Industrial Revolution



This article presents an overview of the industrial revolution in the United States and other

developed nations in the nineteenth century. Although the United States is often associated with what is termed the “second industrial revolution” that began circa 1870, technical innovations or appropriations in the New England textile industry before 1840 established the groundwork for much of the later growth of the national economy. The story of the industrial revolution in Britain is characterized by a more obvious historical change than in the United States; it first emerged after several centuries of demographic and economic stasis and then spread to the United States and Europe. In the United States, by contrast, the story is one significant element within the relatively high rate of demographic, geographic, and economic expansion. The conventional explanations for the industrial revolution have involved technological advances or changes; later interpretations emphasized the expansion of financial organization and political policies that were conducive to technology-based economic growth.

Keywords Continuous Processing (Disassembly Line/Assembly Line); Cotton Gin; Deskilling; Economies of Scale; Interchangeable Parts; Learning-By-Doing; Malthusian Trap; Standardization; Systemization; Technical Innovation; Waltham Plan



A few decades before the year 1800, Europe was largely confined by what is termed the “Malthusian trap”: populations remained stable because there was only enough food and surplus income to sustain a limited number of people, and new technological or economic innovations had only resulted in very brief population surges. Britain was the first nation to escape the so-called Malthusian trap through labor-saving innovations in the agricultural and textile industries. The agricultural innovations were largely appropriated from the Netherlands, but the technological innovations were native to Britain.

Although the United States is often associated with what is termed the “second industrial revolution” that began circa 1870, technical innovations or appropriations in the New England textile industry before 1840 established the groundwork for much of the later growth of the national economy.

The Textile Industry, Firearms,

The mechanical innovations of the industrial revolution initially grew out of the British textile sector. In the 1700s, the so-called “mule” mechanized spinning technique for transforming raw fabric fibers into cloth and the power loom performed a similar task for fabric weaving. Later, steam-powered cotton spinners with 1000 spindles replaced the single-spindled manual model (Bessen, 2000). Between 1760 and 1870, British textile productivity rose fourteen fold, or 2.4 percent annually and 27 percent annually in the 1860s (Clark, 2007, pp. 233-234).

As early as the 1790s New England spinning wheels switched from working with cotton to linen or wool, while the more important cotton work was distributed to single-task specialists. These specialists often worked in their own homes under what was known as the “putting-out system” (Gunderson, 1976, p. 157). About 25 percent of the population of New England was employed in a relatively specialized capacity making components of textiles or shoes (Madrick, 1995, p. 29).

The British government banned the emigration of knowledgeable technicians such as cotton “mule” mechanics in an effort to protect the technology, but some mechanics had smuggled themselves out of the nation by the 1790s in response to ads in American newspapers that promised rewards for anyone possessing such technical knowledge. By 1812, more than 300 British mechanics were employed in and near Philadelphia alone. The best-known early émigré was Samuel Slater, who helped establish the Rhode Island textile industry and is often credited for introducing the factory system in the United States. In 1814, Francis Cabot Lowell, a Boston entrepreneur who had visited and secretly documented British cotton operations, established the so-called Waltham Plan. The Plan was designed to avoid the sordid social conditions of industrial towns in England. It employed young women who were not yet of marriage age and provided cultural events, boarding rooms, and mandatory church services; curfews were enforced and alcohol consumption was banned. It was presented to the public as a philanthropic enterprise, but it was also more commercially successful than competing mills. The Waltham Plan centralized all fabric production, including weaving, dying, and finishing in one location for the first time. Lowell’s operation soon became both faster and more automated than its British counterparts, rendering it less labor intensive (Gunderson, 1976, p. 159-60). The Waltham textile business eventually led to the development of other industries. An independent machine-making workshop was eventually established by Lowell’s business, and it was selling machinery to other mills by the 1830s.


Standardization, or the interchangeability of parts, simply denotes that each manufactured component will be identical, or identical enough to allow any similar component to function in place of another with minimal finishing or fashioning. This level of consistent manufacturing was expensive, but it also saved labor at the assembly and repair stage. Standardization also led naturally to mass production and the increased specialization (and to some degree, “deskilling”) of the labor force (Bessen, 2000).

Standardization developed fairly quickly as a means of controlling labor costs. American firearms assemblers, for example, could complete twenty-five units a day, whereas their British counterparts could only complete two due to the time involved with fashioning less-standardized components. Standardization also rendered the repairing process quicker and less expensive (Gunderson, 1976, pp. 174-177).

Standardized parts, however, were much more technologically exacting and expensive to produce in the early stages and, as such, a very large market for standardized products was required. The United States had such a market. Eli Whitney, aided by the reputation garnered by sales of the cotton gin, popularized the idea of standardization or, as he termed it, “interchangeable parts.” The automated flour milling plant, using conveyors and elevators and first developed in Philadelphia in 1784, was similarly designed to minimize the labor involved in moving raw and processed materials around production areas and into and out of transportation vessels (Gunderson, 1976, pp. 175-178).

The domestic application of standardized technology initially based on the production of firearms also developed quickly. By the 1850s, a metal-milling machine resembling a wood lathe was used to make knives and firearm parts, and also parts for sewing machines, bicycles, textile machinery, locomotives, clocks, watches, typewriters, and various pieces of hardware (Russell, 2005). The well-known assembly line (or “continuous processing” production) associated with Ford automobiles had its origin in the “disassembly line,” which was also designed to save labor. The disassembly line was developed circa 1815 in Cincinnati to perform the manual work of moving pig carcasses via hooks past workers, each of whom performed one specific task very quickly (Gunderson, 1976, p. 175).

Between 1900 and 1916, the consumer cost of a Model T Ford fell from $3,000 to $360, as its construction (or “throughput”) time fell from twelve hours to about an hour-and-half. Ford also, however, took standardization a step too far for market tastes; it only produced one model of automobile. General Motors did extremely well by offering a variety of models, including luxury cars. The Carnegie Steel Company, which exemplified “vertical integration” (that is, the monopoly created by the combined ownership of natural resources, transportation, and manufacturing) took the opposite tack and, due to often criticized decisions of its managers and lawyers, cut its “throughput” time. Somewhat ironically, this tactic (or error) allowed the company to avoid the anti-trust legislation that was enacted by President Theodore Roosevelt (Schmenner, 2001).

The factory system was not an American invention, but “the use of a factory as a method of production was perfected in — and has even become a symbol of — the American economy…” (Gunderson, 1976, p. 159). American innovations tended to originate on the factory floor through the “learning-by-doing” process of gradually refining production techniques. These innovations are at least as substantial as landmark innovations such as the cotton gin (Madrick, 1995, p.52; Bessen, 2000). Thomas Edison and other early innovators, furthermore, often had investors, salesmen, and managers who allowed them to recover research costs through commercial promotion and sales (Russell, 2005).

Further Insights

Geography, Economies of Scale,

The relatively low ratio of people to land in the 19th century United States became a distinct advantage once the efficiency of transportation improved. By 1820, grain could be economically transported twice as far as it could be during the Revolutionary period, and the United States became known as the “granary of Europe.” Trade traveling via the Erie Canal and the Mississippi River increased by well over ten fold between 1824 and 1850. Between 1858 and 1890, railroad shipping costs more than halved. The 1890 Census revealed that all available land had been claimed. Industrialization, however, was another sort of “frontier” that allowed for economic expansion (Madrick, 1995, pp., 45, 22-23).

Local economic self-sufficiency had been the norm until about 1815. Key products such as clothes, furniture, and iron goods were soon available more affordably due to both cheaper mass production and cheaper transportation. Processed goods such as flour, furniture, or iron-ware,…

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