The Industrial Revolution Begins in Britain (page 2)

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Changes in the Textile Industry

Britain’s textile industry—both cotton and wool—was a major part of its economy. Sheep grazed the grasslands that covered the nation. For generations, their wool had been sheared, spun into yarn, and woven into cloth. Before the eighteenth century, this work had been done largely by hand.

Major changes in the textile industry began in 1733, when John Kay invented the flying shuttle. In 1764, James Hargreaves followed with the spinning jenny. Together, these inventions made the spinning and weaving process much faster and more efficient. More changes came later in the century: In 1779, the spinning mule combined the capabilities of the spinning jenny with the power of an invention called the water frame. When Edmund Cartwright perfected the first steam-powered loom in 1787, the weaving and spinning process took another giant step toward mass production.

Steam is probably the single most important word for an understanding of the Industrial Revolution. Europeans had understood the power of fire for many generations, and wood had served well as fuel. At the same time, although timber was a renewable resource, trees were slow to grow and had to be planted. Britain, once heavily forested, had used up most of its timber by the 1700s. Coal was another source of power, and coal was abundant, but it was also buried deep below the ground, and getting it out was difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. (In time, coal became so necessary to British productivity that a major coal-mining industry developed.) Steam had the advantages of being accessible, free, and available as long as the rivers had water in them.

Thomas Savery developed Britain’s first steam engine just before 1700. In 1705, Thomas Newcomen improved Savery’s design. In 1763, James Watt improved the Newcomen engine. By the late eighteenth century, all the mills and factories in Britain were steam-powered. It was steam power that made the first railway locomotive possible; later, coal powered the engines.

In 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened. This development marked a major change in European lives. Until this time, nothing could move over land faster than a person could walk or a horse could run. Now, people could travel rapidly; journeys that had once taken seven or eight days could now be completed in a few hours. The railway proved popular and profitable, and within fifty years British workers had laid track and were driving engines all over the country. By 1880, technology had progressed so much that the trains were moving at three times their 1830 speed.

The main reason for building the railway, of course, was not for passenger travel but for freight. The railway made it possible for large quantities of goods to be transported quickly and efficiently over land for the first time in history. This reduced shipping costs, which in turn created larger markets and greater demand for goods; as demand rose, production increased. Owners were making enough profits to expand their businesses, building more factories and hiring more workers.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Industrial Revolution in Europe Practice Test

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