The fourth Industrial Revolution is under way. What was the first one?

The world is advancing rapidly. We are facing extraordinary and dynamic changes in the history of mankind. Digitalization of our everyday lives, scientific discoveries reaching the resources of quantum physics… More than that suggests that a new era is on its way, which may as well be called the fifth Industrial Revolution. However, before we start to wonder what it will be like, it is worth remembering how important the previous revolutions were.

How do industrial revolutions change the world?

Industrial revolutions change civilization in all the aspects of life. Not only do they affect everyday life and the economy, but they also have an impact on the geopolitical changes in the world map and development of societies.
While we are almost a century apart between the first and second revolutions, the next two revolutions took place within one generation. At such a pace of change, the Gaussian curve proves that there are no immortal businesses in the world, neither are there eternal products. Modern technologies can push aside the things which do not keep up with the present. Examples are not too hard to find.

The last two decades have brought significant changes in the world of industries and businesses that focused on analog technologies and did not develop further. Digitalization has displaced a number of products and brands. Cable telephony, analog photography are examples of disappearing industries, which made such big until recently brands as Minolta, Nokia or Polaroid plunged.

Once upon a time…

Centuries ago the life was much calmer and not so dynamic. Traditional crafts were passed on from father to son. Vehicles had wooden wheels invented sometime between 4500 – 3300 BCE, and many work tools have not changed much for the last centuries. So, when did such a great leap forward occur? How did it start? What was the First Industrial Revolution? Who did it help to develop and who couldn’t cope with it and was left behind? A few historical facts can help to answer these questions. The first recorded references to the Industrial Revolution appeared at the end of the 18th century. To put it simply, it was about the historical transition from feudalism to capitalism with its typical industrial solutions.

Social attributes and forms of political and cultural organization that were prevalent before the advent of the First Industrial Revolution is known as Pre-Industrial Society. The roots of these changes can be found in England and they took place throughout the century. England gradually started to reach for hard coal as the main fuel of the country.
In 1698 Thomas Savery patented an early steam engine in England.  “A new invention for raising of water and occasioning motion to all sorts of mill work by the impellent force of fire”. Then Thomas Newcomen’s “engine” was the first real and commercial steam engine based on the piston and cylinder. From the beginning of the century, namely from 1712, it was installed for pumping in mines. By 1733, 104 pumps of that type had already been in operation in the mining industry. Eventually, over two thousand steam pumps were installed in England. These solutions were a catalyst for further changes.

Fabrics and steel as a drive for change

Further changes took place in many branches of the industry; yet these were mainly visible in the weaving industry, which was a driving force behind the English economy. In the mid to late 18th century another scientific investigation of the water wheel led to significant increases in efficiency supplying much needed power for the Industrial Revolution. We owe the real breakthrough to the inventor, whose name is associated by all, i.e. James Watt. In 1763 he improved on Thomas Newcomen’s 1712 steam engine with his Watt steam engine in 1776, which was fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in both his native Great Britain and the rest of the world.
Watt also constructed a mechanism with the use of which the reciprocal motion of pistons was converted into a rotary motion.

At the end of the 18th century, the first cotton-spinning mill, called a spinning mule, was invented. Then Edmund Cartwright invented a loom that could be powered by a steam engine. The demand for such machines led to a greater demand for coal and, as a result, to the development of the mining industry.
At the turn of the century, a mechanical loom improved the production of fabrics increasing productivity by 40 times. Similar effects were recorded in other fields. This was facilitated by the growing mass production of steel.
The coke process, invented by Abraham Darby in 1709 and exploited from 1735, allowed the use of coal in the production of good iron, starting the replacement of wood with coal as a fuel in iron metallurgy and with steel as a structural material. Born into an English Quaker family that played an important role in the Industrial Revolution, Darby developed a method of producing pig iron in a blast furnace fueled by coke rather than charcoal.
It was the so-called puddling, i.e. the process of fresh pig iron in the furnace. This was a major step forward in the production of iron as a raw material for the Industrial Revolution.
In 1856, Henry Bessemer developed a method of steel production directly from the hot iron, eliminating the so-called puddling process.
The period from the mid-18th century and the first half of the 19th century is certainly one of the most important periods for mankind.

First Industrial Revolution

Although the term was popularized in the late nineteenth century by historian Arnold Toynbee, Louis-Guillaume Otto coined the actual phrase Industrial Revolution in 1799. As a diplomat, Otto mentioned the phrase in a letter, intending to share that the French revolutionary government had joined the competition among nations to industrialize and innovate.

In Europe, which until now had been developing harmoniously and comparable to other regions of the world, a new era had come. From now on, Europe has won every battle in terms of economy. By the end of the nineteenth century, many different models of steam engines and steam-powered ships had been invented. Transport was developing, allowing transcontinental shipment of large cargoes. The world was hanging open, providing unprecedented opportunities for development of many regions. New industrial centers were created.

Lodz is a good example of a small town, which over the course of several dozen years had become one of the largest cities in Europe, where many modern factories operated. Such a dynamic growth of the city in a short period of time does not happen often. Lodz has grown 60 times in number.

It is considered that the period called the First Industrial Revolution ended in the mid-19th century. Then the gate of the second one opened. This was the time of scientific solutions that supported industry in the following decades. It is worth recalling that a Pole was involved in this process. One of the leading precursors of the era, inventor of the oil lamp and the one to improve distillation of crude oil, this is Ignacy Łukasiewicz.

What has changed from a geopolitical point of view?

This period especially contributed to building the world dominance of England, France and America. Then other European countries joined, but undoubtedly today’s world economies had their roots in that period.

Who was the biggest loser and who won the revolution? Surely the greatest failure was China, which for centuries had been the world’s largest economy and led the way in inventions and key changes. Meanwhile, missing the steam engine milestone let small and unimportant Europe become a global economic power, pushing China into the background.

When in the second half of the 19th century the industrial revolution reached the USA and other Western European countries, the axis of influence of these two regions of the world became clear. Europe and the United States began their leadership. Of course, it was a consistent development process as a result of the changes described above. Some researchers claim that there were two strands: simultaneous invention of the steam engine and mechanization of English cotton production. The two developments were initially not linked. If one or the other had not progressed, one might wonder whether there would have been an industrial revolution.

Another consequence of the changes was a collapse of the Indian cotton industry. Two major countries, India and China, were dethroned for a long time. What would the world look like today if the forces spread out differently? It is certain, however, that the dynamics of the change is increasing. The less surprised we are, the more knocks back.