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The Industrial Revolution and Its Effects on America


When America became independent in 1776, it was primarily an agrarian society. Farmers and artisans tilled the land and conducted business either from their homes or from small shops within their localities. People made their clothes, furniture, tools, and other products; while the skilled craftsmen made metal goods, dishes, watches and shoes among other products. Trading was localized as there were no reliable or good enough means to transport manufactured and imported goods to the remote and isolated rural towns. The United States was richly endowed with natural resources such as waterways, vast and fertile tracks of unoccupied land; all of which helped to drive the revolution. Forests provided timber for house and shipbuilding, fuel, furniture and barrels among other products while rich iron ore deposits were processed into raw iron and later as the industrial revolution set in; into steel. But despite all of America’s natural wealth, the industrial revolution originated not from this land of plenty but in Britain, during the early 18th century (Brezina 8-9; Bagley 10).

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The industrial revolution and its effects on America

The Industrial Revolution refers to a period in world history that was characterized by very rapid technological growth. This revolution started in Britain during the mid-eighteenth century, and for the next 150 years or so, technological advancement had spread out to the rest of the world. The revolution began with a total transformation of the textile industry from being a primarily cottage industry using handlooms and spinning wheels to the invention of the flying shuttle. Through this invention, weavers could now work faster and because demand for thread was higher than the spinners could produce. Other inventors sooner stepped in and built spinning machines. Among these inventors was Richard Arkwright who in 1769 invented a huge water-powered spinning frame. By 1785, the textile industry had shifted from homes into big factories where the services of textile workers now changed from weaving to operating machines in the upcoming factories. Other innovations were the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, and a refined version of it by James Watt in 1769. Iron and steel became important raw materials for the construction of railways, houses and factories, as well as industrial machinery (Industrial Revolution in America 45-46; Brezina 9-10).

In the USA, the revolution accelerated after the American Civil War. Although a lot of developments had been taking place even during the war years, industry and modern business went through enormous growth in the post-war era causing many people to become doubtful whether operations of such large magnitude would eventually benefit the entire society. This was mainly because as industrialization accelerated, it became clear that economic and industrial power was in the hands of very few people. Industrialization was not only enormous but was also unchecked by federal government regulations. Many people had adopted Darwin’s theory that only the nations responding to changing circumstances taking place in the world would be able to survive. To such people, such incredible industrial growth was a sign of genius and superior intellect (Olson & Shadle 200, 234; Horn & Schaffner 494).

Through the revolution, the system by which goods were produced changed dramatically in the whole world; and many agrarian societies were transformed into modern economies driven by industry and manufacturing of goods. Manual and animal labor was replaced by machinery while innovators discovered better and more reliable methods of converting raw materials into manufactured products useful for various human needs. In the USA, the Industrial Revolution’s transformation of society was very striking. Between the building of America’s first factory in 1790 and the manufacture of the average American’s car by Henry Ford in 1908, the USA went through tremendous changes; being transformed from a sparsely populated farming nation into an urbanized and highly industrialized society. Historians have argued that it is through the technological developments that took place during this period that the stage was set through which the USA would gradually be lifted into the superpower it is today (Industrial Revolution in America 145, 259; Brezina 5-6).

While early Americans had spent most of their time farming and doing household chores, the newly industrialized society subjected people to longer working hours in the industries and factories, but for considerably lower wages. As a result of technological advancement, societies went through new social perils where farmers and jobless artisans were swept into the growing industrial cities to provide much-needed labor in the factories. But the growth of industries was tremendous and these laborers were soon replaced with unskilled cheap labor whereby entire families, children inclusive, were forced to work, widening the gap between the rich and the poor to undesirable scales. The high demand for labor in industries in turn led to massive movement of people from the rural areas into the industrial urban centers in search of employment and better living standards. With time the transportation sector also went through tremendous change, allowing easy and cheaper movement of goods and people between places (Olson & Shadle 234; Brezina 4, 10).

Advanced technology made production of goods in the industries and factories easier and much faster. Goods that had previously been considered luxuries for the wealthier minorities could now be produced in very large volumes and became available for a large part of the population. Because machinery had reduced the costs of production, the goods became cheaper as well and many of the working force could afford to buy more consumer goods than had earlier been the case. This helped to improve the standard of living for many Americans. Increased consumer spending and exports in turn led to great growth of the American economy. Machinery operation and assembly lines in the manufacturing industries and factories also created many jobs for the masses. But just like the cheap production of goods, these jobs paid very low wages and these workers could hardly make ends meet. There was the excitement of spending and enjoying new luxuries and many of them could not afford decent housing, and filth-ridden tenements became the dwelling of the new middle-class. Industrialization benefited in reality benefited most, the inventors and owners of various factories and companies (Industrial Revolution in America 81-82; Olson & Shadle 85, 173).

Concentration of power to a few wealthy people however affected many parts of American society. Before trusts could be established in industries such as oil refineries, competition had led to widespread wavering of prices, most times at uncontrollable scales. In other industries such as meatpacking and shoemaking, manufacturers were trying to outdo one another and in the process, modern factories sprung up everywhere; each of them trying to produce goods faster and cheaper than the others. This caused tremendous price fluctuations and competition became overcrowded as industries continued to come up with new ways of cutting production expenses in order to offer their goods at cheaper prices and remain in the market. The workforce suffered most from this cost reduction because in spite of goods becoming cheaper and affordable, wages became very low subjecting many families to a miserable type of life. Working hours also increased to meet the new demand for production and many industrial workers could do 14 or more hours of work every day, at lower wages. Technology also helped many industries to run their machines faster than normal in such way that workers had to produce more goods but at a breakneck speed. Working conditions became miserable for the workers as the economy on the other hand experienced very fast growth at their expense (Horn & Schaffner 493-494; Rury 55, 60).

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As people moved to the industrial towns in search of employment and better life, there was need for more urban housing for the new influx of workers. The rapid growth of industries brought along a rapid growth of population such that an urgent need for housing was inevitable. Besides, transportation means between the rural areas and the towns were still poor and workers had to live near the factories for easy commuting to work. The industrial revolution therefore brought about the multiunit urban worker housing which was enabled by the availability of iron and steel frames as well as mechanized industrial methods of house building. By the mid 19th century, overcrowded housing had begun to spread to America’s urban centers taking the shape of small poorly lit and ventilated units as well as small outhouses with built-in rear yards. Poor wages meant that the workers could hardly make ends meet and decent housing was out of reach for them. Filth-ridden tenements became the dwelling of the new middle class and with them came tuberculosis and several other airborne diseases. Water was sourced from dug-out wells that easily got contaminated also leading to disease (Horn & Schaffner 645).

To curb the outbreak of airborne and waterborne diseases, the federal government intervened by establishing the building tenement laws, that made it mandatory for builders to provide ventilation to rooms as well as provide interior baths. But the new regulations also meant higher development costs and developers were not ready to invest in housing that the workers could not afford to pay. As such the new developers focused on providing housing for the wealthier classes. This meant that even if diseases subsided in low-income dwellings, overcrowding remained a serious problem. But fortunately, by the early 20th century, technology had brought about advances in transportation that made wealthier families to move out of the congested urban centers, creating affordable accommodation for the workers. The movement of the wealthier classes led to the growth of suburbs as towns spread outwards to accommodate larger immigrant populations (Horn & Schaffner 645-646; Rury 9, 88).

In colonial America, education was not accessible or free for all members of society and remained a privilege of the elite social classes. As a result, only a very small percentage of the American population possessed any form of formal schooling. Education at the time was primarily for the enlightenment of the elite members of society and the workforce only benefited from apprenticeships offered to a few students. For children from poor families, apprenticeships became a highly treasured form of training because they provided not only particular skills in the area of training but also some basic skills such as writing and reading. For many of these children, this became the only means of improving their positions in society. But the industrial revolution came with a new demand for skilled workers who would operate the machines in the manufacturing sector. As the demand for manufactured goods increased, so also did the demand for skilled labor to produce these goods. As a result, apprenticeships began to decline, giving way to establishment of free public education. Machine-based work was also introduced and this allowed many disadvantaged workers to learn their skills on the job. The demand for skilled manual labor to operate machines in both manufacturing and agricultural sectors led to introduction of technical subjects in public schools. Legislation was passed that supported practical education and vocational training in the US. Lands were set aside for establishment of colleges that trained farmers, agricultural technicians and homemakers in the new technological advancements so as to establish a successful workforce. The first such institution was the Worcester Polytechnic Institute established in 1868 (Horn & Schaffner 160; Rury 67-68, 172).

Like manufacturing, agriculture and transportation, the communication sector in the US was not left behind during the Industrial Revolution and experienced tremendous transformation. Innovations made during the 19th century un-tethered communications from effective and vulnerable but quite limited modes of communication such as letter writing and newspapers through one of the greatest innovations of the time; the wire telegraph. The wire telegraph was introduced in 1835 by Samuel F.B. Moores followed by Alexander Graham Bell’s wire telephone later in 1875. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi developed the wireless or radiotelegraph which accelerated information dissemination across the whole of America. The telephone has many times been described as the 19th century’s most significant invention. In the short period between 1852 and 1860, Americans had built telegraph lines spreading out for about 23,000 miles and connecting the growing metropolises coming up all over the land (The Industrial Revolution in America 1-4, 36-40).

But while communications became easier and faster with the Industrial Revolution, many Americans felt that the pace was also uncomfortable and overpowering. They felt that life was moving at a very fast pace accelerated by inventions such as telegraph and telephone. Information now moved so fast that business people for example felt tyrannized by information/knowledge and all the pressure that resulted from making proper decisions in the midst of intense competition. Telegraph messages made communication of both good and bad news faster often becoming a cause of so much anxiety. Steam power applied to printing industries led to massive newspaper and book publishing, a factor that helped to reinforce the rising need for literacy among the masses as well as to supply material for the rising masses’ political interests. But newspapers reported anything, eliminating the barriers of a once peaceful society and opening up America to the problems of the wider world (The Industrial Revolution in America 196-197).

The Industrial Revolution touched every member of society to some extent from peasant to noble, parents and children, as well as captains and artisans in the various industries. With manufacture of steel, construction of railroads increased connecting various parts of the nation and helping in transportation of raw materials to the factories as well as distribution of manufactured goods. People could also commute with eases between rural and urban centers and rural-urban migration took place at such large scales that the construction of new dwellings resulted in tremendous urban growth. Manufacturing created jobs for the masses and introduced them to a new way of life through cheap and affordable products. Vast pieces of land were cleared either for agriculture, construction of roads, rails, industries and housing as well as for other developments. Trees were felled down in the process and the flora and fauna were greatly interfered with. But all these developments took place at the expense of a once peaceful environment and although the Industrial Revolution paved way for the modern society, it has been blamed for massive destruction of the environment and pollution (Industrial Revolution in America 145-147, 147).


Since the industrial revolution, the face of America and other nations around the world has gradually been changing sometimes experiencing very drastic transformations. There has been enormous growth of urban and industrial centers that require vast and well-developed municipal services. Economic life has changed into an interdependent system whereby urban workers have ever since becoming dependant on the employers’ will unlike the life of the pre-industrial rural worker. Through the industrial revolution, America and the world had changed for the better but the price to pay for these changes has been great ever since.

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Works Cited

Bagley, Katie. The Early American Industrial Revolution, 1793-1850. Mankato, MN: Captone Press, 2003.

Brezina, Corona. The Industrial Revolution in America: A Primary Source History of America’s Transformation Into Industrial Society. Buffalo, NY: Rosen Publishing Group, 2005.

Hillstorm, Kevin and Hillstrom Laurie C. Industrial Revolution in America: Automobiles, Mining and Petroleum, Textiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

Hillstorm, Kevin and Hillstrom Laurie C. The Industrial Revolution in America: Communications/Agriculture and Meatpacking/Overview/Comparison. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC- CLIO, 2007.

Olson, James S. & Shadle Robert L. Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002.

Rury, John L. Education and Social Change: Themes in the History of American Schooling. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.

Van Horn, Carl E. and Schaffner Herbert A. Work in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Policy, and Society. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.

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