Transport Innovations: A Guide to the Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution is a roughly 200 year period from 1700 to 1900. It began in the United Kingdom, but rapidly spread through Europe and North America. Eventually the Industrial Revolution spread throughout the world. Unlike other revolutions it did not involve war, but it did involve change. The industrial revolution marks the greatest period of change in history. Further it set the stage for even more change as it facilitated entry into the technological age. In most ways the industrial revolution has made modern daily life possible. The changes brought about by the industrial revolution eased the burden of work, relieved human suffering, and made life easier for everyone eventually. As with any other period in history, during the industrial revolution both wonderful and terrible things happened. Compared to modern life, the industrial revolution began with a time of great difficulty and hardship for most people.

Before the industrial revolution, mechanization of any kind barely existed. No real innovative change had occurred since the age of classical Rome, and Greece. It is almost comical in hindsight how close they had been for hundreds or even thousands of years, but no one grasped at first the importance of new technology being developed. For example two thousand years ago, small steam engines were used to open cathedral doors, but no one thought beyond that. The scientific work of Leonardo da Vinci was totally ignored by the powerful people of his time, and likewise Leuwenhoek’s discovery of bacteria was nothing but a novelty.

The industrial revolution brought man kind out of the dark ages. This revolution overlapped with the age of reason and the age of science. During this time it is believed that common sense and science overshadowed the hold of superstition on the average person. Science became a buzzword throughout Europe, and among thinking men everywhere. It was in this atmosphere of changing attitudes that the industrialization finally blossomed.

Factories and Urbanization

Factories Before the 1700’s rural life was quite common. Most people relied on agriculture for income and were largely self sustaining, A few craftsmen in each small village created shoes, cloth, clothing, horseshoes, pots and pans, swords and furniture. These craftsmen usually sold their wares to people who lived within twenty miles of them.

In 1750, eight out of ten English people lived on farms in the country. By 1850 half of the English population lived in cities, to be near their work in factories. Conditions in the cities were far from ideal. Overcrowding, poor construction, and very poor sanitation took their toll on people. Life expectancy dropped to between 17 and 38 years, as cholera ravaged the cities.

Child labor was common, and children only six years old put in up to 19 hours a day of hard labor in dangerous factories. Children were not paid, but rather worked for food and shelter only, in poor house conditions. Many children died in industrial accidents and from disease. Education was non-existent. Sometimes children escaped these situations and lived in the streets, usually stealing to survive. 

Strangely though, despite disease, childhood accidents and early death, population growth in Europe and especially Britain blossomed during the industrial revolution. In 1600 there were 4 million people living in Britain. By 1700 there were 5 million, in 1800 there were 8 million, but by 1851 there were 20 million, and by 1901 there were 40 million. This was a frightening development because of overcrowding.

Steam Power

Even though small steam engines existed in Alexandria Egypt during the first century A.D. the technology had been forgotten. When Thomas Newcomen re-discovered the steam engine he had no prior knowledge of any previous steam engine. The Newcomen’s steam engine was at first used only to pump water from mines. In 1769 Watt was asked to improve on Newcomen’s design, resulting in a 75% increase in fuel efficiency. Watt had added a separate condenser. Causing the steam to condense in a separate vessel saved energy by preventing alternating heating and cooling in the same area. This improvement lead to the practical and versatile steam engine that changed the world forever.


The first invention to impact the textile industry was the Newcomen steam engine, which was developed in 1712. With steam power automation was now possible, but the first development to impact textiles was John Kay’s flying shuttle developed in 1733. Jon Kay’s flying shuttle revolutionized the textile industry because now it was possible for one person to weave alone, and produce much wider fabric much faster than two or three weavers could have managed previously. Kay’s invention featured two shuttle boxes one on each side of the loom, which were connected by what was called a shuttle race. The shuttle race was really just a long board on which the shuttle could travel from one box to the other. The invention was simple by today’s standards but at the time it set English mills on top of the industry.

English mills and the British Government protected their industrial secrets with as much care as world powers guarded nuclear secrets in the cold war. There was much competition and England was determined to be number one in textiles. Still in time the secrets got out. The industrial revolution was both inevitable and unstoppable in its spread across the Atlantic. 

In 1764 James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, which was a spinning frame with eight or more spools, instead of one. The original design was eight wooden spindles on one end and eight rovings (balls of carded fiber) on the other end. An only slightly wider spinning wheel with multiple tracks for the eight threads spun all eight and delivered them to the eight spindles.

The water frame was patented in 1769 by Richard Arkwright. The water frame used power from a water wheel, rather than rely on the physical strength of human spinners, to spin fibers into thread. Samuel Crompton perfected the spinning mule in 1779, which combined the ideas of Arkwright and Hargreaves. The spinning mule used water power to spin in a similar way to the spinning jenny, but the thread produced was finer, and less labor was involved. Eventually the spinning mule was used with steam engine power, and upgraded to handle up to 120 threads at once.  

In 1785 Edmund Cartwright patented a power loom. It was the worlds first fully automatic loom, but it was forty years before the idea would be perfected enough to be truly useful in industry. Once both the loom and the spinners were automatic however the textile industry was able to produce even more cloth faster with fewer people. 

Textiles were largely the work of women and children, as they had traditionally been in the home, but producing textiles in the factories was far less comfortable and pleasant. Textile workers put in long hours, meanwhile the work required fewer and fewer employees due to mechanization, but the population was increasing geometrically during this time as well. More and more factories opened and more and more cloth was produced. Production was at peak operation during the mid 1800’s


Metallurgy is a very old science which existed for thousands of years. It was only the great demand that pulled this science from individual blacksmiths sword smiths, jewelers and other craftsmen and create huge steal mills. Public demand caused Abraham Darby to patent a method of pouring cast iron into molds to make pots in 1707. The development of cast iron, led to greater developments. Abraham’s son Abraham Darby II developed bar iron in 1775. Cast iron was used for great cannons, and metallurgy and war began to go hand in hand again, just as in the days of sword smithing. Gunsmiths also worked with metal, and their product was in great demand.

In 1855 Henry Bessemer developed the Bessemer converter, which convert 25 tons of pig iron into steel in half an hour. Previously steel could only be produced in relatively small quantities and thus it’s use was limited until the Bessemer converter. From this invention was born the great steel mill industries which dominated the mid 19th century. It was this invention that lead the way to so many others including the train, the automobile, and steel beam construction.  


Railways As early as 1550, Germans had used wooden tracks called wagonways to ease the movement of horse drawn carts. By the late 1700’s iron rails had replaced the wooden rails, and the wagon ways had slowly evolved into horse drawn tramways. In 1789 an Englishman named William Jessup began to build wagons with flanged wheels which gripped onto the rails. This was the invention of the track and wheel that would eventually support the steam locomotive. 

The locomotive for the track was developed in the early 1800’s. A project was funded by Samuel Homfray to build a steam powered vehicle to traverse the tramways. Richard Trevithick was up to the challenge and on Feb 22, 1804 presented for the first time, a steam powered locomotive which hauled five wagons, 70 men and ten tons of iron on a test run. The nine mile run took two hours, but the locomotive did reach the goal location. In 1821, Julius Griffiths patented a passenger locomotive, and in 1825, Stockton and Darlington Railroad Company began to keep a regular schedule of train routes, carrying goods and passengers. The locomotives used were designed by George Stephenson, an English inventor. The Stephenson locomotives could pull 21 passenger cars and six loaded coal cars at a rate of 9 miles an hour.

Meanwhile in America, the first railroad charter was granted to John Stevens in 1815, followed quickly by others who began work on the first great railroads. The first American build steam locomotive was designed in 1830 by Peter Cooper. It was called the Tom Thumb. In 1857 George Pullman invented the Pullman sleeping car, designed for overnight traveling comfort.

Transport by River and Canal

Though there had been many previous attempts, the era of the steamboat began in 1787, when John Fitch took a forty five foot steamboat down the Delaware River. Later Fitch built a larger steam boat that transported passengers and goods between Philadelphia, PA and Burlington, NJ. However it was Robert Fulton who was able to make the steamboat truly marketable and practical. In 1811 he and Robert Livingston designed “The New Orleans” which traveled the lower Mississippi River. By 1834, many different steam boats, made 1,200 arrivals to New Orleans each year.

Though the concept of canals had always existed, and been used occasionally throughout history, the first modern canal using a lock system was invented by James Brindley, a young self taught engineer. He designed the Bridgewater canal, which was built between 1759 and 1761. The lock system allowed the possibility of ships traveling to and from waters of higher and lower elevation without flooding. From 1795 – 1805, Thomas Telford built an aqueduct like canal using 12 foot wide cast iron channel made from cast iron plates. From 1859 – 1869 a canal was built to connect the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The Suez Canal was necessary for increasing ease of shipping and trade, as well as military interests.

Between 1879 and 1914 the most challenging canal undertaking in history was conceived planned and completed. The Panama Canal connected the Pacific and Atlantic oceans directly through central America, rather than forcing ships to navigate around the southern tip of South America. Begun by the French and completed by the USA in cooperation with Panama the canal has proved vital both in times of peace and war.

Educational Resources

To learn more about the advancements made during the Industrial Revolution, please visit the following websites: