The Industrial Revolution was a transitionary period for the world that occurred for about 60-80 years. Although there is no definitive starting or end date to this period, it is generally accepted that it began around 1760 and ended around 1840. What makes the Industrial Revolution such an important societal period is that it changed manufacturing processes.
Before 1760, materials were typically made by hand. After 1840, most industries were utilizing chemical manufacturing, steam power, and machine tools. Instead of independent production, the rise of a factory-based system began to dominate industry, especially within textiles.
The Industrial Revolution would set the stage for capitalist economies to begin experiencing per-capita growth like never before. Some even say that it is the most important time in human history, with the exception of learning how to domesticate plants and animals. Our current economy would not be where it is today without the numerous innovations that occurred during this 60-year period.
Here are some of the pros and cons of the Industrial Revolution that are important to consider, especially as we move toward future innovation.
What Are the Pros of the Industrial Revolution?
1. It inspired the innovation we see today.
The first real market-based economies began to emerge because of the industrial revolution. New processes could create first-time products that had never been available before on a large scale. Those who could find something that was useable and marketable had the potential to create huge levels of wealth. Andrew Carnegie is often associated with the Industrial Revolution because of the wealth he generated. In total, his net worth had an equivalency value that is 3 times higher than Jeff Bezos’ wealth right now. In 2014 dollars, his net worth was $372 billion. Then Carnegie gave much of what he had away.
2. It improved living standards for many people.
Because more products were being made, there were more jobs available for the general public. The Industrial Revolution helped to move people away from an agricultural-based society toward the modern society we have today. Groups of people could be more productive than a single person by working on the same task repetitively. Better products could be created for cheaper costs. Not only were more people earning a paycheck, but they had lower costs for better items too.
3. It created the concept of competition.
Before the Industrial Revolution, people stayed in their family trades because that was the only way to develop a skill. This period introduced the concept of a free-market society allowing the consumer to choose what they wanted instead of being dependent on the family that provided the trade for their community. If something didn’t meet their needs, the Industrial Revolution made it so that another product could be chosen for a similar price.
4. It created the idea of a product investment.
Families used to purchase horses because they needed help in their fields and transportation assistance. The horseless carriage, which would eventually become the automobile, would change that need forever. Numerous industries saw the same processes happening. Clothing lasted longer, so it needed fewer replacements. Buildings could be built with more strength, so they could become taller. The Industrial Revolution created the idea that someone could make money by helping other people make money through better overall products and services.
5. It improved production inventories.
Workers could become more productive thanks to the practices implemented during the industrial revolution. Businesses could look at creating multiple products instead of dedicating their resources to a single item. That allowed inventory levels to increase, which allowed businesses to consider being profitable from an international perspective for the first time in history. No longer was it necessary to be born into wealth to become wealthy.
6. It started new communities.
The Industrial Revolution helped to create several new communities around the world. Manufacturers would bring in workers to support their factories. Not only would a job and a paycheck be provided, so would a home, land, and other types of property. Many families moved to these industrial communities because it offered a chance to have something that they could call their own.
7. It encouraged international trade.
Border-based trade was how societies were built around the world before the Industrial Revolution. International trade occurred between border communities, but rarely between governments. That was why there was such a push during the Colonial Era to establish colonies. Each country relied on its own resources to fulfill its needs. After 1760, the idea of international trade became a standard. Nations found they could specialize in certain industries, trade with other nations of their specialization, and everyone could benefit from the transaction.
8. It encouraged everyone to find their inner inventor.
There was a spectacular level of motivation during the Industrial Revolution because everyone had the chance to strike it rich. All it took was one good idea that could be mass-produced in some way. Many of the inventions that came out of this period of history are still used today, such as electrical grid management, the telephone, and clothing manufacturing processes. Even early computers were first invented during the early years of the Industrial Revolution.
9. It allowed people to create more while saving labor.
The Industrial Revolution provided an era of rapid innovation when it came to anything useful. Numerous hand tools were invented during this period, making it possible to work faster with less effort. Rail transportation made it possible to transport goods across long distances. Even people could begin to travel with greater ease over longer distances with less fatigue. Every industry benefited from this emphasis on saving labor.
10. It improved personal health.
Before the Industrial Revolution, healthcare was primarily a regional consideration at best. Each doctor would be responsible for pursing medical science. Innovations happened, though they were only applied to specific communities. With the improved communication of this time period, medical advancements occurred rapidly, and instruments could be produced for lower costs. More doctors could afford advanced equipment and were provided with innovative knowledge about medical care. In return, patients received better care and mortality rates began to reduce.
What Are the Cons of the Industrial Revolution?
1. It created massive wealth gaps that have never really disappeared.
Andrew Carnegie was more of the exception than the rule when it came to philanthropy from the Industrial Revolution. Many of the figures who made great wealth during this period tended to keep it for themselves. Even worse, they tended to exploit the labor of others, paying them as little as possible while exposing them to difficult working conditions to continue lining their pockets. John Rockefeller was estimated to be worth $367 billion in today’s money. Those wealth gaps continue to persist through today.
2. It changed the very structure of our planet.
The warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. The last three years have provided us with the three warmest years observed since 1880 when records were kept. We know that the type of pollution caused by industrialization has a cumulative effect on the atmosphere. As emissions pile up in the atmosphere, more energy from the sun is retained. The truth is that we may never really know what the damage to our planet was from the Industrial Revolution. What we do know is that NOAA estimates the last 30 years have been the warmest period on our planet in the last 1,400 years with reasonable confidence.
3. It killed people.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the concept of workplace safety was never really considered. There was no reason to do so since most trades were kept within families. As the economy shifted toward an employer-based system, businesses and individuals focused solely on profit. That meant workers had long hours, few breaks, low wages, and zero health protections. It wasn’t just workplace accidents that killed people. Stress and disease were top contributing factors as well.
4. It only benefitted a handful of countries.
The Industrial Revolution initially benefitted Europe, then the United States. Belgium, France, Germany, and Britain saw many of the earliest benefits before the concepts spread outward to other regions. Not every country went through a similar experience. Some settled with purchasing completed goods from others. It’s the 21st century and there are still nations that have not been fully industrialized. That is why we categorize countries into the “developed” and the “developing” world still today.
5. It utilizes a finite fuel resource.
Many of the processes that were developed by the Industrial Revolution required fossil fuels to be consumed. This consumption occurred before the concepts of particulates and emission gases were even considered. Breathing in particulates caused countless illnesses and deaths over the years. It also created a reliance on the combustion of fossil fuels to maintain the “new normal” of life that the Industrial Revolution created. We’re still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, 250 years after this period began. In 2017, petroleum, coal, and natural gas formed a majority of the 83.9 quadrillion BTU that was produced in energy by the United States.
6. It shifted population centers toward urban environments.
Before the creation of labor unions, wages were based on desperation more than personal need. Since immigrants, legal or otherwise, were often willing to work for lower wages as a way to establish their family, they got the jobs and local workers were left out in the cold. That forced local workers to refine a specific skill or craft, often from what their family provided to communities in the generations before. That process may also be responsible for the wage gaps seen between majority and minority demographics still today.
7. It forced changes in the agricultural sector.
People discovered that they could earn more working regular hours in a factory than they could earn through the family farm. Even with the long hours in the factory, the shift made sense since farming took long hours as well. That shift in perspective changed the agricultural industries of every nation that went through the first Industrial Revolution. It forced industrialists to innovate new methods of food production since there was an immediate and dramatic drop in food resources. That shifted the agricultural sector toward profit and loss as well, which eventually led us to the development of genetically modified foods as a way to improve yields and profits.
8. It inspired a rise in unhealthy habits.
Drug use rose during the Industrial Revolution. People began to reduce the levels of exercise they received since they had labor-saving equipment. Cheaper foods tended to have lower nutritional content. Processed foods were invented to save time, increasing salt and sugar intake. Many of the unhealthy habits from the Industrial Revolution continue to be seen in high levels in the developed world, but not necessarily in the developing world.
The pros and cons of the Industrial Revolution are an interesting study in the socioeconomic effects that occur when true innovation is present. The world had never seen anything like this period of time before. It may not ever see another period of consistent innovation again that can generate such massive wealth. What we can do is look at the events of history, learn the lessons that are available, and make a conscious effort to avoid the mistakes that our ancestors made over two centuries ago.