Chapter 18 Industrial Revolution in the West: 1700-1914

Section 1 The Industrial Revolution: First Phase

Before 1700, the primary source of energy in human societies was a combination of human and animal power, supplemented by the power of wind and running water. People made the things they needed primarily with hand tools. During the 1700s, however, this level of human existence began to change.  A spirit of improvement took hold in Britain and began to spread to the larger world.  Societies began to generate more productive and efficient technologies and methods of work, and population in these societies began to grow. A new profession emerged, engineering, pioneered by innovative people who designed new tools and useful products on an unprecedented scale. Despite initial hardship, as old ways of doing things gave way to new, soon standards of living for everyone began to rise along with the growing populations and the new industries.

Engineering breakthroughs in four key areas led this change.  The first was a new process that made iron much easier to produce in abundance.  The new iron supplied a mass market for better tools and enabled civil engineers to build new bridges able to span longer distances.  New engines made of iron were used to pump water, and then to power machinery, boats and eventually to propel locomotives over iron rails.  These engines used steam for power, with heat produced from burning coal.  Engineers also devised a way to use electricity to telegraph messages over long distances.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, a new kind of society was emerging in Europe and in parts of North America that drew people from villages and towns to rapidly growing cities.  Telegraph networks, steamships, and railways began to pull the world closer together. 

Origins.  How and why did this change come about?  No simple reason can explain such an immense transformation.  But a basic cause was a new outlook on nature and technology.  New scientific discoveries had spread the idea that nature could be explained in terms of quantities and logical relationships or laws, such as Newton's three laws of motion.  Laws of nature were open to testing and change and thus knowledge of the natural world was capable of improvement.  In the 1700s engineering innovators began to regard tools and methods of work as open to logical understanding and as capable of improvement. If modern science was the discovery of things in nature, engineering was the design of things that did not naturally exist.  But engineers sometimes made use of scientific discoveries and shared the deeper view that knowledge could be improved.

A new understanding of society also contributed.  The modern political idea that democracy and personal rights should take the place of arbitrary rule went together with the new economic idea that people should be free to choose their livelihoods and trade with whomever they wished.  Societies in which ideas about nature and technology were open to change and improvement, and in which citizens had political rights and economic freedom, were societies conducive to industrial development.

Why Britain?  Great Britain was the first country to develop a modern industrial society.  Several unique advantages encouraged industrialization.  As an island, Britain depended on a navy for defense and did not need a large standing army that could have been used to enforce the will of an arbitrary ruler at home.  The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had curbed royal authority and had established personal liberty and the supremacy of Parliament.  As a result, those who launched new business ventures – entrepreneurs – could be more certain that their freedom and wealth would not be arbitrarily taken from them.  Indeed, as they became wealthy, successful entrepreneurs could look forward to buying land and joining a traditional landowning elite that was more open to new members than the aristocracies of continental Europe.  Although the higher places in society were closed to religious minorities at the time, Quakers, Unitarians, and others were able to live and worship as they chose.  Many turned their energies to trade and industry.

The Commercialization of Agriculture

A transformation in agricultural practices helped launch Britain as an industrial society.  Until the 1700s, people in Europe still practiced open-field farming, in which land was divided into strips and worked by villagers.  About one-third of the land usually remained fallow (undisturbed) so that the soil could replenish itself.  Part of the land was also “common” land, on which anyone in the community could graze animals. Because the people did not own a specific plot of land, they had no incentive to improve it. Experimenting with new crops or methods was dangerous, since failure might easily result in famine.            

By the mid-1600s, however, farmers in the Netherlands had begun to alter this traditional pattern of farming.  The growth of Dutch commerce in the 1600s had caused more and more people to live in the cities.  These people had to be fed.  Dutch farmers innovated crop rotation with turnips and clover to restore the fertility of their soil instead of just leaving farmland unused every third year.  The new crops provided additional food, especially for animals, and gave more meat and dairy products to the national diet.

English farmers soon began to copy Dutch methods. In the early 1700s, for example, Lord Townshend, a former English ambassador to the Netherlands, introduced crop rotation on his own lands in eastern England.[1] Others in England soon followed his example.  Jethro Tull diligently applied the methods of experimentation and careful observation to determine better methods of farming. Tull also developed the seed-drill, which allowed him to use seeds more efficiently by planting them in regular rows and at the proper depth, rather than scattering them by hand over a wide area.  He also discovered that crops grew better when the area between the rows was kept clear of weeds. To clear these weeds, Tull developed the horse-drawn hoe.[2] A similarly logical approach was applied to breeding cattle and other livestock.

As the new methods of agriculture proved their value, more of England’s landowners began to adopt them. In order to do so, however, they abandoned the old open-field system.  Since the 1500s, some English landowners had been consolidating the narrow strips of land from the open-field system into larger units, which they then enclosed with hedgerows.  Originally, this enclosure movement had been designed to provide more grazing lands on which to raise sheep, whose wool was especially valuable. As a result of the new farming methods, enclosures proceeded even more rapidly from the mid-1700s. By the 1830s almost the entire countryside was enclosed by hedgerows or fences.[3]           

Enclosure required paying legal fees and planting extensive hedges to separate one farmer's land from another's. These costs were often too high for small farmers. Many of them became landless laborers, while others gave up farming and moved to the cities.[4] In their place, a new class of prosperous tenant farmers emerged, who leased substantial amounts of land from the owners. Both the lease-holding farmers and especially the landless laborers now had to work for money rather than simply producing enough from the land for themselves and their families. Thus, although enclosure concentrated more and more land in England in fewer hands, it also contributed to the increasing efficiency and productivity of English farmers, as well as to the rise of market-oriented farming. Agriculture, like trade, had become a commercial enterprise.

The Age of Iron and Steam

Better agriculture was not the only innovation pursued by English landowners in the eighteenth century.  A number of landowners also began to exploit mineral reserves under their lands, chiefly iron and coal.  

Iron and coal. By the early 1700s, British forests had been largely depleted of timber, and coal had become an increasingly important source of fuel. The shortage of wood was sharply felt in the iron-making business, which had traditionally used charcoal, a wood product, in the smelting process.  By 1713 Abraham Darby, an English ironmaker, had found that replacing charcoal with coke, a purer form of coal, made the process of smelting cast iron more efficient and economical. By the 1760s coke smelting had spread throughout Britain and reduced the cost of iron cookware and tools.  Many landowners began to seek and exploit coal and iron under their lands.  Waterways were the only practical means to ship bulk minerals and new privately built canals made it easier to move iron and coal to rivers and ports. 

The new iron made possible a great improvement in bridge building.  Abraham Darby III built an iron bridge over the Severn river in 1779. The bridge survived a flood that washed away stone bridges.  But it was Thomas Telford (1757-1834) who made full use of iron with bridges that efficiently and gracefully spanned the longer distances that the new material now made possible.   

[Insert images: Iron Bridge and Craigellachie Bridge, caption to Iron Bridge notes traditional semicircular design typical of stone bridges, caption to Craigellachie notes more graceful and longer arch span made possible with iron].

The steam engine. As the demand for coal and iron increased, coal mines were dug deeper into the earth. At a certain depth, however, they filled with water, which had to be removed using buckets drawn to the surface by people or by animals. This laborious task encouraged innovators to look for new ways to pump water.  In 1698, an army officer, Thomas Savery, invented a steam-powered pumping machine or engine, and Thomas Newcomen, a blacksmith, improved this engine in the 1720s, using iron from Abraham Darby's ironworks.[5]  But the Newcomen engine was still slow and consumed large quantities of coal.

In 1769 James Watt, a Scottish engineer, created a radically different steam engine that required only one-third as much coal and worked more rapidly. Watt went into business with an entrepreneur, Matthew Boulton, to manufacture steam engines with the help of a patent granted by Parliament in 1775.  The patent gave Watt and Boulton the right for twenty-five years to charge a licensing fee to anyone else who used their design to make steam engines.

Watt estimated that one horse could pull a pound of water up a mineshaft 330 feet high in one minute.  He called this quantity one unit of horsepower.  He used these units to measure the efficiency of his steam engine, which replaced the use of horses to draw buckets of water out of mines.  Watt's unit of horsepower later became the measurement of power in a railway locomotive and today measures the power in automobiles and airplanes. 

Manufacturing. The new steam engines did not become a widely used source of power for industry until the nineteenth century.  But in the 1780s, the ironmaster Henry Cort used steam power to make wrought iron, a form of iron that was less brittle than cast iron and that could be made into more shapes.  The textile industry, in contrast, depended on water power to grow.  But in the making of cloth a new kind of mechanized factory appeared.

Britain had long been a great exporter of wool, and much of the population spun thread and wove cloth at home during the winter.  Cotton cloth was a more comfortable material, though, and in the 1760s, James Hargreaves, a Blackburn weaver, developed the spinning jenny, a hand-powered wooden machine could spin eight cotton threads at a time. With this capability, the spinning jenny quickly replaced the traditional home spinning wheel.  Richard Arkwright then invented the water frame, a large water-powered wooden spinning machine that produced stronger threads for weaving.[6]  This machine was too large to be set up in a worker's home, so in 1771 Arkwright built a factory in Cromford, near Derby, to bring the spinners to the work, rather than taking the work to the spinners.  Within a decade this spinning mill employed 300 people.  Arkwright continued to build mills, and he soon became the richest cotton-spinner in England.[7]  The water-powered weaving loom of Edmund Cartwright in 1785 completed the mechanization of textile manufacturing, although reliable power looms did not enter service until the 1820s. 

                        Raw cotton was expensive, since it was very time consuming to pick the seeds out of the cotton.  In 1793 the American inventor Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which efficiently separated the seeds from cotton.  The cotton gin made the production of cotton in the southern United States by African slaves profitable for slave owners and textile manufacturers.  British imports of cotton from the U.S. and elsewhere rose in weight from 4 million pounds in 1761 to 100 million pounds in 1815.[8]  The British textile industry supplied a world market for British cotton cloth. Britain's cotton textile industry and its ability to make durable and inexpensive iron goods made Britain the "workshop of the world."

The textile industry shifted from water to steam power in the middle of the nineteenth century and increasingly relied on more durable machines made out of iron.  Meanwhile, steam engines themselves contributed further to the development of factories.  Boilers had to be made of heavy iron, strong enough to withstand high pressures in order to power machinery. Such large engines could not be used at home, but in factories near adequate sources of coal and water. As other industries beside textiles began to use them, they too had to establish factories.


Section 1 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

crop rotation

enclosure movement

cast iron and coke

James Watt's steam engine

textile factory  

1.      MAIN IDEA   How did agriculture become more productive in the late 1700s?

2.      MAIN IDEA  Why did industry need both iron and coal?

3.      GEOGRAPHY  Why did work move to factories? 

4.      WRITING TO EXPLAIN  In a short essay, explain why a technical innovation from the 1700s or early 1800s is still important today.