The Debate on the ‘Industrial Revolution’

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The Debate on the ‘Industrial Revolution’ 2018-03-28T11:49:28+00:00

Until the 1970s, historians used the term ‘industrial revolution’ for the changes that occurred in Britain from the 1780s to the 1820s.
From then, it was challenged, on various grounds. Industrialisation had actually been too gradual to be considered a ‘revolution’. It carried processes that already existed towards new levels. Thus, there was a relatively greater concentration of workers in factories, and a wider use of money. Until well into the nineteenth century, large regions of England remained untouched by factories or mines and therefore the term ‘industrial revolution’ was regarded as inaccurate: England had changed in a regional manner, prominently around the cities of London, Manchester, Birmingham or Newcastle, rather than throughout the country. Could the growth in the cotton or iron industries or in foreign trade from the 1780s to the 1820s be called revolutionary? The impressive growth of cotton textiles, based on new machinery, was in an industry that relied on a non-British raw material, on sales abroad (especially India), on non-metallic machinery, and with few links to other branches of industry. Metallic machinery and steam power was rare until much
later in the nineteenth century. The rapid growth in British imports and exports from the 1780s occurred because of the resumption of
trade with North America that the War of American Independence had interrupted. This growth was recorded as being sharp only because it started from a low point.

Indicators of economic change occurring before and after 1815-20 suggest that sustained industrialisation was to be seen after rather than before these dates. The decades after 1793 had experienced the disruptive effects of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Industrialisation is associated with a growing investment of the country’s wealth in ‘capital formation’, or building infrastructure and installing new machinery, and with raising the levels of efficient use of these facilities, and with raising productivity. Productive investment, in these senses, grew steadily only after 1820, as did levels of productivity. The cotton, iron and engineering industries had accounted for less than half of the industrial output until the 1840s. Technical progress was not limited to these branches, but was visible in other branches too, like agricultural processing and pottery


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