The world is rapidly expanding more than ever. New discoveries in technology allow us to do things like automate the production of cars, produce mass amounts of smartphones that allow us to interact with daily life, and even have cars that drive us around on its own. We have optimized workflows so much that McDonald’s burgers can somehow cost $1.00, even considering the amount of work to cultivate crops, raise cows, and ship all of that to your local McDonald’s. However, this didn’t just magically appear out of nowhere. We can trace the origins of this all the way back to the 1800s, also known as the Industrial Revolution. From there, the Industrial Revolution massively impacted the American way of life, from work to consumption.
The origins of the Industrial Revolution can be traced back to Great Britain. With their large deposits of coal and other ore, their position in the global landscape as a colonial superpower, and their massive trading economy with other countries, it was the perfect breeding ground for the Industrial Revolution. This first version was called The First Industrial Revolution. Britain noticed their dominance with such technology over other countries, and banned the export and spread of inventions, workers, and patents. There is still hot debate over why the Industrial Revolution started in Europe, instead of another country like China. Although Britain banned the export of product of the Industrial Revolution, investors and company owners would seek to gain more profit and would expand to further parts of Europe and eventually, North America.
The Industrial Revolution sparked a period of economic development unprecedented in human history. The Industrial Revolution helped build the modern-day capitalist system which is still used today. All the basis of what happens in today’s capitalist society was built on these foundations. It caused a migration from rural areas to urban cities where people found work in factories and eventually became the new working class. It created a dependency on the working class compared to rural times when workers were easily replaceable. Production began to shift; people worked in small factories as opposed to their homes. As the revolution progressed the number of goods and services began to grow. The goods produced in these factories were made cheaper and faster than anything before the Industrial Revolution. This increased the supply of many products, and highly benefitted consumers. Owners of good and services began to realize that they could expand their production through factories which led to companies benefiting the government. While the economy improved, the environment deteriorated because of the large amounts of fossil fuels emitted into the atmosphere. The increase in substances such as coal released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing the greenhouse gas effect which trapped heat in earth’s atmosphere, and the use of toxic substances polluted local water sources and ultimately degraded habitats. These fossil fuel emissions lead to an environment full of pollution. This was the first time in humanity’s history that pollution began to change the landscape of the world’s climates. From the Industrial Revolution onward, we have had to deal with pollution and greenhouse gases as a threat to our health. During the Industrial Revolution, the population began to increase. Ultimately, the population grew about 57% during the industrial revolution (roughly to 700 million). With more people, naturally, the air started to become more polluted causing the actual quality of life to go down. The environment took a toll during the industrial revolution. Industrialization normally adds to pollution in air, water, soil, due to the waste products it produces. Raw materials from the land, water, perhaps wood and plants, fossil fuels, etc. This has an effect on the environment, since demand for all these goes up, and more quantities are extracted from the land. Industrialization needs people to work in factories. So, people move from rural/agricultural areas, that are spread out, to industrialized cities, that are concentrated. A higher population puts added pressure on the local environment. Industrialization produces a greater amount of waste, both directly as a result of the production of goods, as well as the disposal of those goods once their purpose has been served. For example, if a factory makes plastic furniture, it produces plastic waste, and once the plastic furniture is worn, it is added to the rubbish pile too.
The living conditions during the Industrial Revolution helped pave the way for workers to be treated fair and justly. Rich factory owners began to realize they could pay low wages and not face repercussions for taking advantage of the lower class. Workers employed in factories made little money, so they cared little about their living conditions and the money made in the factories barely covered the rent families paid. Because owners knew there was a surplus of workers, they began to take advantage of them. Wages began to drop as a result of this. Some companies even took advantage of this by developing a company town. A company town is a place where the company owns all the housing, stores, and more. Workers would frequently live in a company town. Some companies would even give out vouchers for their stores, instead of monetary cash. This resulted in a massive monopoly; companies were allowed to charge whatever they want, instead of paying enough to feed a family. The working conditions at the time were also subpar. Workers would have to suffer long hours, dangerous work, and unsafe facilities. Women would be paid unfairly, gaining about half to a third of what men would make, satisfying owners because profit was all that was on their mind. Aside from that, child labor was rampant and the living conditions were poor. Children were paid fractions of what older men would receive and be required to work a strenuous work schedule. This would cause children to get deformities from their lack of sleep and sun. Workers would frequently strike to protest against unsafe work conditions. From this, workers began to form unions. Many believed that there is more power to the workers, as they are the means of production. Without the workers, there would be no production. Unions were formed to band together the workers, and provide power in numbers when negotiating wages, work conditions, and more. The work philosophy of workers banding together would eventually inspire the economic system known as communism. The union workers utilized strikes to force businesses and even the government to focus on what their problem was. Once the government saw how drastic the problem was with work conditions, they started to step in. Government regulation drastically increased the quality of life for these workers. Work week hours were drastically reduced and the conditions of the factories began to rise. This caused the government to keep a close eye on workers and make sure their employers are treating them properly.
The Industrial Revolution also started a shift in where the population lives in the United States. The most common way to get income was through farming. People made farms in far-out places in America. However, with the industrial revolution, factories were starting to appear. Workers would have to live near factories to get to work. This caused a major shift in population from the farmlands to cities. Before the Industrial Revolution, over 80% of Americans lived in rural areas. With the introduction of factories, small towns turned into bustling cities, where workers would go to factories and get wages from a boss, instead of farming produce like their previous homestead. Cities didn’t have the necessary infrastructure to handle this mass migration. As people poured into cities looking for work in factories, they found that cities were already over capacity. They couldn’t comfortably fit any more people. However, these cities weren’t always as clean as we think of current cities today. Neighborhoods where workers would live were often very dirty, worn out, and polluted with trash and garbage. Workers packing into apartment buildings and such would often accelerate the decaying of the buildings. Frederick Engels, a journalist, philosopher, and critic of industrialization, writes, “In one of these courts there stands directly at the entrance, at the end of the covered passage, a privy without a door, so dirty that the inhabitants can pass into and out of the court only by passing through foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement”. The migration of workers from rural areas to more urban areas resulted in dirty neighborhoods where the workers would live.
The Industrial Revolution was also a time of innovation. Inventions like the Telegraph are the foundation of our current mobile infrastructure. Letters were no longer required to communicate across the country; companies could now expand even further with a much more efficient form of communication. The train allowed the US to transfer massive amounts of goods across state lines. Factories were beginning to pop up with the popularity of the assembly line. Arguably, the most important invention of the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine. The steam engine allowed us to use coal to massively increase the productivity of such factories. The US was more productive than ever, and we were starting to become a global superpower. Economic growth was at an all-time high, and we were starting to produce manufactured goods to trade, instead of farmed fruits and vegetables. America was a trading force to be reckoned with. Without these vital inventions, we would not be where we are today.
Ultimately, the Industrial Revolution was vital for America’s economic growth prior to the 20th century. However, the effects of the Industrial Revolution are continuing to manifest in the current day. Climate change is a topical issue in the current day, and many believe that it first originated in the Industrial Revolution, with the burning of fossil fuels like coal, and oil. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by over 40% since pre-industrial times, and the summers get hotter while the winters get colder. The growing threat of climate change is starting to put pressure on local lawmakers. Without action, many problems in the world will start to amplify, such as famine, mass migration, and fatalities by heat. The world as a whole must come to a conclusion on what to do with the growing epidemic that threatens to massively impact our way of life.
The Industrial Revolution was a turning point in America’s history. It was the beginning of modern-day capitalism as we know it and is largely responsible for many of the technology we still use today. It was the start of modern day capitalism and helped usher in government regulation to help the workers, rather than the rich owners of the factories. Without the invention of such things like the lightbulb, the steam engine, the production line, and the cotton gin, we would not be as technologically advanced as we are today. However, we must tread carefully in the current day, as the less-than-ideal impact of the Industrial Revolution starts to show its scars. We can attribute the Industrial Revolution as the biggest impact on American life, from the way we work to the way we live.