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Chapter 16. The Industrial Revolution

In This Chapter

Britain gives birth to another revolution

Better wages—but at what cost?

• Children and factories don’t mix

The awful side of city life

• Nineteenth-century romance—sort of

As France struggled with a revolution during the late eighteenth century, Britain enjoyed a revolution of its own. The Industrial Revolution began in the late eighteenth century in Britain, then spread to the continent after the warfare subsided. Like the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution changed the economy of Europe, the social structure, demographic patterns, and the way people lived. Unlike the Agricultural Revolution, no one set out to revolutionize industry. As the ancient Greek philosopher Plato said in his Republic, “the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.” In other words, when a need or problem arose, an inventor devised a way to deal with that problem. When another arose, another creative person developed another solution, and so on.

Such was the case with the Industrial Revolution.

Shop Britain First

The process of industrialization arguably grew out of the textile industry. For example, several yarn spinners were necessary just to keep one weaver busy on his loom. Often a weaver waited while the spinners produced more yarn. Then in 1733, John Kay (1704—C.1780) invented the flying shuttle, a device that allowed weavers to easily produce wider pieces of cloth at faster speeds than ever before. This created a need for more thread and yarn than ever before. To deal with that problem, James Hargreaves (1720-1778) invented his cotton “spinning jenny,” which allowed spinners to produce more yarn than weavers could use. Now the need arose for better methods of weaving the vast amounts of yarn that were produced. Each step resulted in better, faster, or cheaper production.

Would You Believe?

The inventors responsible for many of the Industrial Revolution's early advances were not inventors by trade. Kay was a clockmaker, Arkwright was a wigmaker, Hargreaves was a carpenter and weaver.

Continental Quotes

“Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age."

—Thomas Carlyle

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, Britain produced a number of products, particularly textiles, at a faster rate and at lower prices than the traditional manufacturing centers. Output grew faster in the last part of the eighteenth century than ever before, but production skyrocketed between 1800 and 1830, after industrialization had really set in. The same rate of production hit the continent much later. Therefore, markets for industrial goods looked to England first because of the quantities and lower prices. Although the Industrial Revolution resulted from no planning or scheming in advance, it was no accident that industrialization sprang forth from Britain’s bosom before that of any other nations.

Why Britain?

Several factors coincided at just the right time and amidst just the right conditions to allow Britain to give birth to industrialization. The first factor, though not necessarily the most important, was the mercantilist economic system and colonial empire. The overseas colonies provided England with all the raw materials it needed for booming industries. The colonies were also a captive market that guaranteed consumers for manufactured goods. Furthermore, the fleet used in the colonial empire could also be used to transport both raw materials and manufactured goods.

Second, agriculture played a major role in the development of British industrialization. The Agricultural Revolution saw major progress in England, and the English farmers reaped the rewards of abundant harvests. More and better harvests resulted in healthier and eventually more numerous people. The surplus of people made a new industrial workforce available. The surplus of people also created more consumers who demanded more goods. Because the bountiful harvests lowered the prices of food, the consumers weren’t forced to spend every last penny to feed themselves. The small amount of extra money could be spent on luxury items, like leather instead of wooden shoes, an extra blanket, or even underwear.

Would You Believe?

Had Nelson not defeated Napoleon at Trafalgar, things might have been different for Britain. War with the French on British soil would have slowed, if not halted, industrialization.

Britain’s isolation from Europe also played a major role. The constant wars of the continent did not interfere with the development of the textile industry or with innovation.

British forces participated in wars during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but the fighting and destruction occurred on foreign soil. And England didn’t have to deal with trade wars, trade restrictions, and tariffs within its own borders the way places like France and Germany did.

The availability of natural resources in England also played a pivotal role in industrialization. Though the English had used up their forests, and thus their firewood, in the centuries before, Britain had plenty of coal, which would be especially important. Furthermore, the geography of the British Isles was such that a merchant never had to go far to get his wares to a waterway or to a port. Transportation over water routes often proved more efficient than ground transportation, especially before the advent of rail transportation. Unless waterways were frozen, boats could travel under most any conditions day and night. The same certainly was not true of heavy, horse-drawn wagons that often broke down or got stuck in soft ground. Easy transportation of both raw materials and finished goods greatly aided in the process of industrialization.

The First Factories

Industrialization didn’t actually occur until the machines switched from manpower to some other source of energy. That switch took place sometime around 1771, when Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) invented the water frame.

The water frame, invented in 1771, was a machine used to spin yarn or thread that made stronger yarn faster than the spinning jenny. The water frame was too large to operate by hand, so the inventor and his investors experimented with horsepower. That proved ineffective so they settled on water power, hence the name. They constructed their first water frame in Derbyshire, England. Now these textile machines could no longer be operated out of homes; they were so large that they had to be constructed in special buildings. There also arose the problem of a labor shortage. There weren’t enough available workers, so Arkwright built cottages and brought in workers and their families.

Just a few years later, Samuel Crompton (1753-1827) combined the spinning jenny and the water frame to produce a clever machine, the spinning mule. His first mule could be operated by hand at one’s home. However, by 1800 the largest mules had hundreds of spindles and required large buildings like Arkwright’s water frame.

Would You Believe?

The nineteenth-century textile boom made cotton clothing a reality for millions. No longer did poor Englishmen have to wear wool clothing year-round.

In 1784, Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823) created a power loom. Weavers had always operated their looms by hand and foot power, even in water-powered factories, so Cartwright set out to fix the problem. Although his first model functioned rather poorly, he eventually used a steam-powered machine to operate his loom. Just after 1800, a better power-loom received a patent and the textile industry took off. As the years passed, the power-looms got better and better. Entrepreneurs often claimed that the power looms could produce many times the amount of finished product as the best hand weavers, and their claims were justified.

By 1850, factories all over England contained perhaps as many as 250,000 such looms. England’s ability to mass-produce textiles in factories had amazing effects. The cost of production dropped by as much as 75 or 80 percent in some cases, which translated into much lower prices for consumers on all sorts of textiles. With prices so low, nearly everyone in England could afford textile products like underwear. The rise of factories gave England many tangible and intangible benefits—but not everyone was happy about the new technology.

The Luddites

Near the turn of the nineteenth century, a Manchester company purchased hundreds of Cartwright’s power looms for a factory. Disgruntled workers, fearing that their jobs were in jeopardy, burned the factory to the ground. Unfortunately for Cartwright, who really needed the money, the incident in Manchester discouraged other factory owners from purchasing Cartwright’s product. Only 12 years later, the isolated incident in Manchester in 1799 had become commonplace in other parts of England. In 1811, it was reported that a General Ned Ludd, who was probably not even a real person, sent warning letters to factory owners in Nottingham. Shortly thereafter, the followers of Ludd, known as Luddites, began nightly attacks on factories there, breaking in and smashing the machinery, which they feared would result in lower wages and lost jobs for all workers.

As a Matter of Fact

In 1851, Britain held a World's Fair known as the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. The Great Exhibition highlighted the wonders of industry born in the Industrial Revolution. The icon of the Great Exhibition was Joseph Paxton's daring architectural feat known as the Crystal Palace; Paxton designed the building in less than two weeks. The structure, made entirely of iron and nearly one million square feet of glass from England, housed some 13,000 exhibits and hosted over six million visitors during the Great Exhibition. The Great Exhibition, the brainchild of Prince Albert, was located in Hyde Park in London.

Would You Believe?

Some of the convicted Luddites were spared from the gallows and were sent to Australia instead.

Word of the attacks caused new attacks. Hundreds of factories fell victim, and by February of 1812 the government passed legislation known as the Frame Breaking Act that made factory attacks a capital offense punishable by death. Additionally, the government deployed thousands of troops to protect against further attacks. The attacks turned deadly later in 1812 when a group of Luddites attacked a factory where guards were waiting. Some of the guards died in the attacks and several of the Luddites eventually were executed for the attacks. By 1817, the Luddite craze died down and Luddite attacks virtually disappeared.

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