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Difference Between First and Second Industrial Revolution

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Few periods in human history have impacted the quality of life and society as much as the Industrial Revolution, which saw humanity harness new technologies and ideas at a scale never before seen. While the term is most commonly associated with the First Industrial Revolution, there have currently been four such “revolutions” to date.

How are the First and Second Industrial Revolutions different?

The main difference between the First and Second Industrial Revolutions comes from their key innovations, especially with their respective advances in the field of energy. 

The First Industrial Revolution saw new inventions in the textile manufacturing industry, machine tools and metallurgy, and introduced the steam engine. Meanwhile, the second revolution is defined by breakthroughs in long-distance communication, steel production and the adoption of railroads, chemicals, and the use of electricity.

What was the First Industrial Revolution?

first industrial revolution

The First Industrial Revolution marks the relatively rapid transition in the way that goods were produced, resources were harnessed, and labor was expended. It also includes the socio-cultural and economic reforms that resulted from these changes.

Economies that once depended on agriculture and manual labor to produce goods became much more productive with the invention of new machines, such as the spinning jenny, power loom and cotton gin.

These machines enabled the large-scale manufacturing of cloth and other goods, quickly turning the textile manufacturing sector from a household “cottage” industry to a booming part of the economy.

The Industrial Revolution also saw the widespread adoption of iron and steel as better building materials; coal; and petroleum. 

Perhaps the most influential innovation to emerge during this first stage of the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine, which allowed Britain’s mills and factories to produce goods at an unprecedented rate.

What was the Second Industrial Revolution?

second industrial revolution

The Second Industrial Revolution came as the natural next stage of rapid technological, economic, and socio-cultural progress.

Among its hallmarks were several key advances in transportation and communication. 

During this period, nations constructed many railroads, bridges and other forms of infrastructure to connect the distant reaches of their territories together, allowing trade, people, and ideas to circulate more freely. This was compounded with the rise of automobiles, bicycles, and later on, the first planes.

Meanwhile, breakthroughs in radio, telegraph and printing technologies allowed for communication across continents and seas. Information traveled at a quicker pace.

All these factors combined allowed a surge of new goods and luxuries to be made and sold to a burgeoning market of consumers, further stimulating the economy.

Differences between the First and Second Industrial Revolutions


Scholars place the beginnings of the First Industrial Revolution around the early 18th century, starting from Britain, then to continental Europe beginning with Belgium, the United States, and later to Russia and the Far East. 

In Britain, the era stretches from 1760 to the 1840s, while non-industrialized states like India and China only began the transition in the mid-20th century.

The Second Industrial Revolution began as soon as the late 19th century in industrialized countries. Its definite end came in 1913, at the cusp of the Great War.

Key Innovations

Many major innovations during the First Industrial Revolution solved supply problems in textile production, including the spinning jenny, water frame, power loom and cotton gin. 

Using steam to power mills and factories, large quantities of textiles could be produced rather rapidly. 

More efficient methods in iron production, and the first machine tools, also defined the First Industrial Revolution.

Mass manufacturing steel sparked the era of the Second Industrial Revolution. This made railway construction affordable, and encouraged the development of automobiles and trains.

Advances in chemistry allowed for the commercialization of petroleum, synthetic dyes, rubber, fertilizer, and other chemicals.

Telecommunications also became quite prominent through the telegraph, telephone, and radio. 

Advances to Energy

The First Industrial Revolution changed the dynamics of labor forever: where once many human workers had to produce goods by hand, steam engines installed in factories were able to meet supply quotas at a fraction of the cost, labor and time.

Similarly, the mass adoption of electrification in the Second Industrial Revolution made factories safer, more tolerable to workers, and much more efficient. Household use of electricity grew, raising the quality of life for millions through electric lighting, refrigeration, radio and other appliances.

Major Sociocultural Effects

Throughout the First Industrial Revolution, millions of people who had grown accustomed to rural, agrarian lifestyles moved to urban centers to work at factories and other businesses. 

At the same time, the mass manufacturing of textiles outcompeted with local tradesmen, which drove many to be factory laborers. 

Migration into cities created a host of problems: housing costs forced many to live in cramped buildings. Clean water and food were scarce; disease spread quickly. However, literacy, life expectancy and child survival rates all increased over the era.

For millions, the Second Industrial Revolution had a more positive overall effect on the quality of life.


Britain was the springboard of the First Industrial Revolution. From 1760 to 1830, the country purposely held back the spread of new technologies to create a head start against potential rivals.

However, Continental European interests coaxed British entrepreneurs to found new machine shops and factories, spreading their ideas to Belgium in 1807, then France. France became a major industrial country by 1848, while Germany only began its transition in the 1870s.

Germany and the United States rivaled Britain in steel production, and became equally prominent points of origin for the technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution. The two young countries distinguished themselves in automobile production, electrification, and chemicals.

Other Terms

The Second Industrial Revolution is also popularly known as the Technological Revolution. On the other hand, the First Industrial Revolution marks the beginning of the Industrial Age, and is sometimes used to refer to the latter. 

Comparison Chart: First Industrial Revolution Vs Second Industrial Revolution

AreasFirst Industrial RevolutionSecond Industrial Revolution
PeriodEarly 18th-Late 19th century (Europe and U.S.); 19th-20th century (Asia and elsewhere)Late 19th-Mid-20th century
Key InnovationsTextiles, steam engine, iron production, machine toolsSteel production; railroad; automobiles and trains; chemicals; telecommunications
Advances to EnergySteamElectricity
Major Sociocultural EffectsFactory system, urbanization, mixed changes to the quality of lifeMassive increases in public health, food security, consumerism culture, and globalization 
OriginMainly BritainUnited States, Britain, Germany
Other TermsIndustrial Age (associated term)Technological Revolution

How are the First and Second Industrial Revolutions similar?

Both stages of the Industrial Revolution heralded a new era of prosperity for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Compounding advances in science and technology gave people the means to extract, produce and distribute things more efficiently – from consumer goods to human needs, such as clean water and food.

With economies booming, people enjoyed a gradual but noticeable rise in their overall quality of life, income, literacy, and life expectancy. Urban centers allowed various cultures, ideas and movements to congregate. 

The First and Second Industrial Revolutions both steered the world towards a future where people were freer, healthier and more educated.


How do steam engines work?

Steam engines harness the power of steam to operate machines.

In its simplest form, a steam engine has a compartment that burns coal. The heat from the resulting fire is used to turn water in a boiler into steam. 

Instead of escaping freely into the atmosphere, the steam is directed via pipes into a cylinder. The pressure in the engine causes steam to expand; as it does so, it pushes a piston, converting heat energy into work.

The piston is connected to a crank attached to a flywheel. When the piston moves, the crank produces rotational motion that can be used for operating many kinds of machinery, from textile equipment to automobiles.

Why was petroleum so important to the Industrial Revolution?

Petroleum is a fossil fuel that can be processed into gasoline or kerosene for fuel, as well as other products, such as asphalt.

Scotland in the 1850s pioneered the production and refining of petroleum, birthing the entire industry. Chemist James Young built the first oil-working refinery there to process crude oil into naphtha, lubricants, and paraffin for fuel.

Compared to coal, petroleum-based fuels contained about twice as much energy, making them a more economical way to power engines, factories and households. 

By providing a cheaper energy source for various needs, productivity and living conditions during the Industrial Revolution further improved.


The First and Second Industrial Revolutions brought a deluge of new technologies and scientific advancements which led to immense growth in production, quality of life, and economy in many parts of the world.

The key differences between the First and Second Industrial Revolutions are found in their respective innovations in different fields.

The First Industrial Revolution had four primary advances – the invention of the first machine tools, mass manufacturing for textiles; efficient iron production; and the adoption of steam engines. Factories and mills which ran on steam provided goods at a fraction of the cost and time of inefficient human labor. 

The following Second Industrial Revolution expanded on many of these advances – abundant iron supplies gave way to the mass manufacturing of steel, which allowed railways, trains, automobiles and better ships to connect countries and continents. Petroleum supplanted coal as a more efficient energy source, chemicals became a vital part of many industries, and breakthroughs in telecommunications let information travel the world faster than ever.

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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
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