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Industrialization was one of the most influential and transformational processes on human life. In the United States, it impacted on every sector and aspect of the people’s life. This period, which was predominantly agrarian, saw the transformation of rural societies in America develop into industrial and urban centers. It also led to the shift from hand tools and basic machines to special-purpose machinery and mass production. This consequently led to improved systems of communication, transportation as well as work and industry organization. This essay analyzes the industrial revolution in the United States and seeks to examine and establish how several inventions of the era affected the social, economic as well as political environment.
The United States transition form an agricultural-based economy to an industrial giant took a century. The long journey started in the 1790s, when the first phase was initiated by the rapid growth in industrialization in the former colonial master, Britain. Although the mother country, Britain, had made great leaps in the 18th Century, the United States lagged far behind mainly due to the fact that there was an abundance of fertile agricultural land as well as a shortage in skilled labor. Therefore, investors opted for agriculture, a venture that was less expensive and had guaranteed returns in comparison to machine-based production, which was capital intensive and demanded highly skilled labor. However, with the increased need for higher productivity in order to boost the rapidly expanding country, a shift from hand-made to machine-made products was vital. In addition, European countries had already made significant progress and had achieved great success in alleviating poverty as well as improving the living standards among their citizens.
On realizing the possible impacts of an industrial revolution, the government initiated a series of laws and policies that would not only boost America’s economic growth but also help transform the country into an urban, industrial hub. The Embargo Act was one of these laws which prohibited the export of American goods which consequently resulted in other nations banning imports to the United States. This combined with a series of other events led to the War of 1812 between America and Great Britain. It is this war that made it apparent that America needed more economic independence and better transportation, which led to the rapid expansion of manufacturing.
The process of industrialization in America involved three major developments; transportation, metallurgy and improvements in the industrial process which not only included improving the refining process but accelerating production as well. It is in this period that a number of innovations that completely transformed American life appeared. Such include a transportation system based on steam power that allowed goods to be shipped at reduced expenses over great distances. Also to be noted was the development of the American system of manufactures where individual workers were accountable for only a part of a finished product. This system made store-bought goods more affordable and as a result, consumers begun purchasing goods from stores rather than trading with neighbors or making them themselves.
The steam engine served as the first impetus for the industrial revolution. These machines were not only used in the transport sector, but also in the cotton ginneries. The resultant gains were phenomenal. Businesses of all kinds began employing steam engines to supply power for their operations. Smaller plants needed engines with minimal attention while the larger ones would have engines requiring full-time attention and supplying several hundred horsepower.
Though the steam was first used in Britain for mine drainage, it was not until James Watt, a Scottish inventor as well as mechanical engineer, patented his improvements to the steam engine that it was introduced into the textile manufacturing industry. This was a huge leap because unlike the water power which was used up to that time, the steam engine was not limited to seasons and provided large amounts of power. Steam engines were also highly employed in the transport revolution as they were used to power up trains (Crafts, 2004).
The steam engine however did not last forever as it was found that engines producing large amounts of horsepower were very massive and their initial cost was exorbitant. It is the invention of the steam turbine that led to the downfall of the steam engine. This was because the steam turbines were more efficient as they were smaller and could produce larger amounts of power. The invention of steam turbines is however largely attributed to the existence of the steam engine.
Another notable phenomenon of the Industrial revolution was the development of the railroad. Prior to the railroad boom, canals were the fastest forms of transportation. These however had huge limitations as the amount of cargo that a boat would transport was limited and canal operators charged high prices due to lack of competition. This development significantly lowered the cost of transportation, while at the same time increasing the volume and speed of people and goods transported. Over the next half century, America would witness magnificent structures on which trains would run on as well as remarkable depots which expanded markets for manufactured products and enhanced rail locomotives crossing all over the country. The railroad construction therefore not only brought profound economic and social change but political change as well.
The railroad was primarily built to transport raw materials as well as finished products which led to the growth of the coal and steel industries. The industrialization process inevitably led to the increase in demand for metals such as iron which was used in constructing the rails for the roads and building train engines. This innovation also transformed warfare as it meant that armies and artillery could be transported faster than before. Another profound effect was the coming up of towns and cities such as Baltimore which was home to the first chartered railroad in the United States (Ward, 1986). In order to build the railroads, human labor was needed to smelt iron which made jobs obtainable for the working class. This in return led to mass migrations, with most of the people looking for work and the prospect of higher living standards. Migration in return saw the settling of foreigners such as Asian laborers who migrated to the U.S to build railroads.
Another noteworthy revolution was the invention of the cotton gin in the 18th century. This saw the dramatic change in agriculture as the material processed swiftly changed from wool and linen to cotton. Additionally, this also saw the reinvention of the plantation as the new machine found a new setting in larger plantations and more complex factories. This revolution’s effects were quite different in different areas. In the South, cotton was supplied by plantations and its processing was mechanized by the cotton gin. However, in the Northeastern United States, home spinning and small-scale carding mills gave way to large integrated mills as the population was a little lower.
Before the American industrial revolution, rice and tobacco were the major crops produced for commercial purposes in the South. Cotton was not among these as removing the sticky seeds from inside each cotton ball were hard, which resulted in cotton not being profitable. The introduction of the cotton gin however changed this, resulting in increased size of plantations and consequently increased labor force in the form of slaves. Though slave labor had previously been used in tobacco and rice cultivation, many large cotton farms owners exploited the labor of Africans in America, people who had no other choice and employed slaves only (Tractenberg, 1982). This way, slavery, which had previously been on a decline in the South, became a fundamental part of the new agriculture.
The cotton gin was one of the inventions that resulted in massive change in the way people interacted and worked, including politics. This invention therefore raises issues about its invention and technological skills. This is because that despite the fact that it was a labor-saving machine, it led to an increase in the size of the labor force. The lower price of cotton required an enormous increase in cotton production, which also required enormous amounts of labor. Though the cotton gin made processing of cotton faster and cheaper, this invention can be attributed to the spread of slavery and racial prejudice especially in the South.
An additional formidable aspect that changed American life during the industrial revolution was the mining of iron and consequently the use of steel. Steel production was responsible for the provision of infrastructure necessary for the United States to transform itself into an industrial power. For many years, iron ores had been converted to iron and steel by heating the ores with charcoal. However, by the mid-eighteenth century, the nation’s timber supply had greatly been decimated, forcing iron and steel manufacturers to look for an alternative fuel to use in treating the iron ores.
The alternative fuel they settled on was coal which when heated in the absence of adequate air, turns to coke. This proved to be a much superior material for the treatment of iron ore to iron and eventually to steel as it could tightly be packed into a blast furnace, allowing heating of a larger amount of iron.
Though the conversion of iron and steel from charcoal to coal encouraged the development of more new inventions, it was however accompanied by several new technical problems. By the end of the 18th century, this new approach had produced profound effects on industrial patterns and the population. This process saw large proportions of children employed mainly in haulage systems. The mining and smelting of these ores resulted to wastes containing potentially toxic elements such as nickel and mercury throughout the environment.
The industrial revolution can be viewed as sudden, and leading to violent and unparalleled change. The arrival of the steam engine and railroad allowed safe and cheaper travel all over the world while the invention of the telegraph allowed faster communication. The vast influx of new industries and standardized equipment led to expansion of trade and fostered a money economy. This stimulated the development of new financial and credit institutions as well as an increase in capitalism. The emergence of a wealthier population led to a demand for more and better goods which stimulated more improvements in the available technologies not only in the cotton industry but in the steam engines as well.
The industrial revolution consequently led to a new demand for labor in industries and cotton fields. Unlike in the day when all Americans worked on their farms in family-sized units, the nature of work in upcoming industries were mostly tailored for men. This shift led to a review of “women’s work”, within the household which up till then was not financially accounted for. The demand for labor especially in the cotton fields inevitably led to increase in slavery and consequently racial segregation. Hitherto, cotton manufacturers as well as steam boat promoters were more concerned with turning a quick profit through monopolies and cartels rather than productivity. This led to the introduction of piece rates in the cotton factories, which consequently led to the first modern industrial conflicts and strikes (Berg, 1986). While preindustrial work tended to be more individualistic, factory work had to be continuous and coordinated, and moments of relaxation became less and less for many ordinary people.
The industrial revolution is seen to have brought a lot of changes not only in living conditions, socially and economically, but in industrial processes as well. The spread of powerful machines using innovative sources of power constituted the larger aspect of this process of change. This saw the change from agricultural goods and activities to machinery, which led to the birth of the American consumer. The new industrial order also led to development of urban landscapes and consequently rural to urban migration. The new industrial zones became more crowded and lacked basic services and social organization. The haphazard developments of these areas increased pollution in form of industrial wastes and coal smokes, making them detrimental. The rural areas were however not left behind, with the railroads bringing steam-powered engines to these areas.
It is therefore impossible to understate the impact of the industrial revolution both socially and politically. Notably every new invention brought challenges, which in turn led to improvements to the existing technology. Iron and steel mining, and the use of coal, a fossil fuel, led to profound effects which are still felt up to date with small but significant samples of lead present throughout the last seven thousand years detected in Greenland ice cores (Ian, 1975). The industrial revolution therefore can be seen to have both positive and negative effects on the economy and society with the environment mostly being negatively affected.