Like their ancestors, these people knew little of the world that existed beyond their village. The few who left home traveled only as far as their feet or a horse-drawn cart could take them. Those bold adventurers who dared to cross the seas were at the mercy of the winds and tides.

Growing Cities

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the rural way of life began to disappear. By the 1850s, many country villages had grown into industrial towns and cities. Those who lived there were able to buy clothing and food that someone else produced.

Industrialization Brings Great Change

Unlike earlier times, industrial-age travelers were able to move rapidly between countries and continents by train or steamship. Urgent messages flew along telegraph wires. New inventions and scientific “firsts” poured forth each year.

Between 1830 and 1855, for example, an American dentist first used an anesthetic, or drug that prevents pain during surgery; an American inventor patented the first sewing machine; a French physicist measured the speed of light; and a Hungarian doctor introduced antiseptic methods to reduce the risk of women's dying in childbirth. By the early 1900s, our familiar world of skyscraper cities and carefully planned suburbs had begun to emerge.

How and why did these great changes occur? Historians point to a series of interrelated causes that helped trigger the industrialization of the West. The “West” referred originally to the industrialized countries of western Europe and North America, but today includes many more.

A New Agricultural Revolution

Oddly enough, the Industrial Revolution was made possible in part by a change in the farming fields of western Europe. The first agricultural revolution took place some 11,000 years ago, when people learned to farm and domesticate animals. Then, about 300 years ago, a second agricultural revolution took place that greatly improved the quality and quantity of farm products.

Farmers Reclaim Land and Renew Soil

The Dutch led the way in this new agricultural revolution. They built earthen walls known as dikes to reclaim land from the sea. They also combined smaller fields into larger ones to make better use of the land, and they used fertilizer from livestock to renew the soil.

In the 1700s, British farmers expanded on Dutch agricultural experiments. Educated farmers exchanged news of experiments through farm journals. Some farmers mixed different kinds of soils to get higher crop yields. Others tried out new methods of crop rotation.

Lord Charles Townshend urged farmers to grow turnips, which restored exhausted soil. Jethro Tull invented a new mechanical device, the seed drill, to aid farmers. It deposited seeds in rows to maximize land use rather than scattering them over land, a practice that wasted seeds by spacing plants irregularly.

Wealthy Landowners Enclose Lands

Meanwhile, wealthy landowners pushed ahead with a practice called enclosure. Enclosure is the process of taking over and consolidating, or combining, lands formerly shared by peasant farmers. In the 1500s, landowners had enclosed land to gain more pastures for sheep in order to increase wool output. By the 1700s, they wanted to create larger fields that could be cultivated more efficiently. The British Parliament passed laws that made it easier for landowners to enclose lands.

Illustration of a patient lying on a bed behind a screen, surrounded by nurses and doctors. One doctor is placing a collapsible bag to the patient’s face, while nurses hold pans, tubes and a tank spraying a substance.

An American dentist demonstrates the use of ether as a surgical anesthetic in 1846.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments