5.1: The Birth and Infancy of Modern Manufacturing

The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution were actually agricultural. Improved farming technology helped make farming much more efficient in England throughout the beginning of the 18th century.

The “Before” Snapshot: Lower-class tenant farmers would work and live on a farm, ensuring that crops were planted and harvested and that the farm would be kept free from grazing animals (or humans) that could diminish the crop. The central area of this land was designated the “commons,” an area where the tenant farmers could commonly gather and perhaps plant their own crops and feed their own livestock “on the side.” (For most of the farmland, the profits would go to the landowner, and there was little chance of the tenant farmers actually owning any land permanently.) All members of a tenant farmer’s family would work the land, starting at a very young age. Especially come harvest-time, you could expect 14-hour days of hard work.

What Caused the Agricultural Revolution: Aided by barbed-wire fences, landowners turned their land into enclosures, literally enclosing different crops with fences that were guaranteed to keep livestock and other scavengers out. With enclosures and other practices that made farming more efficient (like crop rotation), the landowners did not need the tenant farmers as much. Instead, migrant workers could be hired to plant the crop during spring and harvest it during fall. (This is the predecessor to today’s system of “corporate farming.”)

The “After” Snapshot: Landowners in rural areas “fired” the lower-class tenant farmers. However, due to crop rotation and more efficient farming, those lower-class farmers experienced a great population boom. (More crops equals more nutrition equals more children who survive to adulthood.) What is the landowner going to do with all of his profit? Become an entrepreneur and invest in a factory. What are the tenant farmers (and families) going to do? Work in the factory and, eventually, move to the cities when the factories do. So, really, you have the same relationship between the landowner/entrepreneur and the tenant farmer/factory worker—the location has simply changed.

Why would England develop factories first?

You might remember a similar question when we talked about Italy and the beginnings of the Renaissance. Italy’s location was ideal for spreading Renaissance culture from the East because of “geographic luck.” England’s emergence as a global industrial power was really for the same reason. For industrialization, we call the factors that lead to factory production “factors of production.” So, countries like England that were more prone to rapid industrialization were “good-factor countries.” Other countries, like Russia or Austria-Hungary (it was one country back then), were “bad-factor countries.” We’ll use England’s example as we define some of these factors…


Factors of production:

  • Ports/harbors for exporting finished goods: England is an island, so it is full of these
  • Rivers/streams for internal transportation and for water power: early factories required rapidly-moving water to turn a water wheel for mills—England is full of rivers throughout the island, all heading to the coast
  • Mineral deposits: necessary for making steel and other alloys for factory production
  • (Later, in the early 19th century) Coal: the British Isles are known for coal mines, and coal would later replace water power and lead to industrialization’s widespread expansion
  • (Later, in the mid- to late-19th century) Flat terrain: for transporting goods by railroad

Lastly, and most significantly for England in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars:

  • Political stability: if a country is going through a political revolution, it is not likely to industrialize or focus on economic expansion (because it has an uncertain governmental situation)

This list of factors here essentially explains the balance of power in Europe and the rest of the world for the next 200 years, and perhaps beyond…

“Good-factor” countries are the first to industrialize and the first to imperialize (we’ll see this connection later). The countries with the biggest empires compete with each other—which pretty much lead to the world wars. So, looking at the following list of “good-factor” and “bad-factor” countries, you can see the major world powers in the 20th century:

“Good-factor countries”:

  • England (aka Great Britain)
  • United States
  • Germany (united in the 19th century)
  • France (esp. after mid-19th century)
  • Japan (first country in Asia to industrialize)

“Bad-factor countries”:

  • Russia
  • Austria-Hungary
  • Italy (united in the 19th century)
  • Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey)
  • Spain