The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution, which reached the United States by the 1800s, strongly influenced social and economic conditions.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the changes that the Industrial Revolution brought to manufacturing

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Industrial Revolution was a global phenomenon marked by the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to 1840. Though the United States borrowed significantly from Europe’s technological advancements during the Industrial Revolution, American inventors contributed to this international period of economic and industrial growth.
  • Increased automation and mechanization, facilitated by new machine tools and interchangeable parts, revolutionized manufacturing, particularly in the textile industry.
  • Improved transportation networks and swelling urban populations also allowed for the expansion of domestic markets.
  • The unprecedented levels of production in domestic manufacturing and commercial agriculture during this period greatly strengthened the American economy and reduced dependence on imports.
  • The Industrial Revolution resulted in greater wealth and a larger population in Europe as well as in the United States.

Key Terms

  • steam power: Power derived from water heated into water vapor that is usually converted to motive power by a reciprocating engine or turbine.
  • water power: Any source of energy derived from running or falling water; originally obtained from a waterwheel immersed in a stream; modern hydroelectric power is obtained from turbines fed from reservoirs.
  • Industrial Revolution: The major technological, socioeconomic, and cultural change in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resulting from the replacement of an economy based on manual labor by one dominated by industry and machine manufacture.

Introduction: The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a global phenomenon marked by the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to 1840. The Industrial Revolution began in the United Kingdom, and mechanized textile production spread from Great Britain to continental Europe and the United States in the early nineteenth century. During this Revolution, changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology profoundly affected social and economic conditions in the United States.

New Innovations

Though the United States borrowed significantly from Europe’s technological advancements during the Industrial Revolution, several great American inventions emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century that greatly affected manufacturing, communications, transportation, and commercial agriculture.

Advances in Technology

In the 1780s, Oliver Evans invented an automated flour mill that eventually displaced traditional gristmills. Evans’s system for handling bulk material became widely used in flour mills and breweries during the nineteenth century and is among the innovations credited with the development of the assembly line. By the turn of the century, Evans also had developed one of the first high-pressure steam engines and began establishing a network of machine workshops to manufacture and repair these popular inventions. In 1793, Eli Whitney developed a machine to separate the seeds of short-fibered cotton from the fibers. The resulting cotton gin generated huge profits for slave-holding cotton planters in the South. In the early 1830s, Cyrus McCormick’s horse-drawn mechanical reaper allowed farmers in the West to harvest great quantities of wheat, leading to great crop surpluses.

Reliance on horse power for machinery in the United States soon gave way to water power; this resulted in a concentration of industrialization developing in New England and the rest of the northeastern United States, where fast-moving rivers were located. The great number of rivers and streams along the Atlantic seaboard provided optimal sites for mills and the infrastructure required for early industrialization.

Between 1800 and 1820, additional industrial tools emerged that rapidly increased the quality and efficiency of manufacturing. In the first two decades of the 1800s, the development of all-metal machine tools and interchangeable parts facilitated the manufacture of new production machines for many industries. Steam power fueled by coal, wide utilization of water wheels, and powered machinery became common features of the manufacturing industry.

Improved Transportation

During this period, domestic trade also expanded with the introduction of canals, improved roads, and railways. In 1807, Robert Fulton built the first commercial steamboat, which operated between New York City and Albany. With the proliferation of new canal routes in the 1820s and 1830s, steamboat technology was crucial to domestic freight shipments in the United States.

Subsistence farming declined, and more consumer goods arrived on the market. The transition away from an agricultural-based economy toward machine-based manufacturing led to a great influx of population from the countryside, causing towns and cities to swell in population.


The communications revolution that began in this period served to connect communities and transform business. In 1836, Samuel F. B. Morse and Alfred Vail developed the American version of the electrical telegraph system, which allowed messages to be transmitted through wires over long distances via pulses of electric current. Messages were transcribed using the signaling alphabet known as “Morse code.”

Effects of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution marked a major turning point in history. During this period, the average income and population began to exhibit unprecedented, sustained growth. In the two centuries following the 1800s, the world’s average per capita income increased more than tenfold, while the world’s population increased more than sixfold.

The profound economic changes sweeping the United States led to equally important social and cultural transformations. The formation of distinct classes, especially in the rapidly industrializing North, was one of the most striking developments. The unequal distribution of newly created wealth spurred new divisions along class lines. Each class had its own specific culture and views on the issue of slavery. The elite lived and socialized apart from members of the growing middle class. The middle class valued work, consumption, and education and dedicated their energies to maintaining or advancing their social status. Wage workers formed their own society in industrial cities and mill villages, though lack of money and long working hours effectively prevented the working class from consuming the fruits of their labor, educating their children, or advancing up the economic ladder.


Steam engine design, 1801: This is the original steam engine design patented by Oliver Evans.

Industrialization and the Environment

During the Industrial Revolution, environmental pollution increased with the use of new sources of fuel, the development of large factories, and the rise of unsanitary urban centers.

Learning Objectives

Describe the toll that industrialization took on public health and the environment

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Anthracite coal, discovered at the turn of the nineteenth century, became an important source of fuel in the United States during the Industrial Revolution, with lasting consequences for the environment.
  • Sanitation was a major public health concern in cities such as New York and Philadelphia, which lacked sewage systems and clean drinking water. Untreated sewage was not properly disposed of and thus frequently contaminated the local water supply.
  • Regulations to ensure cleaner air and cleaner water were not put in place until the second half of the nineteenth century.
  • Though environmentalism did not enter American discourse prior to the twentieth century, the transcendentalist movement of the 1830s and 1840s presented a critique of industrialization that elevated the natural world.
  • Transcendentalists, including Henry David Thoreau, fostered a romantic image of the natural world as a response to industrialization and urbanization.

Key Terms

  • cholera: Any of several acute infectious diseases of humans and domestic animals, caused by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium through ingestion of contaminated water or food, usually marked by severe gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and dehydration.
  • transcendentalism: A movement of writers and philosophers in New England in the nineteenth century who were loosely bound together by an adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the belief in the essential supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths.
  • Anthracite coal: A form of carbonized ancient plants; the hardest and cleanest-burning of all similar material.

The Industrial Revolution brought enormous advances in productivity, but with steep environmental costs. During the Industrial Revolution, environmental pollution in the United States increased with the emergence of new sources of fuel, large factories, and sprawling urban centers.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels powered the Industrial Revolution. In 1790, anthracite coal was first discovered in what is now known as the Coal Region of Pennsylvania. A harder and high-quality form of coal, anthracite soon became the primary source of fuel in the United States for domestic and industrial use. It fueled factory furnaces, steam-powered boats, and machinery. The consumption of immense quantities of coal and other fossil fuels eventually gave rise to unprecedented air pollution. In 1881, Chicago and Cincinnati were the first two American cities to enact laws to promote cleaner air.


Anthracite coal breaker and power house buildings, New Mexico, ca. 1935: Coal tends to release large quantities of carbon as it is burned to make electricity.

Modern Cities and Sanitation

The environmental effects of industrialization were especially concentrated in cities. Unsanitary conditions and overcrowding afflicted many American cities, where outbreaks of disease, including cholera and typhoid, were common. Untreated human waste was a major environmental hazard as rapidly growing cities lacked sewer systems and relied on contaminated wells within city confines for drinking water supplies. In the mid-nineteenth century, after the link between contaminated water and disease was established, many cities built centralized water-supply systems. However, waste water continued to be discharged without treatment, due to public health officials’ confidence in the self-purifying capacity of rivers, lakes, and the sea.


Hand bill from the New York City Board of Health, 1832: The cholera outbreak of 1832 was related to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that attended the Industrial Revolution.

Early Environmentalism

In the early nineteenth century, policymakers and the public had little awareness of the extent of industry’s impact on the environment. Some effects were self-evident to attentive observers, however, and the rise of industrialization and urbanization did inspire a new appreciation for the natural world among some. Transcendentalism, an intellectual movement of the 1830s and 1840s, elevated nature in popular poems, stories, and essays of the time. Transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau is best known for his work Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. Thoreau also wrote on the subjects of natural history and philosophy and anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism.

Portrait of Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau, 1856: Thoreau’s writings celebrated nature and a simple life and provided a critique of urban and industrial values.