There was a 40 year gap between the two revolutions. Ending in 1830 and starting in 1870. However, why did historians distinguish two revolutions, instead of merging them together?

First Industrial Revolution - 1760 - 1830

  • Started in Europe
  • The start of new technology
    • Steam engines
    • Textile production
    • Mass iron production

Second Industrial Revolution - 1870 - 1914

  • Also started in Europe
  • Saw improvements of technology, along with new ones
    • Improved metal works - steel was mass produced
    • New usage of petroleum/oil
    • Invention and widespread use of electricity

Those were the main revolutions, however, many of the technologies in the second revolution were constantly being developed between the two time periods. Take the iron furnace for example. First it started off as a blast furnace, but then over time, it evolved into a more efficient method, using advanced purifying techniques, and regenerative cooling.

Another example could be synthetic dye - developed din 1850.

And that's only a few examples of how technology developed during the 40 year period.

So why do historians label two revolutions instead of one?

So why the two? Why not just one?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – MCW
    Dec 19, 2019 at 12:37
  • The longer I think about this question, the more I like it. I still wish the historians were mentioned.
    – MCW
    Dec 24, 2019 at 14:38
  • @MarkC.Wallace But don't practically all historians distinguish two separate revolutions?
    – user41226
    Dec 24, 2019 at 19:15

5 Answers 5


Why do historians distinguish two Industrial revolutions, instead of just one?

We are actually entering into the 4th Industrial revolution.

The first industrial revolution was defined by new ideas on how to organize labor which had a profound effect on manufacturing efficiency.

division of labor -> productivity -> trade -> need for free markets -> new ideas on how nations measure wealth and handle industrial competition.

Rather than have an individual master craftsman produce a product, production was broken down into component tasks and then specialized labor was employed to perform each sub-task in tandem. Wages went down. skill of workers went down. efficiency went up by orders of magnitude. This upended the old master apprentice guilds and turned manufacturing from a subsistence endeavor into one which commanded great wealth for the owner of the now concentrated manufacturing endeavor. Now instead of each town requiring a specialized craftsman to produce a widget a single town employing largely unskilled/ or lower skilled workers could provide all the widgets a town, country, or multiple countries would require. Leading to the need for increased international trade and new beliefs on how countries should react to foreign manufacturing displacing local production (free markets)...

During this time Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations**, basically creating the field of economics, documenting the lessons learned from this, the first Industrial revolution.

The Wealth of Nations or An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

  • Book I: Of the Causes of Improvement in the productive Powers of Labour
  • Book II: Of the Nature, Accumulation, and Employment of Stock
  • Book III: Of the different Progress of Opulence in different Nations
    • Long-term economic growth
    • Agricultural jobs
  • Book IV: Of Systems of political Economy
  • Book V: Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth

Many different lessons but the one which is important for this question is that wealth of a nation was not defined by how much gold they possessed but rather what they manufactured. Wealth and prosperity Smith said was dependent on how a country spent the profits from the new more efficient manufacturing processes. Countries which were able to re-invest their profits into continuously improving their manufacturing would grow, those which did not would fall behind those who did, loose market share, and ultimately be replaced. So from this (Adam Smith's 1776 perspective) all 4 industrial revolutions are natural progressions of the first. All falling out of Smith's idea on constantly increasing production, or THE Industrial Revolution.

The case for breaking them apart is made following the same rational for naming the first. When a new technology or idea dramatically changes manufacturing we deem it a new Industrial Revolution, as specialization of labor and continuous improving of manufacturing first dramatically changed manufacturing efficiency in the 18th century. Jobs change, architecture change, labor patterns the entire fabric of industrialized countries change.

What were these other re-ordering technologies/ideas?

The Second Industrial Revolution is defined by automation and steel. Automation by incorporating new energy sources such as coal and electricity which were more efficient and less labor intensive than wood. Energy for manufacturing production became more efficient, portable, cheaper, and scale-able. These new industrial energy sources along with the Bessemer process (patented 1856) for manufacturing steel is what defines the second Industrial Revolution. The Bessemer process was the first industrial process for manufacturing steel. It did for steel what the first Industrial Revolution did for other products. Making steel cheap, plentiful and more widely used throughout the economy. This allowed stronger lighter steel to replace iron in manufacturing. Fueled new architectures (taller buildings / high rises, even sky scrappers), equipment and technologies. Faster lighter trains, safer stronger bridges, etc..

Andrew Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company began the Eads Bridge in 1867 in St. Louis (completed in 1874). It would be the first bridge across the Mississippi River. Due to the swift currents and the width of the river an iron bridge was unsuitable for this task. Andrew Carnegie utilized the Bessemer Process in order to manufacture enough steel for the job. Within two decades from completing the bridge the United States displaced the U.K. as the world's largest steel producer.

Eads Bridge This was the first large-scale application of steel as a structural material and initiated the shift from wrought-iron to steel as the default material for large structures.


Andrew Carnegie
By 1889, the U.S. output of steel exceeded that of the UK, and Carnegie owned a large part of it.

The Third Industrial Revolution - had to do with the information age. how computer technology converged with new energy ideas, mainly, renewable electricity dramatically increased productivity and digitize the economy.

The fourth Industrial Revolution which we're entering into now has to do with further networking computers and improvements to automation which will fall out of this. The internet of things and how everything is going to change when everything is connected, automated, and able to independently observe events, report to the collective, and react.

All of these revolutions the first and most famous, the second, and the lesser known and third and forth share the common observed effect of dramatically transforming the economy, jobs, and manufacturing. They all have to do with the all consuming task of continuously improving and refining manufacturing and the pursuit of new ideas and technologies which Adam smith first observed as having originated with the first.


It's a matter of definitions, NOT of lack of progress. There was plenty of practical advancement in the 1850s and 1860s. Railroad and telegraph became sufficiently widespread to be useful or even decisive in wars, including both the US Civil War and the Austro-Prussian War. Major urban modernization occurred in cities like Paris, Madrid, and Vienna. John Snow and Florence Nightingale made the first massive contributions of statistics applied to public health and to healthcare. (Frankly, there's a direct line from Snow's connection of cholera with water supply and Nightingale's work on hospital sanitation in the mid-19th century to Gossett's and Deming's industrial quality control practices in the 20th century.)

In fact, much of the advancement, especially in urban modernization, was a direct result of the 1848 revolutions, which led to more forward-looking governments in many countries. So I would take issue with the idea that 1848 halted progress.

But if you want to define the second revolution as electricity and steel, as many do, it doesn't quite fit. However, given the spread of innovations like rail and telegraph in the 1830-1870 period, as well as the continued spread of mass production to more milieu, I think it's a mistake to leave a gap, and we should call 1760-1870 the First Industrial Revolution.

  • This is a good answer, and at least one of the others is good, also. But there an important sociological factor as well that needs to be considered: Academics advance by saying something new. When you have many centuries of continuous change, you don't get tenure by saying. "Yup. My predecessors were right." You get tenure by writing papers showing that it's more complicated than that and by dissecting history into smaller pieces. Historian, like any other academics, have an incentive to subdivide. (And of course the everlasting war between the lumpers and the splitters also plays a role.)
    – Mark Olson
    Dec 26, 2019 at 17:06
  • @MarkOlson I have no problem with dividing the Industrial Revolution. In fact I think it's quite useful. All I object to is leaving the impression that nothing changed between 1830 and 1870 when that was in fact a period of rapid change. I didn't even touch on central and eastern Europe, where those changes were, if anything, larger.
    – C Monsour
    Dec 26, 2019 at 17:36
  • @C Monsour OK. That sort of analysis certainly helps us understand what happened. For myself, I see it as more productive to consider a continuous (though accelerating) process dating back centuries. But there's room for both: both can help us better understand what happened. (I also think our understanding is improved by remembering that historians -- like all of us -- are people and have many motivations, only some of which are purely intellectual. Mr. Spock we aren't.)
    – Mark Olson
    Dec 26, 2019 at 18:42

The answer is right in your question - because there was a substantial time gap between the two.

Historians name the subjects of their study in order to ease communication. When you have two periods of great change separated in time by a period almost as long as the periods themselves, the working assumption is that the two will have attributes that make them distinct. This is borne out by the fact that very different technologies are the hallmark of the two periods (as again noted in your question text). Hence two names, for two very distinct and easily identified periods.

Further - the two periods are distinguished because they occur at two distinct and separated periods of time, and involve different technologies. They are quite different.

The biggest thing they have in common is that historians have termed them both as "industrial revolutions" - in English at least.


Eric Hobsbawm termed this period The Age of Capital, in a book of the same name.

In the wake of the French Revolution & the Industrial Revolution, Europe underwent another revolution--this time a revolution of values. The author examines the rise of industrial capitalism and the consolidation of bourgeois culture, exploring the effects of mounting concentration of wealth, population migrations, and the domination of European culture. Integrating economics with political and intellectual developments, this account studies the cycles of boom & slump that characterize capitalist economies, of the victims & victors of the bourgeois ethos.

There were major conflicts during this period including the first true industrial war, the American Civil War, which was a precursor to the total wars in the 20th Century.

Society had to adapt, or be adapted, to the new technologies.


Note: This is a response to the question before it was edited.

These decades in Europe were characterized by the unification of the Holy Roman Empire by Prussia. This occurred primarily in the 1860's, and was followed by a confrontation between France and Prussia. The rapid build up steel artillery by Prussia in the late 1860's allowed for the crushing defeat of the French at Sedan (1870), and set the stage for a German hegemony in continental Europe.

The British government in India was established in 1858. The United States was forcibly made into a nation by the 14th amendment.

In Europe, the period was fraught with disputes over labor and capitol. These culminated in the riots of 1848, which caused massive instability in Europe.

  • So conflict in a way distracted the development and progress of Europe?
    – user41226
    Dec 17, 2019 at 2:09
  • I was thinking about adding that to my answer now!
    – John Dee
    Dec 17, 2019 at 2:10
  • Could you just clarify, how did British Imperialism in India hinder the effects of development?
    – user41226
    Dec 17, 2019 at 2:14
  • Moved it to chat.
    – John Dee
    Dec 17, 2019 at 3:08
  • 1
    This is way too simplistic to be of any use. The Holy Roman Empire disappeared in 1806, not in 1870. What Prussia achieved is not the unification of the Holy Roman Empire but the final step of its dissolution and replacement by nation states. German unification was not followed by confrontation with France but achieved through confrontations with Denmark, Austria and France and only completed at the end of (and not prior to) the war of 1870.
    – Relaxed
    Dec 19, 2019 at 21:25

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