The ground was prepared by the voyages of discovery from Western Europe in the 15th and 16th cent., which led to a vast influx of precious metals from the New World, raising prices, stimulating industry, and fostering a money economy. Expansion of trade and the money economy stimulated the development of new institutions of finance and credit (see commercial revolution). In the 17th cent. the Dutch were in the forefront financially, but with the establishment (1694) of the Bank of England, their supremacy was effectively challenged. Capitalism appeared on a large scale, and a new type of commercial entrepreneur developed from the old class of merchant adventurers. Many machines were already known, and there were sizable factories using them, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Wood was the only fuel, water and wind the power of these early factories.
As the 18th cent. began, an expanding and wealthier population demanded more and better goods. In the productive process, coal came to replace wood. Early-model steam engines were introduced to drain water and raise coal from the mines. The crucial development of the Industrial Revolution was the use of steam for power, and the greatly improved engine (1769) of James Watt marked the high point in this development. Cotton textiles was the key industry early in the Industrial Revolution. John Kay's fly shuttle (1733), James Hargreaves's spinning jenny (patented 1770), Richard Arkwright's water frame (1769), Samuel Crompton's mule (1779), which combined the features of the jenny and the frame, and Edmund Cartwright's power loom (patented 1783) facilitated a tremendous increase in output. The presence of large quantities of coal and iron in close proximity in Britain was a decisive factor in its rapid industrial growth.
The use of coke in iron production had far-reaching effects. The coal mines from the early 1700s had become paramount in importance, and the Black Country developed in England at the same time that Lancashire and Yorkshire were being transformed into the greatest textile centers of the world. Factories and industrial towns sprang up. Canals and roads were built, and the advent of the railroad and the steamship widened the market for manufactured goods. The Bessemer process made a gigantic contribution, for it was largely responsible for the extension of the use of steam and steel that were the two chief features of industry in the middle of the 19th cent. Chemical innovations and, most important of all, perhaps, machines for making machines played an important part in the vast changes.
The Industrial Revolution did not in fact end in Britain in the mid-1800s. New periods came in with electricity and the gasoline engine. By 1850, however, the transformation wrought by the revolution was accomplished, in that industry had become a dominant factor in the nation's life.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.