economic and social changes after 1870 are so striking and so qualitatively different from the developments of the First Industrial Revolution that they deserve to be labeled, "The Second Industrial Revolution."
The Second Industrial Revolution
Rapid changes in societies that radically transform the way of life for significant segments of the population are termed revolutions. Such revolutions have occurred frequently in many parts of the world throughout history. However, only a few in the history of mankind have transformed societies in irreversible and profoundly significant ways. Two such significant events that have taken place in the course of human history are -- The Neolithic Revolution and The Industrial Revolution. In the Neolithic Revolution people changed their way of life and social systems based on hunting and gathering to more complex systems dependant on agriculture and the domestication of animals. This led to the development of communities who lived in permanent settlements and gave rise to urban civilizations. The second equally significant event took place centuries later and came to be known as the Industrial Revolution. During this 'revolution' the agricultural societies created during the Neolithic Revolution were transformed into modern industrial societies. (Porter, Intro Para 4) The Industrial Revolution originated in Britain in the 18th century and led to significant changes in the nature of production, and dramatic growth in productivity and efficiency by application of scientific knowledge to the manufacturing process. However, at least initially, the effects of the 'revolution' were mainly confined to Britain alone. It was only towards the second half of the 19th century that similar changes began to take place in other parts of Europe, and most markedly in the United States. This second phase of Industrial Revolution, led by the U.S., saw unprecedented industrial growth and social changes that in the opinion of some historians were even more significant than the first Industrial revolution. In this essay we shall discuss various aspects of this second phase and examine why it deserves to be called "The Second Industrial Revolution."
When Did the Second Industrial Revolution take Place?
Like any other event in history this is not an open and shut case. There is some controversy about when the 'second' industrial revolution started and when did it end? Some historians deny that it ever took place. This is not surprising since some historians even deny the existence of any Industrial Revolution at all. Various scholars have given dates as divergent as 1815-1914 and 1914-1939 for the 2nd Industrial Revolution (Lewis, par on Overview). Most scholars are, however, in agreement that the Second Industrial Revolution started in the 2nd half of the 19th century. It is difficult to specify an exact date for the start of the event. But the 1870s seem to be the best bet, as the decade saw a spurt of social, economic and scientific changes in Europe and the U.S.A. after the initial advances made in Britain during the 18th century had slackened off. Other historians have often suggested that the second industrial revolution that started towards the end of the nineteenth century still continues -- as indeed, it does in some parts of the world.
Back Ground of the Second Industrial Revolution
While Britain was undoubtedly the initiator and home of the first industrial revolution, it is equally clear that the Second Industrial Revolution was the result of political, socioeconomic, and scientific developments in the United States. Apart from the United States, technological and scientific advances in Germany also contributed in the Second Industrial Revolution. In order to understand the reasons behind this 2nd phase we have to examine its background.
At the start of the 19th century the U.S.A. was a young nation consisting of a loose federation of former colonies of Britain that had a largely traditional agricultural economy. Three-quarters of its workforce was involved in agricultural activities. The political and economic leaders of the country were aware that the country needed to be economically strong in order to protect and consolidate its newly won independence. The obvious way to do so was to follow the path of industrialization, just as Britain had done.
The United States was lucky that it possessed huge advantages that few others had at the time. For example, it possesed a large area with a sparse population. It had a mostly literate population (at least among the white males). The country had also inherited many of the advantages from Britain -- the pioneering industrial nation. Some of these were: a strong and stable legal and political system that encouraged enterprise and rewarded initiative, a common language (English) and a largely common culture. (Porter, American Advantages). The sharing of a common language with Britain proved particularly helpful in the 2nd Industrial Revolution, as it helped in rapid transfer technology to the United States. Most new inventions had been made in Britain during its Industrial Revolution and the vast technical literature about new machines and processes that were available in the English language were easily understood and adopted by the Americans. (Ibid.)
Apart from these reasons, perhaps the most important reason that gave the edge to U.S. over all others (even Britain) during part 2 of the Industrial Revolution was its relatively open society that gave ample opportunities for social mobility. This was true, at least, for the white population. It was able to quickly adopt the technologies, forms of organization, and attitudes necessary for industrial development and had the flexibility to further refine and advance the innovations made elsewhere (mainly in Britain).
In part because of this openness and as part of a deliberate policy, the United States was also able to attract skilled mechanics and inventors from Britain and the rest of Europe despite efforts by Britain to prevent such brain drain. These skilled and knowledgeable people helped to establish and further develop numerous technologies and processes used in industrial development.
The Difference in Innovations
The first industrial revolution had been characterized by the use of coal, steam and iron. It was a time when knowledge was mostly the result of practical experience and informal empiricism. In the second half of the nineteenth century (which we assume as the start of the 2nd revolution) applications began to be derived from pure science, which brought a huge range of new techniques and new materials to the industrialized nations. Technology now became more complex and more diverse. The most significant developments in this new age were electrical power, the internal-combustion engine, petroleum fuel, the automobile and science-based chemical manufacture. ("Making the Modern World.") In this period, a cluster of inventions such as synthetic dyes, artificial fertilizers, plastics, new textiles and drugs, such as aspirin, were invented. Many of these developments such as electricity transformed lives of the people at home and in the factory by providing heat and light. The cultural impact of some inventions was enormous. For example, development of electricity and chemistry made cinema and radio possible that became such essential parts of everyday life in the twentieth century. Most of these innovations were made in the United States, Germany, and France with Britain gradually getting left behind in the industrial field.
Development and use of electricity as a source of power for lighting of homes and running of factories was one of the key developments in the "Second Industrial Revolution." Again, it was the United States and Germany that took the lead in the development of electricity rather than Britain. This was because coal was found in abundance in Britain and there was not much need for replacing coal-gas lit buildings and coal-fired steam powered machines to run on electricity. ("Electricity and Electric Power.")
Apart from the difference in kinds of physical inventions in the two periods of Industrial Revolution, significant development also took place in the manufacturing process techniques during the 2nd phase. Division of labor, with each worker being involved in manufacturing a specialized part of the machinery had already been developed in the earlier part of the industrial revolution. American manufacturers took the process one step further by using special-purpose machines to produce large quantities of similar, interchangeable, parts. This development took place in the mid-nineteenth century and came to be known as the American system of production. (Porter. The American System). It speeded up the manufacturing process and produced goods of much more uniform quality than those made by hand labor. The American system was first applied in the manufacture of clocks, locks, axes, and shovels. (Ibid.)
The Automobile Industry
This American system of production combined with a continuous-process assembly line technique was most effectively applied by the automobile industry that transformed the industrial world and ushered in a new era of mass production. The American industrialist Henry Ford who founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903 was instrumental in this most vivid expression of the Second Industrial Revolution that signaled the start of an irreversible industrial age. (Lewis, "The Second Industrial Revolution.")