The Cause of the Industrial Revolution

By Patricia Ryaby Backer

According to Rutherford and Ahlgren (1990), the term "Industrial Revolution" refers not to a discrete event or series of events. Rather, the Industrial Revolution was a shift in how society was organized. This shift entailed moving from a rural handicraft economy to an urban, manufacturing one. Ahearn (1994) argues that the difference between the Industrial Revolution and previous economic expansions was that, in the late 18th century, European societies were sufficiently advanced and able "to overcome the negative (Malthusian) forces associated with an acceleration in population growth, that had been a break in previous centuries."

The first changes that occurred were in the British textile industry in the nineteenth century. Before this time, textiles (or clothes) were made in the home, either on a piecework basis for a manufacturer or by self-employed seamstresses or tailors. Fabric was made in the home, using techniques that had not changed substantially since the Middle Ages (Francis, 1986). In home-based textile manufacture, the machines that were used were small and generally either hand-powered or powered by the wind or running water. The new textile industry used a series of inventions that transformed the methods of making textiles. "Machinery replaced some human crafts; coal replaced humans and animals as the source of power to run machines; and the centralized factory system replaced the distributed, home-centered system of production" (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1990, p. 151).

Causes of the Industrial Revolution

The most common explanation for the cause of the Industrial Revolution was that certain technologies (the steam engine and textile technologies in particular) created a fundamental change in the way work was done. Recently, there have been other rationales given for the cause of the Industrial Revolution. Three of the more well-known rationales are discussed separately.

The Steam Engine and Other Technologies. The traditional, and probably most popular, view of the cause of the Industrial Revolution was that these changes took place because of one fundamental invention that many historians attribute as the foremost cause of the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine developed by James Watt. The steam engine allowed the transformation of fuel into mechanical work. In a steam engine, fuel (usually wood or coal at this time) is burned; the heat that this fuel produces is used to turn water into steam; this steam is used to drive wheels in the engine. Steam engines were first used in coal and ore mines to pump water out of them. After James Watt improved the design of the steam engine, this type of engine quickly was applied to other industries--to power railroad locomotives, ships, and later the first automobiles.

Capitalistic causes of the Industrial Revolution. Marglin (1974), in his article entitled "What do bosses do?" proposed that the traditional view of the cause of the Industrial Revolution was wrong because it said the steam engine and other technologies gave us the new manufacturing systems (specifically capitalism). Instead, Marglin suggest that it was the capitalist who gave us the steam engine. Marglin bases his reasoning on the cotton industry in Lancashire, England which was the seat of the industrial revolution and the birthplace of large-scale factory production. The textiles industry was the major growth sector in the first years of the Industrial Revolution in England. Before the onset of widespread factory production, weaving and spinning were done in a craft- and home-based environment. Merchants would travel around on a regular basis giving out raw materials and collecting the finished goods. As the demand for cotton goods grew, which Marglin attributes to economic growth caused by advances in agricultural techniques and extended foreign trade, cotton production shifted from the homes to mills that were set up in rapidly urbanized towns (Francis, 1986).

The reason this shift occurred was not the development of new technologies but because of the desire for the merchants to have more control over their workers. When the work was done at home, the merchants could not force the home-workers to work hard enough to meet the increased demand for cotton. As the workers were paid a piece-work rate, they tended to produce as much work as was needed by them to maintain their lifestyle--they had no motivation to increase their earnings. Marglin calls this a "leisure preference." Even when the piece rates were lowered to stimulate output, workers simply shifted to another merchant or took another job.

Therefore, consolidating the workers into centralized mills gave the merchants more control over their production. It also allowed the merchants to change the working time from an individualized, self-paced day to a standard, fourteen hours a day for six days a week. Marglin proposes that these centralized factories then created a demand for improved, labor-saving machines. These new technologies, when developed, then enhanced the efficiency of the factory production system.

Consequently, Marglin states that, because of the desire of the capitalist merchant to force higher output from his workers, a pattern of work organization emerged in the early cotton industry. The work environment had the following characteristics: intensive work in factory settings, individuals performing fragmented tasks, and the transformation of skilled work to unskilled. It is because of these changes in the work environment that machine technology changed its focus, from small-scale, cottage-based technology to technology that was suitable for use in factories rather than workshops.

"The evidence is that the discovery of basic principles of machine design, their application to large- or small-scale industrial production and the creation of efficient managerial techniques were all independent of the creation of the factory system by nineteenth-century capitalists. The most basic principles of machine design, for example, were discovered by Renaissance and Baroque instrument makers, military engineers, and scientists. The application of machine design to such industries as spinning and weaving in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often resulted in inventions suited to the circumstances of petty producers: The new machines required little capital and a family-sized labor force, and hence were well suited to the perpetuation of cottage industry" (Sabel, 1982, p. 39).

The cultural origins of the Industrial Revolution. Jacob (1988) proposes another way of looking at the cause of the Industrial Revolution that is derived from comparing the different industrial societies in Europe at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Jacob notes that, by the 1790s, industrialization had begun in certain places but not others. She attributes these differences in industrialization to the different cultures of the countries. Particularly, she notes the different levels of scientific knowledge in these different countries. In order to mechanize, she notes, men must be able to think mechanically. This ability to think mechanically was more common in British leaders who had access to capital, cheap labor, and steam power. In other countries that were advanced, particularly the Netherlands and France, the evidence suggest that similar men with power and resources did not have the knowledge to mechanize.

Most of the differences in the cultures of these countries were related to the role of science and the dissemination of practical scientific knowledge. In England, the new "pure" science of Newton was transparently linked with applied science--in fact, the distinction between these two areas probably did not exist as it does today. The scientists of the period in history prior to industrialization disseminated their knowledge widely throughout England to audiences that could be either genteel and educated or commercial and practical. The knowledge was spread through various means including the famous Boyle lectures that were given in Anglican churches; courses given in coffeehouses, taverns, and publishers’ shops; and the development of scientific societies (including the Royal Society of London and the Derby Philosophical Society, among others) (Jacob, 1988).

"What had begun in the London coffeehouses and taverns during the early 1700s, and then been spread by itinerant lecturers and philosophical societies, had finally produced a new kind of entrepreneurial and philosophical gentlemen. This industrialist championed a particular type of science, which had to be applied mechanically in order to be understood and which as a result had within its power the capacity to transform both nature and society...By the end of the century it was simply assumed that the mechanization of manufacturing, and hence of labor, required a working knowledge of Newtonian science...With those, manufacturers could mechanize their factories through the application of steam power" (Jacob, 1988, pp. 167-168.