry Cort developed the processes of rolling and puddling. Rolling allowed wrought iron to be thinned out in a much more efficient manner than hammering it into sheets. Puddling was a bit more complex, but basically, it was an improved process for decarburizing pig iron and producing quality bar iron. Improvements in steel production also took place during this time, though steel tended to be more expensive.

The availability of high quality iron and steel launched a revolution in machine tools on both sides of the Atlantic. The demand for nails, screws, and other metal parts resulted in important advances in metal-cutting machinery. By the early 19th century, a number of different models of milling machines had been developed. Milling machines are simply machines used to cut metal or shave off metal until it reaches the desired design. With the introduction of milling machines, metal could be shaped to precise dimensions.

One of the most important advances of the Industrial Revolution was the development of interchangeable parts by American inventor Eli Whitney. Interchangeable parts are parts which can be produced with countless identical spares, making replacement or substitution easy. Before the advent of interchangeable parts, simple machines and other objects were built by skilled craftsmen as one solid, unique piece. It was a laborious process. With the system of interchangeable parts, objects could be mass produced, and if they broke, they could be easily fixed.

Eli Whitney (1765-1825) first used the interchangeable parts system to mass produce rifles in first few years of the 19th century. There is a degree of debate over whether or not Eli Whitney was the first to actually 'invent' interchangeable parts; at the very least, he was the leading pioneer in the United States. Whitney was a prolific inventor. His other contributions include the invention of the cotton gin and improvements to the milling machine.

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