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Industrial Revolution Chronology

Get your head around all the important events and inventions that took place during the Industrial Revolution.

1700-1749

The Industrial Revolution is often said to have begun around 1750 but the first half of the 18th century saw various technological developments that facilitated the later shift from agrarian to industrial production. Abraham Darby played a key role in this by devising a way to fuel iron production with coal, rather than charcoal (made from wood). Iron was a crucial material in industrial production, used by pioneers like Benjamin Huntsman as he improved steel production, and coal was a more readily available commodity that was three times more efficient than wood. An improvement in agricultural efficiency was also vital before the industrial revolution could occur and this continued in the early eighteenth century as rotation crops such as turnips and clover avoided the need to leave land fallow and high yielding crops such as wheat increased the intensity of production. Although Tull’s claim to have invented it is disputed, mechanisms like the seed drill also played an important role as labour-saving devices that added to the surplus of agricultural workers.

Key dates include:

1709 – Abraham Darby introduces coke smelting to his ironworks at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire

1712 – Thomas Newcomen invents the steam engine

1730 – Jethro Tull invents the seed drill

1740 – Benjamin Huntsman discovers crucible steelmaking

1750-1800

The latter half of the eighteenth century was the most crucial fifty years in the industrialisation of Britain because the most significant inventions and technological innovations were developed during this era. At first, entrepreneurs focused on the textile industry, since wool and its related products were the most valuable British export. Until this point, textiles had been a cottage industry, with production occurring on individual spinning wheels in agricultural smallholdings. Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, Arkwright’s water frame, Whitney’s cotton gin and Crompton’s spinning mule all mechanised the process of turning raw cotton into yarn so it could be completed more quickly and efficiently, with less need for expertise. This meant production could occur on a much larger scale and urban areas began to flourish as the surplus of workers created by the agrarian revolution moved to larger-scale industrial projects where the entire family could be employed, including the children. Newcomen’s steam engine finally found commercial use after James Watt improved on the design and begin selling engines to raise production in coal mines, mills and ironworks. The internal trade of manufactured goods also became more financially viable as the government encouraged the building of narrow canals to allow swift transportation.

Key dates include:

1759 – The first Canal Act is passed

1761 – James Brindley’s Bridgewater Canal opens

1764 – James Hargreaves invents the spinning jenny

1765 – James Watt greatly improves the efficiency of the steam engine

1768 – Richard Arkwright invents the water frame spinning roller

1779 – Samuel Crompton develops the spinning mule

1785 – Power looms are first used in the textile industry

1793 – Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin

1801-1830

The early nineteenth century continued to see technological innovations, most of which improved on the key inventions of the previous hundred years. For example, George Stephenson revolutionised the transport industry (and therefore the potential of internal trade and distribution) by using steam engine technology to power locomotives that improved the speed and power of the fledgling railway network. By this point, Britain had become ‘the workshop of the world’ as most manufactured goods were produced more cheaply and efficiently there than anywhere else. There were some large industrial complexes employing hundreds of people, although smaller factories of approximately fifty employees were much more common. Yet, not everyone was happy with the new developments; the Luddites were political protest groups based in Northern England who deliberately destroyed the industrial machinery that they believed had taken people’s jobs and left their skills redundant. Although their actions caused significant damage and resulted in executions and deportations, the movement gradually petered out within a few years and industrial production continued to flourish.

Key dates include:

1811-16 – The Luddite protests

1813 – More British people are employed in industry than agriculture for the first time

1815 – Humphrey Davy invents a safety lamp for miners’ helmets

1825 – The first regular railway services begin

1826 – The first industrial trade union in Britain is set up (The Journeymen Steam Engine Fitters)

1829 – George Stephenson begins producing locomotives for steam engines

1831-1850

By 1850, only 22% of the British population was employed in agriculture and the landscape had changed dramatically, with the majority of the population living in densely populated urban areas. In response to this, various pieces of legislation were passed to address the new social problems that had resulted from urbanisation and industrialisation. In particular, there was pressure to protect children and in 1833, the lower age limit for industrial workers was set at nine years old, with other restrictions on the hours that 9-13 year olds could work and mandatory schooling alongside employment. The Coal Mines Act reflected the particular dangers of this industry, essentially banning women and children from working underground. There was also increasing political recognition of industrial workers and the newly emerging urban middle classes, many of whom gained the suffrage in the Great Reform Act. The repeal of the Corn Laws placed the needs of the urban population over that of the rural; by allowing the importing of corn, food prices reduced and this improved the standard of living in urban areas. However, these legal changes could not prevent the high poverty and disease rates in most city slums.

Key dates include:

1832 – Industrial cities gain the suffrage in the Great Reform Act

1833 – The first Factory Act is passed

1842 – The first railway station opens in York

1842 – The Coal Mines Act is passed

1842 – Cotton industry workers go on strike

1846 – The Corn Laws are repealed

1851-1900

By the later nineteenth century, the British Empire covered around 25% of the world’s surface and British manufacturing and trade continued to dominate the world economy. Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition, held at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, was a way of celebrating this success and exposing it to foreign competition. It was Britain’s largest ever display of manufactured goods. Six million people visited the arena and the displays demonstrating new technology and moving machinery were the most popular exhibits. British inventors continued to play a significant role in technological development as the century progressed, with both Bell and Edison improving on existing designs to make crucial modern devices such as the telephone and light bulb commercially viable. However, the negative consequences of rapid industrial growth also continued to be felt, with widespread poverty in urban areas and the waste products of industry leading to environmental problems. In 1858, the government was forced to improve the state of the River Thames through a proper sewage system and embankments. This also had a significant impact on the spreading of waterborne diseases.

Key dates include:

1851 – The Great Exhibition opens to the public

1858 – The ‘Great Stink of London’ is released

1876 – Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone

1879 – Thomas Edison improves the light bulb and uses it to power a lamp