Industrial Revolution: The Beginning and Its Spread in America


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Classical republicanism in America had been built on the three pillars of liberty, virtue, and commerce. By the 1820s, the disruptive and asserted democracy of the western territories, and evangelical revivalism affected the first two pillars. And, with the beginning of imports from England, the pillar of commerce began to tremble as well. Was it because of the Industrial Revolution?

An illustration of people working on power looms a cotton mill in Lancashire, England, in 1835.
The Industrial Revolution led to the rise of factories in England. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Industrial Revolution reminds us of the glittering, humming efficiency of brass and iron machines set in the midst of gloomy, smoke-begrimed factories. The incredible volume of cheaply produced goods stands beside the incredible volume of resentment and violence by the factory workers.

These images are not necessarily exclusive of each other. The Industrial Revolution can be thought of as really consisting of four smaller, separate but related, revolutions involving the invention—or in some cases the reinvention—of machines, power, labor, and capital.

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Machines and the Industrial Revolution

Western Europe had been using the small-scale wooden machines like the one used in printing press and the spinning wheel much before the Industrial Revolution. What made the machines of the Industrial Revolution different were their sheer size, complexity, and productive capacity.

Starting in England in the 1760s, the production of textiles was abruptly altered by the invention of the spinning jenny and the spinning mule. These simple machines really involved nothing more than multiplying the number of jobs a single person could perform on a single machine. The spinning jenny was simply a matter of hooking a number of wheels for spinning cotton into thread to a single main wheel and making them all spin together.

These machines cut the cost of producing the goods and made the costs for the buyer, especially the buyer of cotton textiles, cheaper.

Power and the Industrial Revolution

Before the 1760s in England, and before the 1820s in America, the few machines that were operated there still relied for power—mostly on human or animal muscle. Even when the newest of the machines, like the jenny and the mule, were introduced, the size of these machines was limited by the available power to make them work.

A portrait of James Watt.
James Watt developed the first workable wood-fired steam engine in the 1780s. (Image: Carl Frederik von Breda/Public domain)

In the 1780s, though, British inventor James Watt developed the first workable wood-fired steam engine. By 1785, steam engines were already being harnessed to cotton-spinning machines in England.

The result was that mills were no longer limited to sources of power like rural stream locations. Steam engines of any size and any number could now be housed in a mill built anywhere.

The results exceeded the wildest dreams of the inventors of the machines. By 1860, in England, the cost of producing textiles had dropped to less than one percent of what it had been in the 1780s.

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Factory System in the Industrial Revolution

As the amount of production and the size of the producing machines increased in the mills, so grew the need for workers. These workers were different from the ones on the farm or in the tanning yard or even in the paper mill. Thus, was born the peculiar labor system of the Industrial Revolution: the factory.

The old style of manufacturers, especially in the pre-industrial cities of Northern Europe and North America, were small-scale shops. Here, manufacturing was done with one worker or one artisan performing the entire process of production of goods from the start to the finish, as in shoemaking.

Operative Labor in Factories

In the new industrial factories, machines performed the work, not the workers. Thus, the first change that the new factory system introduced was the transformation of the worker to being an operative. “Operative”, was, in fact, the term applied to the new workers of the factory system.

Next, since the new machines and the new forms of artificial power, like steam, made it possible to pack immense amounts of production under one roof, the number of operatives inside a factory increased dramatically. Since it was the machines that did the work and the engines that provided the power, the operatives were forced to pace themselves to the machines and the engines.

The workers lost control of their own work time. They were forced to accommodate their work to the speed of the machines and the schedule of the engines. That led to a dramatic regimentation of their lives and as well as their production.

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Creating a Capitalist Society

A painting showing ships at the Salem harbor.
In the 1790s, ships from America sailed to China in search of exotic goods. (Image: Fitz Henry Lane/Public domain)

Between 1650 and 1750, Great Britain became the world’s first thoroughly capitalist society. The type of capitalism practiced in that era was commercial capitalism. That is, it was a capitalism that derived its profits largely from the import-export trade, and from whatever surplus value could be added to goods whose production costs seemed to have remained unchanged since the Middle Ages.

Thus, the merchants whom Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, admired and sought to encourage in his original reports to Congress in the 1790s were really only the traders and merchants and seaport middlemen. For example, the Boston and Salem ship owners who sent New England ships to the China seas in search of exotic goods; people who derived their wealth in large measure from getting pre-industrial goods and raw materials from one place to another, rather than actually producing or manufacturing them themselves.

Industrial Capitalism

The Industrial Revolution opened up a new form of capitalism: industrial capitalism. Commercial capitalism did not cease to exist but it now played a decidedly secondary role to the staggering profits that could be realized from the sale of finished factory goods in the new system.

The productive potential of the machines, factories, and operatives far exceeded the profits that merchants had made before from ordinary commerce and trade.

All of this was now to be transferred in the 1820s to the American Republic, where its impact on the battered structure of American republicanism was to be devastating.

Common Questions about the Industrial Revolution

Q: How did James Watt contribute to the Industrial Revolution?

James Watt, the British inventor, contributed to the Industrial Revolution by developing the first workable wood-fired steam engine in the 1780s.

Q: What was the affect of the Industrial Revolution on the workers in the factories?

During the Industrial Revolution, the workers in the factories were forced to accommodate their work to the speed of the machines and the schedule of the engines.

Q: Which two machines altered textile production in England during the Industrial Revolution?

Textile production increased with the invention of the spinning jenny and the spinning mule during the Industrial Revolution.

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