Technological Advancements During the 18th Century of the British Empire


The British Empire was a vast empire that lasted for over half a millennium. Over the centuries, there were factors that affected the development in the acquisition, running and dissolution of the Empire which were social, political, economical and technological in nature. The rise and continued growth of the Empire had a significant impact on the Britons and the rest of the world since there was the connection between most parts of the world that had never existed before. It provided new opportunities and markets to the rest of the world which brought about alliances and enemity among the people. The Empire was not an isolated island, it rather took ideas from the rest of Europe and the world.

The Empire was a collection of colonies who after some time began to make important contributions to the field of science and technology.

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Technological enhancement which later came to be known as industrial revolution occurred between the late 1700s and early 1900s changed the political status of the British Empire. It was characterized by introduction of machines to replace the human and animal labour. The inventions made work easier and resulted in fast and efficient manufacturing of products. The revolution led to increased food production, increased trade, and increased money supply in the market among others.

The textile industry in Britain was responsible for initiating the industrial revolution in Britain. Previously, people used to make clothes by hand which required a lot of skill but as the population grew due to increased production in food among other things, the need for clothes tremendously increased. Cotton was responsible for the revolution in Britain as it led the shift into the factory-based system as opposed to the domestic production. The first textile industry in Britain was for silk production which never grew fast because silk was very expensive. Since Britain never grew any cotton because of the unfavorable weather conditions, it started importing it from India and the United States of America.


Textile Industry

In 1733, the Flying Shuttle, a weaving machine, was invented by James Kay which replaced the hand loom. It was not until after many years later after this improvement that it made the production easier and faster. Over the years, spinning technology was introduced and the Spinning Jenny was invented in 1764 by James Hargreaves. It increased the work production by eight times and this was because it could be operated by unskilled workers. It is good to note that invention came combined with retrenchment of human labour since the work was to be done by the machine and people went ahead to destroy some of Spinning Jenny machines invented.

The machines were powered by human muscle hence the need to invent a system where they could be powered by more efficient source of energy. In 1769, water frame was invented which could hook up a new spinning machine to a water wheel. It spun high quality thread cheaply and better compared to those span by human hand. The machine grew popular and it was extensively used as parliament enacted laws to protect the English Textile Industry.

In 1774 Spinning Mule was invented by Samuel Crompton which combined both the weaving and spinning processes into the machine. It had two sides whereby one would produce cloth after raw cotton had been inserted on one end. This invention made the textile industry in Britain be the biggest in the world such that they had to employ very young children. In 1785 the Power Loom was invented by Edmund Cartwright which was powered by steam. It was not widely used until after 1800.

The inventors of these technologies became very wealthy and controlled a huge chunk of the economy as the growth in the textile industry led to growth in other industries.

The Iron Industry

Iron was used to make various things like agricultural tools, nails, bolts, chains and locks among others. During industrial revolution, the people sought to come up with a way of reducing the impurities in the iron and making it cheap and readily available and enhance the process of making the iron.

In 1785, Henry Cort came up with a new process of refining the iron which he called “puddling and rolling”. The method made the iron stronger and easily affordable and as a result it made the iron industry become the biggest in the world hence stopped importing iron from Northern Europe. The “new” refined iron was used to make construction tools, railroads and steam engines.

Steam Engine

As discussed earlier, steam engine was the power behind most textile machines. It marked the transition from the use of human labour force to the use of machines and it also revolutionized the transportation industry.

For many years, wood was used as fuel to heat and also as construction material in ships. This led to the dilapidation of forests in England. They were changed to coal which suffered the same fate as the woods. The mine shafts and pits would be filled with water which would later flood them and it was a very big hustle to drain the water. In 1708, Thomas Newcomen developed a simple Steam Engine that was used to pump out water out of the coal mines. It was very slow hence not efficient.

In the 1760s James Watt sought to improve the engine by introducing a piston that needed to operate while it was hot and cold which was a very hard state to achieve. How the piston worked resulted into a waste of energy and time. After a few years Watt discovered he could put a separate permanent condenser that would always be cold and the piston would remain hot and in 1769, he put the idea into practice and patented it. He partnered with Soho, a manufacturer of jewellery, to improve his idea which became the engine four times faster than the Newcomen’s. He continued to improve it over the years.

The steam engine was being perfected at the same time when textiles and iron industry were growing.

The Factory

In 1719, John Lombe built a factory near the river in order to use a water wheel to power the machines. This is after he travelled to Italy and stole their design of the machines that spun and wove the silk. As discussed earlier, silk was a luxury item that most people could not afford, but the invention was used later in revolutionizing the textile industry.

As discussed, most textile factories used cotton as the raw material since it was cheap. The first cotton factory was built near the river in order to ensure there was consistent rotating power for the inventions which would be provided by the water wheel. The invention of steam engine meant that factories did not have to be built near rivers anymore. Large buildings had to be built to accommodate the size of the steam engines and as a result, workers congregated near the factories to look for work hence forming communities and towns.

The introduction and growth of factories led to specialization of labour. This was as a result of division of labour whereby most manufacturing tasks were divided among the human resource. The continuous performance of a task led to job specialization which improved the work productivity and efficiency.


Before the Industrial Revolution, there were only two means of transport which were walking or the use of horses. The steam engine revolutionized the transport industry as it would be used in locomotives where the railway connected to an iron pit or a coal mine.

In 1801, Trevithick Richard invented the first steam-powered locomotive which travelled the down street of Camborne England. The locomotive got destroyed by fire but later the inventor was lucky when a nine mile railway was built and his locomotive which carried seventy passengers travelled on the rail at 5 miles per hour.

George Stephenson was an illiterate worker who worked in the coal mines, he taught himself basic engineering until he rose to the ranks and was put in charge of steam engine operations. He sought to on Trevithick invention thus in 1816 he patented a steam engine locomotive and iron rails. Due to the growth in textile industry and the need to transport cotton and cloth, in 1825 Stephenson was contracted to construct a railway line from Liverpool to Manchester.

In 1829, George and his son Robert came up with an invention which they named the Rocket. This was a locomotive which used a horse trotting a treadmill attached to a car which was the fastest locomotive at the time. It travelled at twenty nine miles per hour.

The invention of the Rocket had incorporated a lot of technology. There had been the original locomotive, iron refining process and the steam engine all of which would not have occurred were it not for the growth in textile industry. The railways enhanced transport, which means there was increased trade between England and other countries which resulted into growth of the British Empire.

Capitalism: Free Market

During the industrial revolution, the feudal system was eroded and there was introduction of the free market. This was also aided by the financial inventions such as national banks and stock markets. The free market is a situation whereby buyers and sellers voluntarily and freely trade in goods and services without interference from the market. Free market encourages creativity and innovation and high quality products because the competition is very high.

The government has little or no interference in the free market since its work is to protect the citizens and provide security and improve infrastructure. The private sector has a major role to play as it is charged with the duty of providing healthcare, retirement benefits, education and other social amenities.

The idea of capitalism was bred during the Industrial Revolution. As discussed earlier, the inventors and innovators came up with the inventions to improve the lives of the society and while at it, make some profits. This was evidenced by the fact that they even went ahead to patent their inventions to ensure that they got royalties in case one used the inventions. The free market encouraged competition hence high quality and low prices.


Under this subtopic, we are going to examine and discuss the impacts that the technological advancement had on the society, whether positive or negative. Did the invention of the steam engines and the building of factories economically improve the lives of the people or not? What was the impact on the labour force especially when it came to young labour? These and other questions are going to be tackled in the various subtopics below.