The Industrial Revolution

Steam engine-powered factories.
Mass production of cotton thread in Lancashire, U.K. Machines powered by steam power or water power perform tasks previously done by hand.
Mass production of textile in Lancashire, UK. Workers overseeing power looms, which weave textile mechanically.
New factories are built and many people leave the countryside.
A crowded street in London.
Simplified illustration of a rod being attached to a train wheel.
Steam engine-powered train puffing along.

The industrial revolution, a period of rapid technological change, took place approximately 150–250 years ago in Great Britain. In this era, largely as a result of the invention of the steam engine, the manufacturing and transportation industries were completely transformed, and those who didn’t make appropriate use of steam engines fell quickly behind.

Steam engines

To get the revolutionizing steam engine to work, in the most basic sense, one first needed to burn coal in order to heat up water that was placed above the coal. The rising water vapor from the hot water then pushed a rod upward, causing the rod to go back and forth in a pendulum movement, since the vapor pressure was reduced and the rod fell back at regular intervals. The back-and-forth moving rod, in turn, was attached to a wheel, so when the rod moved, the wheel moved with it, causing the wheel to spin. This, as a result, created automation, allowing for things like mass production of textiles and tools, and later the development of trains.

Leaving the countryside

The greatly increased production and fast transportation made possible by steam engines meant that the industrial revolution, in effect, ushered in the modern age. However, the speedy changes were not without their complications. Small-scale peasants and craftsmen, for example, were now outcompeted by large-scale industrial production in factories, and therefore left without an income. This, in turn, led to small-scale manual laborers becoming impoverished and desperate for an income. Consequently, many village people had no choice but to leave their animals, their spinning wheel or their smithy behind in order to go and look for monotonous, low-paid factory jobs in the cities.

In the cities, where village people moved en masse to look for work, some of the migrants found jobs, while others didn’t. This, in effect, meant that the unemployed people, who had left everything behind, continued to be very poor. However, those who did find jobs and thereby joined the working class, in spite of society’s technological advancements, often did not grow rich either, and by living in the quickly overcrowding cities shared many of the unemployed people’s difficulties. Employed and unemployed townies alike, for example, had to endure the noisy and dirty streets, and all city dwellers of the 19th century habitually breathed unhealthy smog, since smog was a bi-product of burning coal to run steam engines.

Industrialization spread

The downsides of industrial-era British urbanization, manifesting themselves in concentrated poverty and epidemics, surely, led to great hardship, and the rough conditions for the many poor and homeless people of the time ought not be understated. Still, not to forget, rapidly-growing cities in the 1800s also offered great social and economic opportunities, and British society as a whole grew materialistically much richer during the industrial revolution. Importantly, too, with the development of trains, the British people could travel quicker on land than horse riding had allowed them to do before, and Britain, through its many inventions, became a model that the rest of the world tried to emulate.