An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: the Industrial Revolution

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers the Industrial Revolution.


I

The Industrial Revolution

E. H. Gombrich: Mastering the mathematics of nature enabled people not only to understand the forces of nature, but to use them. And they were now harnessed and put to work for mankind.

The steam engine came first. In 1769 a Scottish engineer named James Watt patented a proper steam engine. At first the engine was mainly used to pump water out of mines, but people soon saw the possibility of using it to drive carriages or ships. At about the same time attempts were also being made in England to propel vehicles using steam. In 1814 George Stephenson built the first effective steam locomotive and in 1825 the first railway line was opened between the towns of Stockton and Darlington. Within thirty years there were railway lines all over Britain, America, throughout almost all of Europe, and in India. These lines went over mountains, through tunnels and over great rivers, and carried people at least ten times as quickly as the fastest stagecoach.

It was much the same with the invention of the electric telegraph, the only means of rapid communication before the telephone. In 1837 an American artist called Samuel Morse succeeded in sending a short telegram to his friends. Once again, hardly more than ten years had passed before use of the telegraph was widespread.

‘All of these developments produced a tremendous upheaval in people’s lives. Everything was turned upside-down and hardly anything stayed where it had been.’

However, other machines changed the world even more profoundly. These were the machines that made user of the forces of nature instead of manpower. Take spinning and weaving, for example – work that had always been done by artisans. When the demand for cloth increased (around the time of Louis XIV), factories already existed, but the work was done by hand. It took a while for people to realise that their new knowledge of nature could be applied to the production of cloth. The dates are much the same as those of the other great inventions. People were experimenting with various sorts of spinning machines from 1740 onwards. The mechanical loom was introduced at about the same time. And again, it was in England that these machines were first made and used. Machines and factories needed coal and iron, so countries which had their own coal and iron were at a great advantage.

All of these developments produced a tremendous upheaval in people’s lives. Everything was turned upside-down and hardly anything stayed where it had been.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about the Industrial Revolution

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use (some for a limited time only, during the COVID-19 pandemic).

BBC Bitesize (KS2)
Victorians class clips (videos)

BBC Bitesize (KS3)
The Industrial Revolution

BBC History
All Change in the Victorian Age – Bruce Robinson
The Workshop of the World – Professor Pat Hudson
Who Wants to Be a Cotton Millionaire? (game)

BBC Teach
Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here – Professor Jeremy Black (videos)
The Industrial Revolution – Andrew Marr (video)

BBC In Our Time
The Industrial Revolution
Consequences of the Industrial Revolution

History.com
The Industrial Revolution (articles and video)  

Ducksters Education Site
Specifically for younger students: more information on the Industrial Revolution in the United States  

Khan Academy
Various resources

The Yale Blog
‘Hell Upon Earth’? The True Nature of the Victorian City – Emma Griffin

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

The Little Histories are vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike. Inspiring and entertaining, each short book lays out our greatest subjects in deceptively simple, engaging tones. With charming and personal insights each expert gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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