Industrial Revolution (UPSC World History)

Industrial Revolution (UPSC World History)

This article deals with ‘Industrial Revolution (UPSC World History)’ . This is part of our series on ‘World History’ which is an important pillar of GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.


The concept of the Industrial Revolution suggests primarily certain technological & economic changes with important & permanent social consequences from 1760 to 1840. It denotes

  • Extensive application of water, steam (and later electrical) power in production systems
  • The focus of production in the factory and its formidable mechanization
  • Major changes in the character & exploitation of “home” and “foreign” markets
  • The near disappearance of subsistence agriculture. 

Industrial Revolution revolutionized life more than any other movement.

Earlier Production Systems

Family Production (in Villages) and Guild Production (in Cities)

In medieval times, families were responsible for producing most of their own goods, and in cities, the merchandise was produced in regulated guilds. However, these goods were expensive and couldn’t meet increasing demands. Merchants sought cheaper and larger quantities of goods, leading them to establish a new system outside the cities called the cottage industry.

Cottage Industry

Under the cottage industry, cloth merchants would buy raw wool and have it spun by farmers’ wives, who were also involved in agriculture. Country weavers would then produce the cloth more affordably due to their supplemental income from farming. The merchants would collect the cloth and send it to finishers and dyers, maintaining control over the entire production process. However, there were limitations to this system. Merchants had no control over the rural artisans, who were primarily involved in agriculture and only worked as part-time artisans during the lean season.

Factory System

To overcome the above limitation, some wealthy merchants established factories where workers were brought together under one roof and provided with the necessary tools. This precursor to the Industrial Revolution allowed merchants to have full control over the production process and labour. The establishment of factories marked a shift towards centralized control and laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution.

Roots of the Industrial Revolution 

The roots of the Industrial Revolution were in 4 things

  • Commercial Revolution: New wave of buying and selling (explained in detail in subsequent part) 
  • Price Revolution: A lot of Economic growth that happened in Europe led to a Price Rise 
  • Capitalism: Ideology that if you have surplus capital, invest that in some other business and earn profit from that
  • Scientific Revolution: Gave new ideas and technology to produce things explained in detail in the subsequent part)

Commercial Revolution Leading to Industrial Revolution

Throughout history, commerce and industry have maintained a close relationship. From approximately 1400 onwards, global commerce experienced significant growth and transformation to such an extent that it is referred to as the “commercial revolution” that spanned over three and a half centuries. Several factors contributed to this revolutionary advancement in the trade. 

  1. The Crusades played a crucial role in granting Western Europe access to the wealth of the East. 
  2. The discovery of America led to European nations acquiring lucrative colonies. 
  3. New trade routes were discovered. 
  4. Replacement of the feudal system with robust central governments resulted in the protection and support of merchants. Governments even granted charters to trading companies like the British East India Company.

By 1750, extensive exchanges of goods were occurring, resulting in a demand for more products than were currently being produced. Consequently, the only viable solution to this predicament was the implementation of machines to enhance the rate of production.

Scientific Revolution Leading to Industrial Revolution

In the 18th century, the manufacturing industry tried to solve the question of increased production at a cheaper cost using technological inventions.

Most famous of these inventions were

#1 Innovations in Textile Industry

1.1 Spinning

  • Hargreaves Spinning Jenny (It allowed the spinner to work on 8 threads simultaneously)
  • Arkwright’s Spinning Jenny (1769)
  • Crompton’s “Spinning Mule” (1779) 

1.2 Weaving

  • Kay’s Flying Shuttle (1733): It increased the pace of weaving (the most important innovation)
Industrial Revolution (UPSC World History)
  • The commencement of the Industrial Revolution can be traced back to advancements in the textile industry. The techniques employed in textile production had already reached an advanced stage, requiring only a few minor adjustments to partially mechanize and automate spinning and weaving processes.
  • Also, it was the textile industry that sustained Industrial Revolution. The textile sector had a multiplier effect on the iron industry, generating a need for innovation in the metallurgical sector. E.g. inventions like Steam Engine or other machines used in Textile Industry took coal and Iron into the scene.  

Side Topic: Stages in Making of Cloth

There are four stages in the process of manufacturing cloth.

Stage 1 Fibre is drawn out of the raw material
Stage 2 Spinning: Fibre is spun into yarn
Stage 3 Weaving: Yarn is woven into cloth
Stage 4 Finishing: Cloth is dyed, printed etc.

#2  Innovations in Metallurgy

Development of Coke by Abraham Darby (1709) 

  • Hitherto, the majority of production was that of brittle Iron, full of impurities, which broke easily. 
  • Best-quality steel required the use of Charcoal for smelting. But Charcoal was in short supply. 
  • Coke can be formed by altering coal. Hence, large reserves can be used to make Iron. 

#3 Steam Engine

Newcomen Engine (1705-06) and, more significantly, James Watt’s Engines (1781)  provided a reliable and efficient source of power for various industrial operations like power loom in the textile industry.

#4 Transport Revolution

  • Canal Systems: The development of canals, such as the Bridgewater Canal in England, enabled efficient and cost-effective transportation of goods, including raw materials and finished products.
  • Steam Engine was used in ships, trains and land vehicles, making transportation faster, more reliable, and capable of transporting larger quantities of goods.

Overall, the inventions at this time led to “economies of scale”, i.e., producing more so that the cost per unit fell. 

Industrial Revolution in Britain

Why it started in Britain?

Why Industrial Revolution started in Britain?

1. Political & Economic Unification

Unlike all other Continental Europe, there were no Inland Custom Barriers in the British Isles. Hence, Britain had the single largest market available in Europe. Goods could travel from one part of the British Isles to another without paying any Custom and Transit Duty. 

  • Compare with France: The Kingdom of France had 36 Provinces, each with its own Custom Barrier. Hence when the product produced at one extreme reached another extreme, the cost of the product increased very much. Therefore, French Industrial Production remained confined within the provincial boundaries. 
  • Compare with Germany: There were more than 300 small and big German States. All these German States had their own custom barriers, weight and measurement system, currency, etc. Hence, Traders in Southern Germany preferred to trade with North France, where they had to pay Customs at far fewer places than with North Germany.

2. Role of Coal

  • Due to the depletion of Charcoal Reserves / Forests, the British adopted coal as a primary energy source long before any other country. British Charcoal / Forest reserves were not as abundant as they were in France and Germany. Britain started to experience a shortage of forest cover. Charcoal was becoming a scarce resource, and coal, which earlier was thought uneconomical, became cheaper than charcoal. For instance, in 1600, charcoal were twice the price of coal per unit of energy in Britain.  
  • Coal possesses a notable benefit over charcoal, as the Iron prepared with charcoal tends to be brittle due to significant impurities. On the other hand, when coal is used, the remaining impurities are significantly reduced, resulting in the production of stronger Iron.

3. Transportation System: Turnpike Roads and Canals

  • At the beginning of the 18th century, the British Transportation System was considered to be the most primitive in the whole of Europe. British Roads were known for their poor condition as the state maintained them. By the early 18th century, a series of new bodies, known as Turnpike Trusts, began to acquire the Charter from the British Parliament, which authorized Local individuals or Groups of Individuals to form a Turnpike Trust and construct roads and look after its maintenance. In return for this, they can charge a fee (toll). These Turnpike Trusts began to construct and maintain roads of the best quality anywhere in the world
  • Britain had a very well-developed Navigation System. By the end of the 17th century, several canals were dug, first under state initiative and then under Turnpike Trusts. 

Adam Smith, the first modern economist, believed this was a key reason for England’s early success as finished goods could be transported to markets quickly and cheaply

4. Agricultural Revolution in England

4.1 Enclosure Acts

  • Arthur Young (1741-1820) visited England, Ireland and France to extensively study contemporary agriculture systems. After that, he described a new technique of making large agricultural farms out of small fields and details of profits accruing from such farms. He also published a journal called – ANNALS OF AGRICULTURE. 
    • Large agricultural farms were created to introduce scientific techniques by assimilating several small fields and making an enclosure around them. And for this purpose, 956 Enclosure Acts were passed between 1792 and 1815. As a consequence of that Act, enclosures were put around lakhs of arable land. 
    • It increased the agricultural produce but, at the same time, constrained poor farmers to surrender their small fields. They were relegated to the miserable position of landless labourers. They were compelled to work in factories. Thus Enclosure Act paved the way for Industrial Revolution.

4.2 Scientific Agriculture

Population in cities increased & to meet their needs village farmers had to grow more foodgrains & produce more cotton. Hence, it became imperative to apply scientific techniques in agriculture & manufacture special machines for this purpose to do intensive agriculture. 

  • Jethro Tull, a British landlord of Workshire, invented the machine called ‘drill’ by which seeds could be sown continuously, which helped in greater yield from the same land. 
  • Townshend (1674-1738) pointed out the advantages of the rotation of crops. 
  • Rotterdam Plough with the iron tip on top of the plough helped land to dig deeper. 
  • In 1770, Englishman Robert Bakew converted animal husbandry into a profitable business. To improve the breed of sheep and cows, he performed many experiments. Using artificial insemination, he got successful in breeding sheep which had triple the weight of ordinary sheep.  
  • Fertilizers: In 1840, German Chemist Von Leebing proved that the fundamental diet for plants is potash, nitrogen and phosphorus. The fertility of soil increases as a result of mixing a sufficient quantity of these ingredients with manure. After that, fertilizers were used on a large scale & this augmented production enormously. 

The surplus food production had several important consequences.

  • Firstly, it led to a population boom as people had better access to nutritious food, creating a larger labour force.
  • Secondly, the increased agricultural productivity freed up a significant number of people from farming, allowing them to seek employment in other industries. This surplus labour supply became the workforce that powered the Industrial Revolution.
  • As the income of the ruralites increased, they started purchasing commodities manufactured in factories and strengthened Industrial Revolution in Britain (1750-1850). Along with that, they helped in providing sufficient capital for industrialization (landlords used their surplus income to promote industries) 

5. Demographic Revolution

  • Till 1740, the British population seldom grew at a rate greater than 0.5 to 1%  due to natural disasters, famines, and bad harvests. But with Agricultural Revolution, it began to change. In the 1740s, the population of England increased stupendously & contributed to rapid growth in human labour. This is known as Demographic Revolution. E.g. population of England and Wales remained constant at 50 to 60 Lakh during 1700-41 but doubled from 1751 to 1821.
  • With the increase in population, their demand increased & this motivated British manufacturers to augment production and introduce various improvements. Domestic demand for clothing 9 million people led to the mechanization and modernization of the British Textile Industry.

6. Geographical Position of England

  • Because of its characteristic geographical position, England sequestered itself from the rest of the world on the one hand and maintained a close connection with it on the other. Being surrounded by sea on all sides, it remained safe from external invasions.

7. Society of England

  • Unlike France and other countries, serfdom & class systems had already been abolished in England. Huge semi-skilled workers settled in towns and readily operated new machines when Industrial Revolution started.
  • The pursuit of wealth in trade and manufacturing led to the accumulation of fortunes, which gave individuals rank and status. Utter rejection of such fortune as “tainted was not a feature of English society as it was in Europe. These merchants and businessmen were ready to invest their capital in industries and scientific inventions. 
  • Nobles themselves invested in activities which linked their estates to manufacturing. It was certainly true of the proprietors of coal land. 

8. Government Policies

Although the 18th century is associated with apologia for free trade and Laissez Faire, the British government took a keen interest in regulating the conditions of growth using statutes. 

8.1 Orders from Government 

  • Sizeable government orders for ammunitions were of importance to the iron industry (firms such as the Wilkinsons, Walkers and Carron partners); 
  • The same must be said for the wool and textile industries, which supplied orders for uniforms, blankets etc.

8.2 Navigation Laws 

  • Navigation Act and related legislation were important to the shipbuilding industry since they required that trade with the colonies and carriage of goods from Asia, Africa and America could only be done on English ships. All goods carried in foreign vessels attracted a special “alien’s duty”, and the government followed a protectionist policy of considerable scope.

8.3 Navy to protect Sea Lanes of Commerce 

  • The British government also encouraged global trade by expanding the Navy to protect trade and granting monopolies or other financial incentives to companies so they would explore the world to find resources.

9. British Colonial Empire

  • In the eighteenth century, trade was expanded with the American colonies and India. 
  • British Empire stimulated the British economy. Colonies worked as a source of raw materials as well as the market for finished goods.

10. Financial Innovations

  • At the beginning of the 18th century, banks had been opened in England, which provided British industrialists with the facility of acquiring loans and depositing their capital.
  • Management of the national debt was now done professionally by the Bank of England.

11. Enlightenment Ideas

  • Most of the early inventions were made in Britain because there was no political or religious restraint on scientists. The English Royal Society (established in 1663) encouraged new inventions by rewarding inventors. 

12. Role of the French Revolution and Napoleon

  • French Revolution and Napoleonic wars also contributed to this. During the war, England had to cater to the requirements not only of her own soldiers but also of her friendly nations. 
  • The blockade by Napoleon against British trade and any British imports pushed Britain for further innovation to be self-reliant.

Impact of the Industrial Revolution

Exploitation of Workers

  • Due to population growth and the enclosure of common village lands, many rural people migrated to urban areas. However, this influx of unskilled labourers gave factory owners significant power to dictate the terms of work since there were more workers than available jobs.
  • There were no laws to regulate the working conditions or protect workers’ rights. They received no paid vacation or holidays. Moreover, safety measures were virtually non-existent, even in hazardous workplaces such as coal mines or the steel industry,
  • Combination Acts were passed by British Parliament in 1799 and 1800, making it illegal for workers to form unions or combine as a group to demand better working conditions. 

Poor Living Conditions

  • Working-class individuals had very limited leisure time and opportunities for recreation. The majority of their days were spent working, leaving them with little energy or time for engaging in sports or games. 
  • The new industrial pace and factory system were at odds with the old traditional festivals of villages. Plus, local governments actively sought to ban traditional festivals in the cities.
  • Living conditions were, by far, worst for the poor. In desperation, many turned to the “poorhouses”.


  • In pre-industrial society, over 80% of people lived in rural areas. As migrants moved from the countryside, small towns became large cities. By 1850, more people in Great Britain lived in cities than in rural areas
  • Despite the growth in wealth and industry, urbanization also had some negative effects. On the whole, 
    • Working-class neighbourhoods were crowded, dirty, and polluted.
    • Densely packed working-class neighbourhoods contributed to the fast spread of disease
    • Homes lacked toilets and sewage systems leading to Cholera, tuberculosis, typhus, typhoid, and influenza.  

Division in Society

  • The society was divided into classes, i.e. Proletariat & Capitalists.  
  • Trade Unionism of workers developed due to Industrial Revolution. Workers started to unite to demand their rights and better working conditions. 
  • Socialism as a philosophy developed as a result of this movement.

Rise of Romanticism

  • The Romanticism movement emerged during the Industrial Revolution and expressed a strong intellectual and artistic opposition to the process of industrialization. 
  • Prominent figures within this movement, such as William Blake, emphasized the significance of nature in both artistic expression and language. They stood in stark contrast to the perceived negative impact of industrial machinery and factories, which they regarded monstrous.

Increase in Child Labour

  • In textile mills, as new power looms and spinning mules replaced skilled workers, factory owners used cheap, unskilled labour to decrease the cost of production. And child labour was the cheapest labour of all.

Decrease in Economic Productivity of Women

  • In a traditional agricultural society, families worked together as a unit of production. Women could parent and also play a role in producing food or goods needed for the household. 
  • Industrialization changed all that. Work and home life became sharply separated. Men earned money for their families. Women took care of the home and saw their economic role decline. 

Emergence of the Middle Class

  • New urban industries required more “white collar” jobs, such as business people, shopkeepers, bank clerks, insurance agents, merchants, accountants, managers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Gradually, a middle class emerged in industrial cities.

Ecological Impact

  • Industrial Revolution changed the Earth’s ecology forever. Fossil fuel coal fuelled the Industrial Revolution, forever changing how people would live and utilize energy. 

Strengthened Colonialism

  • Industrial Revolution gave rise to new colonialism to search for more markets and sources for raw materials.

Reforms for change in Britain

Finally, seeing problems, the British parliament passed many acts to improve the life of workers.

Regulation of Child Labor Law, 1833

  • Established paid inspectors to inspect factories on child labour regulations and enforce the law
  • Set the maximum working in a week to 48 hours
  • Made children spend time in school

Mines and Collieries Act, 1842

  • Set a minimum age for children to work in mines at 10

Factories Act, 1844

  • Limited working hours to 12 per day for women and children
  • Mill owners were made more accountable for the protection of workers

Ten Hours Bill, 1847

  • Limited working hours to 10 per day for women and children
  • Set maximum hours in a week to 63 for women and children

Industrial Revolution or Industrial Evolution 

Revolution is perceived as occurring quickly, while evolution is viewed as a process that spans a longer duration. Consequently, certain historians contend that since the economic and social transformations unfolded gradually, suggesting that the term “revolution” is inaccurate for this phenomenon.

It was Evolution as

  • These industrial developments in the eighteenth century resulted from a culmination of gradual changes. Hence, it was the evolution and culmination of the long process. 

It was Revolution as

  • In the short span between the accession of George III (1760) and the death of his son William IV (1837), the face of England changed dramatically. Roads, railways, rivers and canals sprung up across the land; country hamlets became populous towns; factories replaced farms, and technological innovations drove rapid economic growth. The structure of British society was changed forever, with mass migration from country to towns and cities.
  • Even if that was evolution, this evolution happened too fast. Until John Kay invented the Flying Shuttle making yarn and weaving cloth had been much the same for thousands of years.
  • The rapid shift in people’s lifestyles warrants being labelled as a revolution. It distinguishes itself from political revolutions by significantly impacting people’s lives and lacking a definitive conclusion. Instead, the Industrial Revolution gained momentum with each passing year due to the introduction of novel inventions and manufacturing techniques.

The best way to describe is – Industrial Revolution was Revolutionary when it started & it radically changed the lives of those immediately affected by it – especially, then in England. As time went by it became Evolutionary as new methods of production and treatment of workers came to the fore. 

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