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Britain’s industrial evolution December 3, 2005

Posted by Iglika in Révoluion industrielle.

Already in the 16th century agriculture’s demand for more land was putting pressure on Britain’s depleted woodlands. The rising price of wood as an industrial fuel made coal, with which Britain was plentifully supplied, an increasingly attractive option. Londoners had long been burning coal at home – a large coastal fleet shipped it down from the mines of Tyneside. Extending its use into industry, however, necessitated the containment of harmful fumes that contaminated the raw materials.

The salt, sugar and soap industries found their technical solutions quickly: in the 17th century glass makers, maltsters and non-ferrous metal refiners modified their equipment to burn coal, but iron makers suffered repeated disappointment. Only in 1709 did Abraham Darby, of Coalbrookdale, succeed in smelting pig iron for casting by first decarburising the coal to produce coke. But further processing was required to produce iron for the larger wrought-iron industry; this finally became economical as the price of coal fell significantly against that of charcoal after 1750. Henry Cort’s puddling and rolling process (patented 1783-4) allowed both the complete replacement of charcoal and massive economies of scale: cheap iron, made with coal, turned Britain from a net importer into the world’s major exporter.It was also the expanding mining sector that prompted the invention of the steam engine and the development of new forms of transport. As Cornwall’s tin miners and Tyneside’s coal miners dug deeper, the biggest problem they faced was flooding. Experimental drainage devices proliferated, including Thomas Savery’s steam-powered ‘miner’s friend’ in the 1690s. But it was the ‘atmospheric engine’, invented around 1710 by Thomas Newcomen, a Devon blacksmith, that pumped most effectively. Sixty years later, James Watt significantly improved the Newcomen engine’s fuel efficiency by adding the separate condenser, and adapted it to rotative motion to drive textile machinery. Heat energy from coal had thus been made available as mechanical energy to supplement horse, water and wind power. Railways begin to gather steamThe need to transport coal cheaply stimulated the development of the canal system. The Duke of Bridgewater showed the way in 1759, when he commissioned James Brindley to construct a canal into Manchester from the entrance to his coal mines. Already the rival railway network was in embryo form on the coalfields. Wagonways were used above and below ground where open wagons powered by human, horse, or gravity, moved the coal along wooden rails. It was but a short step to steam-powered locomotives moving coal along iron rails and no coincidence that George Stephenson began his career in the mines of Tyneside.Industrialisation was such a wide-ranging phenomenon, involving every aspect of the economy and society, that there will always be scope for debate about its timing and speed, causes and consequences. The roots of change ran deep into the past, but from the final quarter of the 18th century industrialisation gathered pace.

At first slow and patchy, by the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837, it had left few lives and few institutions unaltered.

Since Arnold Toynbee coined the phrase ‘Industrial Revolution’ in 1882, most economic historians have emphasised the rapidity of British industrialisation during the period 1780-1830. Currently, however, many argue that industrialisation took centuries, rather than decades, and comprised a complex web of changes. Its roots stretched back into the 17th century, or even earlier. Of particular significance were the establishment of new, long-distance trading links and technological and organisational changes in both agriculture and industry. Even in 1700, however, it was not obvious that Britain would lead the way: its technology had long lagged behind the continent’s and its manufacturers consequently had problems expanding into European markets – woollen cloth comprised the only significant export. In response, Britons had turned westwards to exploit the untapped resources of the New World through settlement and trade, and downwards, mining coal to develop a new source of energy to power their industry. They had also tolerated the immigration of European artisans, including many Protestant refugees, who introduced their superior skills and manufacturing techniques. By 1700, however, the flow was starting to change direction: continental manufacturers were poaching British workmen and Britons were acquiring a reputation for inventiveness! Britain was unusual in its relatively small agricultural sector: by 1800 perhaps as few as three out of five workers were full-time farmers, when on the continent four out of five was the more common ratio. The remainder worked full- or part-time in manufacturing or services. Manufacturing was to be found everywhere, from the capital cities of London and Edinburgh to provincial ports such as Glasgow and Bristol and expanding villages such as Birmingham and Manchester. In innumerable rural cottages spinning wheels whirled, looms rattled, hammers thumped and needles flew to produce textiles, metalwares, haberdashery, stockings, and leather goods, destined for increasingly distant markets in Britain and abroad. Only from the last quarter of the 18th century was textile production centralised in factories (first spinning, later weaving). These were mostly small, rural and water-powered, and their workers, mostly young and female, numbered tens, not hundreds. Coal-burning steam engines gradually liberated the mechanised textile industry from scarce and remote riverside sites and by the 1830s production was largely based in urban centres near the coalfields of Lancashire and Yorkshire where labour was also cheaper.


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