Industrial Revolution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The shift from economies based largely on subsistence agriculture to economies based on industry and trade created a vast number of unskilled and semiskilled jobs that helped to attract immigrants to the United States.

The demographic revolution that began in the Western world during the eighteenth century and accelerated during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made it imperative to develop employment for the increasing numbers of people in the developing nations. During the long period that became known as the Industrial Revolution, large numbers of Europeans moved from rural areas into cities where jobs in new industries were to be found. Many of these people crossed the Atlantic Ocean looking for work and joined native-born Americans who were moving into cities.Industrial RevolutionIndustrial Revolution[cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;Industrial Revolution[02810][cat]BUSINESS;Industrial Revolution[02810][cat]LABOR;Industrial Revolution[02810][cat]PUSH-PULL FACTORS;Industrial Revolution[02810][cat]DEMOGRAPHICS;Industrial Revolution[02810]

Changing Sources of Economic Growth

As late as the eighteenth century, the great bulk of people in Europe and North America were still supporting themselves and their families through their individual labor, mostly on farmlands. They relied on human and animal power to grow and harvest plant food crops and raise livestock that would sustain their lives. In some places, individual farmers made their farms more efficient by harnessing wind and hydraulic power. They had sailing vessels propelled by wind, and grain mills and lumber mills powered by waterwheels and windmills. Coal, petroleum, and electrically powered machines were still largely unknown.

The early nineteenth century saw human beings beginning to harness a new form of power: steam, which could make machines work faster and with greater power. As the century wore on, steam power was made to run trains, ships, and factory machines. By the end of the century, electricity was being harnessed to run machines even more efficiently, and new kinds of motors were being made to run off petrochemical fuels, such as gasoline.

These new forms of machinery did not suddenly spring into use. They required many years of experimentation and adaptation to reach high levels of efficiency. Steam-powered train, ferry, and shipping services began operating during the first decades of the nineteenth century, but they did not become commercially significant until around mid-century. Meanwhile, factories were beginning to adapt steam-powered machines to manufacturing. A key element of the process of modernizing manufacturing was the introduction of standardization of parts.

Contemporary magazine illustration of the New York headquarters of I. M. Singer & Co. in 1857. Singer was a primary manufacturer of sewing machines, which played a major role in the Industrial Revolution and made possible the employment of many thousands of immigrants.

(Library of Congress)

The importance of standardization was especially evident in the manufacture of guns, an industry that played an important role in developing the technique. Armories in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later in West Virginia), helped pioneer in the development of machine tools, jigs, and templates that made possible the production of multiple identical parts. Standardized parts made assembly faster and more economical and made replacement parts much easier and cheaper to obtain. Standardization was later introduced into the manufacturing of many other products for which there was increasing demand, such as clocks, sewing machines, farm machines, and transportation equipment. Before the Industrial Revolution, complicated devices such as guns, tools, and clocks had been made by hand by workers trained by long experience to produce individual parts, one at a time. Making the parts and assembling them both required high levels of skills. After techniques for manufacturing identical, and thus fully interchangeable, parts were perfected, the finished products could be assembled relatively easily by semiskilled and sometimes even unskilled workers–many of whom were recent immigrants to the United States.

Creation of Industrial America

After the mid-nineteenth century, the development of machine-powered mass-manufacturing techniques powered the American economy. It had begun in the Textile industrytextile industry, whose mills had provided jobs for large numbers of the Textile industry;Irish immigrantsIrish immigrants who were then beginning to enter the United States. However, mass manufacturing extended well beyond the textile industry and became, in a sense, self-generating. As increasingly large factories required ever greater quantities of materials to operate, their needs spurred the development of other industries. For example, the railroads required Iron and steel industry;and railroads[railroads]steel in huge quantities for their thousands of miles of rails and for the trains themselves. The steamships and ferries that were beginning to move passengers and cargoes at previously unimagined speeds needed giant foundries to manufacture the plates that formed them and the engines that powered them.

The immense demands for the iron alloys from which to fashion the new machines created a steel industry whose size was empowered by the Bessemer process that was invented in 1855 but only widely adopted after the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). The Bessemer process made possible the vast steel mills of Pittsburgh and other cities, and the steel industry in turn contributed to the great expansion of the Coal industrycoal-mining industry, which was also beginning to supply great amounts of fuel to railroads and steamships. Through the late nineteenth century, coal mining employed huge numbers of unskilled immigrant laborers.

One of the ultimate achievements of the Industrial Revolution was the creation of Assembly lines;automobilesassembly-line production that Ford, HenryHenry Ford introduced to automobile manufacturing during the early twentieth century. To the system of interchangeable parts, assembly lines added the advantage of simplifying the tasks performed by individual workers to make large-scale manufacturing more profitable. Simplification of workers’ tasks opened many jobs to unskilled immigrant workers.Industrial Revolution

Further Reading
  • Hounshell, David A. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. Traces the development of engineering technology that underlay the Industrial Revolution.
  • Mayr, Otto, and Robert C. Post, eds. Yankee Enterprise: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981. Collective review of the factors that created the Industrial Revolution in America.
  • Mokyr, Joel. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Recounts how technological innovation drove the Industrial Revolution.
  • Singer, Charles, et al., eds. The Late Nineteenth Century, 1850 to 1900. Vol. 5 in A History of Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954-1958. Part of a classic multivolume work tracing the role played by technology in history.
  • Stiles, T. J. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Biography of one of the major players in the ferry, shipping, and railroad industries during the nineteenth century that provides fascinating coverage of technological advances in each of the industries that Vanderbilt developed.
  • Temin, Peter, ed. Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Collection of essays by a number of scholars that examine the role played by industrial technology in New England’s economy.

Coal industry

Economic consequences of immigration

Economic opportunities

European immigrants

European revolutions of 1848

Immigration waves

Iron and steel industry

Settlement patterns

Categories: History