The Industrial Revolution is more revolutionary than the internet

Josh Li - 2A ECE
Posted on: November 7, 2016

First and foremost, like the good ol’ chicken and egg, the internet came well after the Industrial Revolution. The computer, portal to the internet itself, would not have been possible without the machinery, manufacturing processes, or the consumer goods spending that came from the revolutionary period between 1760 to 1850. Therefore, although the internet is indeed revolutionary itself, the notion that it is more revolutionary than the Industrial Revolution is flawed in the chronological form.

For argument’s sake, it is very easy to misrepresent the magnitude of change brought about by the Industrial Revolution for a simple fact: our generation takes the modern, industrialized world for granted. We were born into a life of mass produced goods and abundant electricity. In our young, naive, Facebook and Instagram-bound eyes, the internet is a greater part of our everyday lives, while steam engines, textile production, and manufacturing is either a distant past or hidden inside factories we’ve never seen (outside of the Discovery Channel) or completely overseas.

In the span of recorded human history, the world before the Industrial Revolution outstretches the world afterwards by 5000 years to 200. The truly magnificent transformation that has occurred can only be fully appreciated by taking the full history of human time into consideration. At the very basic level, life in the 5000 years prior to the Industrial Revolution was very similar, while the era of the the last 200 years, which our generation was born into, is a completely unprecedented world. For that matter I want to introduce you to life before the 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution.

You are most likely a farmer, probably in a community of farmers. Unless you were born into the rich aristocratic class, or close personal friends with the Pharaoh of Egypt, you lived off the land. (Farming, in all honesty, is the only other “revolution” that is even close to the magnitude of the Industrial one). Before the Industrial Revolution, 80% of the world’s population were farmers; in Canada today, we’re at 2.2%. You worked day in, day out, dreaming of fulfilling your desire for knowledge, but schooling was too expensive and your family needed you in the fields. You were the proud owner of one change of clothes and a few other things, all of which were either passed down or made by hand.

Then something came along and revolutionized the world. It’s imperative to note that these transformations occurred through a variety of significant breakthroughs. One invention led to another breakthrough in a separate field.  It wasn’t just the textile industries and their new flying shuttle that created demand for the Spinning Jenny to twist yarn and the spinning water frame. It wasn’t just the use of coal, which Britain happened to possess in abundance near the surface, as a replacement energy source for wood or charcoal. It was also the smelting as the result of that coal in new reverberatory furnaces to produce cast iron, along with the new machinery to bore, plane, and shape metals in manufacturing processes.

The countless individual inventions of the Industrial Revolution are too many to mention in a piece this short. But I would like to consider the steam engine, one of the greatest breakthroughs in human history developed originally by Thomas Newcomen and refined greatly by James Watt. The steam engine itself served to remove water from mine shafts which were easily flooded. The mining industry became much more profitable, and increased availability of coal and minerals led to iron making and the invention of rolling mill. This paved the way for the more efficient engines to be transformed into steam locomotives, leading to even more iron and coal demand.

Let’s not forget that energy generation of any kind, from cheap reserves or even nuclear power, comes down to a steam engine in the end to make our electricity. The electric bulb was first adapted twenty years after the end of the Industrial Revolution.

The engine itself was revolutionary enough to completely overhaul our world, for in the early 1830′s the first steam-powered locomotive was introduced in a line between Liverpool and Manchester, unlocking the potential for unlimited cross-country travel and shipping of heavy produce outside of the oceans and lakes, something we take for granted everyday

Once again, these feedback loops extend between industries and beyond Britain. Belgium was quick to take advantage of its own coal reserves, followed by France in a slower shift to manufacturing. Germany entered a frenzy to build railways. Textile companies found their way to New England and the United States, who were quick to use steamboats in the fast flowing rivers in the north-east.

We begin to see the net change in multiple avenues from clothing to manufacturing to transportation. Everything goes back to my central argument of how dramatic this shift was from the way of life that endured for the 5000 years prior. The world was revolutionized from a time of endless farming to that of factories and urbanization (only 3% of the population lived in cities before the Revolution). The population of Europe, which had remained relatively steady in the years prior, quadrupled to 400 million by 1900 in 200 years.

As noted by Pad Hudson, the Industrial Revolution was also the first period in history with a simultaneous dramatic increase in population and per capita income. The Industrial Revolution was more revolutionary because of how dramatic a change it caused, which took us from a few labouring farmers to the world that we live in today.