Origins of the 4th Industrial Revolution

Photo Credit Brett Ryder

A Brief History of the Four Industrial Revolutions

The best way to understand the 4th Industrial Revolution is to review the prior industrial revolutions which led up to where we currently are. I'm aware of the many differences historians have in regards to one, two, three or four revolutions not to mention when exactly they happened and what the core drivers were. So take this as a brief overview of where we've been and where we are now so that we can understand where we are going. 

The foundations of the First Industrial Revolution (FIR) began in 1712 when Thomas Newcomen developed a steam engine water pump that generated the equivalent of 20 HP which served as the basis for innovations by James Watts and many other inventors, industrialists and scientists. However, the First Industrial Revolution didn't take off in earnest until 1760 when there was a noticeable shift in fuel (wood to coal.) People transitioned from agrarian work to industrial work, and new industries developed such as textiles, rail and steam engine powered production. The two primary drivers for the FIR were coal and cotton which created strong feedback loops with the textile, rail and coal industries. 

The Second Industrial Revolution (SIR) was a further innovation in technology, materials and industries of the FIR. As improvements led to more products being available. Innovations like electricity, commercial planes, the combustion engine, the Model-T and assembly line manufacturing revolutionized the economy and the capacity to produce new products quickly. The positive feedback loop of the SIR continued until the 1960's when the first semiconductors and mainframe computers came into service, this launched the beginning of the Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) or what is also known as the digital revolution. The 1980's progressed the Personal Computing Revolution (PCR) which was a subset of the the TIR where more companies and households had computers to assist them in their work or private endeavors. The last leg of the TIR was the advent of mass availability of the internet via dial-up, DSL, cable and satellite which led to the Internet Revolution (IR) which was a critical factor in pushing the rate of innovation, sharing of information and overall connectivity of people around the world. 

Presently we are at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) where the foundations laid by the previous three revolutions are being pulled together into a completely new way of producing goods, working and thinking about the future. The 4IR is characterized by advancements in artificial intelligence, blockchains, internet of things (IoT), robotics, automation, self driving cars, 3D printing and many other innovative and ground breaking technologies. Even though the technologies and industries are very different in the 4IR in comparison to the First Industrial Revolution the drivers are still the same: improve the efficiency and productivity of production while lowering the cost of production to offer consumers goods and services at more competitive prices.

Manufacturing in the 4th Industrial Revolution is highly efficient, highly bespoke process as factories have become more agile and flexible in their processes to meet the constraints of super lean supply chains and faster changes in the market demands. 4IR factories are able to accomplish this because they have become smart factories able to independently handle many functions previously handled by a human worker. Components are self tracking, self assembling and self assessing for processing escalations and notifying a human worker only when necessary.  However, this is just the tip of the iceberg when we are discussing 4IR. Where FIR and SIR leveraged the physical strength of human workers, TIR and 4IR have been primarily focused on augmenting, enhancing and in many cases replacing human workers. 4IR is also different from the previous industrial revolutions in that it is impacting workers across all sectors of the economy, not just the factory or lower skilled workers. Employment and overall job losses are risks that will have to be addressed in the Risks of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolutions

First Industrial Revolution 1760-1840

The First Industrial Revolution (FIR) was the first major move from agrarian to industrial societies. This was manifested in the development of the first steam engines, textile mills, rail ways and the increase in movements of people between communities for work.  

The FIR started geographically in Britain and later made it's way to the United States with the migration of Samuel Slater in 1789 who brought the technological know-how for textile manufacturing to the United States. This caused quite the uproar in England as exporting technological know-how related to textiles was strictly outlawed.

Second Industrial Revolution 1860-1920

The Second Industrial Revolution (SIR) built upon the technologies of the FIR. New methods of production came into the market like assembly lines which increased the developmental capacity of factories and brought the price of cars down significantly.

Electricity also played a huge role in the SIR in the commercial and private sectors as it transitioned the country away from kerosene to electricity to light their homes and power their plants. The innovations in electrical products and the development of electric grids across the United States and Western Europe created the solid foundations for later developments in digital realm.


Third Industrial Revolution 1960-2000

The Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) can best be understood as the sequences of smaller revolutions which occurred within the TIR. First in the 1960 the first mainframe computers and semiconductors started to appear in the market. This became the start of the Digital Revolution (DR). The semiconductor industry continues to be strong around the world with an aggregate $335 billion in revenue in 2015.   

Next came the Personal Computing Revolution (PCR) in the 1980's which ushered in the era of computing at work and at home to complete many of our everyday tasks. But what was critical about the PCR is that this was the first time we started to use machines across a broad array of tasks to enhance and amplify our mental outputs. Computers started to be used to compute large data sets in programs like excel which opened up many industries to new workers who no longer had to be as skilled in longhand calculations. As computers became more commonplace it was only natural that computers should be able to connect to each other without having to use a floppy disk to transfer data from system to system.

The Internet Revolution (IR) of the 1990's was the commercial expansion of data connectivity across the United States, Europe, Asia and the rest of the world. This connectivity took the form of dial up, DSL, cable and now satellite in many areas. What separates the IR from previous internet capabilities like Arpanet and others from the 1960's to the late 1980's is that they were smaller niche platforms that were not available to the mass market and hence had negligible impacts on the connectivity of the world at large. 

The Video Game Revolution (VGR) while not commonly written about anywhere or given it's due credit in the development of computing power, graphics and internet connected platforms and mass consumption of technology products across demographics and geographies. There was very limited demand for additional computing power from the standard operating programs on most standard systems, spreadsheets, word processing and basic email were all relatively undemanding in terms of computing power. However, the games that were being developed drove the demand for better and better RAM, storage space, graphics cards and complexity. 

It was this rise in complexity and computational demands that caused our current computers to become as robust and versatile as they are. At the same time the advances in computing technologies provided amazing platforms for new software companies to develop innovative consumer products which handled everything from their accounting, to web design, to graphic design. This created the foundations for the Software Revolution (SWR) which along with VGR created positive feedback loops which increased the rate of improvements in computing power and capbilities.