GEOG 597i
Critical Geospatial Thinking and Applications


The Basic Factors of Production

Currently, the world is experiencing another major technological revolution that is altering landscapes and changing systems of occupancy, Professional geographers are just beginning to examine the impacts of these changes, and have only started to develop the tools of spatial analysis that are needed to explain the nature and spatial impacts of modern communications technology and cyberspace.

During the 16th century, the economies of most European nations were controlled by mercantilism. In this system, governments controlled the economy (and in doing this, attempted to accumulate vast stores of gold and silver). For the most part, the preferences of consumers and the desires of those engaged in commerce mattered far less than the edicts of the government. Governments set prices, guilds decided who could become a craftsman, and international trade was regulated by tariffs and treaties. Trading companies in favor with the central government (normally the crown) received preferential treatment and, of course, the bottom line was always to do things in a way that was the most beneficial to the government. 

In the late 18th century, people began to try to find ways around the limitations imposed via mercantilism. This has often been described as the beginning of economic liberalism. It is probably reasonable to suggest that the majority of the initial impetus for shifting from mercantilism to capitalism originated in Great Britain. Here in the 18th century, improvements in agricultural techniques were transforming life, and the creation of the steam engine ignited the Industrial Revolution.

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, no one could have predicted the immense impacts that industrialization and machines would have on the landscape. Although the Industrial Revolution did not begin in the United States, no other nation so quickly moved to industrialize once the technologies of steam power were perfected. The steam engine came into being in the coal mines of the United Kingdom as a means of pumping water out of the mines. That steam power was invented in this setting is not surprising because all the elements needed to fuel and operate a steam engine were immediately available. Moreover, there was a need for an efficient way to rid the mines of water.

Aeolipile, Early Steam Engine
Figure 7.1: Early Steam Engine (Aeolipile).
Credit: Public Domain via Wikipedia from Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary, 1876.

Once the steam engine was invented, its potential for a variety of applications soon became apparent. By the last years of the eighteenth century, steam engines had been harnessed to power loams, spinning equipment, and so on. In the early years of the nineteenth century, steam powered ships greatly reduced the friction of distance and made it far easier to transport cargo all over the world. By the end of the 1830s, steam-powered trains were starting to traverse the landscapes of advanced nations, thereby reducing the economic importance of distance. For example, before rail transportation was available, farmers in the prairie states of Iowa and Illinois were unable to easily ship animals and other products to market. Once they were served by the railroads, however, they could grow corn, feed it to hogs, and then ship the hogs to the big markets in the eastern part of the nation (they were also assisted in this endeavor by the invention of the iron mold-board plow that was able to cut through the heavy prairie soils).


Check Your Understanding

The rail road changed rural land use patterns in the prairie states because it:

A. made it easier to plow the soil
B. reduced the friction of distance between urban markets and the rural areas
C. provided jobs building lines
D. provided a market for coal

Click for answer.

The answer is B. reduced the friction of distance between urban markets and the rural areas

As transportation systems improved, and industrialization occurred in the United States and in many other parts of the world (especially in Europe), geographers, and economists found it necessary to develop new tools of analysis with which to analyze and explain the spatial impacts of these innovations and the new resultant systems of human occupancy.

As we work through industrial location theory models, it is well to remember that at the beginning of the industrial revolution, capitalism was a relatively new economic system. In fact, it was not actually defined and explained in any meaningful way until Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Of course elements of free enterprise had been developing for some time before Smith wrote about it. Nevertheless, the forces of capitalism and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution occurred almost simultaneously. Additionally, the United States emerged as a nation state at the same time. 

Early Locomotive
Figure 7.2: First Steam Locomotive.

As stated earlier, the Industrial Revolution began in England, but it quickly spread throughout many parts of the world. By the early years of the twentieth century, industrialized nations including almost all of Europe and Japan had developed rail systems. In the third world, however, industrialization and machines were generally confined to a few urban places. 

The development and spread of industrial capitalism created a new integrated world economy that came to be dominated by a few great powers. This system of industrial capitalism was characterized by the exchange of manufactured goods produced by developed nations for food and primary-sector products from underdeveloped countries. 

Another feature of this system of large-scale industry is that some types of manufacturing were scattered about the landscape while others concentrated in a few locations. These patterns are a function of variations in the cost of production, markets, and the ways various industries combine factors of production. Additionally, the spatial patterns of industrialization are influenced by the natural environment, as well as political and cultural systems.