The Industrial Revolution

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain around the 1730s, spreading across Europe after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In the United States, the Indus- trial Revolution began toward the end of the eighteenth century. This era brought vast changes to a western world that had, in some respects, changed very little over all the preceding centuries. People had always depended largely on the land for survival; both everyday and luxury goods were made one item at a time, by hand; and the key to the economy was the success or failure of the harvest.

With the invention of machines and the beginning of mass production, everything changed. Machines changed the way farmers sowed and harvested their crops. New methods of transportation changed the way crops were taken to market and expanded markets into new territory. Machines made it possible for people to assemble many products simultaneously. Mass production made goods available more cheaply than before.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 revolutionized the southern economy. Cotton was a labor-intensive crop because the seeds and fibers had to be separated by hand after the cotton was picked. Eli Whitney of Massachusetts invented a machine (“gin” was short for “engine”) that could comb the seeds from cotton fibers automatically. In one day, the cotton gin could process as much cotton as 1,000 slaves could process by hand. By 1800, the cotton yield was 20 times what it had been before the invention of the cotton gin.

The steamboat was another invention that changed the cotton industry. America’s many rivers provided an excellent “highway” system for trade by flatboat. The trouble was that flatboats had to be propelled by human power, and it was very difficult to pilot them upstream, against the gravitational flow of the water. In 1807, Robert Fulton of New York unveiled the first practical steam-powered boat, the Clermont. Regular steamboat service on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers began in 1811. Steamboats allowed the southern cotton growers to transport their cotton north to the textile mills in a fraction of the time it had taken by flatboat.

For slaves, the combination of the cotton gin and the steamboat spelled disaster. Slavery had begun to decline; it had been outlawed in the North and was proving unprofitable in the South. It cost money to purchase, house, feed, and maintain a large slave population, and no matter how many slaves a plantation had, the work still took time. With the invention of the cotton gin, however, slavery suddenly became profitable again, both for southern plantation owners and for northern textile-mill owners. The rise in profits made some northerners begin to drop their outspoken objections to slavery. However, the issue continued to be a political bone of contention between North and South; the North did not want the South to expand its political power base, and a slowly growing number of northerners continued to object to slavery on ethical grounds.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Early 19th Century Practice Test

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