After the dawn of agriculture, most ordinary people’s lives didn’t change much for millennia. Even as late as 1750, they labored manually on farms or in small villages, vulnerable to nature, with no electricity or running water. Suddenly by 1900, they had telephones, movies, trains, canned food, and headache pills! The environment became decidedly man-made and tailored to human desires. The Industrial Revolution is a broad term for these changes that took place late in the 2nd millennium.
18th century Great Britain was the birthplace of industry, and the British Isle remained the only industrialized region for decades. The definitive industrial breakthrough was the steam engine. James Watt and other engineers designed the first engines suitable for heavy use. Burning coal powered the steam engines for factories, trains, steamboats, and pumps. Eventually, British “state secrets” of industrial engineering got out to those nations eager and able to achieve the same kind of economic growth. Factories appeared in Germany, Belgium, France, and the United States after 1800.
Industry quickly became self-aggrandizing. Trains needed tracks, which needed steel. Steel refineries required coal, which had to be shipped in trains and steamboats. Factories brought workers to the cities. The laborers required a large supply of housing, food, and clothing, which stimulated more industry. This cycle of needs and industrial solutions kickstarted economies into high gear. In terms of health, wealth, and freedom, the two centuries since the Industrial Revolution have been the most transformative time since agriculture itself 3 – literally the greatest thing since sliced bread.
With growth came growing pains. Industrialization was a difficult transition for large segments of society. Many craft workers were displaced by factories. Wages were low and hours were long. Factories were dangerous and unhealthy. Children, who had always been part of the work force at home, were easily exploited. Governments gradually stepped in to regulate the workplace. Children were increasingly taken out of farms and factories into schools, which revamped the curriculum to prepare kids for their industrial future.
The influx of workers to the cities was one of the most profound social changes of the times. Families down on their luck on the farm were drawn to factory jobs. They migrated to the cities at such a high rate that England was half urban by 1850. The rest of the world has followed a similar pattern since then. The city and countryside are more different than ever before, but also more equal in size and more inescapably integrated in national politics. Many developed nations are now struggling greatly with a rural / urban cultural divide. 4
A second wave of innovations swept the world in the late 19th century. Oil became a major new source of energy, and lines carried electricity from power plants. Gas-burning engines liberated machinery from factories. In this period, the United States became the largest national economy, 5 while Russia and Japan joined the industrial ranks. 6
As the “northern” industrial nations needed natural resources beyond their borders, they turned to the regions of the non-industrial “south”. European countries imported heavily from Africa, the US from Latin America, and Japan from Southeast Asia. Trade was asymmetric; most profits flowed to the northern manufacturers.
Since the world wars, a wave of newly industrialized countries has joined the roster. Meanwhile, the older industrial economies experienced great growth in the service sector, driven by the increase of discretionary income. By the mid-20th century, a majority of the American economy was devoted to services 7 such as transportation, trade, health, education, and law. Another 20th century trend was industrial environmentalism. Governments became increasingly active in regulating corporations for the sake of public health and safety. 8
The industrialization of the world has still not reached equilibrium. Each decade, a few new undeveloped nations become more industrial, the most developed countries become more service oriented, and the least developed get left further behind. It will never be possible or necessary for every nation to be a manufacturing powerhouse. Instead, modern economists recognize the value of specialization and trade. A region that is particularly good at growing crops or producing oil should specialize in exporting those commodities. Unfortunately, such extraction economies are easily exploited by corrupt local governments. 9
As revolutionary fervor continued to sweep Europe in the 19th century, it bore one significant difference to the earlier American model: the industrial environment. The working class grew significantly with new jobs in factories, mines, shipyards, and more. The industrialized revolutionary spirit inspired socialism, an alternative vision of democracy 10 that would serve the needs of wage laborers. The most influential socialist was Karl Marx, a philosopher, labor leader, and author of The Communist Manifesto and Capital. 1 At the most practical level, Marx questioned the fairness of a system that entitled laborers to so little reward for their hard work. His complete theory was much more convoluted than that (reading like a cross between biblical prophecy and science fiction) and his legacy has been immensely complicated.
Marx’s point of view was shaped by his place in history. Born in 1818, he grew up when industry was still new and factory work, the apparent wave of the future, was truly exploitative. Dead by 1883, he never saw democracy in Europe. In fact, he witnessed multiple failed revolutions including the Spring of Nations. States were still managed by monarchs, small bands of aristocrats, and increasingly a few corporate tycoons. These right-wing governments generally prohibited organized labor, forcefully put down strikes, and were even reluctant to regulate fair wages and working conditions.
Influenced by this environment, Marx described Europe’s past and future as a cycle of class conflict. The way he perceived capitalism, the value of manufactured goods was created by the “accumulated labor” 11 of factory workers, who earned no ownership in the goods and only made the factory owners wealthy. This, he believed, was not only immoral but unsustainable. He predicted that capitalism would fail as surely as monarchism, and a socialist revolution would inevitably bring workers to power. Socialists would eliminate private ownership and wage exploitation; society’s “means of production” 12 would be held in trust by government for the equal benefit of everyone. Eventually, the classes would equilibrate, and government would no longer be necessary. In the final phase, society would live as a homogeneous, decentralized commune, hence the term communism.
In retrospect, the details in Marx’s model were seriously flawed. Industry actually lifted most working poor into a content middle class. Though he owned stock himself, Marx failed to see the potential of the stock market to distribute corporate wealth to ordinary people. His vision of communism was vague and idealistic, seeming to assume that self-interest would miraculously vanish. Nevertheless, the spread of abstract Marxist principles after his lifetime made him one of the most influential people of the modern world.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 has been the only successful workers’ revolution in an industrialized nation. Like earlier post-enlightenment revolutions, it was a movement for liberation from tyranny. The Russian tsars refused to compromise their power with instruments such as a constitution or a parliament. Between the 1860s and 1910s, they mismanaged the economy, lost wars, and directly killed thousands of protesters. One of the Russians most hardened in his opposition to the tsars was Vladimir Lenin. Lenin also happened to be a radical Marxist who believed that the solution was a military revolution on behalf of workers and peasants.
The tsar abdicated under pressure in 1917. Lenin’s Bolshevik party disrupted the power transfer process, winning over a large military contingent that enabled them to occupy the capital by the end of the year. The events that followed closely paralleled the French Revolution. Widespread opposition to the Bolsheviks led to counter-revolution and civil war. The Bolsheviks assassinated Tsar Nicholas and his family, and their campaign of Red Terror killed thousands of political opponents. Renamed the Communist Party, their monopoly in government was stabilized by the end of Lenin’s life in 1924. One of Lenin’s final acts was to annex three states from the former Russian Empire into a new Soviet Union, aka the USSR.
Marxism-Leninism was an international doctrine; “Workers of all lands unite” is inscribed on Marx’s tomb. Lenin believed that his “dictatorship of the proletariat” (working class) would transcend national boundaries, leading revolutions around the world. In fact, Marx and Engels had written that socialism must become global to survive, because it was a class conflict and capitalism had created a global upper class.
Lenin’s successor, Josef Stalin, was more isolationistic and aggressively industrial. Stalin greatly strengthened his country and his party as a pretense for his own personal ambitions; having nearly absolute control of the Soviet economy made him one of the wealthiest men in the world. 13 He has served as the model for subsequent socialist dictators, from Mao in China to Maduro in Venezuela.
It is now clear that Marx and Lenin did not have historical perspective to see the correct endgame. The international workers’ movement never gained traction. No socialist nations ever reached the mythical communist stage. The USSR and Red China called themselves “communist” euphemistically, but their strong central governments made them permanently socialist.
However, as industrial capitalism has addressed its imperfections through reform, those reforms have borrowed from socialist themes. The countries of northern Europe openly practice social democracy. Even conservative Americans, who use socialism as a “scare word”, 14 have accepted socialistic programs such as welfare, social security, and workplace regulations.
As industrial societies invented machines to augment their muscle power, they also created computers to automate mental activity. It is natural to wonder what the “first computer” was, but that is just as impossible to define as the “last computer”. A computer is a synthesis of many complex systems: electronics, information, calculating, communicating, memory, programming, etc. These systems have separate histories, some dating back centuries. There were mechanical adding machines in the 1600s and “programmable” industrial looms in the 1800s. Telegraphy and text messaging have existed since the 1800s. Mathematicians developed information theory in the 1930s – ‘40s, based on 19th century logic. The gradual convergence of these elements has led to an ever-shifting front of technology. Most people today remember computers without music and cars without microchips. This recent history illustrates how various strands of technology are still being incorporated into the definition of computing.
We would all agree, though, that computers radically changed the world sometime in the 20th century. This history will pick up with that breakthrough. In fact, even that transition occurred gradually over decades.
A few individual computers impacted the world from secret labs during WWII. Some of them made codes for secure communications, and others broke codes. Computers were also enlisted to aim artillery shells, provide air defense, and solve problems about nuclear bombs.
By the late 1940s, computers were fully electronic and digital. The digital nature of computing means that all information, from numbers to videos, is represented in the same form. The unit of information is a bit, a binary digit that people represent as “0” or “1”. In a computer, bits are stored as two different electromagnetic states. The computers of the late 1940s could even store their own programs as digital information. 15 Programs are special sets of instructions that allow one computer to perform diverse functions. Storing programs in digital memory enabled computers to control their own processes at lightning speed, which in turn allowed people to program computers with unprecedented flexibility. This was when computer scientists became especially excited that they were onto something with enormous potential.
Businessmen got excited too. The drive to commercialize computers began around 1950. As computers gradually became smaller, less expensive, and more user-friendly, clientele diffused from the military down to smaller government offices, universities, corporations, and banks. IBM emerged as the industry giant in the mid-1950s and held on to that position for three decades. By the 1960s, “mini” computers were accessible even to relatively small businesses. The number of computers worldwide rose from tens in 1950 to tens of thousands by 1965. 16
Computers allowed businesses to offer better goods and more efficient services. For example, computerized airports could handle much more traffic, and computer-aided design sped the production of cars. Computers enhanced new pop culture media such as TV and recording studios. They played a large role in national security, and they even flew rockets to the moon. Until the 1970s, though, all of this took place behind the scenes. Ordinary consumers did not directly see the computers that wrought the changes.
The mid-century breakthroughs were enabled by the transistor, a new electronic component used to convey bits. 17 Transistors have been engineered exponentially smaller since 1960, a trend called Moore’s Law. By the early 1970s, Intel was able to pack the processing power of an entire computer onto a single silicon chip, the microprocessor. This prompted a new and unexpected movement. Small companies, rogue professors, and even students and home hobbyists began tinkering with the microprocessor to create personal computers (PCs). The entire philosophy of PCs diverged from that of business computers. The prevailing vision of the 1960s was that computers would always be huge, expensive, and shared by multiple users for serious business purposes. PCs were meant for individual use, entertainment, and creativity (the first big hits were video games). Apple, an early industry leader with its Apple I of 1976, has gone on to become one of the largest corporations in the world. The IBM PC of 1981, with software provided by Microsoft, opened the PC market to the mainstream. 18 It was the first PC with an operating system (a program to coordinate all its components) and something that seems obvious now, its own monitor!
Another major enabler was standardization. The computers of the 1950s were custom-made, which made a unified computing industry impossible. As the field grew, industry leaders set standards in programming languages, electronic components, and specifications. This was vital for computers to network and communicate with each other. The internet got off to a slow start in the ‘60s, with email soon to follow in the ‘70s.
PCs proliferated rapidly in the 1980s. The effect was similar to the Enlightenment, empowering ordinary people to do specialty tasks like printing, graphic design, accounting, and journalism. Bookshelves and file cabinets shrank as more information was stored on PCs and disks. The technology was liberating, though the potential was limited by the internet, which remained exclusive to a few large institutions. Home computers were still a novelty item in a small number of households. Few people realized that they were just years away from another technological revolution.
- Assembly line photo by Ford Company (1913), public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A-line1913.jpg (accessed and saved 1/24/16, archived 5/23/20). ↩
- Steam engine illustration by Bonnafoux, 1876, public domain. https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/watt-steam-engine/ (accessed and saved 1/29/16, archived 5/23/20). ↩
- Luke Muehlhauser, “How big a deal was the Industrial Revolution?” Self-published but with compelling data (c. 2017), http://lukemuehlhauser.com/industrial-revolution/ (accessed 5/12/19). ↩
- Gideon Rachman, “Urban-rural splits have become the great global divider”, Financial Times (7/30/2018), https://www.ft.com/content/e05cde76-93d6-11e8-b747-fb1e803ee64e (accessed and saved 5/12/19). ↩
- Angus Maddison, “Statistics on World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2008 AD” (2010), originally at http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/oriindex.htm and now preserved at https://www.rug.nl/ggdc/historicaldevelopment/maddison/releases/maddison-database-2010 (accessed and saved 5/11/19). China was the previous leader. Maddison’s data shows that the US was larger than China by 1890, and interpolation indicates that this crossover occurred in 1889. ↩
- Peter Stearns, The Industrial Revolution in World History, 4th ed, Westview Press (e-book, 2013) Chapters 6 – 8. ↩
- Cengiz Haksever and Barry Render, “The Important Role Services Play in an Economy”, Pearson (7/25/2013), http://www.informit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=2095734&seqNum=3 (accessed and saved 5/12/19). ↩
- David Pearce, “An Intellectual History of Environmental Economics”, Annu. Rev. Energy Environ. 27:57-81 (2002), https://www.cepal.org/ilpes/noticias/paginas/1/35691/JA_HistofEnvEcon.pdf (accessed and saved 5/12/19). ↩
- Ramin Dadasov et al., “Natural resource production, corruption and expropriation,” Joint Discussion Paper Series in Economics, No. 36-2014 (6/30/2014), https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/102361/1/789526948.pdf (accessed and saved 5/12/19). ↩
- Friedrich Engels, The Principles of Communism (German, 1847) Section 18. English translation by Paul Sweezy available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/11/prin-com.htm (accessed and saved 5/13/19). ↩
- Karl Marx, “The Nature and Growth of Capital”, Wage Labor and Capital Ch. 5 (Originally in German, 1847), English translation available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch05.htm (accessed and saved 5/13/19). ↩
- Friedrich Engels, The Principles of Communism (German, 1847) Section 17. English translation by Paul Sweezy available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/11/prin-com.htm (accessed and saved 5/13/19). ↩
- Jacob Davidson, “The 10 Richest People of All Time”, Money, 7/30/2015, http://time.com/money/3977798/the-10-richest-people-of-all-time/ (accessed and saved 5/13/19). ↩
- Harry Truman, speech given 1:25 pm 10/10/1952, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, https://www.trumanlibrary.org/publicpapers/index.php/index.php?pid=2279&st=&st1= (accessed and saved 5/18/19). ↩
- John von Neumann, “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC”, US Army / University of Pennsylvania (6/30/1945), https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/238389 (accessed and saved 5/18/19). ↩
- The credible quote “estimate of 100 computers in the world in 1953” is oft-repeated online without any indication of its ultimate source. The 1965 data (also credible but unattributed) is from C.N. Trueman, “The Personal Computer”, The History Learning Site, 3/17/15, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/inventions-and-discoveries-of-the-twentieth-century/the-personal-computer/ (accessed and saved 5/18/19). ↩
- John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, “Three-Electrode Circuit Element Utilizing Semiconductive Materials”, US Patent No. 2,524,035 (1948 – 1950), https://pdfpiw.uspto.gov/.piw?PageNum=0&docid=02524035 (accessed and saved 5/19/19). ↩
- Ton Luong et al., “Timeline of Computer History”, Computer History Museum (2019), https://www.computerhistory.org/timeline/1981/ (accessed 5/19/19). ↩
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