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17 Characteristics of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution, also known as the First Industrial Revolution, was a period of rapid economic change between 1760 - 1840 driven by the mechanization of production with steam power. This was arguably the single largest change in all of human history on par with the first agricultural revolution whereby humans began farming. The following are the basic characteristics of the first industrial revolution.

Great Britain

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain as early as 1760 but wasn't in full force until around 1800. Continental Europe slowly followed beginning around 1805. While countries such as the United States played a large role in the Second Industrial Revolution, the innovations of the First Industrial Revolution were mostly British.


The Industrial Revolution coincided with the rise of the Second British Empire. The British East India Company effectively ruled much of India and Britain had access to massive supplies of raw materials and large markets for its finished goods. This imperialistic version of globalization likely sparked the industrial revolution.


The First Industrial Revolution was centered around a handful of industries, particularly textiles, that were able to mechanize labor intensive aspects of production to achieve a global comparative advantage. This combined with the large markets of the British Empire lead to a significant scale of production. For example, Britain's textile industry used 2.5 million pounds of raw cotton in 1750. By 1850, this had increased to 588 million pounds.

Machine Tools

Pre-industrial machinery was crafted by carpenters. The First Industrial Revolution saw the emergence of specialized tools and craftspeople for building metal parts, components and machines. For example, the cylinder boring machine invented by John Wilkinson in 1774 allowed for the production of precise metal parts at scale.

Great Divergence

The industrial revolution created a great divergence in GDP whereby the first countries to industrialize in Europe and North America leapt ahead in terms of economic power. Other regions would eventually follow. For example, Japan industrialized in the late 19th century.
YearChina (GDP)Western Europe (GDP)
Above: GPD in millions of 1990 International Dollars. China had a larger GDP than all of Western Europe in 1820 but then stagnated for a century while Europe jumped ahead.

Standard of Living

Throughout history, the standard of living of the masses was mostly stagnant across all regions. In many cases, standard of living would drop due to disasters, weather, disease and war only to slowly recover with stability. The industrial revolution eventually produced a large, growing and stable increase in standard of living. Some studies have indicated that this was slow to take hold but was clearly in place by the middle of the 19th century.
YearBritish Income Per Person (1970 US Dollars)

Steam Power

The increasing use of water and steam power. This started slowly and began to progress very rapidly towards the end of the First Industrial Revolution. Steam power in Britain increased from 10,000 horsepower in 1800 to 210,000 horsepower in 1815. By 1870, the United States had 1.2 million horsepower in place.


Coal was extremely abundant in Great Britain and is perhaps another reason that the Industrial Revolution first occurred there. The following are estimates of early coal production in Britain.
YearProduction (million long tons)
The year 1913 represented peak British coal production


The modern chemical industry was born in the industrial revolution but initially had a limited impact. For example, a chemical process for manufacturing Portland cement. At the time, this had competition from other cements such as British cement and Roman cement. These allowed for the construction of large scale infrastructure such as the Thames Tunnel and the London sewerage system.


The emergence of industrial factories and a large increase in coal consumption created significant smoke pollution in urban and industrial areas of Britain. The world's first environmental law, known as Britain's Alkali Acts, was passed in 1863 to regulate the release of gaseous hydrochloric acid by factories that produced soda ash. Companies were successfully sued in 19th century Britain for polluting waterways. The Coal Smoke Abatement Society was formed in Britain in 1898 making it one of the first grass roots environmental movements. Prior to the industrial revolution, the planet Earth was essentially in its pristine state.


Mechanization driven by steampower such as the powered blowing cylinder allowed for high capacity blast furnaces that produced cast iron at great scale. This became a virtuous cycle whereby machines allowed for more iron which allowed for more machines.
YearUK Production of Coke Iron
17502,500 tons
178854,000 tons
1806250,000 tons


Britain went on an infrastructure building binge. Large canals were built such as the Bridgewater Canal. These were so commercially successful that a large number of investors flooded into similar projects. This produced a speculative bubble in canal building known as Canal Mania in the period 1790 - 1810. This was followed by Railway Mania, a period of overinvestment in British railways that peaked in 1846.

British Agricultural Revolution

Britain experienced an unprecedented increase in agricultural yield and output between about 1650 - 1850. This was due to a number of factors including legal reform, improved farming practices and machinery such as the iron plow.
Above: British crop yields in bushels/acre


The industrial revolution and the related agricultural revolution produced the first sustained period in world history where population and per capita income rose dramatically at the same time. Britain's population was stable at about 6 million in the period 1700-1740. Between 1740 and 1850 it rose to 16.8 million. Europe's population increased from about 100 million in 1700 to 400 million by 1900.


Urbanization driven by the availability of factory jobs. For example, the population of Manchester increased from 10,000 in 1717 to 2.3 million in 1911.


The industrial revolution was the first time that machines replaced labor with automation at significant scale. In the textile industry, the output per worker went up by as much as 500x for cotton fabrics. This resulted in a large revolt by displaced textile workers that peaked in the period 1811-1816. The protesters were known as the Luddites and were reacting to unemployment and the obsolescence of their professional skills. This was an extremely large rebellion that was eventually put down by the British army. At one point, the British had 12,000 troops assigned to the Luddites. By comparison, this was more troops than Wellington had to battle Napoleon in the Iberian Peninsula in 1808.

Second Industrial Revolution

The First Industrial Revolution was followed by a more intense period of economic advancement known as the Second Industrial Revolution of 1870 to 1914. This brought further industrial innovation such as interchangeable parts, mass production, assembly lines, electricity, automobiles and the telephone.
Overview: Industrial Revolution
A period of rapid economic change between 1760 - 1840 driven by the mechanization of production with steam power.
Also Known As
First Industrial Revolution
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Crafts, Nicholas FR, and Terence C. Mills. "Trends in real wages in Britain, 1750-1913." Explorations in Economic History 31.2 (1994): 176-194.
David S. Landes. The Unbound Prometheus. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. 1969.
Griffin, Emma. A Short History of the British Industrial Revolution. Palgrave. 2010.
Tylecote, R. F. (1992). A History of Metallurgy, Second Edition. London: Maney Publishing, for the Institute of Materials.

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