To accept that the Industrial Revolution was an acceleration of innovation and the birth of modern economic growth has several analytical advantages. The main advantage being that it forces us to think about the general sources of innovation rather than what led to specific developments. It also prevents us getting hung up on explanations of the IR that don’t quite work (i.e. that coal caused the IR) by underscoring the fact that the IR was a generalised wave of innovation, applied to all industries, from advertising to actuarial science and agriculture, as well as to iron, cotton and steam. I would also add that transport, communication and perhaps medicine and food had their large knock-on effects.
Mentioned below is an illustrative example of the IR ages with prominent inventors in brackets, and approximate dates:
1st IR (1650-1820): instruments & measurement (Huygens, Harrison, etc), mechanisation, tools and factories (Arkwright, Boulton, Bramah, Brunel Snr), water power (Sorocold), civil engineering (Yarranton, Smeaton, Brunel Jnr), iron (Darby, Cort), inoculation and vaccination (Montagu, Jenner), early steam power (Savery, Newcomen, Watt, Trevithick), early chemicals and rubber (MacIntosh), food canning (Donkin)
2nd IR (1820-1870): coal gas for heating & lighting (Accum, Malam), steam engines for transport on land and sea (Stephenson, Pettit-Smith), precision tools for mass production (Maudslay, Whitworth), steel (Bessemer, Siemens), mass hygiene and sanitation (Arnott, Pasteur), mass industrial and agricultural chemicals including plastics (Lawes, Parkes), electric telegraphy (Cooke, Wheatstone, Diamond), hydraulic cement (Aspdin, Johnson), refrigeration (Harrison)
3rd IR (1870-1914): mass electricity and its applications (Edison, Bell), early oil for transport (Benz, Diesel), production line (Ford), chemical fertilisers (Haber), early flight (Wright), mass vaccination (Pasteur), mass steel use
4th IR (1914-1970): mass home machinery (i.e. washing machines), mass oil transport use, antibiotics, early computing, early mass electronic devices (i.e. TVs), early space flight, early non-fossil power, green revolution, mass plastic use
5th IR (1970- now): mass silicon use, mass electronic devices, robots in production, mass flight, mass internet use, early communication-enabled asset sweating (i.e. sharing economy)
6th IR ( in a decade) all speculative: mass computed industrial use of additive manufacturing (i.e. robot-designed and 3D printed buildings), bio-manufacturing (i.e. applying agriculture to industry), mass space flight, mass renewable power and storage, mass home robots, engineered medicine (i.e. programmable viruses), slowed ageing, automated transport and mass asset sweating.
We can argue that by placing steel production as part of the 1st IR (1770-1840) has the dates off completely. We might also go with Benjamin Huntsman’s crucible steel which was much earlier, in the 1740s or go with Bessemer’s converter (patented later, in 1856), which actually brought on the transition to mass production. The first IR started with the steam engine, thus placing far too much emphasis on coal as an explanation for its origins. To be fair, it’s better than others because it mentions water and mechanization too, but if so, why choose 1784 as the starting point?
Overall if the British Industrial Revolution was the invention of inventions, I personally believe that even though the entire world is participating in formulating the next era of IR’s America and the Intellectually astute immigrants it attracts have taken charge in creating the next for now.
This inquiry is presented by Garson Silvers & Naved Jafry