History of England

Lecture: Industrialization

Lecture Outline

Industrial Revolution

Since my concentration for my master's thesis was on medieval technology, I was always reluctant to look at the so-called "Industrial Revolution" as anything very special. Instead, I developed a theory of Industrial Continuum. Humans have always developed technology to deal with their environment. Sources of energy developed on a continuum from human power, to animal power, to water power, to steam power, to nuclear power, etc. The "steam power" section seemed like no greater a leap than the others. Yet there were two crucial differences between the Industrial Revolution that occurred from about 1750-1850 and the ones that came before. This Industrial Revolution caused the advent of intense fossil fuel usage, and the subsequent environmental destruction and greenhouse effect. It also had a deep social impact that is felt even today.

Textiles and Technology

Britain led the way in the Industrial Revolution in Europe, and the technology that defined the era began in the textile industry. Let's review the events. Great Wheel

Prior to the 18th century, cloth production was dependent on two technologies. The spinning wheel had come into common use in the Middle Ages, and had been a minor improvement over hand-spinning with a spindle. The first spinning wheels were called "Great Wheels" because they were so large. The spinner would stand in front of the wheel, spinning the wheel with her right hand while teasing out fibers with her left. By the 16th century, some spinning wheels were foot-powered, using a pedal to push down one end of a crank, which turned the wheel. The spinner could sit in front of the wheel, turning it with foot-power, and using both hands to tease out the fiber. This was much, much faster. The weaving was done with the same sort of hand loom used during the Middle Ages, improved only with the use of more foot pedals to lift more heddles and thus make more complex designs. The amount of yarn output from England's spinning wheels just about met the demand for the weavers, thus the two technologies (forgive the pun) meshed. Kay's Flying Shuttle

But in 1733, an inventor named John Kay sped up the weaving process. Before Kay's invention, men on each side of the cloth being woven handed the shuttle back and forth to create the weft. Each man had to be pretty tall to reach across and make a broadcloth six feet wide, while the weaver sat at the pedals and tamped down the weft into the warp. In other words, it took three people to work a loom. Kay's "flying shuttle" made a track for the shuttle with a spring at either end. A lone weaver could jerk a handle, attached by leather leads to the springs, and make the shuttle go back and forth. It went so fast it looked like it was flying, hence the name.

The problem was that the new loom used yarn so fast, the spinning wheels of England couldn't keep up. A "technological bottleneck" developed and, in the tradition of English science and technological inventiveness, the problem was solved. Hargreaves (and others) designed a "spinning jenny", where one wheel could turn ten spindles simultaneously using multiple straps attached to one wheel shaft. Jennies got very big; some could handle fifty spindles at once.

As these technologies developed, it became logical to look for a source of power stronger than a human being to run the machines. Water power was ideal. Hook the spinning jenny up to a waterwheel and you have a water frame, developed by Richard Arkwright. Hook a flying shuttle loom up to a waterwheel and you have Cartwright's power loom. [Side note: notice how Arkwright and Cartwright both have medieval occupational surnames that show a family tendency to manufacture things!] spinning machine

These inventions increased the production of cloth, and not just the woolen cloth of the Middle Ages. Cotton was the fabric of the Industrial Revolution, grown in Egypt, India, and the southern U.S. and imported as a raw material. In the tradition of British colonialism, the finished cloth was manufactured in the new water-driven factories and then sold in the colonies.

Canal Boom

James Burke, in his book The Day the Universe Changed, discusses why the new technologies did not immediately lead to progress. Imagine England in the 18th century. By 1750, there was little plague, since the European brown rat had displaced the Eurasian black rat. New technologies in agriculture, including improved rotation and the adoption of New World crops (remember the potato?) were causing a massive population increase. The increase was so sudden and so great that Thomas Malthus (you had his document last week) wrote his dismal theory about the population forever outrunning the food supply. The climate was improving with a nice warming trend, leading to even better harvests. Most lands were enclosed, so innovative landlords could make improvements. There was also the continually enlarging middle class, making money off of joint-stock company investments, sugar plantations in the Caribbean, etc. The "new gentry" were building houses and buying goods from China in what they thought was imitation of the aristocracy. small bookAdam Smith was developing his free trade theories, the acceptance of which was undermining mercantilism and providing more opportunities to get involved in trade.

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Most production of goods was centered in rural areas. This started, you'll remember (my theory) because of the medieval fulling mill bringing the processes out to the water-power locations. The invention of more water-powered textile machinery had solidified this trend, along with the continued use of peasant labor to do piece work. Good weather and declining food prices meant that peasants had more money to spend too, because they were eating more and paying less. At the military level, Britain was gaining control of the sea lanes, which she would secure in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon. So there was a lot of money in circulation, and a big domestic market for goods, and lots of new inventions. But the problem was the roads.

Despite the fact that in 1663 Parliament had ordered local Justices of the Peace to improve local roads, road transportation was hazardous and inefficient. Few JPs cared, and maintenance was irregular. Few people travelled more than a few miles from their homes, so few locals complained. As James Burke put it:

An act passed in 1691 providing for all main roads to be widened to eight feet was ignored. Upkeep by local labour was irregular. Once a year the rutted tracks which served as roads and which were a nightmare of dust in summer and a sea of mud in winter were further disturbed by the passage of forty thousand Highland cattle and thirty thousand Welsh animals to Smithfield Market in London.
Bridgewater's Canal This transportation problem was solved by canals. Canals were perfect because water was plentiful, and they could carry far more tonnage for less money. They were financed by trading profits and other money surplus, and were begun by private investors in 1757. The Duke of Bridgewater owned a coal mine, and built the first major canal to transport coal from the mine to Manchester to supply the town. What had cost two pounds per ton over the roads cost only six shillings on the canal. He made a fortune, and sparked a canal boom.

The canals were built by "navvies" or navigators, primarily Irishmen. They were built as cheaply as possible, and tended to follow the contours of the land because the length of a canal didn't matter, but the time it took to cut into the land did. Some canals were no more than big trenches, but others contained locks and fancy engineering to get the barges up and down hills. Canals solved the domestic market problem and increased profits for owners of mines, factories, and shops.

Steam, Coal and Iron

Apart from bad roads, England's biggest problem at the beginning of industrialization was a shortage of trees. The Royal Navy had used a lot of trees for ships and masts, and there was little forest left for common use. This made life hard for iron manufacturers. In order to smelt iron, charcoal was needed. Charcoal is made of burned and purified wood, not coal. It burns well, imparting no impurities into iron while it's being smelted. But as wood became more expensive it made sense to explore the use of coal. England is, as they say, an island built on coal. But although it was useful for heating, coal had many impurities (primarily sulfur) that got into the iron if it were used for smelting. This problem was solved with the development of coke, or purified coal (probably the third definition you have for the word "coke"). Coke burned so cleanly it would later be used by the wealthy for indoor furnace heating. It made the manufacture of iron cheaper and better.


Cheaper iron production and cheaper fuel helped the development of the steam engine. So did some very practical studies in condensation and latent heat made by Joseph Black, which he used to help Scottish whisky distillers make cheaper whisky. James Watt used this knowledge to improve on Newcomen's steam engine (see Newcomen's engine in action), which he patented (see Watt's engine in action). The development of a useful steam engine revolutionized industry. A steam engine, using only coal and water (which were abundant), could provide power anywhere. Factories no longer needed to be located in mountain areas with falling water. Instead of a waterwheel, a steam engine could run the textile machines. No more worries about enough power. No more worries about the waterwheel freezing in the winter. No more worries about the lousy roads between the factory and the ports and marketplaces.

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See here another excerpt by James Burke, from "The Day the Universe Changed", showing how the steam engine revolutionized production.


I like to say that all this caused an Underwear Revolution. The price of cotton cloth fell enormously with steam-powered factories. Poor people who never wore linen underwear because it was too expensive began wearing cotton underwear. The output of English cloth increased enormously, flooding the colonial markets and increasing the demand for colonial cotton. Steam engines not only ran textile machines, they pumped water out of coal mines, and ultimately pulled the first railroad cars (which were also full of coal). Coal, iron, and steam worked together to industrialize England.

Social Impact of Industrialization

Along with falling prices, wages also fell. Prior to industrialization, skilled workers had controlled the labour market. In textiles, for example, both spinners and weavers were considered skilled workers, whether they worked in guilds or in their cottages. But once the spinning and weaving was done by machine, people who knew how to spin and weave were no longer needed. A textile machine could be operated by an unskilled worker. Low-paid women and children could tend the machines, tying up threads and sweeping up dust bunnies.

I often tell the story of my visit to an industrial museum in England. I had heard stories of children working in factories, and getting maimed and killed by the machines. The picture in my mind was of a tired child falling into a stationery machine and being killed. But at the museum, our group was led into a room that had a big spinning machine along one wall, with a switch next to it. The room was large and empty; the machine only occupied the one wall. Our group was told to stand perpendicular to the machine, behind a yellow line. I couldn't see why; the room was empty. Then the guide started the machine and we all held our hands over our ears. The huge rack of spindles started to move across the floor in front of us, gliding on big iron wheels. It pulled out the threads behind it, about 2 feet above the floor. When it reached the opposite wall, the rack slammed back to its original position across the room. The children, the guide said, were supposed to crawl on their bellies under the fibers while the machine moved across the room, sweeping up the dust bunnies with their hands. If they didn't reach the opposite side by the time the rack slammed back, they'd be crushed. Then I understood.

You have information in your textbook about the social cost of industrialization. boy working A family's wages were barely enough to make ends meet. Men came from the countryside, where there was enclosure and overcrowding with the population boom, to factories where few men were hired. Women and children were cheaper. There was no insurance or OSHA standards. Kids went deaf from the noise of the machines, and blind from tying yarns in dim gaslight. They breathed in air full of fibers, because opening windows reduced humidity and made the threads break. Sometimes the air itself caught fire, since it was full of lint and the gaslights used open flame. Child workers were beaten to keep them awake because hours were incredibly long, as noted in the small bookSadler Report.

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Any worker who got injured or was too slow was fired; there were plenty more people to take that person's place. Overcrowded industrial shanty-towns went up overnight around new factories, with no sanitation or proper construction. The living conditions were, as small bookWilliam Booth noted, unbearable for many.

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Morality declined and illegitimacy increased. Young people were away from the controlling communities of their home villages when they went to work in the houses of the rich or the factories in the new industrial towns. Young women got pregnant and had nowhere to go, and their men were under no compunction to marry or provide for them, even if they'd had the means. The lower class increased, along with worries both for them and about them. But the middle class had other concerns, too. Where previously middle class families had worked together in the home, more and more men left home for the office or to supervise the factory. Women were often solely responsible for household management in a way reminiscent of the Middle Ages. But, as small bookElizabeth Sanford noted, women could still influence society by influencing their husbands.

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Reactions to Industrialization

Philosophically, industrialization was the result of liberalism. All the inventions and innovative techniques that drove the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible in a restrictive mercantilist environment. That's one reason it took other countries a while to catch up. Liberalism allowed a laissez-faire attitude, where the government permitted private enterprise, and even worked in partnership with entrepreneurs. But liberalism had its "down" side, too, in the social costs of factory labor, slave trading, and colonialism. Political liberals believed in Lockean freedom for themselves (which often meant the English middle class), but not necessarily for others. In many cases, they were aware of the irony of believing in freedom while supporting slavery and industrial servitude. Thomas Jefferson had slaves, and struggled with the reality of owning them. He wanted to free them, but felt they could not survive on their own. And some factory owners were kinder than others to their workers. But most liberals were against the government doing anything to regulate industry at any level. Like small bookAndrew Ure in 1835, they were staunch defenders of the industrial system. Others, such as small bookJohn Stuart Mill, decided to revise liberalism instead.

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In this environment, conservatives ended up being the more progressive thinkers. Although conservatism is often seen as being simply traditionalism, or a romantic vision of past days of glory, there was more to it. Conservatives in Parliament led the fight to get Factory Acts passed that improved conditions for child laborers. They got the slave trade outlawed. They tried to undo the harms done by industrialization.

Radicalism and socialism was another response to industrialization. Inequality was increasing as class divisions became wider. Although Marx himself would not write The Communist Manifesto until 1848, radical ideas had already been popularized by the Levellers and Diggers during the 17th century, and by the radicals of the revolution in France. By the 19th century, studies of the working class (like that by small bookFriedrich Engels in 1845) were documenting the effects of industrialization on working class families. The answer, radicals believed, was a striving for equality of class. Although unable to create true socialist revolution in England, English radicals would bring the issues of inequality to the attention of the middle class, and provide impetus for the labor union movement.

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But not all reactions to industrialization were political. There was an artistic and cultural response that we call "romanticism". Romantics did not just dwell on the pre-industrial past; they went back to the philosophical roots of industrialization, which lay in the Enlightenment. The 17th century faith in science had led to the 19th century horrors of industry. The victory of the ideas of Voltaire and other rationalists over the concepts of Rousseau, who believed in intuition and emotion, had created a mechanistic world where human values were secondary to the machine. In response to this shift in values, romantic artists had to figure out how to deal with the railroad tracks and factory smokestacks cropping up in their landscapes. Romantic garden

The development of the English garden can be used as a microcosm of romanticism versus rationalism in the industrial age. During the 18th century, formal gardens were very popular. Straight paths, trees pruned into geometric shapes, and classical-style fountains all seemed to emphasize the human control over nature. Hedges were trimmed to look boxy, and fences were smooth even in the country. Tulips and daffodils were lined up like soldiers in the trim, rectangular beds. Colors were deliberately coordinated, as were periods of bloom. But as the century progressed, romantic ideas came into play. Instead of human control over nature, the gardens tried to emphasize nature itself. Paths were wandering, trees and bushes a trifle overgrown, and structures allowed to wear down in the weather. By the time of Queen Victoria, these gardens were being designed with deliberately rusted waterwheels, aged-looking stone fountains, and sprawling plants, just to look natural. Even the romantic garden was, of course, meticulously tended by gardeners, and nothing was really out of control. The resulting look became the classic "English country garden", appropriate even in the city as a place for the body to toil and the mind to rest.

Check your Knowledge

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1. I note in my lecture that there have been many industrial advances before this era. What made the industrialization of the late 18th and early 19th centuries a "revolution"?
a) increased mechanical power for industry
b)the discovery of an inanimate power source
c) increased production of goods
d) the widespread social impact

2. John Kay's invention:
a) made spinning yarn faster
b) improved the steam engine
c) sped up the process of weaving cloth
d) had little impact

3. The sudden construction of towns like Manchester and Leeds led to:
a) better sanitary conditions for workers
b) appalling living conditions
c) a quick government response to resolve problems
d) publicly-funded housing projects

4. Which of the following was NOT an aspect of children working in factories:
a) beatings because they were too exhausted to work
b) dangerous conditions
c) low wages that barely helped their families
d) factory-run kindergartens

5. The English country garden is an example of:
a) the industrial influence on gardening
b) strict geometric forms
c) the romantic response to industrial realism
d) the power of community

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All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.