Economic growth and the industrial revolution

Many historians describe the industrial revolution as a process rather than as an event. The part that exports played can be shown as a virtuous circle:

The economy as a cycle: exports grow; industry grows; business owners invest and look for better machines; machines get better; products get cheaper; exports grow and so on


From 1750 onwards a new industry emerged in Britain - the production of cotton cloth. Wool production had previously been Britain's major industry, but cotton had one key advantage - machinery could process cotton fibres better than wool.

An engraving showing slaves picking cotton on a plantation in North America
Slaves picking cotton

As a result it was in cotton production that the industrial revolution began, particularly in and around Manchester. The cotton used was mostly imported from slave plantations. Slavery provided the raw material for industrial change and growth.

The growth of the Atlantic economy was an integral part of the growth of exports - for example manufactured cotton cloth was exported to Africa.

The Atlantic economy can be seen as the spark for the biggest change in modern economic history. The Atlantic economy in the 1700s was founded on slave labour.

Key features of the Industrial Revolution: introduction of factories and cotton, use of machines, increase in productivity, water and steam power, falling prices

Key features of the industrial revolution included:

  • Products were made in factories instead of at home
  • Workers used machines instead of working by hand
  • The machines were driven by water or steam power
  • One worker could produce much more each day: eg a cotton spinner could spin 200 times as much in 1800 compared to 1700
  • Cotton became Britain's greatest export industry
An engraving showing cotton being spun in a factory
Cotton being spun in a factory