The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions

The Industrial Revolution: The Factory System and Technology


The Factory System, a system of mechanized workers and innovative technology, remains prominent in the memory of the Industrial Revolution. This development transformed British society and much of the western world. No longer was England a quiet, rural society. With the rise of the factory system, England emerged as an urbanized society.


Learning Objectives

  • Examine the development of the factory system and technology
  • Evaluate the pros and cons of the factory system for different classes


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Textile: cloth products produced through weaving, knitting, and crocheting 

putting-out system: nineteenth-century way to subcontract labor

spinning jenny: multi-spindle spinning frame used widely in the Industrial Revolution 

Richard Arkwright: English inventor who developed the spinning frame, water frame, and often called the “Father” of the Factory System 

flying shuttle: device that allows for faster, wider weaving 

James Hargreaves: English inventor of the spinning jenny 

James Watt: Successful inventor of the steam engine

Eli Whitney: inventor of the cotton gin

Calico Acts: series of nineteenth-century English laws prohibiting the importation of cotton products and restricting their sale

Factory System: a system of labor that divides labor sources and uses machinery extensively 

Truck System: A system in the early part of the Industrial Revolution that forced workers to accept wages in-kind


Early British Textile Industry


The British textile industry drove the Industrial Revolution, triggering advancements in technology, stimulating the coal and iron industries, boosting raw material imports, and improving transportation, which made Britain the global leader of industrialization, trade, and scientific innovation.


Pre-Industrial Textile Industry


In the early 18th century, the British government passed two Calico Acts to protect the domestic wool industry from the increasing amounts of cotton fabric imported from its competitors in India. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, spinning and weaving were still done in households, for domestic consumption, and as a cottage industry. Occasionally the work was done in the workshop of a master weaver. Under the putting-out system, home-based workers produced under contract to merchant sellers, who often supplied the raw materials. In the off-season the women, typically farmers’ wives, did the spinning and the men did the weaving. Using the spinning wheel, it took anywhere from four to eight spinners to supply one handloom weaver.


Industrial Revolution and Textiles


Textiles have been identified as the catalyst of technological changes. The application of steam power stimulated the demand for coal. The demand for machinery and rails stimulated the iron industry. The demand for transportation to move raw material in and finished products out stimulated the growth of the canal system, and (after 1830) the railway system. The introduction of steam power fueled primarily by coal, wider utilization of water wheels, and powered machinery in textile manufacturing underpinned the dramatic increases in production capacity. The development of all-metal machine tools in the first two decades of the 19th century facilitated the manufacture of more production machines for manufacturing in other industries. The effects spread throughout Western Europe and North America during the 19th century, eventually affecting most of the world.

The invention of the flying shuttle by John Kay enabled wider cloth to be woven faster and created a demand for yarn that could not be fulfilled. Thus, the major technological advances associated with the Industrial Revolution were concerned with spinning. James Hargreaves created the spinning jenny, a device operated by hand that could perform the work of a number of spinning wheels. However, Richard Arkwright invented the water frame,  which could be powered by the water wheel. Arkwright is credited with the widespread introduction of the factory system in Britain and is the first example of a successful mill owner and industrialist in British history. The water frame was, however, soon supplanted by the spinning mule (a cross between a water frame and a jenny) invented by Samuel Crompton. Mules were later constructed in iron.


Illustration of nineteenth-century spinning jenny.


The steam engine was invented and became a power supply that soon surpassed waterfalls and horsepower. The first practicable steam engine was invented by Thomas Newcomen and was used for pumping water out of mines. A much more powerful steam engine was invented by James Watt. It had a reciprocating engine capable of powering machinery. The first steam-driven textile mills began to appear in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, greatly contributing to the appearance and rapid growth of industrial towns.

The progress of the textile trade soon outstripped the original supplies of raw materials. By the turn of the nineteenth century, imported American cotton had replaced wool in northwest England, although wool remained the chief textile in Yorkshire.

Such an unprecedented degree of economic growth was not sustained by domestic demand alone. The application of technology and the factory system created the levels of mass production and cost efficiency that enabled British manufacturers to export inexpensive cloth and other items worldwide. Britain’s position as the world’s preeminent trader helped fund research and experimentation. Further, some have stressed the importance of natural or financial resources that Britain received from its many overseas colonies or that profits from the British slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean helped fuel industrial investment.

The British textile industry triggered tremendous scientific innovation, resulting in such key inventions as the flying shuttle, spinning jenny, water frame, and spinning mule. These greatly improved productivity and drove further technological advancements that turned textiles into a fully mechanized industry.


Early Developments


During the second half of the seventeenth century, the newly established factories of the East India Company in South Asia started to produce finished cotton goods in quantity for the UK market. The imported calico and chintz garments competed with and acted as a substitute for indigenous wool and linen produce. That resulted in local weavers, spinners, dyers, shepherds, and farmers petitioning the Parliament to request a ban on the import and later the sale of woven cotton goods. They eventually achieved their goal via the 1700 and 1721 Calico Acts. The acts banned the import and later the sale of finished pure cotton products, but they did not restrict the importation of raw cotton or the sale or production of fustian (a cloth with flax warp and cotton weft).


Mechanization of the Textile Industry


With Cartwright’s loom, the spinning mule, and Boulton and Watt’s steam engine, the pieces were in place to build a mechanized textile industry. From this point there were no new inventions, but there was a continuous improvement in technology as the mill-owner strove to reduce cost and improve quality.

Developments in the transport infrastructure such as the canals and, after 1830, the railways, facilitated the import of raw materials and export of finished cloth.


Export Technology


While profiting from expertise arriving from overseas, Britain was very protective of home-grown technology. Engineers with skills in constructing the textile mills and machinery were not permitted to emigrate—particularly to fledgling America. However, Samuel Slater, an engineer who had worked as an apprentice to Arkwright’s partner Jedediah Strutt, evaded the ban. In 1789, he took his skills in designing and constructing factories to New England and was soon engaged in reproducing the textile mills that helped America with its own industrial revolution. Local inventions followed. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented and patented the cotton gin, which sped up the processing of raw cotton by over 50 times. With a cotton gin a man could remove seed from as much upland cotton in one day as would have previously taken a woman working two months to process at one pound per day.


The Factory System


The factory system, fueled by technological progress, made production much faster, cheaper, and more uniform, but it also disconnected the workers from the means of production and placed them under the control of powerful industrialists.


Growth of Factories


The factory system began to grow rapidly when cotton spinning was mechanized. Richard Arkwright is credited with inventing the prototype of the modern factory. After he patented his water frame in 1769, he established Cromford Mill in Derbyshire, England, significantly expanding the village of Cromford to accommodate the migrant workers new to the area.


Interior of a flax mill, circa 1800.


Between 1820 and 1850, mechanized factories supplanted traditional artisan shops as the predominant form of manufacturing institution, because the larger-scale factories enjoyed a significant technological advantage over the small artisan shops. The earliest factories under the factory system developed in the cotton and wool textiles industry. Later generations of factories included mechanized shoe production and manufacturing of machinery, including machine tools. Factories that supplied the railroad industry included rolling mills, foundries, and locomotive works. Agricultural-equipment factories produced cast-steel plows and reapers. Bicycles were mass-produced beginning in the 1880s.


Characteristics of the Factory System


The factory system, considered a capitalist form of production, differs dramatically from the earlier systems of production. First, the labor generally does not own a significant share of the enterprise. The capitalist owners provide all machinery, buildings, management and administration, and raw or semi-finished materials; additionally, owners are responsible for the sale of all products, as well as any resulting losses. The cost and complexity of machinery, especially that powered by water or steam, was more than cottage industry workers could afford or had the skills to maintain. Second, production relies on unskilled labor. Before the factory system, skilled craftsmen would usually custom-make an entire article. In contrast, factories practiced division of labor, in which most workers were either low-skilled laborers who tended or operated machinery, or unskilled laborers who moved materials and semi-finished and finished goods. Third, factories produced products on a much larger scale than in either the putting-out or crafts systems.

The factory system also made the location of production much more flexible. Before the widespread use of steam engines and railroads, most factories were located at waterpower sites and near water transportation. When railroads became widespread, factories could be located away from waterpower sites but nearer railroads. Workers and machines were brought together in a central factory complex. Although the earliest factories were usually all under one roof, different operations were sometimes on different floors. Further, machinery made it possible to produce precisely uniform components.

Workers were paid either daily wages or for piece work, either in the form of money or some combination of money, housing, meals, and goods from a company store. This process was called the truck system.