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Four phases of human history

Image Courtesy Rob Cross – June 2019


This article is one of a series addressing globalization. Human history is discussed as four phases of progressively increasing social organisation (Natura, Agraria, Industria, Informatia) based on the form of energy used to drive social activity. Later articles give a brief account of the major world civilizations arising out of highly developed social organisation.


Industria is the term used here to distinguish the phase of human existence emanating from north-west Europe and lasting about 400 years from 1550 to 1950 as agrarian economies converted to urban-industrial manufacturing economies supported by industrial agriculture. Beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries with printing and the Scientific Revolution, and led by Britain into a new fossil fuel era, Germany, France, Switzerland, and the lowlands quickly followed, to be led by America, on the other side of the Atlantic, in the 20th century.

Other characteristics of this phase included: a rapid expansion in global population from 500 million to 2.5 billion, prompting increased urbanization with cities of up to 10 million inhabitants, especially in the industrialized world; increases in knowledge aided by improved communication through the printed word; also widening of commerce and industry aided by new science and technology; the introduction of transport systems based on steam, oil and electricity; spread of democratic institutions; increasing globalization, mostly of trade, much of this supported by the new use of fossil fuels and heavy machinery.

This was a period of critical examination of hierarchical political institutions founded on religious dogma, and social distinctions based on race, religion, social class, education, property, wealth, and gender.

Environmentally the appropriation of wild nature continued with the appropriation of arable land across the world to feed the growing population, and the release of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels greatly accelerated the rate of human-induced climate change.

Industria is best understood in the context of the other three major long-term phases of human history.


Four phases of human history

History, when considered over the long term, reveals trends and features that are not apparent over shorter time-scales. Among those features that come into focus are the drivers of cultural evolution – those general social characteristics that offer some long term social benefit or advantage (cultural adaptations) and which therefore tend to persist.

The full span of human history may be divided into four phases based on the degree of social organization and complexity as constrained by their method of energy capture and use. New forms of social complexity arose as new and more concentrated forms of energy were discovered and existing energy sources were used more efficiently.

The simple societies of Natura were powered by human muscle fed a diet of wild plants and hunted animals. The settled communities of Agraria that followed were powered by the muscles of both humans and domesticated animals with a diet consisting mostly of cereal grains and the meat of domesticated animals. During Industria more people lived in towns and cities their muscle energy based on a similar diet to before but with social energy supplemented by that of the fossil fuels coal, oil and gas which, when combined with new technology like heavy machinery, greatly increased the efficiency of construction, transport, communication, manufacturing and therefore trade. During Industria there was a massive increase in the quantity and rate of social activity.

Each phase has requiring the governance of larger and more interconnected social groups with more complex and new (often competing) social, economic and environmental demands.

Our present phase, Informatia, has full global interconnection and is now resolving issues of global governance, one of these being the gradual replacement of fossil fuel energy with energy from renewable sources. Other concerns include the economic demand on natural resources by the growing human population, global pandemics, the problems surrounding human migration and the consequences of rapid advances in electronic technology.

This four-phase account of human history is an adaptation of the work of historian Ian Morris (see History in 10,000 words).

Two drivers of human history

Energy is the ultimate source of all work and activity in the universe. Our bodies : it is therefore critical not only for individual biological activity but also, in various forms, as the energy that drives the social activity that underpins that major factor that has been so important in human history, social organization.


For our purposes we can distinguish two kinds of energy, biological energy and social energy:

Biological energy

Biological energy (food energy) is the energy that drives our biological metabolism, most notably the muscles that allow us to do social work. This energy is derived ultimately from the Sun but only after it has been stored in plant chemicals during photosynthesis and then eaten as food. It is then ‘burned’ during muscle activity. Although meat is often a large part of the human diet this meat comes ultimately from plants.

Social energy

Increasing the supply of social energy facilitates social growth. This takes many forms. Usually described in simple terms as ‘economic growth’ it includes construction, trade, communication and transport systems (infrastructure), improved technology and so on. Historically the collective long-term consequences (though not necessary consequences) have included escalating population numbers with greater social complexity, interconnection, interdependence, and knowledge accumulation.

The rate of social metabolism has depended historically on the supply of biological and social energy provided by plants.

Leveraged energy

Social activity gathers momentum by supplementing what can be achieved with our bare hands and our bare brains by using tools (technology). Physical tools can be as simple as fashioned stones, or as complicated as computers. Mental tools can be as simple as an idea, or as complicated as language or mathematics.

The history of technology is therefore closely linked to our ability to not only use the available energy more efficiently, but to access energy in new and more concentrated forms. When there is efficient communication, technology can be progressive and cumulative, achieving the same ends in more efficient ways as it builds on the technology of the past.

In Natura it was mostly human muscle that was needed to build houses, hunt and search for food. But in the course of history better ways of ‘getting things done’ were discovered or, in other words, more efficient ways of using energy for social ends.

In Agraria, as social groups became larger, it became possible for one group to persuade others to do the hard physical toil needed to obtain food and construct buildings so that they could devote their time to other activities. Slavery was one such division of labour. But it was also found possible to use the muscle-power of domesticated animals: oxen to pull ploughs and carts, and horses for transport.

A major change in social organisation occurred in Industria when it was found that concentrated plant energy in the form of fossil fuels could be used to drive heavy machinery. This use of plant energy totally transformed transport and communication systems and trade as factories and mills provided more household goods. As populations and cities grew, sailing ships became steamships and roads and railways expanded across the world.

In Informatia, our current era, the facility to now access materials and expertise from around the world facilitated the production of complex equipment like computers, while the climate change resulting from the atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels, has resulted in the increased use of renewable and other energies needed to maintain vast and complex internationally-connected cities.

Social organization

It was claimed earlier that energy was the single major factor limiting social activity, while what is actually achieved depends on the coordination or structuring of this energy-generated social activity into social organization.

What is socially possible, and what actually occurs, are two very different things. So what other critical factors should we consider in relation to historical social governance?

This is a complicated question with many answers, but one way of addressing it is to frame the question loosely as follows:


– What should be done – values

– What can be done – scale

– The rate at which it is done – technology

How it is actually donegovernance


These factors will be discussed in the articles on the other three phases of human history.

Historical context

Social transition

Industria was a period during which predominantly agrarian, rural societies in Europe and America became industrial and urban. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the late 1700s, manufacturing was often done in people’s homes, using hand tools or basic machines.

Industria, as understood here, is taken to include the pre-industrial early modern period with the introduction of printing, the Scientific Revolution, and the formation of nations that we recognize today.

Industrialization was then a shift to powered, special-purpose machinery, factories and mass production as society became divided into an upper class of owners of banks, transportation systems, and factories – the capitalists or bourgeoisie. A middle class of doctors, lawyers and teachers. And a working class who sold their labour to the more wealthy. The iron and textile industries, along with the development of the steam engine, played central roles in the Industrial Revolution, which also saw improved systems of transportation, communication and banking. While industrialization brought about an increased volume and variety of manufactured goods and an improved standard of living for some, it also resulted in often grim employment and living conditions for the poor and working classes.Industria was a period of mostly European economic, social, and environmental transition characterised by increasing urbanization, industrial activity, and international trade. At the time of the Roman empire European commerce was centred largely around the Mediterranean but during Industria this moved looked outwards to the countries of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. European conflict saw the ascendancy of Spain and Portugal, then Holland, followed by France and Britain, with a British Empire at its height around 1900.

The time period of Industria as treated here lasted for 400 years, including the modern era lead-up to the Industrial Revolution beginning around 1550 and also the period of European global colonial expansion up to the post-WWII acceleration in economic growth that began around 1950.

Gathering momentum from the 18th century, rapid economic and population growth was achieved with the use of the fossil fuels coal, oil and gas as average per capita energy use increased to about 200,000 kcal per day. There began a major migration of the world population out of the country and into the factories of the cities as agricultural machinery relieved the need for farm workers. A human population explosion began, the c. 450 million people that existed at the start of the period multiplying to about 4-5 billion as city populations increased up to around 10 million people.

The start of Industria in the West was marked by the establishment of the printing press and the subsequent increase in literacy and wider dissemination of knowledge. To meet the increasing demand for food, agriculture was industrialized with the introduction of farm machinery, chemicals, fertilizers and the plant breeding that arose from the new science of genetics. The countryside becoming increasingly rural and more intensely cultivated.

The old social and gender hierarchies were still strong but under increasing criticism through an Age of Revolutions. World Wars I and II were a transition from inter-state conflict to total and global warfare.


The world prior to the Industrial Revolution had essentially a rural economy –  people living on the land in small mostly self-sustaining farming communities that eked out a meagre subsistence based on just a few staple crops. It was individual resourcefulness in the home, supplemented by a few specialised workshops and craftsmen that produced the houses, food, clothing, furniture and tools.

With a conjunction of relatively sophisticated social organization, rich supplies of iron and coal, and colonies to supply additional raw materials and labour while providing a market for manufactured goods, Britain was ideally situated for economic growth built on ingenuity, rising population, and a ready energy supply.

Increasing demand led to increased wealth, a merchant class, the drive for greater efficiencies, technologies, and mechanization. As demand for British goods increased, merchants needed more cost-effective methods of production, which led to the rise of mechanization and the factory system in the spiral of productivity and competition that we associate with vibrant capitalism.

Rapid social change in the 18th and 19th centuries did not appeal to everyone. By 1800 coal was Britain’s foremost industry and as, in the Victorian era, Britain produced more coal than any other country. A whole industrial and mining ethos was created in the north of England where one in ten men were miners with lives that found some respite in pigeon racing and breeding, greyhounds, brass bands, creative hobbeys, garden allotments and self-education.
Cotton was the other major industrial resource. Imported from India, America and Africa cities like Manchester were able to use half of the world cotton production making money from a resource without needing the land on which it was grown. Vast mills were the largest buildings seen in England apart from cathedrals and churches. Construction of canals, railways and improved roads announced the curtailing of distance and the general acceleration of communication and life.

The word “luddite” refers to a person who is opposed to technological change. The term is derived from a group of early 19th century English workers who attacked factories and destroyed machinery as a means of protest and possibly led by a man named Ned Ludd.

The Industrial Revolution brought about a greater volume and variety of factory-produced goods and raised the standard of living for many people, particularly for the middle and upper classes. However, life for the poor and working classes continued to be filled with challenges. Wages for those who labored in factories were low and working conditions could be dangerous and monotonous. Unskilled workers had little job security and were easily replaceable. Children were part of the labor force and often worked long hours and were used for such highly hazardous tasks as cleaning the machinery. In the early 1860s, an estimated one-fifth of the workers in Britain’s textile industry were younger than 15. Industrialization also meant that some craftspeople were replaced by machines. Additionally, urban, industrialized areas were unable to keep pace with the flow of arriving workers from the countryside, resulting in inadequate, overcrowded housing and polluted, unsanitary living conditions in which disease was rampant. Conditions for Britain’s working-class began to gradually improve by the later part of the 19th century, as the government instituted various labor reforms and workers gained the right to form trade unions. The Factory Act of 1847 reduced worker hours and organised sport gathered in popularity leading to the codification of many of today’s popular sports entertainments.

As wealth accrued so more fine public monuments appeared including town halls, public buildings and the new public parks and gardens.

The textile industry, in particular, was transformed by industrialization. Before mechanization and factories, textiles were made mainly in people’s homes (giving rise to the term cottage industry), with merchants often providing the raw materials and basic equipment, and then picking up the finished product. Workers set their own schedules under this system, which proved difficult for merchants to regulate and resulted in numerous inefficiencies. In the 1700s, a series of innovations led to ever-increasing productivity, while requiring less human energy. For example, around 1764, Englishman James Hargreaves (1722-1778) invented the spinning jenny (“jenny” was an early abbreviation of the word “engine”), a machine that enabled an individual to produce multiple spools of threads simultaneously. By the time of Hargreaves’ death, there were over 20,000 spinning jennys in use across Britain. The spinning jenny was improved upon by British inventor Samuel Compton’s (1753-1827) spinning mule, as well as later machines. Another key innovation in textiles, the power loom, which mechanized the process of weaving cloth, was developed in the 1780s by English inventor Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823).

Developments in the iron industry also played a central role in the Industrial Revolution. In the early 18th century, Englishman Abraham Darby (1678-1717) discovered a cheaper, easier method to produce cast iron, using a coke-fueled (as opposed to charcoal-fired) furnace. In the 1850s, British engineer Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) developed the first inexpensive process for mass-producing steel. Both iron and steel became essential materials, used to make everything from appliances, tools and machines, to ships, buildings and infrastructure.

The steam engine was also integral to industrialization. In 1712, Englishman Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729) developed the first practical steam engine (which was used primarily to pump water out of mines). By the 1770s, Scottish inventor James Watt (1736-1819) had improved on Newcomen’s work, and the steam engine went on to power machinery, locomotives and ships during the Industrial Revolution.

The world

In spite of deliberate legislation prohibiting the export of technology and skilled workers in the early 19th century the new money-making formula, especially textile manufacture, spread from Britain to Belgium, France, Germany, and the United States, all with their own coal and iron supplies.


Geographically by the mid-19th century industrial manufacture and mining was evident across western Europe and northeastern America. For 100 years Britain rules the seas and, through its colonies, the largest empire the world has ever seen encompassing 25% of the world population until, in the early 20th century, this economic and industrial supremacy was eclipsed by the United States.



While this period of rapid change was taking place in Britain there was the British coastal exploration of Cook and Banks in 1768, settlement in 1788 and the march towards Australian independence. This period was like a cashing in of the Enlightenment’s faith in science and reason, especially the application of scientific ideas to technology and engineering.

Environment of evolutionary adaptation

From the perspective of the coevolution of plants and people the Agricultural Revolution had accelerated the creation of anthropogenic plants and sedentary human communities that could store food, releasing people to follow the division of labour that included efficient government administration, academic pursuits, manufacturing industries on a vast scale, and including an enlarged military , diet of reduced variety, and trade over larger distances.


This was, more than anything else, a revolution in energy management – the harnessing of the concentrated energy of fossil fuels (first coal, then oil), driving industry, manufacturing and economic production.

Beginning in Britain it was a dramatic social transition that spread first to western European countries and their colonies, and subsequently to the world.

This phase of human history, sometimes referred to by the general term
Industria lasted for about 250 yrs and is associated with an average daily per capita energy consumption of about 200,000 kcal.

Heavy consumption of fossil fuels began in the 18th century western Europe as part of the Industrial Revolution with massive improvements in technology building on the scientific achievements of the 17th century and a rapid increase in trade and communication across the world’s oceans that led to globalization and today’s international integration and interdependency.

Population & urbanization

The human population rapidly increased from 450 million in 1500 to 7 billion today, the momentum gathering with the ‘Great Acceleration’ after the second world war when the world population in 1950 was just 2.5 billion. Commerce centred largely around the Mediterranean at the time of the Roman Empire, moving to the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans by the time of the British Empire. Through the 20th century American power increased, especially in the Pacific. After 1950 we see a gradual Asian ascendancy. Today, with most of the world’s people living in cities, we are suspicious of political and gender hierarchies and resist violence, but accept some wealth differentiation. With the abundant fossil fuels for food production and manufacturing productivity soared, increasing 7-fold in the most industrialised Western economies so that energy consumption rose from roughly 38,000 kcal/cap/day in 1800 to about 230,000 kcal/cap/day in the 1970s.


Prior to the Industrial Revolution transportation of people and goods was based on horsepower, carriages, wagons, barges on canals, and sailing ships. People rarely travelled outside their immediate neighbourhood, and no-one could travel faster than a galloping horse and no weapon could kill more than a few people at a time. The advent of fossil fuel energy and heavy machinery supercharged globalization and transformed this into railroads, steamships, aircraft, with trams and and cars operating on rails and sealed roads. Railways required a universal timetable, thus forcing local solar time-keeping to follow that of mechanical clocks. The early twentieth century especially saw the introduction of motor cars, radios, refrigerators and aeroplanes, but also the devastation of deadly new weaponry used in two world-wide total wars.

Factories and steam engines produced not only profits but smoke, grime and noise. Factory workers endured long working hours and aristocrats fought railways wishing to run in straight lines through their country estates.

Rivers &Canals
American Robert Fulton (1765-1815) built the first commercially successful steamboat, and by the mid-19th century while small steamships plied the rivers and canals of Europe, the Mississippi and Australia’s Murray-Darling.

Iron hulled ships were built first for trade across the Atlantic and then further to Australia.

The journey from London to Edinburgh by horse and carriage took five days. As steam-powered ships were making their debut, the steam locomotive was also coming into use. In the early 1800s, British engineer Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) constructed the first railway steam locomotive and in 1830, England’s Liverpool to Manchester (Stockton to Darlington) Railway became the first to offer regular, timetabled passenger services as cotton products developed in the mills of Manchester could be transported by rail the 20 miles to the docks at Liverpool. Robert Stephenson steam locomotive ‘Rocket’ designed in 1829 averaged 29 mph on this journey which was faster than any other means of transport at that time. This led to a frenzy of rail construction and the civil engineering of bridges, tunnels and viaducts connecting the industrial north of Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham to London and thence to trade with India and southeast Asia through the Mediterranean, Suez, and the Red Sea. By 1850, Britain had more than 6,000 miles of railroad track and by the end of the 19th century this had increased to about 20,000 miles. For a period the publicly owned railways produced investment returns of around 10% but by 1847 it was a bubble that had run its course, taken over by private companies. Animals disappeared from the cities, shopping became more exciting, lower classes travelled to the countryside and football matches and, though train carriages were divided into first, second and third class they seemed to be devouring both hierarchy and the countryside. Railroad construction moved to America, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Emphasis moved to luxury, speed and food. The 1901 soccer cup final brought 114,000 people to London by train. With the advent of war in 1914 troops travelled to Folkestone and Southampton to join the front. By 1923 cars had arrived and the rail network, which had become large and unwieldy, was taken over by four conglomerates their competition culminating in a steam train land speed record of 126 mph, but as cost blew out the network was again taken over by government.

Around 1820, Scottish engineer John McAdam (1756-1836) developed a new process for road construction. His technique, which became known as macadam, resulted in roads that were smoother, more durable and less muddy.

Massive sea-going ships were steadily replacing sail, helping to building up the cities of north-west Europe on the money earned from the Atlantic in a continuous triangle of trade that passed down the West African coast to the Americas and back to Europe – consisting of European manufactured goods, African slaves, and plantation-produced sugar, rum, cotton, and tobacco.


Communication became greater, faster and further. easier during the Industrial Revolution with such inventions as the telegraph. In 1837, two Brits, William Cooke (1806-1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), patented the first commercial electrical telegraph. By 1840, railways were a Cooke-Wheatstone system, and in 1866, a telegraph cable was successfully laid across the Atlantic.


The Industrial Revolution also saw the rise of Banks and industrial financiers, as well as a factory system dependent on owners and managers. A stock exchange was established in London in the 1770s; the New York Stock Exchange was founded in the early 1790s. In 1776, Scottish social philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who is regarded as the founder of modern economics, published “The Wealth of Nations.” In it, Smith promoted an economic system based on free enterprise, the private ownership of means of production, and lack of government interference.

For instance, railroads in the mid-19th century needed stronger rails and armies wanted stronger cannon barrels, so there was a ready reception for Henry Bessemer’s new steel-making process in 1856.


Values, like energy, can be divided into two kinds, biological and social.

Biological values are those intuitions, instincts and inclinations that are part of our universal human biology, a product of biological evolution: they are the subject of studies in moral psychology.

Social values, though still grounded in our biology, are values that are more a product of social context.

Over the long term it appears that the form of social organization has a major influence on social values. There is therefore a connection between social organization, energy capture and use, and social values since social organization itself depends largely on the mode of energy capture and use. And those societies with values and social organization that offer advantage or benefit will tend to persist.

As industrialization proceeded there was a greater emphasis on democratic and egalitarian institutions with the genie coefficient of Industria (c. 0.26) approximating that of Natura (c. 0.25). However, it appears that during Informatia the absolute differences have increased to c. 0.31.

Alexander Graham Bell invented
the telephone in 1876, he found few people who wanted to buy his invention and use it;
indeed, it took the Bell Telephone Company decades to convince Americans that every
home should have a telephone.
‘’supply push’’, “demand-pull,”

Plant commentary & Sustainability Analysis

From a sustainability perspective this was a resource-hungry social revolution, starting in Britain, that would be gradually taken up by the world. The transition was from man to machines as rural workers being replaced by the machinery of a new agricultural revolution sought work in the industrial cities., from rural to urban as from agriculture to industrial manufacture all fuelled by a quantum leap in communication and transportation releasing the energy needed to initiate exponential population growth, increased average income and standard of living. This was bought at the price of back-breaking and long hours of toil in factories and mines.

Over the long term, those values consistent with flourishing forms of social organization will tend to persist. Forms of social organization depends largely on the mode of energy capture and use.

Industrialization produced the expectancy of constant change and improvement to material conditions based largely on new technology.

Interpretations of these events falls into two extreme camps: optimists view industrialization as the source of liberty, wealth, and therefore happiness since people are generally healthier, wealthier, live longer, and are better educated.

A pessimistic outlook sees industrialization as a source of social division: a means of oppressing peasants, workers, and native populations. This was the beginning of major inequities. primarly at teh global and national scales. This was also a period of major and increasing environmental degradation as food production and manufacturing strived to keep up with the rapidly increasing population. The major uptake of fossil fuels began the decline into human-induced climate change

It was fossil fuels (fossil plants) – first coal (a convenient replacement for the rapidly diminishing supply of timber fuel) and then gas and oil – that were the drivers of increasing global connectivity and social complexity at this time. The outcome of Industria was a world that aspired to energy-hungry Western lifestyles that consume over 200 kcal/capita/day (Morris 2015), a hundredfold increase over that of hunter-gatherers. Plant-based energy use increased from about 38 kcals/person/day in 1800 at the start of the Industrial Revolution to around 92 kcals/person/day in 1900, and 230 kcals/person/day in 2000 (Cook 1971).

Key points

Key features

EEA: increasingly urban as population moves from the country into the cities

Communication: verbal+written+printed

Lasts: c. 400 yrs

Energy source & use: animal and plant food with complex social structure maintained by fossil fuels and consumption at over 200,000 kcal/capita/day

Group size: towards the end of the period with most people in the world living in increasingly interdependent cities of up to tens of millions of people

World pop: from 500 million to c. 2.5 billion around 1950

Diet: domesticated animals and plants, increasingly processed

Values: former religious, political, economic, and gender hierarchies now being questioned.

Ecological impact: increasing

  • Social organization is a measure of a society’s capacity to ‘get things done’ that is, to achieve measurable progress in the achievement of environmental, social, and economic objectives
  • Human history may be divided into four phases of increasingly complex social organization as determined by their mode of energy capture and use:

  • Natura – hunter-gatherers living within nature obtaing food from the wild
    Agraria – settled communities living by obtaining food from domesticated plants and animals
    Industria – urban societies using fossil fuels for manufacture and industrial agriculture
    Informatia – a period defined the internet, the Great Acceleration in population, service economies, the transfer from fossil fuels to renewables and, geologically, by the Anthropocene.

  • Social organization can be further analyzed in terms values (what should be done), scale (what can be done), technology (the rate at which things can be done), and governance (the way they are actually done)
  • As a prelude to the Industrial Revolution there was a Renaissance period of gathering intellectual, economic, scientific, technological and artistic innovation as the world’s four zones (Europe, Asia, Africa, Americas) are united into a global network of exchange during the Age of Discovery, which includes the Scientific Revolution and the development of printing
  • Competition between nations becomes based around commerce and markets as nations compete for trade in goods, services, and labour as governments become more powerful, complex, and market orientated.
  • Per capita energy use moves towards 200,000 kcals/day with first coal, then oil and gas as cheap sources of energy used to power the elaboration of social organization
  • Governments seeking revenue support the activity of international merchant adventurers (mercantilism)
  • The Industrial Revolution that starts in Britain extends into Europe, then North America, Russia, and Japan
  • Transport transitions from horses and sailing ships to steamships, automobiles, and aircraft.
  • Communication now supplements written text with the printed word – ranging from newspapers to scientific periodicals.
  • With the transition from an agrarian to a capital economy there is a migration from country to city, from farm to factory, as former cities of up to 10s swell into millions
  • Interpretations of these events falls into two extreme camps: optimists view industrialization as the source of liberty, wealth, and therefore happiness since people are generally healthier, wealthier, live longer, and are better educated. A pessimistic outlook sees industrialization as a source of social division: a means of oppressing peasants, workers, and native populations – the source of major social and economic inequities at both the national and global scales. This was also a period of rapidly increasing environmental degradation as food production and manufacturing strived to keep up with the rapidly increasing population. The major uptake of fossil fuels began the decline into human-induced climate change

Big History

Threshold 8

The Industrial Revolution is generally regarded as extending from about 1750 to 1850 but the idea of Industria as described on this web site is expanded to last about 400 years from 1550 to 1950 and encompasses the transition from subsistence living to mechanization. Wealth per capita, economic growth, and population growth are also key factors. The energy sources change from wind, horses, and water . . . to fossil fuels. There is a redistribution of labour, information, goods, and capital. Historians debate the relative significance of culture and social factors vs material and economic factors in this transition. Major changes include:

1. Population boom (labour availability) – from 1 billion at start of the period to 7 billion today
2. Agricultural innovation as fewer people work the land
3. Commercial competition and innovation combined with the science and technology that created a more global trade network based in northern Europe with imperial Britain extending its influence into the Neo-Europes and incorporating Africa, Asia, China, and parts of South America
4. Spiritual factors, the intellectual and religious ambience of the times (Protestantism)
5. Use of coal.


This timeline is not restricted to the events of the British Industrial Revolution (c. 1750-c. 1850) but includes the extended timeframe of Industria (1550-1950).

1694 – First Central Bank established in England
1712 – Thomas Newcomen invented the first productive steam engine.
1719 – John Lombe starts his silk factory
1733 – James Kay invented the Flying Shuttle, a simple weaving machine.
c.1750-1850 – The Industrial Revolution in Britain
1764 – James Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny, which allowed one worker to spin eight spindles
1769 – Richard Arkwright invented the water frame, which hooked up spinning machines to a water wheel.
1769 – James Watt patented his revision of the steam engine, featuring a separate condenser.
1770’s – cotton, iron, steam power
1774 – Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule which combined spinning and weaving into one machine.
1776 – Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations.
1779 – First steam powered mills. Samuel Crompton invents the mule combining the spinning jenny and water frame
1781 – Watt adapts his steam engine from a reciprocal to a rotary motion.
1785 – Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, which, after 1800 was powered by new steam engines. Replaced the flying shuttle.
1785 – Henry Cort invented highly successful iron refining techniques.
1790 – Carkwright changes his huge factories over from water power to steam engines
1794 – Eli Whitney patents the cotton gin a machine that separates cotton seeds from cotton fibre.
1799 – Combination Acts make it illegal in England for workers to unionize in order to bargain for higher pay or better working conditions.
1801 – Richard Trevithick reveals the steam locomotive
1800 – 10 million tons of coal mined in Great Britain.
1801 – Richard Trevithick drives the Cornish “puffer” steam powered locomotive down the street of Camborne, England.
1811 – Luddite Rebellion begins.
1812 – Parliament passes law making it illegal by penalty of death to destroy industrial machines.
1813 – 14 Luddites hanged in Manchester after a rushed one-day trial.
1816 – George Stephenson patented a steam engine locomotive that ran on rails.
1817 – Bicycle.
1820’s – railroads, gaslight
1821 – Michael Faraday develops the fundamental basis for the electric motor
1825 – Stephenson commissioned to construct a 30-mile railway from Liverpool to Manchester.
1825 – Typewriter.
1827 – Photography.
1829 – Stephenson’s Rocket wins the speed contest on the new Liverpool to Manchester railroad. 51 miles of railroad track in Great Britain and the entire world.
1832 – Sadler Committee investigates child labor in factories and issues report to Parliament.
1833 – The first Factory Act provides first small regulation of child labor in textile factories.
1834 – Poor Law created “poorhouses” for the destitute.
1835 – 106,000 power looms operating in Great Britain.
1836 – Morse code.
1834 – Charles Babbage develops the forerunner of the computer
1837-1844 – Samuel Morse invents the telegraph
1842 – Opium War; Treaty of Nanjing opens China to trade with western nations, and establishment of treaty ports including Shanghai
1844 – Friedrich Engels publishes his observations of the negative effects of industrialization in The Condition of the Working-Class in England.
1844 – Samuel Morse invents the telegraph. By 1860 telegraph wires in America pass from east coast to the Mississippi River.
1846 – Elias Howe invents the sewing machinemaking factories possible
1848 – British government sets up the General Board of Health to investigate sanitary conditions, setting up local boards to ensure safe water in cities.
1848 – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto.
1849 – 10,000 people die in three months in London from Cholera epidemic.
1849 – 6,031 miles of railroad track in Great Britain.
1850-1864 – The Taiping Rebellion
1843 – The first large, iron, steamship
1846 – Elias Howe invents the sewing machine
1855 – Henry Bessemer invents a method for processing steel out of iron
1853 Lifts/Elevators were already invented by 1853, Elisha Otis invents a safety break.
1855 – Henry Bessemer invents a process for making steel out of iron.
1866 – Alfred Nobel creates dynamite.
1866 – Alfred Nobel invents dynamite
1870’s-90’s – steel, petroleum, internal combustion engine, electricity, telephones, automobiles
1870 – Louis Pasteur develops vaccines for diseases.
1876 – Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone.
1875 – Public Health Act gives government responsibility to ensure public health for housing and sewage.
1876 – Alexander Graham Bell was the first to get a patent for telephone.
1877 – Phonograph.
1879 – Thomas Edison uses a light bulb to light a lamp.
1880 – Education Act made school compulsory for children up to age 10.
1883 – Brooklyn Bridge is completed: longest suspension bridge in the world.
1890 – 90% of all ships in the world are built in Great Britain.
1890 – 35,00 miles of railroad track in Great Britain
1900 – Boxer Rebellion
1901 – This Factory Act raised the minimum work age to 12 years old.
1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright invent the first plane not powered by wind. October 1908
1905 – 236 million tons of coal mined in Great Britain.
1908 – Henry Ford creates Model T made on an assembly line.
1911 – Nationalist revolution in China; collapse of Qing dynasty
1917 – Bolshevik revolution in Russia
1918 – Education Act made school compulsory for children up to age 14.
1921 – Inaugural national congress of the Chinese Communist Party held in Shanghai
1930’s-1950’s – industrial chemistry, electronics, radio, television, aircraft, computers
1937 – Outbreak of war between China and Japan
1939-1945 – Second World War
1944 – English government mandates and funds compulsory education for all over 18
1949 – Communist Party under Mao Tse-Tung takes power in China


man-> beast-> wind-> water
fossil fuel (coal, gas, oil, electricity)

350,000 – human muscle


             Natura       -   0.25m
             Agraria      -   0.48
             Industria   -   0.26 - 0.31

Media gallery

The Industrial Revolution
CrashCourse – 2019 – 17:05

History of Industrial Revolution Documentary
IntroBooks Education -2017 – 41:56

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