Wednesday, August 20, 2014


The 19th century witnessed a fundamental transformation of the European economy with the spread of modern forms of industrial organization and production. Industrial regions grew up around major ore-and coalfields, drawing in millions of workers from the villages to form a new class of labouring poor. Marx called them the proletariat and defined the new era as the age of capitalism.

INDUSTRIALIZATION IN EUROPE was a slow and uneven process over the course of the 19th century, Europe had a rich commercial heritage and was far from an undeveloped region in 1800, but most production was still small-scale and craft-based, and most workers were on the land. Poor communications and shortages of capital allowed the traditional economy to survive until mechanized production, the coming of the railways and a modern banking system created the conditions for the rapid industrial growth of the late century.


The early stages of industrial change have been described as “proto-industrialization”.  The term reflects an economy in transition, with traditional production methods and marketing existing along-side large merchants and new experimental factories borrowing the technology of early industrial development in Britain. The textile industry was typical. The mechanization of spinning and weaving developed very slowly: in Saxony British engineers introduced mechanical spinning in 1807 and the first steam machinery in 1831, yet hand loom weaving survived until long into the century in much of Europe, Only by 1900 was the bulk of textile production mechanized.

Heavy industry also developed slowly, Coke-fired iron production had revolutionized British industry, but as late as the 1850s charcoal furnaces supplied 70 per cent of German iron production. The first coke furnace appeared in France in 1823, yet by 1850 only two-fifths of iron was smelted by coke. Only in Belgium coalfield became the second major industrial region of Europe until the 1860s. After 1850 the situation changed sharply; a long boom based on coal, iron and steel and modern engineering turned much of Europe within 25 years into industrial states.

The mid-century boom Industrial development crucially depended on changes in the wider economic framework. The transport revolution was vital. Railways and stream-shipping meant fast and reliable delivery, and cheaper food from the major food producers outside Europe. In 1850 there were 24,150 km (15,000 miles) of railway, most of it in Britain and Belgium; by 1870 another 80,450 km (50,000 miles) hand been added, by 1914 railways smothered the European area. Russia had less than 2000 km (1240 miles) of rail track in 1860; more than 65,000 km (40,000 miles) 50 years later. The reform of the banking system in the 1850s and 1860s stabilized national currencies and created credit and mortgage banks that invested heavily in new technologies in, industry and agriculture. The creation of the Gold Standard in the 1870s made trade and currency conversion easy; the subsequent boom in international trade encouraged another wave of industrial growth.

The ‘second industrial revolution’

By the 1870s Europe had been transformed as Britain had been from the late 18th century. Over the next 40 years there began what has been called the “second industrial revolution” based on the application of modern science in electricity, chemicals and motor vehicles. Iron gave way to high quality steel: in 1861 steel output in Europe was 125,000 tons; by 1931 it had reached 38 million. Germany became the heart of the new industrial boom, producing half of the world’s trade in electrical goods and 80 per cent of the world’s dyestuffs. The motor-car was pioneered in Germany by the engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz.

Alongside the technical and scientific break-through s came a revolution in commerce. Department stores, chains of high-street shops and popular advertising made goods available to all and created global markets for the new products, Rising productivity produced a long boom in real wages down to 1914, freeing many workers from primary poverty and creating a culture of popular consumption, Only in the countryside, where over half of Europeans worked in 1914, was progress slower and poverty widespread.

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