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Meet the Three Industrial Revolutions

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Define the term industrial revolution.
  • Describe each of the first three industrial revolutions.
  • Describe the impact each industrial revolution had on society.

What Do Steam, Science, and Digital Technology Have in Common?

These are the first three industrial revolutions that transformed our modern society. With each of these three advancements—the steam engine, the age of science and mass production, and the rise of digital technology—the world around us fundamentally changed.

And right now, it’s happening again, for a fourth time.

And so here we are, all of us together, poised at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But this time, the revolution is powered by cloud, social, mobile, the Internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), along with increasing computing power and data.

There’s a lot to unpack here. And that’s why we created this trail: to help you make sense of where we’ve been and where we’re headed next, and what it all means for you.

Before we get to the details on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, let’s review some basics. We start by defining the term industrial revolution.

Wait, I thought the Industrial Revolution Only Happened That One Time?

So, perhaps you remember learning about the Industrial Revolution in history class, and talking about how steam engines and factories changed the landscape of European and American economics and society. But didn’t that only happen once?

In his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation, asserts that there are actually four distinct periods of industrial revolution throughout history, including the one we’re beginning right now. Schwab describes an industrial revolution as the appearance of “new technologies and novel ways of perceiving the world [that] trigger a profound change in economic and social structures.”

So the first one—the one with steam power—that was the first industrial revolution. It was followed by the age of science and mass production, and then the digital revolution. We’re now at the beginning of the next phase of dramatic technological expansion and social change—the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Rest assured, we cover each of these in more detail next.

The First Industrial Revolution: The Age of Mechanical Production

As it turns out, when you heat up water, you get steam. And beginning around 1760, through the advent of the steam engine, steam was powering everything from agriculture to textile manufacturing.

Society used to be largely agrarian, which is a fancy way of saying that life used to be centered around farming. But with steam power, those agrarian societies gave way to urbanization. The world began to rely on steam power and machine tools, while steamships and railroads revolutionized how people got from A to B. And what emerged as the new center of community life? The factory.

[A steam locomotive is one example of how steam power fueled the first industrial revolution]

But factory life was difficult. Unskilled factory laborers were cheap and plentiful. They were made to work long hours, often in unsafe conditions. Even children worked in factories, putting in 14-hour shifts alongside adults. Such conditions endured into the 20th century.

Ultimately, advancing industrialization created a middle class of skilled workers. Cities and industries grew more quickly than ever before, and economies grew along with them.

The Second Industrial Revolution: The Age of Science and Mass Production

Things started to speed up with a number of key inventions. Think gasoline engines, airplanes, chemical fertilizer. All inventions that helped us go faster and do more.

That’s science, folks. It works.

But advancements in science weren’t limited to the laboratory. Scientific principles were brought right into the factories. Most notably, the assembly line, which effectively powered mass production. By the early part of the 20th century, Henry Ford’s company was mass producing the groundbreaking Ford Model T, a car with a gasoline engine built on an assembly line in his factories.

[The assembly line created factory jobs and powered mass production]

People follow the jobs, and the early 1900s saw workers leaving their rural homes behind to move to urban areas and factory jobs. By 1900, 40% of the US population lived in cities, compared to just 6% in 1800. Along with increasing urbanization, inventions such as electric lighting, radio, and telephones transformed the way people lived and communicated.

When you stop and think about it, it was this industrial revolution, the second one, that ushered in the modern world.

The Third Industrial Revolution: The Digital Revolution

So, if you’re reading this, you’re experiencing some of the wonders of the digital revolution right now. You’re enjoying the cloud, the Internet, and some kind of handy device that lets you access both. You can even be reading this on your phone.

Hello there. Welcome to the digital revolution.

Beginning in the 1950s, the third industrial revolution brought semiconductors, mainframe computing, personal computing, and the Internet—the digital revolution. Things that used to be analog moved to digital technologies, like an old television you used to tune in with an antenna (analog) being replaced by an Internet-connected tablet that lets you stream movies (digital).

The move from analog electronic and mechanical devices to pervasive digital technology dramatically disrupted industries, especially global communications and energy. Electronics and information technology began to automate production and take supply chains global.

[The motherboard is the main circuit board of a personal computer—one of the key developments of the third industrial revolution]

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Starting Now!

Each of these first three industrial revolutions represented profound change. We’re talking major societal transformation. Life went from being all about the farm to all about the factory, and people moved from the country into town with the introduction of mechanical production. How people lived and worked fundamentally changed with the discovery of electricity and mass production. And most recently, the digital revolution altered nearly every industry, once again transforming how people live, work, and communicate.

So where are we now? Well, at this moment, many of the technologies people dreamed of in the 1950s and 60s have become a reality. Maybe we don’t have flying cars yet, but we’ve got robots! Plus there’s genetic sequencing and editing, artificial intelligence, miniaturized sensors, and 3D printing, to name a few. And when you put some of these technologies together, well, let’s just say the innovations are unexpected and surprising.

This is the beginning of the next great industrial revolution: The Fourth Industrial Revolution. We head there next.