The History of Industrial Revolutions


We are currently in the initial phase of the fourth industrial revolution. The world has witnessed three industrial revolutions over the past 250 years.


Industrial revolutions usher in major socio-economic shifts. The first industrial revolution started in the late eighteenth century with the use of steam to power different processes. Prior to this revolution human and animal power was used for production. One of the major inventions, which symbolises this revolution, is the steam engine. Steam power was also used for driving weaving mills etc. This led to increased and localised production in factories. Due to industrialisation, there was an effect on the social structure. People started moving from villages to the cities where industries were located. We were slowly moving away from an agriculture-based society to an industry-based society. The first industrial revolution emerged in England, spreading to different parts of the world over the course of a century.

The second industrial revolution took place approximately a century after the first. A key driver of this revolution was the invention of electricity. During the second industrial revolution, steam power was replaced by electric power. Slowly, electricity began to replace steam in industrial production. Another major invention was that of electric motors, which led to assembly lines and mass production. The invention of electricity changed society in a significant way, giving people the possibility of social and economic lives, after sunset.  possible to have social activities even after sunset.

The third industrial revolution started in the second half of the twentieth century. Igniting this revolution was the advancement in the semiconductor industry. Transistors were invented in 1947 at the Bell labs in the United States of America (USA). The invention of transistors made it possible to digitise and therefore and store information easily. This revolution also saw the advent of computers leading to the automation of industries, thus increasing the production and efficiency. Another important invention of the third industrial revolution was the Internet, which resulted in worldwide virtual connection.

Figure 1


The fourth industrial revolution is not simply an extension of the third industrial revolution with increases in computing power and better connectivity. Of importance to understand is that the fourth industrial revolution is a result of the confluence of multiple technologies, which have previously existed in isolation. For this reason, the 4IR is characterised as the union of the digital, physical and biological worlds[1].


The Socio-Economy in Historical Context

Undoubtedly, the 4IR represents an opportunity to place South Africa in a leadership role, casting behind a history of exploitation and exclusion. To achieve this, we must develop a deep understanding of our past, recognising that it is not a failure of human capabilities but rather a clash in economic and social value systems that resulted in grossly unequal outcomes.

Indeed, scholarly accounts of the nature, origins, and impact of industrial change in Africa often begin with the emergence of British industrialisation in the latter part of the 18th century and into the 19th century (de la Escosura, 2004; Harvie, Martin, and Scharf, 1970; Hopkins, 2000). In an attempt to explain more recent examples of rapid industrial development and socio-economic change, the focus has shifted from the European (and mainly British) cases to the East Asian examples (see Evans, 1998; Gareth, 2010; Kay, 2010; Sugihara, 2007). Within this context, considerations of the economic profile of various parts of Africa (and other regions that were colonised) are eclipsed save only to highlight the extent of Europe’s (or Asian Tigers’) relative economic and industrial advancement during the same time period. Not only this, but the story of industrialisation or that of emergent economic organisation beyond sole reliance on agriculture tends also to pivot towards European intervention in African society and economy rather than endogenous developments (see for example Fine and Rustomjee, 1996; Marks and Rathbone, 1982).

In recent years, studies on the Kingdom of Mapungubwe (c.1075–1220) have shifted away from the mainly archaeological, geological, and environmental to the construction of a narrative around the Kingdom’s socio-cultural legacy in Southern Africa. Notably in South Africa, the discursive (re)construction of Mapungubwe  (Carruthers, 2006; Chirikure, Schoeman, Hay, & Browne, 2015; Pikirayi, 2009) has come to serve a number of politically and culturally justifiable ends central to which the kingdom’s technical capability in mineral extraction have been highlighted (Chirikure, 2007) as well as Africa’s self-directed insertion into global trade networks across the Indian (and Atlantic) Ocean world (Pwiti, 1991; Reid and Segobye, 2000; Wood, 2000).

Mapungubwe was a precolonial Southern-African state located at the regional confluence of present-day South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. At its height, the kingdom had a population of 5000 people and was organised around a class-based social order due, in part, to political-elites’ access to and control over gold and ivory trade (Huffman, 2008). Although initially a trade good along the East coast of Africa, over time gold assumed important symbolic value within Mapungubwe society itself, replacing the centrality of cattle as the principal marker of wealth and status (Woodborne, Pienaar, and Tiley-Nel, 2009).

Therefore, central to the evaluation of history is an appreciation of the distinction between industrialisation and industrial capabilities. What this section surfaces is the fact that science and the attendant industrial capabilities it produces were not limited to 16th century Europe. Indeed, at the intersection of modern-day Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, existed an advanced civilisation, Mapungubwe, which contained within it industrial capabilities and international trade sophistication in as early a time as the 12th century.

The below timeline contextualises Africa’s industrial capabilities starting 1000 BC.

Figure 2

South Africa’s current position then as a developing nation, in spite of Mapungubwe, reveals the important, arguably missing, linkage between scientific and industrial capabilities and capital accumulation. Thus, in contemplating South Africa’s development outlook in the 4IR, we seek to understand the kind of balance that must be struck between science and capital in order to produce economic competitiveness and societal wellbeing.