The Industrial Revolution

Course Material 2024/25

The Industrial Revolution was a fundamental turning point in human history. Downstream from the Industrial Revolution we live in a world of unparalleled affluence for an ever-larger share of the planet’s population and most people live on to old age. Before the Industrial Revolution mass poverty characterised all societies and life expectancy was low (25-35) for all social classes. Almost everywhere agriculture dominated economic life and most people lived in the countryside. Before the British Industrial Revolution whilst some economies sometimes experienced economic growth this was never sustained for very long and the long-term norm was for stagnation not growth and regression was common. All this changed with the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Britain was the first economy to undergo a transformation to a regime of sustained economic growth, never-ending technological change and an overwhelmingly urban society. At the same time, despite urbanization, life expectancies began to rise. Following Britain’s lead industrialization spread first to North-West Europe and North America and then to Japan and Southern Europe. In the recent past China and India have experienced unprecedented economic growth lifting hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty. Current global inequalities in income levels stem largely from differences in when or if countries began to industrialise. All these gains were based on the use of fossil fuel which now threatens an environmental catastrophe. The transition to using coal in Britain began in the sixteenth century and was accompanied by a steady growth in non-agricultural employment, a form of industrialization which preceded the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution really began in the 1760s when the pace of technological change increased dramatically. As a result, in industries which mechanised, productivity soared and the economy transitioned to economic growth and, eventually, to rising living standards.

All this begs lots of questions which will be explored in this course. What were the key characteristics of the Industrial Revolution? What was the nature of the economic development that preceded it? How and why did population levels explode and how did this impact on living standards? When did the economy really begin to grow at rates that were historically novel? What was the role of technology. Why did the pace of technological change speed up so dramatically? Was science or a scientific culture important? What was the role of the changing resource base of the economy? Was the Industrial Revolution accompanied by an agricultural revolution that simultaneously allowed a rapidly expanding population to be fed and released labour to agriculture? Did a revolution in transport play a key role? What was the role of foreign trade, imperialism and Atlantic slavery? Did working hours increase? Did women increasingly enter the labour market or did technological change radically reduce female labour force participation? Was there a consumer revolution? If so, did all classes participate? What happened to the standard of living of the working classes? Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in Britain and not somewhere else? What enabled an economy, for the first time in human history to, transition to permanent sustained growth?

Introductory reading list

Allen, R.C., The British Industrial Revolution in a global perspective (2009).
Berg, M., and Hudson, P., ‘Rehabilitating the industrial revolution’, Economic History Review XLV (1992), pp. 42-50.
Crafts, N.F.R., Forging ahead, falling behind and fighting back: British economic growth from the Industrial Revolution to the financial crisis (2018), chapter 1.
Crafts N., and Harley, C.K., ‘Output growth and British industrialization: a restatement of the Crafts-Harley view’, Economic History Review, XLV (1992).
Feinstein, C.H., ‘Pessimism perpetuated: Real wages and the standard of living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution’, Journal of Economic History, 58 (1998), pp. 625- 58.
Floud, R., Humphries, J., and Johnson, P., The Cambridge economic history of modern Britain, Vol 1, 1700-1870 (2014)
Griffin, E., Liberty’s dawn: A people’s history of the Industrial Revolution (2013).
Mokyr, J., The industrial enlightenment: An economic history of Britain 1700-1850 (2012)
Shaw-Taylor L, and Wrigley, E.A., ‘Occupational structure and population change’ in Floud, R. Johnson, P., and Humphries, J., (eds) The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Vol I, 1700-1870 (2014, 4th edition) pp. 53-88
de Vries, J., The Industrious Revolution: Consumer behaviour and the household economy 1650 to the present (2008).
Wrigley, E.A., Continuity, chance and change: The character of the industrial revolution in England (1988).
Wrigley, E.A., ‘British population during the “long” eighteenth century, 1680-1840’, in Floud, R., and Johnson, P., (eds.) The Cambridge economic history of modern Britain: Volume I: Industrialisation, 1700-1860 (2004), pp. 57-95.

Section notice

This material is intended for current students but will be interesting to prospective students. It is indicative only.