Take a look around the room you’re in right now. Do you see many things that you or a family member made with their own hands? Maybe you have a special baby blanket that someone knitted for you, or a few art projects hanging on the wall, but I’m guessing that most of the things in the room were made far away in factories.
250 years ago, things would have been very different. Most of the items in your house would have been made by someone you knew. Either you or a family member would make them, you would have traded or bought them from someone in your community who made them. Other things might have been handed down from your grandparents.
Back then, people had to know how to do many things to survive and keep themselves comfortable. A man would have a trade, but would also be able to grow food, chop wood, and build and fix things in his house. Women knew how to cook, sew, spin, and weave cloth, keep a garden, and churn butter. A few might have traded too. Children would also do a variety of jobs and chores to keep the household or farm going. A boy would become an apprentice to learn a trade around 13. Most labor was done by people, not machines. The machines that did exist were powered by livestock, like horses and oxen.
All this would change with the Industrial Revolution. No single invention or person set off the industrial revolution. In fact, the industrial revolution was happening about 100 years. It’s also important to know that in this time period, these changes started in England, and then spread to the United States and Europe, so that is where we’ll focus in this episode. There were several important inventions and ideas that would change the world and make it look a lot more like it does now. These innovations would drastically change how people worked, and how they bought and made things. Three big types of things happened:
- First, new machines were invented.
- Second, people figured out how to power those machines. At first, they used steam power, then later electricity, oil, and gas.
- And third, people started building factories, where they could make large quantities of products in one place, instead of having individuals make things in small workshops
But why did people suddenly start inventing all these new machines and ways of doing things? One reason was a population explosion in Britain in the 18th century. All the new babies being born meant that people needed more clothing, and they didn’t want to pay too much. The tradespeople who made cloth and clothing couldn’t keep up. So some of these tradespeople started to invent ways to make more thread and cloth in less time and with less work. They invented machines for spinning thread and weaving cloth.
At first, the factories that did this spinning and weaving were located next to rivers. The river’s current would turn a giant wheel, which would power the moving parts of the machinery inside. As you can imagine, this could be inconvenient if you wanted to set up a factory but didn’t live near a river. It wouldn’t be long before people began to invent new ways of powering machines, so they wouldn’t need to be near rivers anymore. You’ve probably heard of engines, like the ones in cars and planes. But did you know that an engine is any machine that generates energy? Engines were about to change how people made things once more.
The first new source of power was the steam engine. When you think of a steam engine, you probably imagine a big train with smoke pouring out of its stack. That is one type of steam engine, but the first steam engines didn’t power trains. They were used in mines. Miners have to dig deep into the earth to find minerals or metals, and often, the mines would flood. The first steam engines were used to pump water out of mines, but they weren’t very powerful.
A man named James Watt would change that. In 1765, he redesigned the steam engine to be much more powerful and efficient. This made it better at pumping water, but also made it useful for running machinery in factories. And of course, it paved the way for the train steam engine, which would make travel easier and faster!
Steam engines required wood or coal to operate. I won’t go into the details, but wood or coal would be burned in order to heat water to create the steam, which in turn powered the machinery. Burning wood and coal, of course, creates a lot of smoke, and this caused a lot of air pollution. In areas with many factories, such as around Birmingham, England, tree trunks even turned black from the smoke!
So far, all the inventions we’ve talked about were created in England, but the inventiveness was spreading! In 1793, a tinkerer named Eli Whitney would invent a machine that would bring the industrial revolution to America. Whitney had traveled to South Carolina to work as a tutor. But, while he was visiting a friend’s plantation, he learned about a big problem that southern farmers had with their cotton crops: the white fluff was full of sticky seeds that had to be picked out by hand. It took one person a full day to pick the seeds out of one pound of cotton!
In about 10 days, Whitney had invented the cotton gin. The “gin” part is short for “engine.” It used a system of combs, rollers, and wire sieves to pull the seeds out of the fluff. One person operated the machine with a simple crank. The cotton gin made the work much faster, which meant farmers could make more money by growing cotton.
Unfortunately, many cotton growers decided to buy more slaves in order to process even more cotton using the new machine. Whitney didn’t expect this. He thought his machine would actually reduce slavery, since it did the same job that enslaved people had been doing. But instead, growers just decided to grow even more cotton. That meant more enslaved humans picking the cotton and operating the gins.
The industrial revolution had some other unexpected results when it came to workers. Many tradespeople didn’t want things to change. They thought that the new machines would take away their work, and then they wouldn’t be able to support themselves. Some got so angry that they attacked the new factories and mills, smashing machinery and even burning some factories to the ground!
Once it became clear that the factories weren’t going away, many of these skilled workers didn’t want to work in them. So, instead of hiring grown-ups, some factory owners began to hire children instead. Children, some as young as five years old, went to work in factories for long, exhausting days. Factory owners paid them only a fraction of what they paid adults for dangerous, difficult work. It would be a long time before countries made laws saying that children need to be allowed to go to school and play, instead of working in factories for very little pay.
Some people, though, welcomed the opportunity to work in a factory. The factories also hired women. In the old system, most women didn’t learn a trade. They got married and did household and farm work to support the family. Working in factories allowed young women in some areas to earn and control their own money, instead of having to get married at a young age and rely on their husbands.
Before the industrial revolution, most people lived in rural areas or small towns, where they could grow food for themselves. As more and more products were made in factories, instead of small workshops, many more people moved from rural areas and farms into the cities where they could work in factories. Cities became crowded and dirty, with many people living in poverty.
The factories themselves were also crowded and dirty. On top of that, they were often poorly lit and stuffy. Some were so loud that workers went deaf. Workers were often exposed to materials that could make them sick, and machines that could injure them. Unlike independent tradespeople, factory workers did the same task over and over again, and they didn’t have much say in how or when they worked. Workdays were long–often 12 hours–and many bosses were very strict. They would only allow workers a few short breaks throughout the day. Many would take away pay if a worker made a mistake or didn’t work fast enough.
The industrial revolution changed just about everything about how people lived and worked. People went from being skilled craftspeople who had a lot of control over their work, to factory laborers forced to endure harsh, unfair conditions. It changed where people live, as they moved from rural areas to cities. This trend has continued all the way until today, as cities are still growing.
But even though it resulted in pollution, bad working conditions, and child labor, the industrial revolution also made many other innovations possible. We’ve only had time to talk about a few of the innovations of the early industrial revolution, but it wasn’t all about steam power and cloth manufacturing. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, we had cars, airplanes and refrigeration.
People also started to work together in new ways. Workers began to talk to each other. They formed labor unions and insisted that their bosses make factories safer. The idea of the weekend was born, and laws were passed to require better working conditions. Child labor was eventually outlawed.
It’s important to remember that events in history often have good and bad consequences. We have to look at both in order to understand the full impact they had on the world. Knowing about the unintended consequences of past events can help us avoid similar results in the future. When we see things in the world today that might cause people, animals, or the planet to suffer, we can ask what we can do to help make things better. That way, we can keep building a better future, bit by bit.
March 14: Eli Whitney Patents the Machine He Thought Would Help End Slavery. Office of the State Historian, Connecticut. https://todayincthistory.com/2020/03/14/march-14-eli-whitney-patents-the-cotton-gin-2/
Major, Kenneth (1980) Pre-industrial Sources of Power: Muscle Power. History Today, 30:3.
Mooney, Carla (2011) The Industrial Revolution: Investigate How Science and Technology Changed the World. Nomad Press, Vermont.