The material elements of the Industrial Revolution were iron, coal, transportation, machinery, power, and factories. Nature played its part by providing England with iron, coal, and liquid roads. But iron as it came from the mines was permeated with impurities, from which it had to be freed by smelting—melting or fusing with fire. Coal too was alloyed with impurities; these were removed by heating or “cooking” coal till it became coke. Iron ore heated and purified to diverse degrees by burning coke became wrought iron, cast iron, or steel.

To increase the heat Abraham Darby built (1754 f.) blast furnaces in which extra air was supplied to the fire from a pair of bellows worked by a water wheel. In 1760 John Smeaton replaced the bellows with a compressedair pump driven partly by water, partly by steam; the constant high-pressure blast raised the production of industrial iron from twelve tons to forty tons per furnace per day.8 Iron became cheap enough to be used in hundreds of new ways; so, in 1763, Richard Reynolds built the first known railway—iron tracks that enabled cars to replace pack horses in transporting coal and ore.

Now began an age of famous ironmasters who dominated the industrial scene and made great fortunes by using iron for purposes that seemed quite alien to that metal. So John Wilkinson and Abraham Darby II spanned the River Severn with the first iron bridge (1779). Wilkinson amused England by proposing an iron ship; some said he had lost his mind; but, relying upon principles established by Archimedes, he put together with metal sheets the first iron vessel known to history (1787). Businessmen came from abroad to see and study the great works set up by Wilkinson’ Richard Crawshay, or Anthony Bacon. Birmingham, close to extensive deposits of coal and iron, became the leading center of England’s iron industry. From such shops new tools and machines, stronger, more durable and reliable, were poured into Britain’s shops and factories.

Coal and iron were heavy, costly to convey except by water. A richly indented coastline allowed maritime transport to reach many major cities of Britain. To bring materials and products to towns distant from the coast and navigable streams a revolution in transportation had to be effected. The movement of goods overland was still difficult despite the network of turnpikes built between 1751 and 1771. (They took their name from the pikestudded turnstiles that obstructed passage until toll was paid.)9 These toll roads doubled the speed of transit and quickened internal trade. Pack horses were superseded by horse-drawn carts, and travel by horseback gave way to stage coaches. The turnpikes, however, were left to private enterprise for their maintenance, and rapidly deteriorated.

So commercial traffic still preferred the waterways. Streams were dredged to bear heavy vessels, and rivers and towns were bound with one another by canals. James Brindley, without formal or technical education, grew from a letterless millwright into the most remarkable canal engineer of the time, solving by his mechanical bent the problems of carrying canals through locks and tunnels and over aqueducts. In 1759-61 he built a canal that brought to Manchester the coal from the mines of the Duke of Bridgewater at Worsley; this cut in half the cost of coal at Manchester, and played a principal part in making that city an industrial metropolis. One of the most picturesque sights in eighteenth-century England was a ship moving along the Brindley-Bridgewater canal carried by an aqueduct ninety-nine feet high over the River Irwell at Barton. In 1766 Brindley began the Grand Trunk Canal, which, by connecting the Rivers Trent and Mersey, opened a water route across mid-England from the Irish to the North Sea. Other canals bound the Trent with the Thames, and Manchester with Liverpool. In a period of thirty years hundreds of new canals greatly reduced the cost of commercial traffic in Britain.

Given materials, fuels, and transportation, the Industrial Revolution had next to multiply goods. The demand for machines to accelerate production was greatest in textiles. People wanted to be clothed, and soldiers and lasses had to be hypnotized with uniforms. Cotton was entering England in rapidly rising amounts—three million pounds in 1753, thirty-two million in 1789;10 hand labor could not process this into finished goods in time to meet demand. The division of labor that had developed in the clothing trades suggested and promoted the invention of machines.

John Kay had begun the mechanization of weaving by his “flying shuttle” (1733), and Lewis Paul had mechanized spinning by a system of rollers (1738). In 1765 James Hargreaves of Blackburn, Lancashire, changed the position of the spinning wheel from vertical to horizontal, placed one wheel on top of another, turned eight of them by one pulley and belt, and wove eight threads at once; he added more power to more spindles until his “spinning jenny” (Jenny was his wife) wove eighty threads at a time. Hand spinners feared that this contraption would throw them out of work and food; they broke up Hargreaves’ machines; he fled for his life to Nottingham, where a shortage of labor allowed his jennies to be installed. By 1788 there were twenty thousand of them in Britain, and the spinning wheel was on its way to becoming a romantic ornament.

In 1769 Richard Arkwright, using the suggestions of various mechanics, developed a “water frame” by which water power moved cotton fibers between a succession of rollers that pulled and stretched the fibers into tighter, harder yarn. About 1774 Samuel Crompton combined Hargreaves’ jenny and Arkwright’s rollers into a hybrid machine which English wit called “Crompton’s mule”: an alternate backward and forward motion of the rotating spindles stretched, twisted, and wound the thread, giving it greater fineness and strength; this procedure remained till our time the principle of the most complex textile machinery. The jenny and the water frame had been made of wood; the mule, after 1783, used metal rollers and wheels, and became sturdy enough to bear the speed and strain of power operation.

Power looms worked by cranks and weights had been used in Germany and France, but in 1787 Edmund Cartwright built at Doncaster a small factory in which twenty looms were operated by animal motion. In 1789 he replaced this power plant by a steam engine. Two years later he joined with some Manchester friends to set up a large factory in which four hundred looms were run by steam. Here too the workers rebelled; they burned the factory to the ground and threatened to kill the promoters. In the ensuing decade many power looms were built, rioters smashed some of them, some survived and multiplied; the machines won.

England had been helped to industry through water power from numerous streams fed by abundant rain. So, in the eighteenth century, mills were erected not so much in the towns as in the countryside, along streams that could be dammed to create waterfalls of sufficient force to turn great wheels. At this point a poet might wonder had it not been better if steam had never replaced water as a motive force, and industry, instead of being congregated in cities, had been mingled with agriculture in the rural scene. But the more effective and profitable method of production displaces the less, and the steam engine (which also, till lately, had a romantic glow) promised to produce or transport more goods and gold than the world had ever seen before.

The steam engine was the culmination, not quite a product, of the Industrial Revolution. Not to go back to Hero of Alexandria (A.D. 200?), Denis Papin described all the components and principles of a practical steam engine in 1690. Thomas Savery built a steam-driven pump in 1698. Thomas Newcomen developed this (1708-12) into a machine in which steam generated by heated water was condensed by a jet of cold water, and the alternation of atmospheric pressure drove a piston up and down; this “atmospheric engine” remained the standard until James Watt transformed it into a true steam engine in 1765.

Unlike most inventors of that time, Watt was a student as well as a practical man. His grandfather was a teacher of mathematics; his father was an architect, shipbuilder, and magistrate in the borough of Greenock in southwest Scotland. James had no college education, but he had creative curiosity and a mechanical bent. Half the world knows the story that an aunt reproved him: “I never saw such an idle boy as you are: … for the last hour you have not spoken one word, but you have taken off the lid of that kettle, and put it on again, and, holding now a cap and now a silver spoon over the steam, watching how it rises from the spout, and catching and counting the drops.”11 This has the odor of legend. However, an extant manuscript in James Watt’s hand describes an experiment in which “the straight end of a pipe was fixed on the spout of a Tea Kettle”; and another manuscript reads: “I took a bent glass tube and inverted it into the nose of a tea kettle, the other end being immersed in cold water.”12

At the age of twenty (1756) Watt tried to set up in Glasgow as a maker of scientific instruments. The city guilds refused him a license on the ground that he had not completed the full term of apprenticeship, but the University of Glasgow gave him a workshop within its grounds. He attended the chemistry lectures of Joseph Black, won his friendship and aid, and was especially interested in Black’s theory of latent heat.13 He learned German, French, and Italian to read foreign books, including metaphysics and poetry. Sir James Robison, who knew him at that time (1758), was struck by Watt’s varied knowledge, and said, “I saw a workman and expected no more; I found a philosopher.”14

In 1763 the university asked him to repair a model of Newcomen’s engine used in a physics course. He was surprised to find that three fourths of the heat supplied to the machine were wasted: after each stroke of the piston the cylinder lost heat through the use of cold water to condense the new supply of steam entering the cylinder; so much energy was lost that most manufacturers had judged the machine unprofitable. Watt proposed to condense the steam in a separate container, whose low temperature would not affect the cylinder in which the piston moved. This “condenser” increased by some three hundred per cent the efficiency of the machine in the proportion of fuel used to work done. Moreover, in Watt’s reconstruction, the piston was moved by the expansion of steam, not of air; he had made a true steam engine.

The passage from plans and models to practical application consumed twelve years of Watt’s life. To make successive samples and improvements of his engine he borrowed over a thousand pounds, chiefly from Joseph Black, who never lost faith in him. John Smeaton, himself an inventor and engineer, predicted that Watt’s engine could “never be brought into general use because of the difficulty of getting its parts manufactured with sufficient precision.”15 In 1765 Watt married, and had to earn more money; he put aside his invention and took to surveying and engineering, drawing up plans for harbors, bridges, and canals. Meanwhile Black introduced him to John Roebuck, who was looking for a more effective engine than Newcomen’s for pumping water from the coal mines that supplied fuel for his ironworks at Carron. In 1767 he agreed to pay Watt’s debts and provide capital for building engines to Watt’s specifications, in return for two thirds of the profits from installations or sales. To protect their investment Watt in 1769 asked Parliament for a patent that would give him sole right to produce his engine; it was granted him till 1783. He and Roebuck set up an engine near Edinburgh, but poor workmanship by the smiths made it a failure; in some cases the cylinders made for Watt were an eighth of an inch greater in diameter at one end than at the other.

Pressed by reverses, Roebuck sold his share of the partnership to Matthew Boulton (1773). Now began an alliance notable in the history of friendship as well as of industry. Boulton was no mere moneymaker; he was so interested in improving his modes and mechanisms of production that in achieving this he lost a fortune. In 1760, aged thirty-two, he married a rich woman and might have retired on her income; instead he built at Soho, near Birmingham, one of England’s most extensive industrial plants, manufacturing a great variety of metal articles from shoe buckles to chandeliers. To operate the machines in the five buildings of his factory he had relied on water power. He proposed now to try steam power. He knew that Watt had shown the inefficiency of the Newcomen engine, and that Watt’s engine had failed because of inaccurately bored cylinders. He took a calculated risk that this defect could be overcome. In 1774 he moved Watt’s engine to Soho; in 1775 Watt followed it. Parliament extended the patent from 1783 to 1800.

In 1775 ironmaster Wilkinson invented a hollow cylindrical boring bar that enabled Boulton and Watt to produce engines of unprecedented power and competence. Soon the new firm was selling engines to manufacturers and mine owners throughout Britain. Boswell visited Soho in 1776, and reported:

Mr. Hector was so good as to accompany me to see the great works of Mr. Boulton.... I wished Johnson had been with us, for it was a scene which I should have been glad to contemplate by his light. The vastness and the contrivances of some of the machinery would have “matched his mighty mind.” I shall never forget Mr. Boulton’s expression to me: “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have—POWER.” He had about seven hundred people at work. I contemplated him as an iron chieftain, and he seemed to be a father to his tribe.16

Watt’s engines were still unsatisfactory, and he constantly labored to improve them. In 1781 he patented a device by which the reciprocal motion of the piston was converted into rotating motion, thereby adapting the engine for driving ordinary machinery. In 1782 he patented a double-acting engine, in which both ends of the cylinder received impulses from the boiler and the condenser. In 1788 he patented a “fly-ball governor” that adjusted the flow of steam to promote uniform speed in the engine. During these experimental years other inventors were making competitive engines, and it was not till 1783 that Watt’s sales paid off his debts and began to bring in gains. When his patent expired he retired from active work, and the firm of Boulton and Watt was carried on by their sons. Watt amused himself with minor inventions, and lived into a cheerful old age, dying in 1819 at the age of eighty-three.

There were many other inventions in this exuberant age, when, as Dean Tucker said, “almost every master manufacturer hath a new invention of his own, and is daily improving on those of others.”17 Watt himself developed a duplicating process by using a glutinous ink and pressing the written or printed page against a moistened sheet of thin paper (1780). One of his employees, William Murdock, applied Watt’s engine to traction, and built a model locomotive that traveled eight miles an hour (1784). Murdock shared with Philippe Lebon of France the distinction of using coal gas for illumination; he so lighted the exterior of the Soho factory (1798). The central view of the English economy at the end of the eighteenth century is one of the steam engine leading and quickening the pace, harnessing itself to machines in a hundred industries, luring textile works from water to steam power (1785 f.), changing the countryside, invading the towns, darkening the sky with coal dust and fumes, and hiding in the bowels of ships to give new force to England’s mastery of the seas.

Two other elements were needed to make the revolution complete: factories and capital. The components—fuel, power, materials, machines, and men—could co-operate best when brought together in one building or plant, in one organization and discipline, under one head. There had been factories before; now, as the widened market called for regular and large-scale production, they multiplied in number and size, and “the factory system” became one name for the new order in industry. And as industrial machinery and plants became more costly, the men and institutions that could collect or furnish capital rose to power, the banks surmounted the factories, and the entire complex took the name of capitalism—an economy dominated by the providers of capital. Now, with every stimulus to invention and competition, with enterprise increasingly freed from guild restrictions and legislative barriers, the Industrial Revolution was ready to remake the face and sky and soul of Britain.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!