University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
National Endowment for the Humanities

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Introduction

Between about 1750 and 1850, the United Kingdom experienced the first industrial revolution. The purpose of this site is to study major historical interpretations of this complex process, which continues to transform our world. The site's goal is to provide resources that will allow readers to explore major historical and cultural interpretations of the industrial revolution in Britain. It was conceived as a tool for a Summer Seminar at the University of Nottingham on Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. It is designed especially for those who teach and study the subject in the schools and can serve as a forum through which both teachers and students can contribute to a discussion of the subject.

Industrialization is one of the central experiences of human life during the last two centuries. While historians have noted that other societies developed considerable large-scale industry a half millennium before the West, it was the industrial revolution in Britain that accelerated a cumulative multiplication of productive power that has transformed European society and challenged the very existence of traditional societies around the world.

The power of industry that propelled British goods and guns around the globe also brought its views of the first industrial revolution in its wake. Indeed, interpretations of Britain's industrial revolution not only helped shape values and public policies in Britain, but also fostered attitudes toward capitalism and modern industry elsewhere.

In contemporary culture, the often pejorative connotations that the term industrial revolution retains, is a result of artistic, literary and historical interpretation. Many of the artists, poets, essayists, and novelists of early nineteenth century Britain, lamented the momentous changes which the coming of modern industry brought to the landscape, social relations, and the very souls of England's people caught up in its impersonal power. Others were much impressed by humanity's new ability to order nature and to harness its energy for material welfare. Liberals insisted that the well being of the common people was not a matter of "rose covered cottages" but of "steam power and independence." Socialists of the time, as well as subsequent critics of capitalism, have echoed literary critiques of market society and added a thesis of class exploitation. By contrast, modern conservatives have echoed earlier liberal views and protest that society's predilections toward the welfare state and its distrust of capitalism are rooted in a false and unduly pessimistic interpretation of the industrial revolution. Modern scholarship has argued that gender roles have both powerfully influenced the division of labor within industrial society and helped transform family and gender roles. Both advocates and critics of globalization point to Britain's championship of free trade during its industrial hegemony as the beginning of a pervasive international economy. Many modern economic historians have challenged the very idea of a British industrial revolution. Instead, they emphasize the relative slow rate of growth of the British economy during the period, as well as the partial and restricted nature of the its industrial transformation. Despite our embrace of the gospel of economic growth, within contemporary culture the British industrial revolution continues to conjure up a picture of cataclysmic change, dark satanic mills, urban squalor, poverty, greed, and an uncaring government dominated by a class and ideology that put the interests of some individuals before the well-being of the community. How do we explain these very different views?