First Industrial Revolution: Inventions and Causes

The industrial age was a period of a cultural and economic shift from traditional agriculture, manual labor, and cottage industry to a factory-based manufacturing system that involved complex machinery, new energy sources, development in transportation, and continual technological growth. The first Industrial Revolution began in the mid-to-late 1700s in Great Britain when innovation led to the mass production of goods due to machine manufacturing.

This period of industrialization spread globally and the Second Industrial Revolution began in the late 1800s in the U.S. which saw further advancements in technology that led to greater efficiency. In this article, we will be discussing the first industrial revolution inventions, causes, and effects.

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When was the first industrial revolution?

The first Industrial Revolution started in the 1700s in Great Britain and was a time of significant innovation that began when innovation led to goods being produced in large quantities as a result of machine manufacturing. It began in England in about 1750–1760 and lasted till sometime between 1820 and 1840. The 2nd revolution (also known as the American Industrial Revolution) followed this period in the late 19th century and was the engine of economic growth in the U.S. This period saw further advancements in technology that led to greater efficiency.

First industrial revolution
First industrial revolution

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What was the first industrial revolution?

The first Industrial Revolution was a period of major mechanization and innovation that began in the mid-to-late 1700s in Great Britain and later spread throughout the world. This period was largely confined to Britain and was dominated by the exploitation of coal and iron. It was a cultural and economic shift from traditional agriculture, manual labor, and cottage industry to a factory-based manufacturing system that involved complex machinery, new energy sources, development in transportation, and continual technological growth.

Factory systems were developed during the first Industrial Revolution. Hence, the industrial revolution left a profound impact on how people lived and the way businesses operated. Before the industrial age, most households earned a living through farming and lived mainly in small, rural communities. However, with the advent of factories, people began working for factories located in urban areas for the first time. Despite the fact that the wages were low, and working conditions were harsh, they still preferred working for factories because it still paid a better living than farming.

The First Industrial Revolution is one of the most distinguished turning points in human history. It was during this period that human and animal labor technology transformed into machinery technology, such as the steam engine, coke smelting, the spinning jenny, puddling and rolling processes for making iron, etc.

Characteristics of the first industrial revolution

  1. A new organization of work called the factory system; involved the increased division of labor and specialization of function
  2. Use of new basic materials, which were basically iron and coal
  3. The use of new energy sources, such as fuels and motive power (e.g coal, and the steam engine)
  4. The invention of new machines, such as the spinning jenny and the power loom, gave room for increased production with a smaller expenditure of human energy
  5. Important developments in transportation, such as steam locomotive, and steamship.
  6. Reduction in prices for products
  7. Increasing application of science to industry.

The characteristics of the first industrial revolution were cultural, technological, and socioeconomic changes. Features such as new energy sources such as coal and steam, the use of iron and steel, and the factory system, led to a division of labor and specialization, which increased efficiency and mass production.

With inventions such as the steam engine, production efficiency improved during the first Industrial Revolution. The invented steam engine dramatically reduced the time it took to manufacture products and this efficient production subsequently reduced prices for products. The prices of products were reduced due to the lower labor costs that came with the use of the steam engine.

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Causes of the first industrial revolution

  • The emergence of capitalism
  • European imperialism
  • Agricultural Revolution

Historians have determined these three listed items as causes of the first Industrial Revolution.

The emergence of capitalism

Historians usually refer to capitalism in the 18th Century as laissez-faire capitalism. The government during this time did not have any control over the economy and allowed the wealthy to carry out their affairs. Trade and industry were made for profit by private individuals. Prior to this time, the government had a heavy hand with trade and industry which was called mercantilism.

Hence, capitalism encouraged the Industrial Revolution because industrialization took great work and heavy investment from the common people and not the government. There were many wealthy entrepreneurs in Great Britain in the 18th Century, and this is where the Industrial Revolution had its start. The first Revolution, therefore, began in Great Britain in the mid-to-late 1700s.

European imperialism

The European imperialism movement was also one of the causes of the first industrial revolution. The growth of the European nation gave room for more areas and people to work on industrialization. During the Age of Imperialism, large countries came under European control and European imperialism provided the resources that were needed to start mass-producing goods and services.

Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution is arguably one of the biggest causes of the first industrial revolution. During the Agricultural Revolution, the mining of coal took place and helped develop the groundwork for the first Industrial Revolution. Great Britain was the first country to industrialize the mining of coal. Hence, it was able to obtain massive amounts.

Coal was vital to the first Industrial Revolution because it fueled the steam engines that were found in ships, trains, and machinery. When the steam engine was invented, the mining of coal became even easier for Great Britain because the steam engine pumped water out of the coal mines.

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How was the first industrial revolution different from the second?

The difference between these two periods is that the First Industrial Revolution centered on the innovation of the steam engine and textile manufacturing while the Second Industrial Revolution focused on automobile, steel production, and advances in electricity. Hence, the advancement in electricity was the biggest difference between the first and second, and the discoveries in the field of electricity further enhanced communication technologies.

In conclusion, the major difference between the first industrial revolution vs second industrial revolution is that the 1st Revolution caused the growth of industries, such as iron, coal, railroads, and textiles, whereas the 2nd Revolution caused the expansion of electricity, steel, and petroleum. The table below highlights the differences between these two periods:

Table: First industrial revolution vs second industrial revolution

Factors for comparisonFirst industrial revolutionSecond industrial revolution
Time frame (in years)1760 – 18301850 – 1914
Methods of productionFrom hand to machineIncreased automation
Mass productionTextilesSteel (Bessemer process)
Power sourcesCoal, water, and steamElectricity and Petroleum
New enginesSteam engineInternal combustion
InventionsThe spinning jenny, Water frame, Spinning Mule, Cotton Gin, etcAutomobiles, chemicals, railroads, telegraph, radio, telephone, etc
Standard of living for the working classAwfulStill bad but improved
First industrial revolution vs second industrial revolution

How were the first and second industrial revolutions similar?

There were similar events that occurred when comparing the first and second industrial revolutions. During the first and second revolutions, innovations happened in liberal, free-market, capitalist societies with good access to natural resources. Applied scientific innovation was common in both eras. In both the first and second industrial revolutions, there was increased automation, mass production, and the division of labor. Also, population growth, loss of autonomy, wage labor, urbanization, and suburban living were common in both eras.

First industrial revolution inventions

  1. Watt’s Steam engine (1764)
  2. Steam railway locomotive (1803)
  3. The water frame (patented in 1769)
  4. Spinning jenny (patented in 1770)
  5. Spinning mule (1779)
  6. Cotton gin (1793)
  7. Power loom (1785)
  8. Flying shuttle (patented in 1733)

Listed above are the inventions from the first industrial revolution. The inventions of the first industrial revolution such as the spinning jenny, water frame, and spinning mule made the mass production of high-quality cotton and woolen thread and yarn possible. In the second half of the 18th century, these inventions helped transform Great Britain into the world’s leading manufacturer of textiles.

The steam engine is definitely one of the most notable inventions during the first industrial revolution. The steam engine application in manufacturing and its use as a power source in ships and railway locomotives increased the productive capacity of factories. This led to the great expansion of international and national transportation networks in the 19th century.

Also, another methodological invention occurred in the production of iron. A new method of smelting iron by using coke was introduced during the early 18th century. As a result of this innovation, production rates increased; because coke could heat iron more quickly than charcoal. This iron was essential in creating industrial machinery and railroad lines.

Years (date)Inventions of the first industrial revolution
1733The flying shuttle was patented by British inventor, John Kay. It greatly increased the speed of weaving and permitted picking (an operation that opens the fleece) to be performed by one person
1764James Watt made a critical improvement to Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine by removing spent steam to a separate vessel for condensation. By the 19th century, Watt’s steam engine became a primary power source in mills, distilleries, canals, and waterworks
1764James Hargreaves invented a new kind of spinning machine that would draw a thread from eight spindles simultaneously instead of just one (as in the traditional spinning wheel). In 1770, he obtained a patent for the spinning jenny
1765The water frame was first used in 1765 and patented in 1769 by Richard Arkwright. This was the first fully automatic and continuously operating spinning machine
1779Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule, which he designed by combining features of the water frame and spinning jenny
1785Edmund Cartwright invented and patented the first successful power loom in 1785 which was the first practical design that could weave wide cloth (such as calico) in a mass-manufacturing process
1793Eli Whitney created a modern mechanical cotton gin and had it patented in 1794
1803Richard Trevithick, a British engineer invented the steam railway locomotive which was an application of the steam engine
A video explaining the first industrial revolution inventions and timeline

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Effects of the 1st industrial revolution

  1. Created employment opportunities
  2. Horrible living conditions for workers
  3. Child Labor
  4. It inspired innovation
  5. Production levels increased
  6. Urban pollution
  7. It improved people’s way of life
  8. Change in social structure

There were both negative and positive effects of the industrial revolution. Here are some of the effects of the first industrial revolution:

Created employment opportunities

Before the first industrial revolution, jobs were based on educational studies, family traditions, or a unique talent that one had. But when industrialization begin to evolve and factories were built around the world, people began to earn a living in a way that was very different from the past. Hence, one of the effects of the first industrial revolution is that it created employment opportunities.

Wages at the factories were higher than what people could make as farmers. Hence, people started moving to the city to work in factories. As factories became widespread, managers and employees were required which increased the supply of jobs and overall wages. Hence, the first industrial revolution made it possible for more people to have jobs.

Horrible working and living conditions for workers

In as much as the first industrial revolution created employment opportunities, the workers suffered horrible working and living conditions. As cities grew during the industrial age, there wasn’t enough housing for all the new inhabitants which resulted in horrible living conditions for factory workers. A record number of persons were living in a single room and sharing a single toilet. Also, there was a lack of clean water and the gutters were overflowing with sewage from basement cesspits. This made the workers and their families vulnerable to infectious diseases such as cholera.

During the first industrial revolution, the workers had a stressful and unsatisfying lifestyle. They suffered long hours of work, inadequate remuneration, and minimal breaks. The working conditions were harsh; workers had to arrive when the factory whistle blew, or else face losing their pay and being locked out, some were even forced to pay fines. Once they were on the job, they were not allowed to freely move around or take a break when they needed because it might require them to shut down the machine. Hence, the workers had to adjust to a very different lifestyle, with little personal autonomy.

Child Labor

Child labor was a significant issue during the industrial age. Before the first Industrial Revolution, children worked to support their families but they were only assigned jobs that were measurable to their age. However, during the first industrial revolution, the rapid growth of factories created such a high demand for workers that poor orphans and youths were taken from London’s poorhouses and housed in mill dormitories.

Children were compelled to do dangerous jobs that were meant for adults and worked long hours. Hence, they were deprived of education and suffered horrifying fates. Because they have small hands and arms, they could reach into small spaces where the fabric tended to jam. Without even turning the machine off, the foreman would insist children reach in to dislodge the jam; and if they were not quick enough, their hand or arm would become caught in the machine, and could suffer severe damage.

It inspired innovation

The era of industrial age inspired innovation and inventions. The increased innovation that was birthed from the 1st industrial revolution led to higher levels of motivation and education, which resulted in several groundbreaking inventions of the second revolution that we even still use today like the lightbulb, X-ray, calculator, anesthesia, the sewing machine, etc. Therefore, it was due to the advancements from the first Industrial Revolution, that the nation saw the first combustible engine, incandescent light bulb, and modern assembly line.

Production levels increased

Production efficiency was one impact of the first industrial revolution on society. Before this time, many products were made by hand which required a specific time investment by the maker. As a result, mass production was virtually impossible. The first industrial revolution, however, changed that. The use of new energy sources such as coal and steam, the use of iron and steel, and the factory system, led to a division of labor and specialization, which increased efficiency.

Also, with inventions such as the steam engine, production levels improved. The invented steam engine dramatically reduced the time it took to manufacture products and this efficient production subsequently reduced prices for products. This eventually improved people’s quality of living over time because there was greater access to goods and services. As multiple products could be made in any industry or sector, competition was created and free market economies began to develop. Consumers could choose from a variety of products rather than being reliant on a particular business or provider to give them what they want.

Urban pollution

Urban pollution is one of the lasting and negative effects of the first industrial revolution. Industrialization led to an increase in urban pollution because the first industrial revolution was powered by burning coal. During this era, big industrial cities burned fossil fuels and pumped carbon into the atmosphere. As a result, air pollution continued to rise in the 1800s, which caused respiratory illness and higher death rates in areas that burned more coal.

In addition, pollution wasn’t only contained in the factories. As people moved to the cities, the urban resources were overwhelmed and the living conditions became deplorable. In some areas, sewage flowed in the streets and manufacturers dumped waste from factories into rivers, causing water pollution. Hence, access to safe and clean water was a huge challenge.

It improved people’s way of life

One of the effects of the first industrial revolution is that it improved processes in virtually every sector and therefore improved people’s way of life. After the first industrial revolution, transportation got better, buildings were made better, clothing could be more durable, and food products became cheaper to produce.

Every sector of commerce and industry improved during the first and second revolutions, thus, making products and services better. Some of the innovations birthed from the first industrial revolution changed how people worked, and the technologies available to them. Some of the innovations made life comfortable for many, even though living conditions for workers remained abhorrent.

Change in social structure

One significant social effect of the first industrial revolution was the rise in new social classes. During this period, the nation’s social structure changed and two new social classes in particular emerged; a new entrepreneurial middle class (bourgeoisie) and the urban, industrial working class (proletariat).

During the first industrial revolution, there were many people working at the new factories that moved from rural areas to towns and cities in order to be close to their new jobs. They worked for a long time but got less money from the industrialists. This caused the emergence of the new middle class and the working class.

The middle classes were the owners and operators of the new factories, mines, and railroads, among other industries. They had a much more comfortable lifestyle than that of the industrial working class. They lived in well-furnished, spacious homes on paved streets and had a ready supply of water. The industrial working class, on the other hand, were workers in the factories. They lived in foul-smelling slums and had no running water, only community pumps.

During the first industrial revolution, there was no sewage or sanitation system, and as such waste and garbage were left to rot in the streets. This resulted in the spread of diseases like cholera among the industrial working class.

Last Updated on November 3, 2023 by Nansel Nanzip Bongdap