05 December 2017 | by

According to ‘The Future of Jobs’ 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, we are in the midst of a fourth phase of industrial revolution, with technology rapidly developing in areas like 3D printing, robotics and artificial intelligence. In this series, we explore the history of the industrial revolution so far and take a look at how what’s being developed now will change the way we work and live.

The industrial revolution begins in Britain

In 17th century Britain, the beginnings of an agricultural revolution would eventually lead to an industrial revolution, changing the country – and the world – forever. But why Britain? There were several reasons:


Agriculture had been Britain’s primary economy for centuries and the introduction of new farming systems in the 18th century resulted in better crops, more food, and healthier people. As a result, the population grew, and that meant a larger workforce.

Natural resources

Three natural resources played key roles in the industrial revolution: coal, iron and waterways. Britain had them all in abundance. Before steam was harnessed, water served as a primary source of power. Britain’s waterways also provided a mode of transportation for importing and exporting goods.

Coal was used to power steam engines, and advancements in steam engine technology meant that coal could be used more effectively. Large deposits of iron meant that it didn’t have to be imported, and that paved the way to several major innovations in iron-making technology.

Political stability

Civil war and revolution (1603–1714) greatly weakened monarchy control, thus changing the way that prices, wages and interest rates were determined. The ideas of John Locke, Adam Smith and the revolutionaries, which provided philosophical and economic grounds for the protection of individual rights, also had a strong influence on changing British culture and politics. Meanwhile, our distance from mainland Europe protected us from wars that were happening abroad. The result of all of these factors was that the country was able to enjoy a long period of peace and prosperity in which workers were able to thrive and save money. This increased population wealth, along with our rich natural resources and advancing agricultural production, brought about economic stability and increased investment in developing new technologies.

Freedom of thought

British scientists played a key role in the industrial revolution, and their inventions were made possible by the country’s rational and scientifically-focused attitude towards intellectual development.

Profit-driven agriculture

Before the war, much of the land in England was collectively ‘owned’ and the serf system meant there was little incentive to improve lands or produce more than was needed for immediate sustenance. However, by 1830 most of it had made its way into the hands of individual owners. For the first time, farmers were able to own their own lands, improve and cultivate them as they saw fit, and reap the rewards for doing so. The result was increased competition, which sparked innovative thinking and encouraged investment. Increased demand for better and more efficient agricultural tools led to a number of innovations, including the seed drill (1731) and threshing machine (1784). Improvements to the land itself meant that the quality and quantity of crops were improved. It is estimated that in the period between 1700 and 1850, agricultural production increased by 172% whilst the number of people within the population required to produce at that level decreased from 55% to 22%. With less labour needed for agricultural efforts, doors were opened to growth and innovation in other industries.

Better infrastructure

Using money saved as a result of more efficient agricultural production, farmers, private businessmen and entrepreneurs set their sights on improving Britain’s transportation system. Most of the roads, canals and railways built during this time were not financed by government but by individuals. Interestingly, whereas English roads had been amongst the worst in Europe, this change in financier not only improved existing roads but allowed for the development of a vast network of new roads. As a result, production and trade volume increased and vendors were able to market their products nationally as well as locally.

Between 1760 and 1820, canals were the primary mode of transportation for heavy freight, providing links between major industrial areas and between major waterways. The first major railway opened in 1830, connecting Liverpool and Manchester and 20 years later, over six thousand miles of track had been laid.  Railways reduced both transport costs and travel times.

Powered by steam

Key to mass production and the increase in foreign trade was the ability to harness steam as a power source, and key to the steam engine was coal. Improvements in mining technology meant that more coal could be extracted, which meant, in turn, that steam power became a viable, affordable power option for both industry and transportation.

By 1800 steam had become a reality in Britain. The country’s primary industries were vastly improved, making us leaders in raw resource production through mining, textile production, and metalwork manufacturing. By 1820, the introduction of steam-powered trains and ships opened up even more doors, both within the country and internationally. By the time Victoria took the throne, Britain’s place as the world’s most powerful trading nation was well established.

Some of the key events surrounding the creating of the steam engine include:

  • In 1690, Frenchman Denis Papin used steam pressure to move a piston. While he struggled to find acceptance of his idea, his discovery served as the foundation for future advancements.
  • The Miner’s Friend was patented by Thomas Savery in 1698, becoming the first practical machine to be powered by steam. Using Papin’s design as its basis, the device was used to remove water from flooded mines. Although highly-problematic, the Miner’s Friend played an important part in determining how steam powered machinery would develop.
  • The first commercially successful steam engine was built in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen. As with the Miner’s Friend, its purpose was to pump water from mines; however, by replacing the receiving vessel with a cylinder and piston, Newcomen’s design solved many of the problems associated with Savery’s machine, thus allowing miners to dig deeper and work uninterrupted by flooding. The result was a massive increase in coal production.
  • In 1769, James Watt patented a condenser unit which reduced steam loss and dramatically improve steam engine efficiency.
  • In 1774, John Wilkinson patented a precision cannon borer, which provided Watt with a way to precision drill steam engine pistons. That same year Watts and Matthew Boulton opened a steam-engine factory in Birmingham. Not just any ordinary factory, the Soho Foundry is considered to have been well ahead of its time.
  • Watt patented his steam engine in 1775, and Wilkinson made further improvements to the cylinder boring machine that allowed production of higher tolerance cylinders.
  • In 1781, James Watt further developed his engine through the invention of a rotary motion device. This not only cut the machine’s coal consumption by two-thirds but also allowed factories to be built away from rivers – thus further accelerating the pace of change.
  • Watts continued to make further advancements and, in 1785, the steam engine was used to power a cotton mill.

Continued improvements in steam technology saw even more growth. For instance, the advent of a self-propelled steam engine changed the face of agriculture, while the milking machine revolutionised the milk industry. Industrialisation also increased the demand for coal, and the raw resource constituted a tenth of all of the UK’s exported goods.

From iron to steel

Increased coal production and the introduction of new technology worked to advance both the iron and the steel industries. For instance, combining the process of puddling and rolling developed by Henry Cort in 1784 with coal-powered blast furnaces resulted in a more-efficient way to convert pig iron into wrought iron. The result was an increase in pig iron production – going from 30,000 tons in 1770 to two million in 1850 and then up to nine million tons by 1900.  Technological advancements like Bessemer’s converter, Siemens’ open-hearth process and the Thomas-Gilchrist process also saw annual steel production rise – going from 300,000 tons to five million between 1870 and 1900, with one million of that exported.

  • 1856 – Bessemer's converter made steel mass-production possible.
  • 1867 – Siemens-Martin open-hearth furnace greatly increased productivity.
  • 1877 – Gilchrist-Thomas basic process made it possible to use an entire new range of ores in steel manufacture.

The increase in iron and steel production meant that the metals replaced wood as the preferred materials for resilient products. Metal working also allowed for increased precision control, thus not only making more complex products possible but allowing for mass production of tools, weapons and ammunition, industrial machinery, pipes, engines, railways, and ships. By 1918 steel production had overtaken iron, and steel became the preferred material for manufacturing products.

British wonders of the industrial world

Bell Rock Lighthouse

Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, created the Bell Rock Lighthouse between 1807 and 1810 in an effort take make Bell Rock – a large reef located 11 miles out in the waters approaching the Firth of Forth – a safer place to navigate. The structure was made to such exacting standards that it still stands operational over 200 years later.

SS Great Eastern

The SS Great Eastern was a steam-powered iron sailing ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was a key figure in forwarding steam travel between England and North America. His vision with the Great Eastern was to design a ship that could travel round the world without refuelling. While the ship was revolutionary in its design, it was plagued by misfortune and never achieved commercial success.

London sewers

While improved lifestyles allowed the British population to grow, certain needs of this larger population went overlooked. In particular, the need for improved sanitation in highly populated areas.

In the summer of 1858 London was met with a crisis known as the ‘Great Stink’. Sewage was everywhere, and over 30,000 people had died from the resulting outbreaks of cholera. To combat the problem, engineer Joseph Bazalgette designed an 82-mile underground sewage network that would link over 1,000 miles of street sewers. His task wasn’t the easiest, as he had to compete with the new underground railway as well as new roads and above-ground railway systems. However, he persevered, and the result transformed the city and set an example that was quickly mimicked in cities worldwide.

Forth Bridge

While not counted amongst the wonders of the industrial world, the Forth Bridge is certainly worth a mention. The bridge is a cantilever-styled railway bridge that crosses the Firth of Forth just west of Edinburgh city centre. Construction of the bridge unofficially began with the opening of a steel works near site in 1882. At the time, the bridge’s cantilever design was ground breaking, enabled by the use of 50,000 tons of steel. Construction took seven years, and the bridge was completed in December 1889. The first complete crossing took place in February 1890, and the bridge was officially opened by then Prince of Wales Edward (VII) on 4 March 1890.

Britain loses her place

By the end of the 19th century, Britain had risen to become the industrial and manufacturing powerhouse of the world. Mechanization of the textile industry, development of the metal industry and, key to both, the move from animal and water power to steam, all played their part in Britain’s domination. However, while Victorian Britain was both inventor and exporter of the industrial revolution – thus creating what we now know as the modern world – we were not able to retain our place as world leader for long. The reasons for our fall have been a matter of some debate. Whatever the case, fall we did, first losing our lead in cotton and textiles, and then in steel.

The saddest case was perhaps that of the iron and steel industry, for we see it losing pre-eminence at the very moment when its role in the British economy was greatest, and its dominance in the world most unquestioned. Every major innovation in the manufacture of steel came from Great Britain or was developed in Britain. […] Yet, with the exception of the converter, British industry was slow to apply the new methods – Gilchrist-Thomas benefited the Germans and the French far more than his countrymen – and they utterly failed to keep up with subsequent developments. Not only did British production fall behind that of Germany and the USA in the early 1890s, but also British productivity. By 1910 the USA produced almost twice as much steel alone as the total steel production of Great Britain. ~ Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution’ (1999)

In 1875, Britain produced 47% of the world’s pig iron and almost 40% of her steel. However, by 1896, those numbers had dropped to 29% and 22.5% respectively. The US became the world leader, with American steel underselling British steel even in Britain. At this point, Germany was also threatening to overtake, going from 0.2 million tons of pig iron in 1859 to 19.3 million tons in 1913.

Thus ended a golden era where Britain served as the world’s leader and example of great innovation. In the next part of this series, we’ll take a look at the second phase of revolution, and how advancements in electricity further transformed the world as we knew it.