Win Lose or Draw: Tradeoffs of the Industrial Revolution

When Jake got the big promotion last week he sat and thought about how the last three years of his life had been dedicated to his job. Until this point he only thought about making this happen, and how life would be better once it did. Later that night a strange thought entered his mind; things are about to change for him. More responsibility, less personal time, but better pay and benefits. There are always tradeoffs and “opportunity cost”. What was he going to lose by gaining so much? Therein lies the paradox.This is true for all things in life. Now set this narrative back a few hundred years. Sometime around the mid-1700s a large part of the human race started down a road that ultimately led to its next evolution. The Industrial Revolution began in Britain and other parts of western Europe. It changed life on earth and the planet itself. Things began to change: manufacturing, transportation, medicine, commerce, labor, all these things took on a new face. Coal and the Steam Engine pushed production and commerce into overdrive. The biological old regime had ended for most of earth’s affluent nations; those who did not follow suit fell into an ever-widening gap. There is so much that could be covered on this topic, but opportunity cost is the focus of this discussion. The Industrial Revolution has given humankind technology for mass production, knowledge to manipulate the world around us, and led us to destroy the environment we need to survive.  

Before the mid-17oos our species lived in the Biological Old Regime. Most of the population survived by farming their own land. During the Industrial Revolution large groups of people migrated to the cities seeking jobs in the manufacturing field, “For example, in Great Britain in 1800 around 60 percent of the population lived in rural areas. By 1850, however, about 50 percent of the population lived in cities.” (Von Sivers, Desnoyers, Stow 803). The day of the factory worker had begun. The steam engine and spinning Jenny were the new horse and plow. The introduction of machines in the factory pushed manufacturing into overdrive. For many of the middle class, the standard of living rose if they could find work. For those who had lived in rural areas there was a new job market, so they left for urban areas. In the biological old regime population numbers would rise and fall according to agricultural ebb and flow. Their survival was contingent on weathers effect on crops. There was little room for error in agriculture. Medicine and new technologies were becoming available to those who moved to urban environments. The middle class enjoyed perks once thought of as luxuries meant only for the aristocracy, “The times they are a changin.” (Dylan  For industrialized nations, the biological old regime was over. The steam engine was a major factor in the Industrial Revolution. Because of a shortage of wood for fuel, manufacturers were forced to find other fuel sources. Britain had massive amounts of coal but it was hard to obtain. A system was designed to extract this resource form mineshafts using a vacuum pump engine. It was primitive and energy-inefficient, but modifications on the design eventually led to the steam engine (Von Sivers, Desnoyers, Stow pg. 779). The steam engine was used to power factories and eventually modified to power trains (mobile shipping). It could deliver products, supplies and people at a very fast speed. The steam engine was one of the most significant technological factors behind the Industrial Revolution. It also was a very large factor in the pollution that was being caused by large factories in western Europe and the United States. The Steam Engine gave birth to fossil fuel combustion engines which have become a significant factor in our modern day pollution problem.

Although there was an abundance of new jobs, for many, employment became a miserable way of life. Child labor seems to have been a product of the Industrial Revolution. Children were used as cheap labor and practically worked to death. This is a very dark chapter of the Industrial Revolution. Novelist William Blake even called child labor factories “Dark Satanic Mills.” The backlash against child labor brought the issue before Parliament, and in 1833 the Factory Act was passed which set a minimum age of labor to nine and limited the work to eight hours a day for children under 13 and 12 hours a day for those over 13 (Von Sivers, Desnoyers, Stow 803).

The sciences and technology were leading humankind to a better understanding of “how things worked.” People were becoming more practical; less superstitious and more informed than ever before. Literacy was on the rise. The workforces that migrated to urban areas had access to libraries and other public amenities. In the 1800s there was a Communication Revolution: the first successful link from Britain to India in 1865, and the first  and the first transatlantic cable was laid down in 1858 (Von Sivers, Desnoyers, Stow 801).  The world was becoming smaller and humans were more aware of themselves and their place in it.

For countries that had once been the big dog in the world’s economy, the tables were turning. China and India were now suffering at the hands of western influence. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the British government passed a series of tariffs called Calico Acts to protect the domestic wool industry from the increasing amounts of cotton fabric imported from India. Britain forced its dominance in the textile trade and drove India’s economy down.  To get the upper hand on China, Britain and its East India Trading Company  (IEC) flooded China with opium. Within a short period, about ten percent of China’s population was addicted. This caused internal problems in and was one of the factors the led to China falling into the gap. China had now lost its position as one of the earth’s economic leaders.  

Yep, this is about the right shot to show the scope of the proble

Man has always desired material and wealth, and greed has always existed. However, we have never seen humankind act the way it has over the last couple hundred years. Our species is capable of more calculated, malicious, and incomprehensible cruelty than any beast of the field or demon from a horror novel. This same desire for wealth and progress has led us to the destruction of our planet. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution we see signs of things to come. The houses of Manchester England were covered with black-smoke sediment and the rivers were polluted with dye from the textile factories. Accounts from the time even said that the rivers looked like a dyer’s vat (Marks pg.142). In the United States during the 1800s it was the same picture we see in Britain. American manufacturing companies were dumping pollutants into the Potomac River just upstream from a township’s main drinking water source. It is truly amazing how 250 years later we can still be as environmentally irresponsible as we were when industry was in its infancy. A large part of what we have lost from the Industrial Revolution is our humanity. It truly leaves a bad taste in the mouth to know that money and greed will always win out over responsible care for our environment.

Mankind has come so far over the last 250 years. The jumps in technology,  manufacturing and our knowledge of the world around us is undeniable. We have been to the moon and back, and now live in an instant access cyber age. The world has become a smaller place. All of our modern day products, the technology used to turn in this paper, and the understanding of our physical world can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. We truly have come a long way as a species.  As with all things there is a positive and a negative effect. The negative side for this discussion is the effects the modern age has had on environment. It is hard to say what condition our species will be in 100 years from now. Will our planet be able to sustain us? Will we join together and clean up our act? Will we be a utopian enlightened society? Will we still even exist? Whatever condition we are in will be directly affected by what we learned from the Industrial Revolution. Win lose or draw, I guess we shall see.


Works cited

Marks, Robert B. The Origins of the Modern World: a Global and Environmental Narrative From the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century. Lanham: Roman & Littlefield, 2015.


Von Sivers, Peter, Desnoyers, Charles A. and George B. Stow. Patterns of World History: Volume 2: Since 1400. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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Child labor horrors of the Industrial Revolution

Mulford Jeremy

Musician/writer Editor at Chariot

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