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Second Industrial Revolution





In this section, you should learn to define and discuss the following people and things:

  • The Industrial Revolution, Hiero, aeropile, capitalism, the Guild System, productivity, template, linked machines, The First Phase of the Industrial Revolution, The Mechanical Revolution, The Second Phase of the Industrial Revolution, The Transportation Revolution, The Third Phase of the Industrial Revolution, The Chemical Revolution, mill, millwright, belt-driven power, Seven Years' War, Napoleonic Wars.

You should also be able to discuss the following topics in some detail:

  • What are some of the necessary preconditions for technological innovations to advance an economy?
  • What are the traditional ways for businesses to lower labor costs? Are any of these methods being used in the United States today?
  • Why does Capitalism promote technological development?
  • How do templates and linked machines work and how do they increase worker productivity?
  • Into what stages can the Industrial Revolution be divided, and how did each affect the global economy?
  • How did belt-power work? What were its advantages? Its limitations?
  • How did the progress of The Mechanical Revolution affect the skills and education of the workers?
  • What problems did the development of The Mechanical Revolution create for the European powers?


As you have probably already noted, historians use the word "revolution" in several different senses, for a violent uprising, for something strikingly innovative and influential, and for a process that works deep and important changes. When discussing revolutions, it is easy to shift from one definition to another without realizing it. This is something to try to avoid, especially when discussing something like The Industrial Revolution. Although it is best considered as a long process of great change in the world, and especially in the Western world, some writers prefer to emphasize the innovations and spend a good deal of time discussing the mining and use of coal and the principles and operation of the steam engine. Neither of these were particularly new.

In the year 1092, a monk of the Abbey of Saint James in Liege (in modern Belgium), wrote that a lot of "black rock" had been found under the soil in the vicinity and that it had great advantages, "giving warmth to the poor and fire to the artisan." In the nineteenth century, a significant steel industry was established at Liege using that coal deposit, but it had not really been developed until that time. The men and women of the Middle Ages found that their "black rock" "emitted noxious vapors" (we would call it "pollution") and passed a law against using it. Then too, back in Hellenistic times, Hiero, one of those bright chaps at the Museum of Alexandria, built an interesting gadget. He made a ball-shaped teapot (of course, they didn't have tea at the time) with a tight-fitting lid and two spigots, one on each side and pointing in opposite directions. He put water in it and suspended it by a string above a small fire. As the water started to boil, steam built up inside the vessel and began to escape through the spigots. The stream was shooting out in opposite directs and so the metal ball began to spin faster and faster. Hiero called his gadget an aeropile, and his friends thought that it was quite ingenious. It remained nothing more than a clever toy, however, much like the Mayan use of the wheel only for pull-toys. The aeropile had a number of flaws, but, if Hiero and his colleagues had had an important reason to do so, they could doubtless have developed it further into an effective steam turbine. There was no such reason, however, and so the principle of the aeropile was largely forgotten.

This raises a couple of interesting points. The first is that an innovation is significant only when it is applied to something that society considers worthwhile. Youngsters had been flying kites for a long time before the Wright brothers (and others) realized that the same design that caused kits to go up in the air could be used for wings to make airplanes go up in the same direction.

The second is that "inventions" don't appear until a society is, for some reason or another, ready for them. There is a nice twentieth-century example of this. The mechanical cotton picker was developed back in the 1920's, but cotton growers refused to accept it, saying that it required too much maintenance, missed too much cotton, and tore up many of the cotton bolls it did pull. They continued to employ the migrant workers who would come up from Mexico each year to harvest the cotton crop. In the 1950's however, the United States passed a law that all such migrant workers should be paid the minimum wage. The cotton growers quickly found that the mechanical cotton picker was not really so bad after all, and, within a very few years almost all cotton in the country was picked mechanically.

So we should avoid thinking of the Industrial Revolution simply in terms of the innovations and inventions themselves, and ask ourselves how society had become ready to accept such developments, what purposes they served, and what changes they brought about.

We began our discussion of the Industrial Revolution much earlier than most historians would do, and called the rise of capitalism the "first industrial revolution." Let's begin there.

"Capitalism" has to do with the ownership of the means of production, and is not all that difficult to understand. Let us say that there is a man who owns three hundred acres of good land, but no tractor, horses, or other farm equipment and has very little in his bank account. He is a capitalist in that he owns the land -- the means of production -- but needs the labor necessary to raise a crop and make a profit from his land. How might he go about it? He could lease the land to other people for a cash payment or a portion of the crop. He could get a loan from the bank to lease equipment and hire workers, or he could form a company and sell enough shares to get the money he needed (keeping back enough unsold shares for himself to make certain that he controlled the company and got his share of its profits). Whatever tactic he might use, his interest would be in increasing the amount of profit that he received and he would use his power as the owner of the land to do so. He would have no necessary interest in the welfare of the people who provided the labor necessary to produce a profit, and would be concerned primarily with reducing the portion of his land's revenues that he had to share with the workers.

The decline of the Guild System and the rise of a class of capitalists who managed to control the lion's share of profits produced by the economy created a society that was ready to accept the innovations that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution. The capitalists considered that their ownership of the means of production entitled them to as much profit as they could obtain from the use of this property. This meant that they were interested in reducing the labor costs of producing whatever it was that they produced, and there were two basic ways of accomplishing this.

The first was to reduce the worker's pay to a bare minimum. Any provisions the guilds had made for workers -- old age benefits, health insurance, education, workers' safety, care of widows and orphans, and the like -- were abandoned, and workers were given a straight salary based either on a full day's work or a payment for each piece of work completed. These salaries were made as low as possible, and women and children who could be paid less than men were employed wherever possible. Authors of this era of the Industrial Revolution described working conditions and the condition of the workers in the darkest terms imaginable, and the European working classes began to devise means by which they could gain a greater share of the profits of the economy.

The other means by which the capitalists could decrease labor costs was by increasing the workers' productivity, the amount that a worker could produce in a day's work. This could be done by increasing the hours of labor required to receive a day's wages, or by requiring workers to work extremely hard and firing those who were incapable of keeping the pace that was set for them. Neither of these methods were too effective, however, since the increase in productivity was marginal at best. The best solution was to provide the worker with machines that would multiply his efforts. The basic device for obtaining this end was the template and linked machines. Some of you may have seen such a device used by politicians to allow them to sign thousands of letters "personally". The politician signs a letter, and a couple of dozen pens, linked to the pen he is using, repeat the motion of his pen exactly so that his one "personal" signature becomes twenty-five, none distinguishable from the original. It works even better if the politician has had his "personal" signature engraved on a metal plate. That way, anyone in his office can simply take up the pen, follow the grooves in the plate, and make twenty-five of the politician's "personal" signatures at a time. It works even better if the politician's "personal" signature is engraved on a cylinder that is driven by some sort of motor. That way, anyone on the office can fit the main pen into the beginning of the signature groove, turn on the switch, and the cylinder will begin to turn, producing twenty-five personal signatures with every revolution. Of course, the person has to stand around and watch the operation, because the pen sometimes jumps out of its groove, one of the pens is always running out of ink, the paper changer runs out of paper or gets jammed, or any of a number of other things may happen. The person watching the machine has to be able to service it, or even repair it if necessary.

This may sound silly, and it is. But it does happen, and this silly machine embodies all of the basic innovations that made up The First Phase of the Industrial Revolution, which for want of a better term we might call The Mechanical Revolution, lasting until about 1800 and characterized by the development and proliferation of machines of production. We might call The Second Phase of the Industrial Revolution The Transportation Revolution, lasting until about 1860. Mechanical developments continued during this period, but the most interesting changes were those that occurred as a result of the development of transportation technology. The Third Phase of the Industrial Revolution lasted perhaps into the 1970's, and might be called The Chemical Revolution. Mechanical and Transportation continued to develop, but the great advances of the period were made in the area of chemical engineering and consisted of the development of man-made substances that were superior to and cheaper than the natural substances they replaced. Steel industries, once the core of a national industry, began to decline, and new economic powers, lacking the natural resources to support an industrial economy of the traditional sort, began to arise. People have suggested various names for the stage of the Industrial Revolution into which you have been born: The Age of Ceramics, The Age of Plastics, The Atomic Age, The Age of Genetic Engineering, The Age of the Computer, The Information Age, The Jet Age, and even The Post-Industrial Age. People usually find it more difficult to think clearly about their own times than about the more remote past.

We will be touching on this continuing development throughout the remainder of this course, but we should first consider some other of the characteristics of The Mechanical Revolution. The basic idea of the template not only made it possible to increase productivity and to create more or less self-operating machines, but it produced items that were exactly identical. This meant that common machines could become more complex that had ever been possible before. It's a simple rule of life that the more complicated an operation becomes, the more things that can go wrong with it, and the more parts something has, the more frequently one of them will break. Before the use of the template became widespread in manufacturing, everything that was produced was composed of unique parts, each of which was so crafted that it fitted the others. When any single part of a machine broke, the entire machine was useless until an artisan could create a replacement sufficiently similar that it could take the place of the original. There was no such problem with things produced by template. Since all the things produced by this method were identical, any broken element could be easily replaced. This stimulated producers to develop more and more precise templates so that increasingly complex machines could be produced. This increase of complexity and precision began to change the character of the industrial workforce. No matter how ingenious the machines became, there was still a need for an operator to feed them raw materials, adjust their operation when necessary, and repair them when the need arose. This meant that the operators had to be mechanically skilled, and this usually meant that they had to be experienced and more or less educated. In fact, many of the more important innovations of the period were devised by workers. Then, too, the linked machines needed some source of power to drive them since they were not being operated by a human hand. Throughout the world dams -- such as the one on the Kaw here in Lawrence, Kansas, USA -- were built and mill-races constructed to turn great water-wheels. This rotary power was distributed to nearby factories by long belts made of leather, rope, or some other suitable material. In each factory, there were one or more "power wheels" that were turned by their links with the main mill wheel. Incidentally, this is why we still sometimes refer to a factory as amill. Within the factory, power was distributed from the main wheel to the machines by complex systems of belts, wheels, brakes, gears, disengagement levers, and the like. A special class of worker, the millwright, emerged, a worker who tended, repaired and adjusted these complicated systems. Millwrights were essential to a factory's operation and came to form a bridge between the capitalist and the ordinary worker. This belt-driven power system was complex and not very energy efficient; it was dangerous and workers were forever getting caught in the gears or cut into pieces when a high-speed belt broke and whipped out across the factory floor. The biggest problem, from the mill owner's point of view, was that this sort of power could not be carried very far, and sources of needed raw material and water power were often located at some distance from each other.

Nevertheless, the stage of the Industrial Revolution dominated by the template, linked machines, and belt-driven power systems increased European production to such an extent that the Continent could not produce enough raw materials to maintain full production, and it could not sell all of its goods when it did reach full production. Part of the problem was solved as the Western nations moved plants and animals from one part of their empire to other parts and refined the plantation system. The cotton fields of the Southeastern United States were only one element of a colonial system that fed the factories of Europe the raw materials that they required. The problem of markets was somewhat more difficult to resolve, since it required turning the great populations of India and China into markets for European goods.

While the European powers were involved in the Seven Years' War and the Napoleonic Wars, many of their colonies claimed and gained their independence. The old colonial system of the sea- borne empires had vanished, and the European economy demanded new markets and sources of raw materials. When the American inventor, Robert Fulton, developed the steam-powered ship, the basis of a new imperial system was laid. At the same time, the influence of the Industrial Revolution began to be felt through the development of new means of transportation, means that in a very real sense re-drew the map of the world. Our discussion of the emergence of the United States as a world power will provide an example of that transformation.



There are several excellent sites dealing with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. The Mining Company deals with several aspects of the movement in its site devoted to the Eighteenth Century. Evansville offers a good introduction to Industry. There is also the text of a lecture on the Industrial Revolution deliver many years ago by one of the first of the world historians, Arnold Toynbee. You should spend some time on each of these.


It is well to remember that the Industrial Revolution created the wealth that we enjoy today and that the Industrial Revolution was paid for in the blood of workers -- men, women, and children. If you have the time, I would suggest that you might browse through The Life of a Coal Miner, Coal Mine Workers (Women in World History), and The Boys in the Breakers to get an idea of Avondale may give you something of an idea of how high that price could be.

This text was produced by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of History, University of Kansas.
27 March 1998
Lawrence KS