The Industrial Revolution represents both a revolution in the economic structure of Europe and a transformation in European society. While the Industrial Revolution produced such tangibles as steam engines, railroads, and the factory system, it also brought with it the formation of social class and, equally important, class consciousness. Historians have long pondered the question, "Why England?" Despite their varied answers, it is undeniable that England was the first nation to industrialize. The existence of a significant natural resource base, the enclosure movement, entrepreneurial skill, a commercial society, wide and varied domestic and foreign markets, and a government willing to back industrial enterprise all combined to allow England to become the first industrial nation, and by 1850, the "Workshop of the World." The English also made numerous technological advances in specific industries, specifically cotton manufacture and coal mining, that allowed them to open up additional opportunities to facilitate greater opportunities for innovation.
Our image of the Industrial Revolution, however, is often clouded by factories outfitted with steam engines, belching acrid smoke into the overcrowded cities of England, France, and Germany. What such an image sometimes ignores is that industrialization was not monolithic. For instance, many employers were hesitant to use steam-driven machinery. Industrialization was erratic and sporadic; it did not follow a singular path. Regional variations in the acceptance of machinery or the factory system meant that some industries were mechanized or rationalized, while others were not. The notion that all technological innovations were put into immediate practice is a twentieth-century development. Furthermore, the revolution in industry was an unplanned event; many nineteenth-century critics interpreted industrialization as a speedily passing phase of human existence.
The Industrial Revolution also brought many hardships. Some of these problems were created by the revolution itself while others were exacerbated by it. New wealth meant many new opportunities for captains of industry and those that were employed by them. But new wealth also meant overcrowding, poor housing, poor working conditions, long hours, and low wages for most working-class people who were not skilled workers. Although European historians can identify the "middling folk" and the "common people" well before the onset of industrialization, it was only during the nineteenth century that these social orders took on new meanings as social classes, with distinct systems of values and worldviews.
The immediate consequences of the Industrial Revolution highlight the fact that the revolution in industry was unplanned and unregulated. After all, Europe had never seen anything like it before. Men and women of differing social classes had to adjust to a changed environment, an environment that was their experience, not just the backdrop to their experience. One thing is certain: whether one was a factory worker or a member of the "respectable" middle class, no one was left untouched by the social implications of the Industrial Revolution.