The Industrial Revolution quickly spread from Europe to the United States. By 1900, Russia and Japan had also industrialized. Industrialized nations saw substantial increases in their economic, military, and political power. Countries that failed to industrialize—the majority of most of the world—saw significant decreases in their economic, military, and political influence.
Industrialization first spread from Europe to the United States which helped the United States become a global power by 1900.
America was an early industrializer. Within a few decades of the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, new industrial machines and processes had crossed the Atlantic. The first major industrial areas sprang up in the American northeast. Like in Britain, American industrialization began in textile factories. American entrepreneur Samuel Slater (1768 – 1835) designed America’s earliest water-powered factories after learning how to build them while staying in Britain.
- began in the northeast
- spread west into the northern midwestern states
- failed to expand into the Southern states
- increased slavery in Southern colonies as demand for cotton in textile mills grew.
Why did America successfully industrialize?
A variety of factors led to successful industrialization in the United States.
Natural resources: America had access to the resources necessary for industrialization. The large forests covering much of North America’s eastern and northern regions provided wood for smelting iron and constructing industrial infrastructures like factory buildings, steamboats, and railways. Plentiful coal fields across the Appalachian Mountains fueled steam engines inside factories, steamboats, and trains.
Transportation infrastructure: Early industrialization relied on America’s many waterways for moving people and goods. In the early 19th century, the United States invested in new transportation infrastructure. In 1817, construction began on the Erie Canal, the 363-mile waterway that stretches across New York state, connecting the Hudson River with Lake Erie. By the 1840s, steamboats regularly navigated the Erie Canal and other major American waterways like the Mississippi River. The post-civil war era brought an explosion in railroad transportation. Between 1863 and 1869, workers built the American Transcontinental Railroad, which stretched 1900 miles and connected the eastern and western regions of the country.
Northern elites supported industrialization: The birth of America took place at the same time the industrial revolution was starting, and they are closely tied together. Elites in the American northeast invested in industrial factories because opportunities for profit from agricultural opportunities were far fewer in northern climates. Most profitable cash crops like tobacco were grown further south in warmer climates.
A partnership between the government and business elites: The United States government and the emerging business class had close cooperation—often too close, which resulted in corruption and labor exploitation. The American government helped businesses by enforcing strong patent laws. Business leaders also wanted to keep wages low and used their government connections to get the government to pass laws preventing workers from organizing for better pay and working conditions. Preventing unionization was a common strategy that businesses looked to governments to help them accomplish.
Immigration: For much of the 19th century, America had few restrictions on immigration. Early waves of immigration came from Ireland and other Northern European countries. Later 19th-century waves came more from Eastern and Southern Europe. These open immigration policies helped provide the population growth necessary for urbanization and a low-wage labor force for industrial factories.
The American industrialist class
Industrialization resulted in the rise of a wealthy and politically influential class of business leaders. The legacy of great industrialists is complicated. Whereas some remember them as innovators and dreamers that generated great wealth and power for the United States, others argue their business practices were corrupt, exploited workers, and polluted the environment. As they aged, perhaps to change their reputations, many industrialists donated large sums of money to charitable causes.
Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) was an American businessman who built his wealth in the shipping and railroad businesses. His earliest success was as a steamboat and steamship entrepreneur. He later moved into the railroad business. While he owned several railroads, his best-known railroad was the New York Railroad. Vanderbilt donated 1 million dollars to found Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was a Scottish immigrant to the United States who founded Carnegie Steel. Carnegie’s success came from his mastery of the business process of vertical integration.
- Vertical integration gave Carnegie control over the entire steel production process. He owned the mines that produced the iron ore for making steel and the steamboats and trains used to transport materials to factories and finished products to customers. Ownership over the entire production and delivery process lowered his production costs allowing him to sell his steal cheaper than his rivals.
Carnegie donated money to set up public libraries across the United States. He also donated money for the sounding of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) created the modern American petroleum (oil) industry. At its peak, his company Standard Oil controlled over 90% of America’s petroleum market. Rockefeller also used vertical integration to lower his costs by buying up railroads that he used to transport his oil. Through that practice, Rockefeller also gained control over large portions of the American railroad industry. Rockefeller is one of the wealthiest men in American history. His early 20th-century net worth would now be valued at over 400 billion dollars.
The impacts of industrialization in the United States
By 1900, American industrial production was as large as Great Britain—the world’s superpower at that time. At the end of World War II in 1945, America had taken the top spot and become the world’s largest and most powerful industrial nation.
America became a top producer: Throughout the 19th century, American steel production increased rapidly, allowing mass production of factories, skyscrapers, machines, railroads, ships, and weapons. Consumer culture also grew as the industrial production of consumer goods like textiles and shoes became increasingly affordable.
The United States share of global manufacturing
America became a country of innovation: American industrialists and inventors became global innovators and produced the technologies that dominated the 20th century. Ford of the Ford Car Company created modern assembly line production. Using this process, Ford produced the Model T, the world’s first affordable and commercially successful automobile. American scientists also created revolutionary communication technologies like the telegraph and telephone.
America became the world’s wealthiest society: The Industrial Revolution created enormous economic wealth in the United States. This wealth helped create a new middle class that grew in the 20th century. It also funded social services like universal public education. However, very few people controlled much of America’s new industrial wealth. Most Americans continued to toil in low-wage agriculture, service, or factory work. Only after World War II did America’s industrial success benefit more people.
America became a military superpower: By 1900, America had one of the world’s most modern militaries, allowing it to extend its influence across the Americas and into Asia. During the Spanish-American War, America forced the Spanish out of their last significant areas of influence in the Caribbean. After the Spanish withdrew, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba became spheres of American influence. Across the Pacific Ocean, America used its steam-powered gunboats to force the Japanese government to open its ports to American ships, ending Japan’s 265 years of trade restrictions on outsiders.
Russia and Japan Industrialize
The Russian and Japanese governments began successfully industrializing their societies after military defeats.
Aside from the United States and some European countries, most areas did not industrialize. The small club of industrialized countries didn’t expand until the late 19th century when Russia and Japan successfully industrialized.
The causes of Russian and Japanese industrialization
Military defeats led both Russia and Japan to launch programs of industrialization.
Russian military defeat: Industrialization began after Russia lost the Crimean War (1853-1856) to the Ottoman Empire, which had the support of English and French forces. Russia feared if they did not industrialize, they would fall further behind militarily, leading to the potential military conquest of Russian territories.
Japanese military defeat: Japanese industrialization began after the American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan with a squadron of advanced Naval gunboats. Perry made it clear that, if necessary, he would use force if Japan did not agree to allow American ships to dock in Japanese ports and establish a diplomatic relationship with the United States. Rather than face military defeat, the Japanese Shogun—Japan’s leader at the time—accepted American demands.
State-led industrialization: Russia and Japan wanted to industrialize fast. To quicken the process, their governments began a series of reforms to force industrial changes onto society. Click here for more on state-led industrialization in Russia and Japan.
The effects of Russian and Japanese industrialization
Russia and Japan industrialized successfully. The speed at which they achieved their industrial goals is one of the most remarkable changes in history.
Chaos and revolution in Russia: Rapid industrialization in Russia resulted in massive social upheaval. For one, the benefits of Russian industrialization were controlled by fewer people than in other industrial societies. Working conditions in Russian factories were some of the worst in the world. Conditions were so bad that during World War I, urban Russians revolted, leading to the overthrow of the Russian Czar (emperor) Nicholas II and the execution of him and his whole family by the new communist dictatorship.
The rise of an Asian superpower: Japanese industrialization did not lead to a revolution among the masses. While old elites like the samurai attempted to fight to maintain their privileged positions in Japanese society, by the start of the 20th century, they had been replaced by new elites like merchants, businesspeople, and industrialists. By 1900, Japan had become the only industrialized country in Asia. Its economy rapidly grew as it increased its production of consumer goods like textiles. Japan also used the newest industrial technologies to build one of the world’s best transportation and communications networks.
Most Regions Did Not Industrialize
By 1900, most areas of the world had not industrialized. Some non-colonized nations attempted industrialization with limited success.
Most nations did not industrialize for a variety of reasons.
Colonized countries: Colonizers such as Great Briain and France often had little incentive to help their colonies industrialize. It benefited them more to use colonies as producers of cheap raw materials and as markets to sell finished goods produced in the mother country.
Non-colonized nations: Many non-colonized countries wanted to industrialize—some even tried with varying levels of success. Several factors made industrialization in these economies difficult:
- Lack of financial investment to finance industrialization
- Dependent relationships as raw materials producers to industrialized economies
- Poor government leadership
- Old elite classes resisted any change that might challenge their power.
Failed industrialization in Latin America
Several Latin American countries, including Mexico and Argentina, attempted industrialization. Both countries had limited success.
Social and political instability: Most Latin American societies remained unstable for much of the 19th century. The first three decades of the century were spent fighting independence movements against the Spanish and Portuguese. After those revolutions, conflict often continued. Mexico had to fight a second war with Spain (1821 – 1829), the Texas Revolution (1835 – 1836), and the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848). In 1911, Mexico underwent a second revolution after the people revolted against their dictator, president Porfirio Diaz (1830 -1915), who ruled for 31 years. The conflict lasted ten years and led to the deaths of between 2 and 2.7 million people.
Incompetent leaders: Latin American governments often had poor-quality dictators as leaders. They lacked the skills necessary to manage complex political systems. These leaders placed other people of little skill or competence into positions of political power within government ministries. Many Latin American presidents and ministers were corrupt and stole government money or accepted bribes from powerful business interests to pass laws favorable to their companies. This corruption prevented government investment in activities that would have led to more successful industrialization.
Conservatives resisted change: Conservative elites sometimes resisted industrialization because it did not suit their interests, or they viewed it as a challenge to their future influence. Many of these individuals were wealthy landowners that produced agricultural goods. Also, those that could afford manufactured goods could have them imported. They pressured their government to support free trading policies with industrial economies so that they could easily export their agricultural products and import industrial goods. These free trade policies made it difficult for places like Argentina, which attempted to industrialize, to produce goods at competitive prices.