The Industrial Revolution

Last era we talked about all the advances that Europe was making. They were challenging the authority of the Church, developing ideas to challenge the monarch, and branching out into the secular and natural world in the fields of art and science. The early discoveries of the scientific revolution laid the groundwork for full scale Industrial Revolution. The best example of this is the scientific method.

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is that thing we all learned about in our science classes before we did a lab. Our teachers all had flowchart posters of it and we just took it for granted. But let me remind you of what it is so that we can then talk about what a big deal it is.

Basically it goes like this – you come up with a question you want to answer. After some research, you make a hypothesis – an educated guess of what you think will happen. Then, you do tests and experiments and record and analyze the data that you get from those experiments. If your hypothesis turns out to be true, you report it. If it’s false, you go back, think about it in a new way, and try something else. This process was created in the early 1600s by a guy named Francis Bacon. Mmm. Bacon.

Before the scientific method was created, if you had a question where did you go? The Church. They looked in the Bible and told you the answer. You shrugged and went, “Ah OK” and then went home and never thought about it again. If you did think about it again and maybe had some follow up questions, the Church would be upset with you for doubting the word of God, so you would go home and never think about it again.

So the scientists of the early modern era who developed this were freakin’ revolutionaries. They are putting in place a process that by its definition asks you to question everything and only accept an answer based on observable, quantifiable fact that you see for yourself. Whoa.

Why England?

Now add that on to the fact that in places like England, they have a constitutional monarchy that acknowledges basic rights of citizens that are protected. And the fact that England is competing for dominance with the other kingdoms on the continent – they want to race to get the best colonies, and then race to get out all the crops and other natural resources they can, and so on and so on. This sets up Europe – and England specifically – to lead the way to industrialization.

But England had a few other cards up its sleeve, including: a growing middle class that had wealth in money not land – so they could invest in new inventions. They had an urban labor supply because the enclosure movement was pushing small farmers off common grazing areas and forcing them to sell their land to larger landowners and move to the cities looking for work. They also had easy access to water transportation and water power and they had a lot of coal. Like, a lot. You’ve seen Billy Elliot. That kid is literally dancing through coal fields.

What is the Industrial Revolution?

So what is the Industrial Revolution? Basically, it just means that people found ways to get machines to do the work that used to be manual labor and it made everything way more productive. So economies are going to grow super fast and technology is going to advance with it. The only other two moments in all of human history that are comparable to the Industrial Revolution are the Neolithic Revolution – when people discovered farming – and that time Al Gore created the Internet.

We don’t need to get into it, but a few key innovations are the steam engine, the cotton gin (which contrary to popular belief actually leads to an increased need for slaves – because now they can process cotton so fast they need more people to pick it in the fields), and the telegraph. But there are two biggies that lay the groundwork for most other innovation.

Interchangeable parts

The first is interchangeable parts. It’s exactly what it sounds like: you manufacture different parts of a thing so that you can interchange them if you need to. So before this innovation, if I have a gun and my trigger breaks, the entire gun is broken because it was all made by hand and is unique.

But now, if my trigger breaks, I can just go to the trigger store and get a new trigger and replace that one part. For those wondering, the trigger is literally the only part of a gun I can name. Ask me to name another one – I dare you. So now with interchangeable parts technology and machines can develop more quickly and things can be made more efficiently.

Factories (a.k.a. society is a prison)

The second big idea is the factory system. In the early modern era, some people had come up with an idea hilariously called the “putting out” system. I always want to make a joke about it in class but then I remember that I’m supposed to be the adult in the room. The Putting Out system basically went like this. Let’s say I’m a shoemaker – which is the only dumb example my brain can ever come up with. During the medieval era, I would make every part of the shoe by hand, myself, in my workshop. I always picture myself like a Keebler Elf – but I call it a Cobbler Elf and I laugh.

Anyway, during the early modern era, I might look around and realize that there are a lot of people – especially women and children – just sitting around their houses with nothing to do, I assume, because in this instance I’m a man. So I take them some materials and ask them to make some parts of the shoe for me; I come back later, pick them up and pay them for their labor. That’s great. But it’s pretty inefficient.

So now in the modern era, people come up with the idea of a factory. A building where the workers come to you, instead of you bringing the work to them. This is one of those things that our 21st century brains can’t fully conceptualize that it wasn’t just always a thing. But someone had to invent a factory.

They also had to invent a weekend. Think about it. The weekend is just a societal construct. Used to people just worked when they needed to work and then didn’t when they didn’t need to. But during the Industrial Revolution they start to create this rigid concept of time that we still live by today. So you work from Monday through Friday and then you rest on Saturday and Sunday – or back then, normally just Sunday.

They also created street lamps and then eventually electricity because they found that no one was used to working after sundown. So they created something that would make it daytime for longer – so they could get people to work longer. And one of the reasons why the British were so obsessed with tea from India and China? And thus, sugar from their colonies in the Americas? Because tea was given to their factory workers to keep them awake for longer during long shifts. It’s all coming together now…

Impacts of the Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution spreads from England to the U.S., Germany and Belgium first. And then eventually it spreads across Europe. So what were the other major impacts of the Industrial Revolution? In Europe, massive urbanization. People leave farms and move to the cities for work – they get set up in tenements, really terrible apartment buildings where poor people would be crammed into tiny rooms. The air became polluted because of all the coal. Basically, just picture a Charles Dickens novel. Do you see a tiny boy with knee-high socks and a cap saying something in a cockney accent? Good, you’ve got it.

But also, we see the rise of a new elite that is going to change the entire concept of wealth. These are people who are rich and influential but don’t own land. They weird out the nobility and aristocracy who look down on them as “new money.” This is hilarious to me – like if you read Jane Austen books parents are scandalized when their daughter wants to date a lawyer. How shameful! And he just owns a townhome in London. Scoff! People who didn’t make their money in traditional ways and who didn’t own vast estates were looked down on by high society – something that’s really similar to Confucian China, who viewed merchants as the lowest of the low.

Women and the Industrial Revolution

And an interesting thing happens with women. Lower class women get more freedom – but it’s just because they have to go work in factories. It’s like – you’re sort of equal, but you’re just equally miserable. But a lot of young women do move to the cities and live away from their families for the first time in boarding homes for other single women under the care of an older “house mom” type.

Also, really wealthy women get some more freedom as long as they use it to stay within their sphere of influence. Basically, women whose husbands have now made a ton of money, start to get involved in charity work – helping the poor or caring for that tiny orphan we all imagined when I mentioned Charles Dickens.

This is one of the ways women are going to slowly increase their power. I mentioned it before but let’s talk about it a little more. They start within their sphere of influence. If you remember, after the political revolutions, mothers argued that they needed to be educated to raise good citizens in our new democracy. Well now women start to create organizations to care for other women, children, and the sick – all “women stuff” – but by doing that they carve out a space where they can learn things like management, budgeting, community outreach, marketing, and advocacy. All skills they are going to turn around and use to push for their own rights like suffrage. Get it, girls!

But weirdly, middle class women get stuck in this time warp called the Cult of Domesticity. They are married and their husbands make enough money so they don’t have to work. But they don’t have expendable income to be starting charities. So they get put up on a pedestal and idolized by society as wives and mothers, without room to do much else. And don’t get me wrong – there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a wife and a mother – I’m both – but I have an issue when women don’t have the option to do something else.

reactions to industrialization

The last major impact of the Industrial Revolution is that we get the rise of dueling reactions to this new industrialization. On the one hand, a lot of people are really happy about it. They agree with a guy named Adam Smith who in 1776 wrote a book called The Wealth of Nations that basically outlined what we know as capitalism today.

This was another example of Europeans challenging traditional authority, in this case mercantilism. So instead of the mother country deciding everything about the economy and doing what’s best for the government, we should just let the invisible hand of the market figure it out. If people need more shoes, someone will step in to make more shoes. If people are willing to pay $1,000 for an iPhone that’s basically the same as the one they already have but with less functional headphones, then I guess that’s how much a new iPhone is worth. Ugh. Bitter.

And the people who are happy about this are the people who are doing well under the new system. Business owners, investors, some of the workers who have independent jobs for the first time. But some people are not happy about this. These are people who miss the traditional way of doing things – the economy being more of a communal effort. Not that there wasn’t competition before, but not ever on the scale that we see now – and the gap between the winners and losers, and the rich and poor, is growing wider every day.

Some philosophers start to look around and they see this gap widening and they make a prediction. At some point, the people at the bottom have to realize there are more of them than there are of the factory owners. And one day, those industrial workers will rise up and overthrow this unfair system and take control of the means of production for themselves. But it’s fine. I’m sure no one was paying attention to anything some random German guy with an incredible beard was talking about… Who is this Karl Marx dude anyway?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *