The Industrial Revolution: An Introduction

George P. Landow, Shaw Professor of English and Digital Culture, National University of Singapore

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1. Definitions

"Industrial revolution, a rapid development in industry; spec. (freq. with capital initials) the development which took place in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, chiefly owing to the introduction of new or improved machinery and large-scale production methods. [Oxford English Dictionary (OED)]

Industrial revolution the vast social and economic changes that resulted from the development of steam-powered machinery and mass-production methods, beginning in the late eighteenth century in Great Britain and extending through the nineteenth century elsewhere in the world. [Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology]

"The Industrial Revolution is not simply an acceleration of economic growth, but an acceleration of growth because of, and through, economic and social transformation." [Hobsawm, 12]

2. Pre-conditions

What were the necessary conditions educational, social, political, economical, and technological for a radically new ways of production and distribution to arise and then flourish? Historians ask why the Industrial Revolution happened, why it happened where it did (in England instead of, say, France), and why it happened when it did and not either earlier or later. According to those who've studied this turning-point in world history, the following conditions had to exist before the first phase of the Industrial Revolution could occur:

  • Population with "modern" attitudes towards work: to create the combination of factory work and urban life required, one needed a population no longer tied to the land and specific places. Without changes in attitudes towards place, one could not find a workforce willing to move from the countrty to the city.
  • Literacy: Such a revolutionary change in kinds of work also required people who could read and write.
  • Widely available printed materials, particularly including those with technical diagrams: simple literacy could not enable the exchange of information and receptivity to it required for fundamental economic and industrial change. Many technical advances required (a) multiple copies of (b) mechanically reproduced technical texts and diagrams that were (c) comparatively inexpensive. Such widely available materials, which high-speed printing made possible increasingly afterv 1850, producedd enormous growth of amateur scientific, engineering, and other technological innovations. (Ivins)
  • An easily commercializable product needed by -- and affordable by -- many people: Cotton, little used until the technology to manufactuire it cheaply, proved such a product desirtable at home and abroad.
  • Adequate transportaion and communication: in eighteenth-century Britain "transportation and communication were comparatively easy and cheap, since no part of Britian is more than seventy miles away from the sea, and even less from some navigable waterway" (Hobsbawm, 17).
  • Markets: England and countries in similar conditions had to have access to both local and international economies.
  • Government committment to subordinate foreign policy to economic ends

Related Materials


Gideon, Sigfried. Mechanization Takes Command. New York: Norton,

Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.

Victorian Web OverviewtechnologyEconomicsBibliography

Last modified 27 March 2001