The Industrial Revolution
Cynthia Stokes Brown
1 Abundant fossil fuels, and the innovative machines they powered, launched an era of
accelerated change that continues to transform human society. At one time, humans, fuelled
by the animals and plants they ate and the
wood they burned, or aided by their
domesticated animals, provided most of the
energy in use. Windmills and waterwheels
captured some extra energy, but there was
little in reserve. All life operated within the
fairly immediate flow of energy from the
Sun to Earth.
2 Everything changed during the Industrial
Revolution, which began around 1750.
People found an extra source of energy
with an incredible capacity for work. That
source was fossil fuels — coal, oil and
natural gas, though coal led the way —
formed underground from the remains of
plants and animals from much earlier
geologic times. When these fuels were
burned, they released energy, originally
from the Sun that had been stored for
hundreds of millions of years.
3 The story of the Industrial Revolution
begins on the small island of Great Britain. By the early 18th century, people there had used up
most of their trees for building houses and ships, and for cooking and heating. In their search
for something else to burn, they turned to coal that they found near the surface of the earth.
Soon they were digging deeper to mine it. Their coal mines filled with water that needed to be
removed; horses pulling up bucketful proved slow going.
4 To the rescue came James Watt (1736–1819), a Scottish instrument-maker who in 1776
designed an engine in which burning coal produced steam, which drove a piston assisted by a
partial vacuum. Its first application was to more quickly and efficiently pump water out of coal
mines, to better allow for the extraction of the natural resource, but Watt’s engine worked well
enough to be put to other uses; he became a wealthy man. After his patent ran out in 1800,
others improved upon his engine. By 1900, engines burned 10 times more efficiently than they
had a hundred years before.
5 At the outset of the 19th century, British colonies in North America were producing lots of
cotton, using machines. When they attached a steam engine to these machines, they could easily
outproduce India, up until then the world’s leading producer of cotton cloth. One steam engine