When Did the Industrial Revolution start? Key Dates and Timeline

Luke Slater

3 mins

27 Nov 2018

Often thought of as beginning in Britain in the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution is characterised by its many brilliant figures and innovations.

Early advances are often observed to have been in the textiles industry. But as well as this, significant headway was made in agriculture, as well as mechanisation. In a more theoretical sense, economic thought went through a significant change. This article will touch on some key dates thought to have kick-started this period of revolution.

Age of Empire (key date: 1757)

Following what is commonly known as the ‘Age of Discovery’ of the 16th Century, in which explorers from European countries would discover (and often lay claim to) new lands throughout the world, nation-states would start to form their own empires. Few countries had more success than Great Britain.

One of Britain’s most prized imperial possessions lay in the jewel of India. In 1757, the British (in the form of the East India Company) defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah at the Battle of Plassey. This battle is often regarded as the beginning of Britain’s 200-year colonial rule in India.

A meeting of the belligerents following the Battle of Plassey.

As well as India, Britain’s other imperial possessions played an integral role in ensuring Britain’s primacy in the industrial revolution. The raw materials and land gained from such a colony would help to fuel the developing world.

Advent of Steam (key dates: 1712, 1781)

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen built was was essentially the world’s first steam engine. While it was far from efficient, this was the first time water and wind weren’t being relied upon for energy. In 1769, Newcomen’s design was built upon by the Scotsman James Watt, who improved the efficiency of the engine.

By 1781, Watt patented his own rotary steam engine, an invention that would be widely regarded as the defining invention of the Industrial Revolution. Its versatility meant that several other industries, mainly transport and textiles would see great advancement.

The industrial revolution transformed the way people thought and worked. Find out why it originated in 18th century Britain and not France or elsewhere in the documentary The Industrial Revolution on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now

These steam engines defined a shift from man-power to machine-power, allowing the exponential growth economically. Many workers often found themselves threatened by these new innovations, but there was strict legislation in place protecting machine innovations and attempts to stop industrial secrets being spread abroad.

Textiles boom (key date: 1764)

One of the leading industries of the industrial revolution, the textiles and cloth industry would see unprecedented growth in the mid to late-18th century. In 1764, in his house in the village of Stanhill, Lancashire, James Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny.

This beautifully simplistic wooden-framed machine would change the face of textiles (particularly cotton). The Jenny initially could do the work of 8 spinsters at a time. Begrudged workers destroyed Hargreaves’ original machines and threatened Hargreaves, forcing him to flee to Nottingham.

Hargreaves would later go on to patent his 16 spindle-spinning jenny in 1770, the tide of progress was unstoppable and this turbulent era of revolution scared some, yet was met with elation by others.

Changing the economic mindset (key date: 1776)

A statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh’s high street.

In 1776, Adam Smith published his most notable work ‘The Wealth of Nations’. This writing showed a dramatic change in thinking in western economics. The ‘laissez-faire’, free-market economics Smith advocated helped Britain get ahead of their more conservative, traditional continental rivals.

The dynamism and entrepreneurship this new form of economics supported is most notably shown through the establishment of maritime trade organisations like the East India Company. Companies like this would trade in commodities like sugar and tobacco (as well as the more ugly business of the Atlantic Slave Trade) all over the world.