Did the Industrial Revolution Affect Human Population Size?

Increased use of soap during the Industrial Revolution curbed germ-related illnesses.
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Revolutions are generally associated with upheaval in society, effecting changes that transform a nation and its people. The Industrial Revolution, which lasted from the late 18th century until the early 1900s, changed the face of the planet. Rural societies, primarily in Europe and the United States, gave way to urbanization, and manpower was enhanced or replaced by machine power. The Industrial Revolution also had a profound impact on the human population, which more than doubled during the period due to increased food production, advances in medicine, better sanitation and an increased birthrate.

1 Food for the Masses

Improvements in agricultural methods continued to advance during the Industrial Revolution. Landowners in Great Britain enclosed their open, common lands and concentrated on making them more productive. Employing crop rotation and irrigation technology, farmers improved crop yields for market products and animal feed. The availability of better feed combined with selective breeding produced healthier stock and made more meat available to the market. These agricultural advances substantially improved the British population's diet and increased life expectancy. In the United States, railroad transport and improved refrigeration methods in the later 19th century made fresh foods more widely available for longer periods during the year.

2 Defeating Disease

Advancements in medicine during the Industrial Revolution meant more lives were saved. In 1796, Edward Jenner performed the first vaccination against smallpox by inoculating a young boy with cowpox matter. By 1840, use of the vaccine was widespread in Great Britain. Louis Pasteur determined that microscopic organisms spread diseases and discovered a way to remove germs from milk through pasteurization. On Oct. 16, 1846, ether was used for the first time as an anesthesia during surgery. The procedure, which took place at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, marked the beginning of modern medicine. The development of the ophthalmoscope, stethoscope and thermometer in the mid-1800s aided doctors in diagnosing medical conditions.

3 A Clean Sweep

An improvement to sanitary conditions during the later years of the Industrial Revolution helped bring an end to epidemics. John Snow, a British physician, determined that cholera was caused by polluted water. His suggestion to families that they boil water before use saved many lives. Great Britain's Public Health Acts of 1848 and 1875 set up local health boards and made the government responsible for investigating sanitary conditions and inspecting sewage systems. Chemists in the 1800s discovered better methods of making soap. As a result, soap became an easy to obtain product and led to improved personal hygiene and cleanliness.

4 More Choices, More Children

Higher wages drew many young people from the countryside to cities. Social life in the burgeoning cities also provided young people with more opportunities for finding a partner. In addition, the apprenticeship system, which prohibited a young man from marrying until his apprenticeship ended, was no longer commonly practiced. As a result, people married earlier, started families sooner and usually had more children. This increased the birthrate during the Industrial Revolution.

Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.