Social Transformation in the 18th Century for AP European History (page 3)

based on 2 ratings
By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Technical Innovations in Agriculture and Manufacturing

It is important to remember that technical innovations are always responses to new challenges. The people of earlier centuries did not fail to innovate because they were less intelligent; they simply had no need for the innovations. The ever-growing population and demand for food and goods in the eighteenth century created a series of related demands that eventually led to technical innovations in both agriculture and manufacturing. Single innovations often created a need for further innovation in a different part of the process.

The key technical innovation in the agricultural sector in the eighteenth century was the replacement of the old three-field system, in which roughly one-third of the land was left fallow to allow the soil to replenish itself with the necessary nutrients, with new crops such as clover, turnips, and the potato, which replenished the soil while producing foodstuffs that could be used to feed livestock in winter. More and healthier livestock contributed products such as dairy and leather.

In the manufacturing sector, a number of interconnected technical innovations greatly increased the pace and output of the textile industry.

  • In 1733, John Kay invented the flying shuttle, which doubled the speed at which cloth could be woven on a loom, creating a need to find a way to produce greater amounts of thread faster.
  • In the 1760s, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, which greatly increased the amount of thread a single spinner could produce from cotton, creating a need to speed up the harvesting of cotton.
  • In 1793, the American Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which efficiently removed seed from raw cotton, thereby increasing the speed with which it could be processed and sent to the spinners.

These technical innovations greatly increased the pace and productivity of the textile industry. The need to supervise these larger, faster machines also contributed to the development of textile mills, which replaced the scattered putting-out system by the century's end.

Eastern Ambition

The prosperity and power of Britain and France caused their eastern European rivals to try to strengthen and modernize their kingdoms.


In Prussia, Frederick William I built a strong centralized government in which the military, under the command of the nobles, played a dominant role. In 1740, his successor Frederick II (the Great) used that military to extend Prussia into lands controlled by the Hapsburgs. Challenging the right of Maria Theresa to ascend to the throne of Austria (which was a right guaranteed her by a document known as the Pragmatic Sanction), Frederick II marched troops into Silesia. In what came to be known as the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), Maria Theresa was able to rally Austrian and Hungarian troops and fight Prussia and its allies, the French, Spanish, Saxons, and Bavarians, to a stand-off.


In Russia, the progress towards modernization and centralization made under Peter the Great had largely been undone in the first half of the eighteenth century. However, under the leadership of Catherine the Great, Russia defeated the Ottoman Turks in 1774, thereby extending Russia's borders as far as the Black Sea and the Balkan Peninsula. In 1775, Russia joined with Prussia and Austria to conquer Poland and divide its territories among the three of them.

War and Diplomacy

In eighteenth-century Europe, statebuilding was still primarily conducted through war and diplomacy. The competition between Britain and France in the triangle of trade meant that they would contend militarily for control of colonies in North America and the Caribbean, but the desire to weaken one another also led them to become entangled in land wars in Europe.

The expansionist aims of Frederick II of Prussia led to a shift in diplomatic alliances that is now referred to as the Diplomatic Revolution:

  • Prussia, fearful of being isolated by its enemies, forged an alliance in 1756 with its former enemy Great Britain.
  • Austria and France, previously antagonistic towards one another, were so alarmed by the alliance of Prussia and Great Britain that they forged an alliance of their own.

Colonial and continental rivalries combined to bring all of the great European powers into a conflict that came to be known as the Seven Years War (1756–1763). The conflict pitted France, Austrian, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and (after 1762) Spain against Prussia, Great Britain, and the German state of Hanover. Land and sea battles were fought in North America (where it is sometimes known as the French and Indian War), Europe, and India. The European hostilities were concluded in 1763 by a peace agreement that essentially re-established prewar boundaries. The North American conflict, and particularly the fall of Quebec in 1759, shifted the balance of power in North America to the British. The British had similar success in India.

As the eighteenth century progressed, the nature of European armies and wars changed in ways that would have profound implications for the ruling regimes. The standing army was different in several ways:

  • The size of the standing army increased.
  • The officer corps became full-time servants of the state.
  • Troops consisted of conscripts, volunteers, mercenaries, and criminals who were pressed into service.
  • Discipline and training became harsher and more extensive.
  • Weapons and tactics changed to accommodate the new armies:

  • Muskets became more efficient and accurate.
  • Cannon became more mobile.
  • Wars were now decided not by a decisive battle, but by superior organization of resources.
  • Naval battles were now often more crucial than land battles.

Rapid Review

In the eighteenth century, Britain and France came to dominate the lucrative triangle of trade that imported valuable raw materials from North America and the Caribbean to Europe in exchange for slaves acquired from Africa. The influx of capital generated by the colonial trade served as a spur for unchecked population growth made possible by an agricultural revolution and the creation of a system of rural manufacturing. The changes in agricultural and manufacturing production destroyed the last vestiges of an economic system (manorialism) and a social system (feudalism) that dated back to the medieval period. In that process, both the traditional European peasantry and the guildsmen were converted to wage labor.

The intensifying rivalry between Britain and France, and the growing ambition of their eastern European counterparts, led to a series of midcentury wars, including the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War. Rivalries also led to a series of innovations in diplomacy and warfare.

The review questions for this study guide can be found at:

Social Transformation in the 18th Century Review Questions for AP European History

View Full Article
Add your own comment