The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions

The Industrial Revolution: The Transportation Revolution


The Industrial Revolution is recognized as the beginning of modern, Western culture. Characterized by improved technology and the rise of factories, it created a profound impact not only in England, where it began but also across much of western Europe and North America. One of the hallmarks of the Industrial Revolution is the "Transportation Revolution" which saw the mass development of canals and railways.

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the technology of the Transportation Revolution
  • Evaluate how technological developments affected British society


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Canal: human-made waterway used as a primary mode of transportation in the early years of the Industrial Revolution  

Steam Locomotive: rail vehicle that emerged as the most efficient and prominent form of transportation in England during the Industrial Revolution 

Salamanca: First successful steam locomotive




As enclosure deprived many of access to land or left farmers with plots too small and of poor quality, increasing numbers of workers had no choice but migrate to the city. 

While the improved agricultural productivity freed up workers to other sectors of the economy, it took decades of the Industrial Revolution and industrial development to trigger a truly mass rural-to-urban labor migration. As food supplies increased and stabilized and industrialized centers moved into place, cities began to support larger populations, sparking the beginning of rural flight on a massive scale.  The development and advancement of tools and machines decreased the demand for rural labor. That together with increasingly restricted access to land forced many rural workers to migrate to cities, eventually supplying the labor demand created by the Industrial Revolution. 


The Canals


The British canal system of water transport played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution at a time when roads were only just emerging from the medieval mud and long trains of packhorses were the only means of more easily accessible transit of raw materials and finished products. The building of canals dates to ancient times, but in Britain, the modern canal network came into being because the Industrial Revolution demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities.  


Eighteenth-nineteenth century canal boat
Eighteenth-nineteenth century canal boat. 


Big canals began to be built in the 18th century to link the major manufacturing centers across the country. Known for its huge commercial success, the Bridgewater Canal in northwest England opened in 1761. The Bridgewater Canal is often considered to be the first “true” canal in England. Its success helped inspire a period of intense canal building in Britain, known as Canal Mania.

By the 1820s a national canal network—the first in the world—was in existence. The system proved highly successful. The canal boats could carry thirty tons at a time with only one horse pulling, which was more than ten times the amount of cargo per horse that was possible with a cart. It was this huge increase in supply that contributed to the reduction of the price of coal.

The last major canal to be built in Britain was the Manchester Ship Canal, which upon opening in 1894 was the largest ship canal in the world and opened Manchester as a port. However, it never achieved the commercial success its sponsors had hoped for and signaled that canals were a dying mode of transport. From about 1840, railways began to threaten canals. They could not only carry more than the canals but also could transport people and goods far more quickly than the walking pace of the canal boats. Most of the investment that had previously gone into canal building was diverted into railway building. 


The First Locomotives and Early Railways


As a result of advancements in metallurgy and steam power technology during the Industrial Revolution, horse-drawn wagonways were replaced by steam locomotives, making Britain the first country in the world with modern railways.


Steam Locomotives


The first commercially successful steam locomotive was the twin-cylinder Salamanca, designed by in 1812 by Matthew Murray using John Blenkinsop’s patented design for rack propulsion for the Middleton Railway. Blenkinsop believed that a locomotive light enough to move under its own power would be too light to generate sufficient adhesion, so he designed a rack-and-pinion railway for the line. 

In 1821 an Act of Parliament was approved for a tramway between Stockton and Darlington. It opened in 1825. The first train was hauled by Stephenson’s locomotive at speeds of 12 to 15 miles per hour. Four locomotives were constructed and were effectively beam engines on wheels with vertical cylinders. 




The development of the railways, starting in the 1830s, transformed the economy and society by creating powerful railway companies, attracting massive investments, advancing industries, transforming human migration patterns, and even changing people’s daily diet.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), which opened in 1830 between the Lancashire towns of Liverpool and Manchester, was not the first railway; it was, however, the first one to rely exclusively on steam power, with no horse-drawn traffic permitted at any time; the first to be entirely double track throughout its length; the first to have a signaling system; the first to be fully timetabled; the first to be powered entirely by its own motive power; and the first to carry mail. As such, it revolutionized transportation and paved the way for the phenomenal development of railways that would soon take over the world. 


Black and white photograph of an early steam engine on the L & MR Railway.
Steam Engine Victoria on the L & MR Railway.


All the railways were promoted by commercial interests. Railway directors often had important political and social connections and used them to their companies’ advantages. Furthermore, aristocrats with established connections in London were especially welcome on the corporate boards. The aristocrats saw railway directorships as a socially acceptable form of contact with the world of commerce and industry. 

The railways had a sizable impact on many spheres of economic activity. The building of railways and locomotives, for example, called for large quantities of heavy materials and thus provided significant stimulus to the coal mining, iron-production, engineering, and construction industries. The railways also helped reduce transaction costs, which in turn lowered the costs of goods. The distribution and sale of perishable goods, such as meat, milk, fish, and vegetables, was transformed; this gave rise not only to cheaper products in the stores but also to far greater variety in people’s diets.

The railways were also a significant force for the changing patterns of human mobility. Rail transport had originally been conceived as a way of moving coal and industrial goods, but the railway operators quickly realized the potential for market for railway travel, leading to an extremely rapid expansion in passenger services. The number of railway passengers tripled in just eight years between 1842 and 1850. Traffic volumes roughly doubled in the 1850s and then doubled again in the 1860s. In the words of historian Derek Aldcroft, “In terms of mobility and choice [the railways] added a new dimension to everyday life.”

The legacy of Railway Mania can still be seen today with the duplication of some routes and cities possessing several stations on the same or different lines, sometimes with no direct connection between them. The best example of this is London, which has no fewer than twelve main line terminal stations, serving its dense and complex suburban network; this is basically the result of the many railway companies that were competing to run their routes in the capital during the mania.