The Industrial Revolution is an easily misunderstood event. In many people’s minds the phrase suggests mass production, assembly lines, and the heavy industry of the late nineteenth century, but these things all came much later. When Arnold Toynbee coined the term Industrial Revolution, he applied it to the technology-driven change of British life as it occurred from 1760 to 1840, opening a very large umbrella. Yet even that umbrella still did not cover the first mass production and assembly lines, nor did it encompass our images of modern heavy industry. Toynbee’s dating of the Industrial Revolution starts when its causes were just taking form, and ends when England had become a mature industrial power. He took in the whole saga of the revolution, but within that saga we can identify the Revolution as a much more specific moment in British history. It is the point at which technology suddenly joined hands with radical social and economic changes. In the 1780s Watt’s advanced steam engines, Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, Cort’s improvement of wrought-iron production, and Wilkinson’s cylinder-boring mill all came into being. At the same time, economic theoreticians David Hume and Adam Smith were setting forth a new economic and social system. This convergence of inventions was part and parcel of the other great revolutions of the late eighteenth century—the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and a spate of lesser European revolutions. We have to understand it in the context of those political and social upheavals. In England, social revolution grew out of eighteenth-century Protestant reform. The Wesleyan movement and the various dissident Protestant groups counted the makers of the Industrial Revolution among their members. The mid-eighteenth century was marked by worldwide discontent with authoritarianism and with the tyranny of the mercantile economic system. The French kings loved elaborate clocks and clockwork toys—devices that were completely preprogrammed. By the late seventeenth century, they had joined with the other western European nations in a clockwork economic system as well. The mercantile economic equation specified trade balances, such that raw material flowed in, manufactured goods flowed out, and gold flowed in.
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