Get detail on the history of the first, second, and third industrial revolutions, and a high-level overview of the fourth industrial revolution.
- Just over 300 years ago the global population is small, with limited trade existing between different peoples. There are no factories and no mass production. Things are crafted by hand and most people live off the land. In the mid 1700s, change begins in Britain. The invention of a steam-powered motor enabled all manner of mechanization. The mass production of low-cost iron and steel led to the building of large, strong and complex machines for manufacturing and structures.
Then the automation of textile manufacturing was pioneered using inventions such as the spinning jenny. Industrialization ushered in the first factories which resulted in significant socioeconomic change. Houses were built around factories to keep labor close. Mass production was born. Unions emerged to support worker rights, formal large scale primary education systems were established to educate children who were once captive to a farm or factory floor.
Farm workers seeking better economic circumstances flocked to these new urban centers, creating rapidly growing cities. Within just a few decades, Britain and many other nations were being transformed. Cities grew quickly, science prospered. Big diseases such as smallpox began to be conquered. For the first time, large numbers of people had more free time and discretionary income. Mainstream banking emerged.
Significant positive change occurred but so did other challenges. With few safety nets, many people suffered in this new industrial landscape. New industrial nations began to compete and different economic systems emerged that would lead eventually to two world wars. In the mid to late 1800s, another pattern of industrial change began to emerge that appears to overlap with the first. Probably the most important technology of the second industrial revolution was the application of electricity.
Particularly its widespread availability to the public. It's hard to overstate the difference between a world with and without electricity. Electricity enabled the telephone to be invented and transformed how humans communicated. What appeared first as magic allowed people to speak to each other over great distances, including vast oceans. The second industrial revolution also introduced the gas-powered combustion engine which led of the emergence of the automobile and the airplane.
Transportation would never be the same. Highways and airports were built, connecting communities and countries. Better technology also allowed railways to greatly expand and become more efficient. Beginning in the late 1940s, a third industrial revolution started arguably the most important technology that triggered this revolution was the invention of the transistor. This revolutionary technology uses semiconducting material to control the state of electricity passing through it.
By controlling the state of an electrical current analog information can be stored and communicated electronically. Early on transistors enabled smaller radios and low cost calculators. Both military and space ambitions in the United States accelerated rapid transistor innovation in the 1950s. Later, when the semiconductor material used was largely silicon, miniaturization of the transistors into tiny silicon chips enabled the development of modern computers.
The low cost, mass production of the silicon chip enabled the broad development of computing technology. Unlike the first and second industrial revolutions, which mechanized manual processes, the third revolution is characterized by digitization. Or the process by which a computer processes information. It was only a matter of time before connecting computers together also meant that data and other resources, such as printers, could be shared.
Then in the '90s, a way to connect documents within and between systems emerged, called the World Wide Web. Now with a computer and a telephone connection millions could access an abundance of information that knew few barriers. The internet was immediately a compelling platform for all manner of information sharing. And companies found it powerful for making their services known. In the late '90 and early 2000's a new phase of the internet began called Web 2.0.
This was the adoption of dynamic web experiences rather than just static webpages. The web became a multi billion dollar global platform that remove the constraints of geography and time. While this is a world where still half the planet does not have access to the internet, with the rapid pace of connecting more people it's only a matter of time. Just wait until three billion more get online every day. Today we continue to reinvent and create new services using our internet connected smartphones and our increasingly connected homes that suggest a bigger, more consequential changes ahead.
It will overlap with the existing revolution but will mark a distinctive new long wave. The fourth industrial revolution is just beginning to take shape. So it will be some time before a full appreciation of the major patterns emerge. This also means that a proper definition will be illusive for some time. Researching the topic online is going to produce a variety of perspectives. While sometimes referred to as Industry 4.0, I believe the fourth industrial revolution goes much further than just the traditional high tech manufacturing aspects.
The fourth industrial revolution is about the technology, socioeconomics, and culture of bits but it's a lot more, it's also about atoms. It's about the physical world too. It's about new ways of building things, about robots and drones, of self driving cars, and smart, connected cities. Most importantly, it's about the intersection of innovating with bits and atoms. It's reinvention through the combination of both the digital and physical worlds.
Right now, it's hard to conceptualize what this means. We'll need to think big and boldly. When we reinvent through the lens of digital and physical, it means rethinking subjects as diverse as our cities, our work, our money, our ethics, how we are entertained and how we play. And then fundamentally, our purpose and role in this world.
- History of the four industrial revolutions
- What has changed in science and culture
- Core technologies: AI, Internet of Things, and more
- Impact of the fourth industrial revolution
- Taking action