‘The Industrial Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’ by Robert C Allen

From British feudalism to the Internet of Things, this concise analysis of the Industrial Revolution provides the perfect introduction to one of the most complex times in human history.


Look back at the work of any 16th century painter and you will see a life very different to that we live today. Streets were strewn with farm animals and bore witness to all manner of slaughtering, plucking, sheering and bathing alongside horse drawn carts transporting livestock, cloth and grain – a food economy if ever there was one. The land was central to life, with arable plots taken up by livestock and agricultural farming, while towns and cities blossomed along riversides. Craftsmen, placed by the water’s edge for trade, would carve, sand and smooth their wares from metal and wood using hardy hand tools, before selling their goods in local markets. Homes were heated, and food cooked, using wood fires and charcoal, and sanitation left much to be desired.

Fast forward to today and life has moved on somewhat. Hand tools are relegated to those who enjoy gardening and crafts, with production carried out in connected factories, assisted by robotics and autonomous systems. Our houses are heated with oil, gas or renewable sources, and come complete with electric lighting and pristine running water. Most people now live within the confines of the city, which in themselves are vast and busy, with buildings stretching up and out as far as the eye can see. Areas of countryside, rather than offering the gift of life themselves, are set aside for those wishing to ‘reconnect’ with nature and escape the hectic urban life.

So how did we get from one to the other?

The answer lies in the Industrial Revolution, a decisive journey that occurred halfway between life depicted in oil works of the 1500s and today. In this latest Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press, author Robert C. Allen traces the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution to the humble shores of the British Isles, and analyses the wider global effect of the two centuries of industrial development which helped to shape the course of recent history.

It is a tumultuous story that begins, as with this review, with the wholesome lives of aristocrats, tradesman and labourers in 16th century Britain, where seeds of revolution were sown long before the first cogs of the industrial machine began to turn. The years that followed were a turbulent time, filled with growth, but also contradiction. Alongside the progression man made, was life rife with poverty, unemployment, squalid housing, pollution and protest.

In just over 100 pages, Allen crams 500 years of human development and clears up any uncertainties one might have as to the roots, development and consequences of this Revolution. Despite developments around the world, it was Britain that first saw the ripples of industrialisation, which Allen traces from the English Channel, undulating out into mainland Europe and beyond.

‘The Industrial Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’ is a wonderfully accessible introduction to an incredibly complex period of human history. The revolution itself was made from simultaneous developments across trade, commerce, agriculture, mechanics and economics, and so this introduction, far from being just about the rise of industry, takes into account a breathtaking array of subject matter, but does so within the most manageable of formats. Allen has created another truly fantastic edition to the Very Short Introduction series. This book would make a wonderful addition to any bibliophile’s collection, but would be most ideally suited for those with an interest in industry, British history or international development.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

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