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Four Industrial Revolutions and Counting

Michelle Ross

Four Industrial Revolutions and Counting

“The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril.” - Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, The Fourth Industrial Revolution

A revolution is a rotation. A replacement. A radical change. So what does that mean in context of the industrial revolutions? We’ve quizzed family and friends on the industrial revolutions and discovered most people can’t remember what the different revolutions signified. Some actually said, “Wait, there’s more than one?” So imagine the bug eyes and jaw drops when we asked if they were ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, because guess what, it’s here. There’s no need to go back school, we’ve summarized an abridged history of the four industrial revolutions. Strap in. Time and tech move fast. 

*Sidenote: When we speak of these industrial revolutions, it is important to remember that we are speaking about society and economics in developed countries. Klaus Schwab reminds us in his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, that “the second industrial revolution has yet to be fully experienced by 17% of the world as nearly 1.3 billion people still lack access to electricity.”

Courtesy of Space News

The First Industrial Revolution circa 1784

In Europe, U.S., and parts of Asia, a mostly agrarian economy with vast rural populations transformed into an industrial economy with dense urban populations. Textile machines spun out products en masse. Iron making got a makeover. Steam arose as a power source. Pollution was born. The working class was worse off. Stock exchanges popped up, and Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” summed up the modern economy. Below are three key elements that propelled this revolution: 

Textile Mechanization: 

The handmade production of textiles was considered a cottage industry where spinners, weavers, and dyers labored in small country workshops to make wool, linen, and cotton fabric. 

Enter the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, the water frame, the power loom, and welcome to fast(er) production.

Iron Improvements: 

Iron was smelted (extracted) from ore with charcoal. A technique practiced since ancient times, desperately in need of tweaking.

Smelt with coke. Yes, you read this write. Not soda, not snow, this coke is grey and rocky-looking fuel. It’s made from coal, which means cheaper. Coincidentally, also better quality. 

Steam Power:

Before steam, we used streams. Little mills built on little rivers. And, we worked large animals into the ground...horses, donkeys, mules, oxen, you name it. 

The first steam engine was designed to pump water out of mineshafts, then was adopted in mills, distilleries, canals, etc., but steam powered boats and locomotives really blew the past away. 

The Second Industrial Revolution circa 1870

The Second Industrial Revolution is more like industrial replacements. Electricity replaces firelight. Petroleum replaced coal. Steel replaced iron. Unskilled workers replaced skilled workers. The latter wasn’t particularly planned, but that’s what happened when the assembly line and division of labor was created to bring on mass production. Below are three key elements that propelled this revolution:


Gas lamps and candles provided light, albeit meager light, what we would today call mood lighting. 

Thomas Edison shows off the incandescent light bulb and maps out electricity distribution. Wires wiggled their way into homes and business making the world a whole lot brighter. And faster. 


Need to go somewhere? Your engine’s in the stable, has four hooves, and eats hay. Need to operate something? Pump that water. Blow that steam. Burn that coal. 

Petroleum was drilled out of the earth and refined into gasoline, kerosene, and oil. That’s liquid fuel to power the plethora of inventions rolling out of the 19th century, most notably automobiles and airplanes.


A lot of hard work and innovation turned iron into something economical during industrial revolution number one. Not good enough. 

Steel replaced iron, which is actually just iron alloyed with less than 1% carbon. The price becomes competitive. And steel suddenly becomes a crucial material for railroads, ships, construction, and machinery.

The Third Industrial Revolution circa 1969

Computers. The Internet. Period. Work has gone digital, and production has met automation. It’s a world of mass communication. A world beyond this world with space expeditions. We can even live beyond what was once unbelievable with the advent of biotechnology. Even more, we can create what was once lost with renewable energy. Yes, this energy has been around since revolution one, we just didn’t know how to effectively harvest it. What’s new? We can create our own energy: nuclear power. Below are three key elements that propelled this revolution: 


No such thing. Paper dolls instead of Sims? Four Square instead of Nintendo? Radio instead of cassettes/CDs/music files?

Computers digitized the way we work granting access to information, spurring research, and expediting processes with automation. An explosion of electronic devices were created for work and leisure.


Need information? Head to the library. Or, buy a set of encyclopedias from your traveling salesman. Need to contact someone? Dial their number and hope they pick up.

Research. Email. Collaborate. Shop. Steal. Social Network. Socially influence. Bank. Philanthropic endeavor. Online gaming. Streaming. Advertise. Politicize. Store information. Share information. This list can go on.

Alternative Energy:

Forgotten already? 

Fossil Fuels like coal, gas, and petroleum. 

Renewable energy such as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, etc. is harvested through unique inventions. Clean and green. Nuclear power plants are built to generate electricity from nuclear fission, but it comes with a conundrum: radioactive waste.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution circa coming soon?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is the fusion of physical, digital, and biological and 4IR is upon us. Or is it on the horizon? Debatable. The label is new and the exact birth date of it is widely disputed, but it is agreed upon that we must prepare for extraordinary change in the next decades. Since we can’t pin down an exact definition, we made a word cloud of buzzy concepts tossed around in 4IR talk:

Klaus Schwab writes the 4IR “is not only about smart and connected machines and systems. Its scope is much wider. Occurring simultaneously are waves of further breakthroughs in areas ranging from gene sequencing to nanotechnology, from renewables to quantum computing. It is the fusion of these technologies and their interaction across the physical, digital and biological domains that make the fourth industrial revolution fundamentally different from previous revolutions.”

Hopefully this quick history cleared up foggy memories or taught you something entirely new.  If you are still confused about 4IR, check out this incredible video below from the World Economic Forum:




3) The Institute of Entrepreneurship Development

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