The Industrial and Mechanical Revolution

Human society has passed through two huge and lasting changes which deserve the name revolution. The first, the Neolithic Revolution, begins in 8000 BC and continues through thousands of years. Its effect is to settle people on the land. It makes peasant agriculture the standard everyday activity of the human species.

The second, the Industrial Revolution, gathers pace in the 18th century and is still developing today. It moves people from the countryside into rapidly expanding towns. It turns labour into a disciplined and mainly indoor activity, with an increasing distinction between owners, employers and managers on one side and workers on the other. Industrialization brings preliminary evils of exploitation, pollution and urban squalor, together with longer-term benefits in a general rise of living standards. Britain’s industrial advantages: 18th century AD

Country has in abundance three important commodities – water, iron and coal. Water in Britain’s numerous hilly districts provides the power to drive mills in the early stages of industrializaton; the rivers, amplified from 1761 by a developing network of canals, facilitate inland transport in an age where roads are only rough tracks; and the sea, never far from any part of Britain, makes transport of heavy goods easy between coastal cities. Ironmasters of Coalbrookdale: 18th century AD

In 1709 Abraham Darby, an ironmaster with a furnace at Coalbrookdale on the river Severn, discovers that coke can be used instead of charcoal for the smelting of pig iron (used for cast-iron products). This Severn region becomes Britain’s centre of iron production in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Its pre-eminence is seen in the Darby family’s own construction of the first iron bridge, and in the achievements of John Wilkinson. Kay’s flying shuttle: AD 1733

In 1733 John Kay, son of the owner of a Lancashire woollen factory, patents the first of the devices which revolutionize the textile industry. He has devised a method for the shuttle to be thrown mechanically back and forth across the loom.

This greatly speeds up the previous hand process, and it halves the labour force. Where a broad-cloth loom previously required a weaver on each side, it can now be worked by a single operator. Until this point the textile industry has required four spinners to service one weaver. Kay’s innovation, in wide use by the 1750s, greatly increases this disparity. Either there must now be many more spinners, or spinning machines must achieve a similar increase in productivity.

Bridgewater Canal: AD 1759-1761The Bridgewater canal is the first in Britain to run its entire length independently of any river. It is the start of the country’s inland waterway systerm, for which Brindley himself will construct another 300 miles of canals.

James Watt and the condenser: AD 1764-1769In 1764 a model of a Newcomen steam engine is brought for repair to the young James Watt, who is responsible for looking after the instruments in the physics department of the university of Glasgow.

The solution occurs to Watt when he is walking near Glasgow one Sunday in May 1765. The two functions could be separated by providing a chamber, outside the cylinder but connecting with it, in which a jet of cold water will condense the steam and cause the vacuum. This chamber is the condenser, for which Watt registers a patent in 1769. Machine tools, gun barrels and cylinders: AD 1774-1800

John Wilkinson, an ironmaster in Staffordshire and Shropshire, has been building up a lucrative arms trade. In 1774 he invents a machine, powered by a water wheel, which can drill with unprecedented accuracy through the length of a cast-iron cylinder to create the barrel of a cannon. It is a turning point in the development of machine tools. James Watt realizes that Wilkinson’s new machine is capable of the precision required for an efficient steam-engine cylinder.

In 1775 Wilkinson delivers to Birmingham the first of the thousands of cylinders he will bore for the firm of Boulton and Watt. Boulton finds them ‘almost without error; that of 50 inches diameter doth not err the thickness of an old shilling’ in any part. Double-acting engine and governor: AD 1782-1787

Just as James Watt applied a rational approach to improve the efficiency ofthe steam engine with the condenser, so now he takes a logical step forward in a modification patented in 1782. His new improvement is the double-acting engine. The growth of industrial cities: 18th – 19th century AD

The growth of Manchester’s textile industry brings equivalent prosperity to the nearby port of Liverpool – just in time since the slave trade, the previous source of Liverpool’s wealth, is made illegal in 1807. Cotton saves the day. Eight new docks are built in Liverpool between 1815 and 1835.

The amount of raw cotton brought ashore in Liverpool shows a threefold increase between 1820 and 1850, from half a million bales a year to 1.5 million. There is a comparable rise in the population – with a leap of 60% in a single decade, the 1840s, from 250,000 to 400,000 inhabitants. Factories and slums: 19th – 20th century AD

The first Factory Act, in 1802, introduces a regulation which by later standards seems astonishing. It limits the amount of time which a child may work in a factory to twelve hours a day. After much opposition the reformers achieve significant improvements in the Factory Act of 1833.

Children under nine are now not to work at all. Those aged between nine and thirteen are limited to eight hours of work and must be given two hours of education each day (this is the first small step towards compulsory education in Britain). And an inspectorate is set up for the factories, albeit initially with only four inspectors for the entire country. Electric and Electronic Revolutions: 20th century AD

But from our closer perspective there seems an intrinsic difference between the Electric Revolution (by now a century old and familiar in its main applications) and the Electronic Revolution – which first impinges on the general public in the 1990s and still retains, in the 21st century, an unimaginable potential for transforming human life.