DEFINITION: The “Industrial Revolution” was the transformation in human productive capacity—beginning in the eighteenth century, initially in England, then spreading to Europe and North America—thanks to the invention of many new types of manufacturing machinery.
As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the general prosperity of Western populations increased exponentially.
ETYMOLOGY: The adjective “industrial,” and the related noun “industry,” derive, via Middle English and Middle French, from the classical Latin noun industria, industriae, meaning “diligence.”
The word “revolution” derives, via Middle English, Middle French, and Late Latin, from the classical Latin verb revolvo, revolvere, meaning “to roll backwards,” “to unroll,” “to come around again,” or “to return.”
USAGE: The Industrial Revolution was based on technological innovation, notably, the development of various types of steam engines over the course of the eighteenth century.
The earliest steam engines were used to pump water out of mines. However, they were rapidly put to a wide variety of other uses, above all, the automation of the spinning of yarn and the weaving of cloth.
By the early nineteenth century, steam had been harnessed to power ocean-going ships and locomotives. By century’s end, the first internal combustion engines using petroleum-based fuels were being developed.
It is sometimes theorized as the so-called “first industrial revolution,” based on steam power, in contrast to the “second industrial revolution,” based on electrical power generation, and the “third industrial revolution,” based on computer and information technology.
However, it is perhaps more useful to think of the Industrial Revolution against the background of the longer arc of human history as a whole.
From this point of view, the first great revolution in human life occurred around 8000 BC, with the invention of agriculture and the settled way of life.
Despite the development of many singular inventions during the millennia which followed—including the widespread use of simple machines such as wedges, levers, pulleys, and screws; horse harnesses; sailing ships; the harnessing of wind- and waterpower with mills; and many more—in its essentials the economic foundation of human life changed very little until the eighteenth century.
From this perspective, the Industrial Revolution appears to be a much more singular phenomenon, now nearly 300 years old and still gathering steam (no pun intended). The point can perhaps be made most vividly through statistics.
For the 400-year period from roughly 1300 until 1700—for which economic data are reasonably reliable—the curve of a graph showing per capita GDP in England would be relatively flat. There was little or no growth in average wealth during that time.
Then, around 1700, the curve begins a gentle upward climb, such that over the next 200 years, by 1900, the figure for per capita GDP doubled.
Finally, over the course of the twentieth century, the upward slope of the curve became much steeper, such that by roughly the year 2000, the per capita GDP had undergone a fivefold increase.
In other words, the average inhabitant of a modern industrialized country such as the UK or the US was ten times richer in the year 2000 than his counterpart just 300 years earlier.
In fact, for the most part, even the relatively poorest members of a modern industrialized society live a life of material abundance that would have been unimaginable to the most affluent Englishmen prior to the Industrial Revolution.
In the past several decades, we might add, the curve representing change in per capital GDP over time has become nearly vertical.
In short, the Industrial Revolution created the world we all inhabit, and the pace of the continuous enrichment we all owe to it goes on accelerating, with no end in sight (yet).