No Pain, No Gain

Nothing stands against the battle cry of progress. The lofty ideals of progress have often been used to justify imperialism, slavery and unlawful inquisition. In the advent of the breakneck-speed technological age, it becomes easy to look towards the destination without questioning the reason for the journey. Overall, does technology enhance the quality of people’s lives? The Revolution that spawned our technological age spread across the world like a virus. The wide-eyed optimism of inventor, scientist and politician alike left little room to question the application or need for widespread industry. In the fierce competition to stay ahead, countries mobilizing to industrialize neglected the conditions and safety of the workplace and home. The basic human rights of the common man had fallen by the wayside in the liberal application of an “ends justify the means” philosophy. However, it is hard to argue whether anything could be done in the face of this global Revolution. The industrial revolution drastically changed the lives of all people because of its inherent nature as a technological, economic, social and political revolution. It changed all interactions from countries and markets around the world to families sitting around their kitchen table. The increase in free-time and high standard of living we enjoy today did not happen overnight. The lower class did not enjoy the fruits of change until the Revolution was settling down in the mid-19th century. The Industrial Revolution, as drastically as war, altered all aspects of the worker’s life from his daily routine, working and living conditions, to his family values and place in society.

The Technological Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was the product of four revolutionary innovations. The material that built the machines and tools of the Revolution was iron. Britain was the first to discover a cheap and effective way of producing iron. In 1709, Abraham Darby used a cheaper method of removing impurities from iron using coke instead of coal, and in 1784 Henry Cort devised another method involving stirring the molten metal with long rods. By 1844, Britain was producing 3 million tons of iron; it was more than the rest of the world put together. In combination with a few brilliant inventors, cheap iron brought about the steam engine and a host of new machines and mechanization. The final innovation was the mass production of parts and goods through division of labor. Cheap materials soon became cheap labor. Machines often replaced people as laborers because they were faster, didn’t need breaks and only had to be paid for once. In almost a mimic of the machinery, businesses formed their labor force as parts of a whole. Where once a shoemaker would make a shoe from start to finish, now the division of labor was such that all the parts were made independently and then assembled by yet another individual or group.

Accompanying this industrial and economic revolution was a technological revolution that most immediately changed the lives of people of all walks of life. The steam engine brought about new faster means of transportation including the steamboat and locomotive. Along with the telegraph wire and Samuel Morse's invention of Morse code in 1837, the relative size of the world shrank. People could travel much easier and communicate with people almost instantly where once they could expect a return answer in two years. The locomotive lay its metal tracks all over first Britain and then America before it spread to other countries. Cities began mass building projects with new stronger materials and a larger cheap labor force. A sharp population increase was happening around the world at the same time the Industrial Revolution was gearing up. Though historians have a hard time determining whether the population increase was a direct precursor to the Revolution or vice-versa, it is certain that both had a beneficial effect on each other. This population increase is most commonly associated with the city and the harsh conditions there, but the Revolution had a radical effect on agricultural systems as well.

The Worker

The “worker” is a term commonly associated with the factory, or city worker. It is important to remember that the worker was also the farmer and, in the American South, the black slave. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 in the hopes that it might replace slave labor. As an unfortunate side effect to its intended use, the cotton gin made the production of short fiber cotton profitable. This in turn allowed much of the American south that couldn’t previously produce cotton to produce this hardier breed. The slave trade had been dying out and yet the cotton gin revitalized it. The American farmer, however, was helped by the invention of the reaper in 1834. It allowed for poor Midwest farmers to reap their crop without hiring help. This small benefit to farmers was greatly outweighed by encapsulation. Beginning in England, cheaper farming methods and mass production made it profitable for businesses to buy large amounts of land, equaling many small farms, and turn them into more efficient super-farms that employed crop rotation, soil improvements and better stock. The displaced farmer turned to the only place he could find work: the city.

The High Price of Progress

London’s population of 500,000 people rose to 4,770,000 people by 1881. The new wealth and population instigated an increase in churches, museums, roads and other city improvements. Overwhelmingly, however, the conditions of the cities of Industrial England were deplorable. “Everyday I live,” said and American visiting Manchester, “I thank heaven that I am not a poor man with a family in England.” Contractors, taking advantage of the incoming poor from the countryside, built shoddy housing often right next to the factories. The countryside people also brought their habits with them. They brought their pigs and chickens and threw their trash into the streets. In combination with the rich man’s horses, the amount of filth in the street created egregiously unsanitary conditions. A breath could not be taken free from the coal dust and smoke that permeated the air. A bone condition resulting from a lack of sunshine, Rickets was widespread in the dark ghettoes. The close condition and the water contamination from factories also cause widespread disease. The worst neighborhoods of Manchester had a dismally low life expectancy of seventeen years.

The workplace was no refuge from the home. Not only were conditions in the workplace dangerous and unregulated, but the work was mind numbing and unsatisfying. Gone were the days when a craftsman could point out his product with pride. Often, workers didn’t see the end result of their labor, and couldn’t connect their contribution to the end product if they did. Strict rules and regulations, without any incentive whatsoever, made work painfully tedious and unrewarding. The list of rules for the Benck and Co. factory in Buhl, Aslac seem closer to rules for a prison camp rather than a workplace. It set a twelve hour day without break where the workers could not move from area to area unless under direct supervision. They could be searched anytime, couldn’t miss a day and couldn’t look for other work under pain of fine or dismissal.

Child Labor

What made the horrible conditions of the workplace especially poignant was the fact that so much of the workforce was made up of children. In the early 19th century, 40% of Britons were under fifteen. The attitude that children should help out the family as soon as possible and the lack of public schools allowed many children even under ten to work twelve hour days in dangerous conditions. They were more easily managed and their small size allowed them to do jobs that adults couldn’t necessarily do. Abraham Whitehead, in a deposition to the English government, had this to say about the child workers. “They appear in such a state of apathy and insensibility as really not to know whether they are doing their work or not.” He continued, “children that are not employed in mills are generally more moral than children who are employed in mills.” It was this deposition that pushed the English government to regulate child labor.

The family unit was broken up. The meager pay and flooded labor market usually forced women into the factories in order to make enough for the family to get by. They were forced to leave their babies with expensive and dangerous wet nurses or bring them to work, drugged with opiates so they wouldn’t cry out and attract the attention of the foreman. On a larger social scale, the distinction between high and low class changed from being based on heredity to being based purely on wealth. What this meant was that it was now possible to climb the social ladder. Though this meant little to the worker of the day, in time it would allow for such American ‘rags to riches’ stories as Rockefeller and Carnegie. The lower class did not benefit from the boom of the Industrial Revolution until the mid-19th century.

The Winners and Losers

The lower class in countries beside Western Europe and the US benefited little from the Industrial Revolution. Russia was very late in its efforts to industrialize because of its feudal system. As one historian put it, “An Industrial Revolution, to be successful, required large numbers of educated and independent-minded artisans and entrepreneurs.” Russia had no middle class. Its aristocracy tried to push industry on the people mostly by importing existing ideas and trying to adapt them to the Russian countryside and tradition. Unable to compete in the global market, Russia fell back to supplying its natural resources in exchange for industrial products. Unfortunately this only sought to increase their dependency. For most countries it was the same story. Britains head start and America’s vast resources left late-comers unable to stand on their own two feet in the new Industrial world.


In the long run, the Industrial Revolution has benefited the lives of all when measured by living standards. We live longer, work less and generally live healthier lives. This is only the product of many years of adjustment and adaptation. The Industrial Revolution was just that, a revolution. It violently changed the world making it better for some and unbearable for others. The middle and upper class spurned change without ever thinking of the consequences, and predictably, the lower class suffered. The quality of life fell to a new low but with responsible government and individual foresight, the lives of all gradually improved. The impact and scope of the Industrial Revolution is hard to gauge because we live in the wake of its continually changing and evolving force. Without a doubt, the sheer amount of social and economic change that has occured in the past 500 years cannot even be compared to anything that came before. Countries that were quick to jump on the bandwagon are the wealthy nation-powers of today. It also was the cause of countless deaths, diseases and social problems that we are only beginning to understand. Progress cannot be gauged accurately if the destruction it causes is not also taken into consideration.


Bulliet, Richard W. and Crossley, Pamela Kyle The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History copyright 1997 by Houghton Mifflin Boston, MA

Stearns, Peter N. and Gosch, Stephen S. Documents in World History Vol. 2 copyright 2000 by Addison Wesley Educational Publishers Inc.