The Industrial Revolution began in England, which was by 1750, one of the wealthiest nations in the world and controlled an empire that covered one-quarter of the world’s landmass. It started with England’s textile industry, which was struggling to produce goods cheaper and faster for growing consumer markets. Making cloth, by hand, for pants, shirts, socks, bedspreads, and other domestic items had always required lots of skill and time.

As the population grew in England, more people needed textile goods. In the late 18th century, a series of innovations created by savvy businessmen and factory workers solved many of the difficulties in textile production. As the scale of production grew, the factory emerged as a centralized location where wage laborers could work on machines and raw material provided by capitalist entrepreneurs. Moreover, cotton led the way. In the 1700s, cotton textiles had many production advantages over other types of cloth. The first textile factory in Great Britain was actually for making silk, but since only wealthy people could afford the product, production remained very low. Cotton, on the other hand, was far less expensive. It was also stronger and more easily colored and washed than wool or linen.

By the late 18th century, steam power was adapted to power factory machinery, sparking an even more significant surge in the size, speed, and productivity of industrial machines. Heavy industries like ironworking were also revolutionized by new ideas, and new transportation technologies were developed to move products further and faster. Growing businesses soon outstripped the financial abilities of individuals and their families, leading to legal reforms that allowed corporations to own and operate businesses.

There were several factors that allowed England to lead the Industrial Revolution. Scholars may disagree, which was the most important. However, they agree that the confluence – a coming together – of many factors gave England an enormous commercial and technological head start over the rest of the world.

Nineteenth-century industrialization was closely associated with the rapid growth of European cities during the same period. Cities grew because of the influx of people desiring to take advantage of the factory jobs available in urban areas. Urbanization extended industrialization as factories were built to take advantage of urban workforces and markets.

Industrialization changed the relationship that existed between cities and their surrounding rural areas. In preindustrial times, cities consumed foodstuffs produced in rural areas but produced little that rural areas needed in return. As a result, some historians describe preindustrial cities as “economically parasitic.” Following the Industrial Revolution, cities became urgent centers of production and were able to offer a wide variety of manufactured goods to rural areas, becoming vital centers of production as well as consumption. Europe experienced the development of the major cities of its realm during this period. In England, for example, in 1800 only 9 percent of the population lived in urban areas. By 1900, some 62 percent were urban dwellers.

Factors Leading to the Industrial Revolution in England

Agricultural  Revolution
  • Increased food production to support an increasing population.
Population Growth
  • More people from the countryside being freed up to work for wages in the new cities.
  • Increased demand for textile products.
Financial Innovations
  • Such as central banks, stock markets, and joint-stock companies – encouraged people, especially in Northern Europe, to take risks with investments, trade, and new technologies.
Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution
  • Encouraged scholars and craftspeople to apply new scientific thinking to mechanical and technological challenges.
Navigable Rivers and Canals
  • Quickened the pace and cheapened the cost of transportation of raw materials and finished products.
  • Plentiful in England and Western Europe.
  • Used in enormous quantities as a source of power – particularly for the steam-powered machinery in textile factories and locomotives.
Iron Ore
  • When Englishman Henry Cort created a way to make iron cheaper and stronger, England no longer needed to import iron ore from other countries.
  • Essential to the development of new machines in factories and transportation.
Government Policies
  • Legal reforms that allowed corporations to own and operate businesses.
  • Patent laws allowed inventors to benefit financially from the “intellectual property” of their inventions.
  • Expanded the Navy to protect global trade.
  • Granting monopolies – exclusive rights – to companies who agreed to explore the world and find resources.

While industrialization alone cannot account for the rapid growth of the European population during the nineteenth century (this growth was underway before industrialization), it is believed to have been responsible for changing patterns of population density on the continent. Between 1750 and 1914, most industrialized nations (England, Belgium, France, Germany) also acquired the highest population densities. This correlation reflects not only the rapid urbanization of these countries but also the high population densities of their urban areas and the improved standards of living associated with industrializing economies.

Working in new industrial cities influenced people’s lives outside of the factories as well. As workers migrated from the country to the city, their lives and the lives of their families were utterly and permanently transformed. For many skilled workers, the quality of life decreased a great deal in the first 60 years of the Industrial Revolution. Skilled weavers, for example, lived well in pre-industrial society as a kind of middle class. They tended their gardens, worked on textiles in their homes or small shops, and raised farm animals. They were their bosses. However, after the Industrial Revolution, the living conditions for skilled weavers significantly deteriorated. They could no longer live at their own pace or supplement their income with gardening, spinning, or communal harvesting.

In the first sixty years or so of the Industrial Revolution, working-class people had little time or opportunity for recreation. Workers spent all the light of day at work and came home with little energy, space, or light to play sports or games. The new industrial pace and factory system were at odds with the old traditional festivals which dotted the village holiday calendar. Plus, local governments actively sought to ban traditional festivals in the cities. In the new working-class neighborhoods, people did not share the same traditional sense of a village community. Owners fined workers who left their jobs to return to their villages for festivals because they interrupted the efficient flow of work at the factories. After the 1850s, however, recreation improved along with the rise of an emerging middle class. Music-halls sprouted up in big cities. Sports such as rugby, cricket, and football became popular. Cities had become the places with opportunities for sport and entertainment that they are today.

There was a necessary trade-off in the Industrial Revolution for the working-class. Material standards of living were in some ways, improving more material goods were produced, so they were available at lower costs, and factories provided a variety of employment opportunities not previously available. At the same time, working conditions were often horrible, and the pay was terrible, and it was often difficult for unskilled workers to move to higher skill levels and escape the working class. The traditional protections of the medieval and early modern eras, such as guilds and mandated wage-and-price standards, were disappearing.

Gradually, very gradually, middle class, or “middling sort,” did emerge in industrial cities, mostly toward the end of the 19th century. Until then, there had been only two major classes in society: aristocrats born into their lives of wealth and privilege, and low-income commoners born in the working classes. However new urban industries gradually required more of what we call today “white collar” jobs, such as business people, shopkeepers, bank clerks, insurance agents, merchants, accountants, managers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. One piece of evidence of this emerging middle class was the rise of retail shops in England that increased from 300 in 1875 to 2,600 by 1890. Another mark of distinction of the middle class was their ability to hire servants to cook and clean the house from time to time. Not surprisingly, from 1851 to 1871, the number of domestic servants increased from 900,000 to 1.4 million. This small but rising middle class prided themselves on taking responsibility for themselves and their families. They viewed professional success as a result of a person’s energy, perseverance, and hard work.

In this new middle class, families became a sanctuary from stressful industrial life. The home remained separate from work and took on the role of emotional support, where women of the house created a moral and spiritual safe harbor away from the rough-and-tumble industrial world outside. Most middle-class adult women were discouraged from working outside the home. They could afford to send their children to school. As children became more of an economic burden, and better health care decreased infant mortality, middle-class women gave birth to fewer children.

Ironically, life in the middle class still had its downside. Stuck in a new position in the middle of society, the new middle class was hostile both to the aristocracy and to the lower classes. They were angered by their political exclusion from power in a system that still favored aristocrats they felt they had the wealth and education to deserve a political voice. They also had contempt for the lower classes, particularly the growing mass of urban poor. In their lifestyles and political positions, they tried to separate themselves from this uneducated and politically powerless herd, with whom they had less and less culturally in common (and who often worked for them in their factories).

By the early twentieth century additional countries, usually culturally associated with Europe, began to industrialize, including Russia, Japan, other nations in Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Britain and the other previously industrialized countries became highly urbanized. The last craft industries, such as shoemaking and glassmaking, became industrialized. The most developed countries, such as the United States, mass-produced consumer goods – such as dishwashers, furniture, and even houses – for the growing middle classes. The service sector grew and matured with jobs for teachers, waiters, accountants, lawyers, police, and clerks. Essential inventions included the assembly line, the automobile, and the airplane. Western countries and businesses typically controlled world trade and took direct or indirect control of critical industries in less developed countries, enriching themselves in the process.

The Industrial Revolution, an era that began in England at the end of the 18th century, has yet to end. Since the 1950s the so-called “Asian Tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea) rapidly industrialized by taking advantage of their educated and cheap labor to export inexpensive manufactured goods to the West. Other countries in Asia and the Americas, such as China, India, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, began to develop key economic sectors for export in the global economy.

The world moved gradually toward global free trade. Western countries in Europe and North America turned increasingly to service and high technology economies as manufacturing moved to the cheap labor markets of developing countries. The important new inventions of this phase were the computer and the Internet. This era is now referred to as the “Post-Industrial age,” since the most developed countries focus on service jobs rather than manufacturing, called the “Information Age.” With only a few exceptions, most impoverished nations have not become wealthy in the fiercely competitive global market. There is an increasing wealth gap between more developed and less developed countries in the world.

Explaining the Industrial Landscape

Have you ever wondered why Detroit became the “Motor City,” known for automobile manufacturing in the United States? Why Pittsburg is known for steel production, and why Hollywood became the entertainment capital of the world? In the early years of the twentieth century, when cars were assembled by hand, and when many of their components were made of wood, automobile manufacturers were located in many different places. One brand of car was made in San Francisco, another was made in Massachusetts, and yet another was made in Indiana. By the end of World War I, Detroit was becoming the center of automobile production in America. In the early days of silent films, Flagstaff, Arizona, was the site for the production of several movies, because many of the early films were about life in the West. Within a few years, however, the film industry had abandoned Flagstaff in favor of the Los Angeles Basin of California. In colonial times, the steel production center of North America was in Massachusetts. During the last half of the 19th century, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania replaced Massachusetts as the steel center of America. Why did these changes take place? Of course, there are many variables that determine whether an industry will prosper; however, location is one of the most important. Over the years, geographers have focused on several fundamental industrial location theories to explain why businesses and industries are located in particular locations and predict which locations help a business succeed. Von Thünen made the first efforts to identify the factors that account for the locations of industries. His ideas gave rise to the subsequent work of German geographers such as William Lanyard and Alfred Weber who were instrumental in the development of Least Cost Theory.

Alfred Weber’s first significant work on industrial location theory was published in 1909 in where he predicted that industries would locate based on the places that would be the lowest cost to them. He took for granted that industries are naturally competitive and aim to minimize their costs and maximize their profits. Much like Von Thünen, Weber did not try to explain actual real-world locations, but instead concentrated on identifying those factors that influence all industrial-location patterns. According to Weber, three main factors influence industrial location: transport costs, labor costs, and agglomeration economies.


Weber felt that transportation was the most substantial factor in determining the location and that industries wanting to locate where transportation costs are minimized must consider two issues: the distance of transportation to the market and the weight of the goods being transported. Regardless of the method (ship, rail, truck, air), transportation cost is determined by the weight of the goods being shipped and the distance they are being shipped. The heavier the goods and the farther the distance, the more expensive it is to ship.

In one scenario, the weight of the final product is less than the weight of the raw material going into making the product, the weight-losing industry. For example, in the copper industry, it would be costly to haul raw materials to the market for processing, so manufacturing occurs near the raw materials. Besides mining, other primary activities (or extractive industries) are considered material-oriented: timber mills, furniture manufacture, most agricultural activities, etc. Often located in rural areas, these businesses may employ most of the local population. As they leave, the locale area loses its economic base.

On the other, the final product is equally as heavy as the raw materials that require transport. Usually, this is a case of some ubiquitous raw material, such as water, being incorporated into the product. This is called the weight-gaining industry. This type of industry tends to build up near a market or raw material source and is sometimes called foot-loose industry. In some industries, like the heavy chemical industry, the weight of the raw material is less than the weight of finished product. These industries always grow up near a market.


Because labor costs vary from place to place, and because these differing labor costs are the product of variances in wage rates and worker efficiencies, Weber thought of labor as a distortion of the original transportation pattern that was driven by transportation costs. Accordingly, after finding the best location relative to transportation costs, he considered how labor costs influenced the location of factories and plants. To do this, Weber plotted the spatial variances of transportation costs to create a transport cost surface. He then contrasted regional labor costs with regional the pattern of transportation costs.

Weber noted that as transportation systems became more efficient, and hence less expensive to use, labor costs came to more heavily influence industrial locations. He also found that industries dominantly affected by labor costs tend to concentrate in a few places. Therefore, lower transportation costs tend to intensify the natural tendency of like industries to agglomerate in one location.


Weber also employed a classification system based on local and regional factors. Local factors included the influences of agglomeration and deglomeration. Similar businesses typically gain an advantage when the cluster or agglomerate (centralize) in a specific location. Deglomeration is the tendency of industries to decentralize or disperse from a given location when rent becomes too expensive and impacts profits.

Weber argued that there are two significant ways in which firms benefit from agglomeration. In the first place, it could bring about the enlargement of a factory, thereby leading to more significant economies of scale. Additionally, agglomeration allows similar industries to benefit from being near one another. This is because they can share specialized facilities, services, and equipment. In his analyses, Weber considered only “pure” or “technical” agglomeration. He did not examine the impacts of “accidental” agglomeration (concentrations that occur for other than reasons associated with spatial economics).

In Weber’s basic industrial location model, there is only one specific market location, and one of the assumptions of this model is that all transactions take place on this site. Moreover, Weber assumed that there would be no limit to the quantity of the product that would be purchased at the specified price (in other words, in Weber’s model, the price of a good did not affect demand. Of course, Weber knew this did not reflect real-world conditions, but he made these assumptions in order to simplify the model. Other scholars, however, were convinced that, in making this assumption, Weber greatly limited the accuracy of his model. After all, demand is not confined to one single site but is instead scattered unevenly throughout a region.

Moreover, it is seldom true that buyers are confined to only one retail merchant. Instead, they usually have several choices and, if all else is equal, they will choose the closest establishment from which to make a purchase. Even so, better prices and services may offset the costs of distance. This is in keeping with the common advertisement slogan of automobile dealers located outside the boundaries of a city, “drive a little, save a lot!”

During the last years of the 20th century, developments in transportation diminished the relevance of Weber’s theory. In the first place, freight rates have increased at a faster rate than having the costs of raw materials, but relative transportation costs are declining. This means that the impacts of transportation costs on industrial location and market analysis are relatively less significant than they were at the beginning of the 20th century when Weber first articulated his theory. Third, natural resources are now less critical because smaller, lighter, and smarter products have replaced the more substantial products of the past. In particular, plastics and lighter materials made from soybeans, petroleum, and other fibers have replaced the use of steel and wood. As a result, furniture and appliances are lighter (and sometimes stronger). Even automobiles now use a great deal of plastic and other fibrous materials as a substitute for steel. It is far less costly to move petroleum through pipelines, or to ship plastics than it is to ship wood, iron ore, and steel.

Currently, labor tends to be the most important determinant of industrial location. This is particularly true for firms that produce expensive, high-tech goods. For most of these firms, transportation costs are of minor importance. In part, this is because high-tech goods are usually relatively light and small. This is nothing new, however. Long ago, the Swiss figured out that as a land-locked mountainous nation, they could not competitively ship their dairy products to foreign markets. Therefore, they processed liquid milk into far less bulky cheese and chocolate. They also realized that anything they manufactured should have a high value relative to its bulk and weight. Thus, instead of making automobiles or steam trains, they made timepieces. Even the Dutch, with access to excellent ports and water transportation, realized the benefits of shipping high-value, low-bulk products. Thus, they processed diamonds and focused on flower bulbs, cheese, and chocolate. In recent years, firms have developed many new and innovative ways in which to avoid transportation costs. For example, soft drink manufacturers do not ship full bottles of their products all over the world. Instead, they ship containers of syrup to local bottling plants where water is added to the syrup.

Core-Periphery Spatial Relationships

One key to understanding industrialization from a geographer’s perspective is thinking about core-periphery spatial relationships at both a local and global scale. On a local scale, there is generally a core area, sometimes known as the central business district and a hinterland, a German term meaning “the land behind.”

The hinterland is more sparsely populated than the core and is often where goods sold in the core are manufactured. It might include rural farmland, for example. The core, on the other hand, is the commercial focus for the area where most goods and services are exchanged. The hinterland relies on the central city to sell its goods, but similarly, the city relies on the hinterland to produce raw materials. Consider where the hinterland is located around your closest city; the hinterland is characteristically rural, while the core is urban.

The city of Walla Walla in southeastern Washington is an excellent example of this. Walla Walla has a population of about thirty thousand people and is the only significant town in its county. Walla Walla, with a prestigious college, a community college, the state prison, a regional hospital, and retail services, serves as a core hub for the surrounding periphery. The hinterland of Walla Walla has an agricultural economy based on the production of onions, wine grapes, asparagus, and ranching are typical of a peripheral region. The city of Walla Walla has the political, economic, and educational power that serves the people of its local area.

Globally, we can apply the hinterland-city model to an understanding of a global core and a global periphery. The core areas are places of dominance, and these areas exert control over the surrounding periphery. Core areas are typically more developed and industrialized, whereas the periphery is more rural and generally less developed. Unlike the interactions between the city and the hinterland, the economic exchange between the core and periphery is characteristically one-sided, creating wealth for the core and patterns of uneven development.

Brain drain also happens on an international level – that is, students from periphery countries might go to college in core countries, such as the United States or countries in Europe. Many international college graduates do not return to their poorer countries of origin but instead, choose to stay in the core country because of the employment opportunities. This is especially true in the medical field. There is little political power in the periphery; centers of political power are almost always located in the core areas or at least dominated by the core cities. The core areas pull in people, skills, and wealth from the periphery. Lack of opportunities in the periphery pushes people to relocate to the core.

However, these interactions do sometimes contribute to economic stability in the periphery. Some argue that it benefits the core countries to keep the periphery peripheral; in other words, if the periphery can remain underdeveloped, they are more likely to sell cheap goods to the core. This generates more wealth for core areas and contributes to their continued influence and economic strength.

The periphery countries and the core countries each have unique characteristics. Peripheral locations are providers of raw materials and agricultural products. In the periphery, more people earn their living in occupations related to securing resources: farming, mining, or harvesting forest products. For the workers in these occupations, the profits tend to be marginal, with fewer opportunities to advance. In the periphery, there is a condition known as brain drain, which describes a loss of educated or professional individuals. Young people leave the peripheral areas for the cities to earn an education or to find more advantageous employment. Few of these individuals share their knowledge or success with their former community.


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Introduction to Human Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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