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Lecture: Industrial Revolution

Most historians refer to this era as "The Industrial Revolution" and mark its dates around 1750-1850.

But to do so ignores something I call "industrial continuum". As we have seen, during ancient times, Europeans were using water to power large waterwheels and mills to grind grain for flour. During the Middle Ages, Europeans harnessed water power for industry, creating machine mills that pounded cloth, minted coins, operated bellows for smelting iron, sawed logs, and pumped water. These technologies were also used in the 18th century.

Seen from a perspective of industrial continuum, the changes in the 18th and 19th century were not revolutionary. Rather they were steps in the evolution of industrial production.

So what was new? First, the source of power will move from water to steam. Second, the social impact will be greater than in any previous industrial advance. Although it would advance quickly, there is general agreement that the change began in England, which had a unique combination of huge labor pools resulting from the agricultural revolution, vast reserves of coal and iron, easy water transportation, and a thriving cloth trade.

Cloth production

In a sense, the boom began with a single invention related to the production of England's primary export: woollen cloth. Since the 16th century, cloth had been spun using the spinning wheel, then woven using a broadloom. A spinning wheel could be worked by one person, but a broadloom took three: one to work the pedals to move the heddles up and down for weaving, and tall people at either end to pass the shuttle back and forth.

In an effort to speed up the weaving process, in the 1730s John Kay invented the "flying shuttle" loom:

Kay's flying shuttle

The weaver could sit at the machine, working the pedals with his/her feet, and use the handle to activate springs that popped the shuttle back and forth. This eliminated the tall helpers, and speeded up the rate of production by about 300%.

That caused a problem, a technological "bottleneck", because the amount of yarn from spinning wheels could not keep up with the demand from Kay looms. This led to further inventions:

Great Wheel Spinning (as in the Middle Ages)

Spinning by Hand (as in the Middle Ages)

The spinning jenny, invented by a guy named Hargreaves, made it possible for one person to spin multiple spindles using a hand wheel.

spinning machine

The spinning machine hooked the devices vertically, and could spin fine threads.

Broadloom weaving and spinning wheel (as in the 16th century)

Hand Loom weaving (one person narrow)

Power Loom

Ultimately, both spinning machines and the new looms developed further and could be connected to water power. The power looms and power spinning machines automated cloth production. They made possible factories, where unskilled women and children could tie up threads and keep machines going. Skilled spinners and weavers were no longer necessary, and the new machine-made cloth was less expensive and undercut the price of hand-made fabric.

The new technologies, applied to linen and cotton manufacturing, led to mass production.

Iron production

Britain mapEngland had the advantages in developing alternatives to water power. First, they had a problem. Water mills had to be located in the hills to get the fall of water necessary to run efficient water wheels. This meant they froze in winter, and were far from ports and markets.

They had another problem, this one in the iron industry. Iron smelting is a touchy business, requiring a pure fuel. For centuries, this fuel had been wood, burned down to make clean-burning charcoal. But by the 18th century, most of the usable forests had gone or were owned in private hands. The British navy took most of the trees tall enough for ship masts, and entrepreneurs had to look elsewhere.

England is an island built on coal. But coal has impurities, such as sulfur, that would make iron unusable. In 1709, Abraham Darby perfected the creation of a purified version of coal, called coke, that burned cleanly and could be used to smelt iron. As a result, iron production increased on a vast scale. Iron could then be used to make many things, such as boilers and pumps.

Steam enginesNewcomen's engine

The steam engine utilized all of England's resources: coal, iron, and water. Boilers were built of iron, and coal was used to heat the water in the boiler to make steam. Inventors like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt perfected the techniques of building steam engines, basing their designs on formulas for steam distillation derived from whiskey distilleries in Scotland.

Steam power was revolutionary. Unlike water power, it could be used anywhere, and did not rely on the weather. Hooked up to spinning machines and power looms, it could create huge factories with huge output. Hooked up to water pumps (its first use), it could be used to pump water out of coal mines to make lower reaches of coal more accessible. Hooked to a wheeled carriage, it could make a locomotive that moved goods along iron tracks.

Even today, steam power is basic. A nuclear power plant uses the splitting of the atom to create heat to boil water in a boiler, to create steam, to turn a turbine (which looks like a water wheel).

Social impact of industrialization

Each of the classes was affected by industrialization. The aristocracy could become involved, but many considered industry to be akin to trade, and thus beneath their interest. The landed classes could not control industrialization, and they had little capital to invest unless they'd made some through investments in trade. As aristocratic power declined, industry could provide an opportunity for younger sons who could not inherit the family lands. Forward-thinking nobles put their sons in industry, or married them into industrial families, and made a lot of money.

The middle class was the place for industrialists. In England, many had been religious dissenters, excluded from the money-making opportunities of religious conformers. Inventors, factory owners, managers, former craftspeople could find opportunity in industry. There was no need for great wealth or education, and the economic concepts of liberalism provided a rule-free environment where people could succeed based only on the usefulness of their ideas. Industrialization provided the middle class with great wealth, and they tried to turn this wealth into respectability.

The working class was newly created, because for the first time they did not work for themselves. These were the wage-laborers, frequently unskilled, including women and children. Instead of engaging in cottage industry as a supplement to industrial labor, or running shops in a town, these workers were employed in the factories that sprung up all over Europe. Industrial city

The working conditions were appalling. Workers were poorly paid and their jobs were insecure (a result of the excess population, which meant they could be easily replaced). Uprooted from traditional town and village life, workers were disconnected from family control and kinship ties. There were no safety standards. Factories were crowded and poorly lighted. There was no heat in winter, since the coal used for heat would make smoke that would tinge the product. In textile mills, windows were kept closed in summer to preserve the humidity that kept the threads from breaking. The machines were unbearably loud, and many children went deaf. Limbs were lost in machines, and the injured workers fired and replaced by others. Children were beaten to make them work. Farming folk accustomed to rising and sleeping by the sun, and doing less work in winter, were working according to shifts by the clock. The work of tending machines was monotonous, the final product of ones labor often never seen.

cartoon In this cartoon, children are being beaten by the factory foreman for letting go of a spindle. He says, "Why did you let go the spindle, you young woman?". She replies "My fingers were so cold I could not hold it..." Such cartoons represented the types of conditions leading to reforms, such as those instituted by the Sadler Committee, which heard the testimony of industrial workers.

Indeed, to some observers, such as Karl Marx, it seemed like people were becoming machines in order to work the machines. The technologies created during the industrial revolution did not consider the humanity of the worker, but rather focused on efficiency of production. I am not saying that previous eras were better in this regard - I am sure that treading cloth in a urine-filled vat during the Roman empire, or lugging boulders to build English roads in the 18th century, was not considerate of the worker. But I think when you combine the extensive hours of poorly paid repetitive work with the absence of any kind of individual approach to the work, you have a new kind of human misery.

Disease and water

Death's Dispensary: water pump in poor neighborhoodThe death rate in the new industrial towns was high. These places, where neighborhoods had sprung up overnight, had slop sanitation and no clean water source. The worst cities were in England, where the industrialization had begun. England was a laboratory of new urbanization. The fact that London was the stinkiest and filthiest town in Europe was actually helpful, because Members of Parliament had only to go out in the street to see (or smell) the problem. Although Parliament did very little to help at the beginning of the 19th century, two things occurred to push legislation along. The first was the cholera epidemic of 1831, which may have come from India but hit both Europe and America. Cholera was thought to be a "miasmic" disease, spread through the vapor stench of bad air coming off decaying substances (of which there were plenty in the crowded streets).

However, the science of statistics was used by a scientist named William Farr to demonstrate that the neighborhoods with improper or illegal wells for water, and which were down nearest the elevation of the Thames River, got the most cholera.

Then Edwin Chadwick's report Survey into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes in Great Britain was published in 1842, promoting an engineering solution to a social and health problem.

In 1853, a doctor named John Snow found a cesspit leaking sewage into a water well in an area where there was a sudden attack of cholera. When the pit was sealed and the water filtered, the cholera disappeared. By 1855, many members of the medical community were lobbying Parliament for sand filters on all water tracks from the Thames. Political will was lacking, though, until the summer of 1858, when the smell of the Thames was so bad it filled the Parliament itself with foul air. Then all of a sudden there seemed to be money for sand filters and the chlorine Snow recommended to disinfect city water supplies.

James Burke on Cholera

In this clip from James Burke's "The Day the Universe Changed" series, William Farr uses statistics to make the discovery of illegal water as a source of contamination.

Steven Johnson on the Ghost Map


The Spread of Industrialization

Although much of the "research and development" was done in England, industrial methods were adopted throughout Europe and the United States. By 1900, specializations appeared. England set the trends in canals, railways and textile machines, while Germany developed an extensive chemical industry. The United States' specialty was communications, possibly because the country was so large, and patent and investment systems so highly developed. During the 1830s and 40s, the telegraph made possible instant messaging through electricity. Samuel Morse of the U.S. used sets of dots (short taps) and dashes (longer taps) to communicate across the wires. The first message was sent in 1844.

Trouble viewing? see the video on the History Channel website (including captions)

Companies competed to string lines and establish telegraph stations. Instant communication changed the character of business because orders and transit information could be relayed immediately. Communications that had previously taken days, or even weeks to cross the sea, could happen now. You could tell your family you were in jail, or claim the last spot in chemistry class, or tell your girl you would be home for Christmas. And you could do it right now. Although the telephone gets more fanfare, it was really just an improvement on the telegraph, using voice.

Another refinement, quite literally, was in the production of steel. To turn iron into steel, various impurities and carbon must be effectively removed. Because the process was intricate, making steel was usually done in small batches, for items like swords and razor blades. But in the late 1840s, Englishmen Henry Bessemer and American William Kelly independently developed and patented furnaces that used oxygen to separate out the carbon and turn it into removable slag. Further refinements followed, with Bessemer achieving financial success and widespread adoption of his invention. And, it was exciting to watch:


According to Karl Marx, industrialization caused a major historical shift in economic relationships. During classical times, the two classes consisted of master and slave. During the Middle Ages, they were lord and serf. In both cases, the relationship was symbiotic. Each class had a responsibility to the other class. Masters had to feed and house slaves, and slaves had to work. Lords had to provide land and protection for serfs, and serfs had to farm and hand over a percentage of the crop. But in the creation of the two new classes caused by industrialization (bourgeoisie and proletariat), the symbiotic relationship was replaced by what Marx called "callous 'cash payment'". In other words, instead of mutual responsibility, the proletarian worked, and in return received from the bourgeoise a paycheck, and that was all. No job protection, no safety standards, no responsibility - just a paycheck. That's another way that workers became part of the machine, and like a machine.



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.