Steam Engine Contributions to Industrial Revolution

Steam Engine Contributions to Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution was marked by rapid changes from agrarian and handicraft production to the one, which was dominated by machine manufacturing and numerous industries. The revolution started in Britain before spreading to European nations and other distant regions such as the United States. Before the industrial revolution, factories relied on wind or water energy in production; this influenced the establishment of industries in particular areas, especially the ones with flowing rivers. In various regions, technological, geographical (agricultural), and human factors contributed to the industrial revolution, although these aspects had different impacts on different geographical areas (Kim 11; Kim 589; Knox et al., 8). However, technology was ‚Äď and has been ‚Äď perhaps the most important factor, especially because of its advantageous position to integrate all the other key factors. In fact, none of the other factors could be realized to the optimum without technology. Technological advancement led to the innovation of the steam engine, which was a major revolutionary invention that significantly boosted the other factors of the industrial revolution and improved economies and transportation across the world.The steam engine was invented by Thomas Newcomen but developed by James Watt. It made traveling around the world easier and quicker during the industrial revolution thus it was very crucial to the modern civilization. These engines converted steam‚Äôs heat energy into mechanical energy and they were used on factories, mines, locomotives, and in steamboats during the industrial revolution. The steam engine power could drive machinery to any place without the help of animals. It is apparent that steam engine reduced manual labor, as it reduced the usage of muscle power. Besides, it helped in urbanizing and industrializing rural areas (Allen, 1).

Positive and Negative Impacts of Steam Engines to Industrial Revolution

Improving Countries’ Economies

As depicted in the introduction section, the industrial revolution was not only confined to Britain but diffused to other parts of the world such as the United States. According to Knox et al. (125), industrial revolution in the United States can be interpreted as characterized by the interaction of three primary factors: the geography of resources (such as agricultural resources); movement of populations (that is, the source of labor); and major technological innovations (particularly in transport). The term ‚Äėintegration‚Äô implies an interdependency of these factors, and indeed this was true for all regions that experienced the big wave of the industrial change in the 18th and 19th centuries. The steam engine (used in both steamships and steam trains) provided the impetus for all these factors to be exploited to the maximum.

Taking the case of America, for instance, the government of the US realized early enough the need for a large workforce (both skilled and unskilled) if they were to catch up with Europe in terms of industrialization. The government, therefore, enacted an open-door policy to enable the arrival of immigrants especially the ones from Europe and other parts of the America, and indeed the country saw such an influx of immigrants into the country, who were then channeled to the many cities mushrooming across the country (Kim 5; Kim 589). But this influx would not have been possible without the steamships brought the immigrants in. Moreover, having arrived, it would not have been possible to transport them as effectively to the cities across the country, where the labor was much needed. Steam trains made this possible.

The influx of immigrant and the resultant high populations in the country enabled had further advantages in many ways, especially in terms of agriculture. America was endowed with the valuable natural resource, especially agricultural land. For many years, since the early stages of America’s major industrial wave (from the 1840s), the American economy was focused on the gateway ports of the Atlantic seaboard, dominated by exporting agricultural staples and importing manufactured goods to and from Europe. The new big populations added further pressure on the available resources. Notably, the new wave of urbanization across the country led to increased demand for foodstuffs as well as other agricultural staples in North America (Kim 587; Knox et al. 127). This contributed to much needed financial capacity for the pursuit of the global ambitions (specifically the export objectives) that accompanied the process of industrialization.

In Japan, steam engine had an impact on the export of textiles and armaments, which became their major products during World War I (Knox et al. 133). Equally, in the US, and with the availability of a well-fed workforce, farmers now sought to increase production by way of mechanization as well as improved agricultural implements (Knox et al. 127). Again, steamships emboldened America such goals, knowing that geographical distance was no longer an impediment. Not only did steam engine transport make it possible to export and import various kinds of products, but it also provided long-haul carriers of general freight.

The ultimate industrial ambition of America was to consolidate a Manufacturing Belt, which would form the continental economic heartland. The premise was that large markets as well as properly-developed transport networks (which would enable access to resource reserves that had been previously inaccessible) would give the country an ideal position to leverage the general upsurge of consumer goods demand as well as the increased efficiency enabled by the advances in industrial technology. To achieve this, steam engine-based transport was an important factor. Accordingly, America enjoyed a greater acceleration of industrialization in the 1840s, and this has been attributed to the diffusion of industrial technology, especially the broader application of steam (Knox et al. 127).

In Britain, the process of industrialization led to agricultural revolution. Farming was mechanized by the invention of the steam engines. New methods of farming emerged as farmers focused on large-scale production. The new techniques led to the improvement of quality and quantity of produced fibers such as wool and clothing. Additionally, ownership of lands changed as the territory, which had been shared by villagers was enclosed by those who had enough resources to create large farms where the new methods would be executed. The poor were no longer needed on the farms during the industrial revolution (Knox et al., 130). They found new jobs on new factories and that contributed to the process of urbanization. The new farming techniques resulted in increased food production enabling farmers harvest enough food for themselves and their workers and surplus, which could be sold to feed the new urban centers’ population.

Improved Transport Systems

The transport industry was among the great beneficiaries of the steam engine innovation during the industrial revolution. Prior to the advent, raw materials and finished goods were carried and distributed using boats along rivers and canals as well as the horse-drawn wagons. These transportation methods were slow, especially when moving the finished manufactured goods and farm produce to the final consumer. Steam engines led to the emergence of steam-powered ships and locomotives, which were fast, hence improving the transport system. These innovations improved businesses across the countries since the delivery of products was fast and certain. Also, people were able to move around easier as the journeys became faster. It enabled business people to increase their profit margins since it was much easier to access new markets.

A network of railroads opened up the continent for better access and exploitation of resources. Ultimately, railways transport became catalysts that facilitated the development of regional economies into a continental economy that would then form part of the world economic system. However, better transport systems forced the British government to enact legislation that made the exportation of their skilled workers and technically impossible. Nevertheless, the steam engine invention has made it easier for the people to move to other areas leading to industrialization spread to other European nations like Belgium, France, Germany and the United States as well.

Improved Communication and Banking

The steam engine improved communication and banking which were some of the crucial factors behind industrial revolution. During the industrial revolution, many urban centers emerged due to the increased trade. It created a need for communication channels to facilitate interaction among the merchants. Vast industrialization boosted the telegraph invention, which was one of the major communication tools at that time. According to Knox et al. (8), the manufacturing in the early stages of industrialization boosted wealth in Europe, and this collective prosperity was further consolidated through imperialism. Due to a lot of wealth creation, the industrial revolution led to the rise of banks and financiers. Consequently, investors and factories relied on financial institutions for loans and credit facilities. In Britain, the industrialization resulted in the rise of wealthy middle class since they were specialized merchants and craftsmen living in towns. Relying on trade and commerce, the middle class had surplus wealth which they invested in businesses. These investments led to the high growth of factories in Britain during the industrial revolution (Bekkers 1). Change of People’s Quality of Life

The value of steam engine-based transport was not only domestic but also facilitated a global economy which provided a much bigger market for industrial products from America and Europe. During the industrial revolution, steam engines increased the outputs of industries. People, especially the middle and upper class were able to access a greater volume of the goods produced in the factories and this improved their living standards. However, the steam engines made the lives of the working class miserable. They replaced their human labor in the factories leading to mass unemployment of the workers. Those left employed were skilled and experienced despite that they were paid low wages and worked under dangerous conditions. In the textile mills, the new machines driven by steam engines were cleaned by the children; this laboring class of children was exposed to great industrial risks. The children provided cheap labor as the jobs were considered easy (Cummins, 1). These were some of the disadvantageous sides of the steam engine on industrial revolution despite having the numerous contributions.

Expansion of Empires

The steam engine facilitated the expansion of empires and hence the spread of industrial revolution to other regions. European nations’ exploration increased since the steam engines enhanced transportation of goods, and people across the world. During the 16th century, the European ships and merchants had sailed to various parts of the world and they were able to identify new raw products, which could be imported to Europe. The industrialized countries later used steam engines to search for raw materials. For example, Britain got colonies from the Caribbean, India subcontinent, North America, and West Africa. The colonies were carefully selected to ensure they had the raw materials needed for the factories. Britain enjoyed huge profits from sales in the increasing populations caused by urbanization becoming one of the extensive European empires (Mkoren).

The steam engines helped propel industrial revolution, and this resulted to the creation of new jobs to the people, which drew them to the urban areas. The people were unemployed hence had no option but to move to urban areas to find employment in the factories.  The new urban centers became overcrowded due to the increased population, therefore, resulting in poor living conditions. The urban areas had unsanitary living conditions prone to diseases, and pollution. However, the working class living conditions improved in the 19th century, when governments made changes in labor reforms allowing workers to join trade unions thus able to fight for their rights collectively.

Environmental Impacts

Steam engines led to mechanization during industrial revolution thus increasing productivity. However, the steam engines used wood and coal to produce steam, and their combustion led to the emission of carbon dioxide to the environment. Due to the increased use of the steam engine, the air was continuously polluted by the carbon dioxide. Also, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas increased the chances of global warming due to its high production levels (Jacob). Negative effects to the environment was one of the major harmful effects on the steam engine contribution to the industrial revolution.


In recap, it is evident that steam engine was behind the success of the industrial revolution. Despite being used in industries to run machines, it was also used in both ships and trains, which enabled the transport of products, humans, and foodstuffs. In the US, steamships and steam trains facilitated the movement of populations. This led to urbanization, a significant character of industrialization, and which in turn changed the shape of the international trade. The invention also influenced the relocation of factories as they were no longer dependent on rivers for sources of power. Factories and industries could be located anywhere as long as there was the availability of steam engine to run the machines. Usage of the engines by European nations like Britain, France, and Belgium gave opportunities for bigger exports of raw materials from other regions such as Africa. European countries with industrial powers used the new empires to accumulate more resources despite widening markets for the products from industries in their home countries. Nevertheless, innovation of the steam engine gave rise to many technological changes over the years, which enhanced the growth of countries’ economies. Its development led to strong economic stimuli, which was connected to the growth of the European industries and other continents such as America and Japan.

Works Cited

Allen, Robert C. The British industrial revolution in global perspective. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Bekkers, Rudi. “The development of European mobile telecommunications standards.”¬†An assessment of the success of GSM, TETRA, ERMES, and UMTS. Eindhoven, Universiteit Eindhoven¬†(2001).

Cummins, J. (2018). How Did the Invention of the Steam Engine Change the Way People Work? | Synonym. Retrieved from https://classroom.synonym.com/did-invention-steam-engine-change-way-people-worked-13612.html

Jacob, Theodore. “Steam Engines During The Industrial Revolution.” 1822, https://world2021.weebly.com/the-steam-engine-changed-the-world.html. Accessed 17 May 2018.

Kemble, Jean. United States Immigration, 1840-1940: A Selective Guide to Materials in the British Library, 2003. Web, 16 May 2018

Kim Suk koo. Immigration, Industrial Revolution and Urban Growth in the United States, 1820-1920: Factors Endowments, Technology, and Geography. Washington Unversity in St. Louis and NBER, Jan. 2007. Web, 16 May 2018

Kim, Suk koo. ‚ÄúIndustrialization and Urbanization: Did the Steam Engine Contribute to the growth of Cities in the United States?‚ÄĚ Exploration in Economic History, 42 (2005): 586-598. Web, 16 May 2018

Knox, Paul, Agnew, John, & McCarthy, Linda. The Geography of the World Economy, (6th Edition). London & New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Mkoren. “What impact did the invention of the steam engine have on the industrial revolution?”¬†eNotes, 16 Oct. 2015, https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-impact-did-invention-steam-engine-have-529336. Accessed 17 May 2018

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