Fast Facts: The Industrial Age


Image: “The Casting of Iron in Blocks” by Herman Heyenbrock.

  • The industrial revolution in mid-17th-century Britain marked a major switch in human history. A largely agricultural way of life ruled by owners of land became industrial, favoring the owners of machines, factories and resources, up unto the 20th century.
  • Scores of people moved from farms and countryside villages to massive, growing cities.
  • After the early-to-mid 1800s, the average quality of life started to improve. Life expectancy grew past the age of 35. Populations burgeoned. Products from clothes to dinnerware to weapons were made cheaper because they could be mass produced.
  • The financial industry started to thrive. Stock markets sold shares of ownership in new businesses. Professional banks gave out loans, furthering the growth of private wealth. With larger tax bases, governments grew as well.
  • Industry also abetted colonial expansion by European and other powers. Eager for more wealth, they amassed huge colonial empires. Sugar from the Caribbean, spice from India and tea from China were in high demand.
Colonies in 1754. Image: Andrei Nacu.

Colonies in 1754. Image: Andrei Nacu.

Colonies in 1898. Image:

Colonies in 1898. Image:

  • By 1860, the United States was a new industrial power. Its rise was further invigorated by the expansion of sprawling steam engine railways and immigration from abroad.
  • Later leaps forward include electricity in the late 1800s, the expansion of chemical and medicinal products in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the “information” revolution and the computer age.
  • Before telegraphs became the norm in the 1800s, messages could take weeks by letter. It was even longer for overseas recipients, until a permanent telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic Ocean in 1866.
Image: "Iron and Coal" by William Bell Scott.

Image: “Iron and Coal” by William Bell Scott.

  • Luddites, fearful of losing their jobs to new technologies, smashed industrial equipment in protest. The term “Luddite” has since become pejorative, referring to those who resist technological progress.
  • Many workers were consigned to highly dense shantytowns with dirt floor houses, open sewers and rampant disease. High death rates in factories and on railroads prompted labor reform in the U.S.
  • Thinkers like Karl Marx believed the abuses of the industrial age would lead to war between laborers and the elites. But he couldn’t predict the rise of a politically and socially satisfied “middle class.”
  • The liberated political climate after England’s Glorious Revolution, the intellectual freedom of Britain’s scientists, labor-freeing farm innovations, and an abundant store of coal are all reasons cited for the revolution’s start.

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