England and the only bootstrapped Industrial Revolution

Of all the social changes which have occurred in human  history, none has been so profound as the process of  industrialisation. The two previous great general amendments  to human life – farming and urbanisation – pale into  insignificance. Before industrialisation, man lived primarily from the land and animals whether from farming, husbandry or  hunter-gathering. Even in the most advanced civilisations, the vast majority of populations lived outside large towns and cities. In England, the most advanced state, a majority of the population derived their living directly from the land as late as the 1830s. France did not become a predominantly urban nation until the 1930s.

With industrialisation came not merely a change in the material circumstances, but profound social alteration. There  arose vastly greater opportunity to move from the small world of the village. The massive increase in wealth  eventually made even the poor rich enough to have aspirations. Sufficient numbers of the wealthier classes  became guilty enough about abject poverty existing beside great wealth that the condition of the poor was further  mitigated by greater educational opportunity, welfare provision and legislation regulating the abuse of workers by employers. Political horizons were expanded by the extension  of the franchise.

The industrial revolution altered the balance of power throughout the world. David Landes “In the wealth and Poverty of Nations” describes the effect succinctly: “The industrial revolution made some countries richer, others (relatively)  poorer; or more accurately, some countries made an industrial revolution and became rich; and others did not and stayed  poor.” (p168). Prior to industrialisation, the disparity in wealth between states, regions and even continents was relatively  small. Come the Industrial Revolution and massive disparities begin to appear. For Dr Landes, it is to the success or otherwise in industrialising which is the primary cause of  present disparities in national wealth.

All of this tremendous amendment to human existence occurred because the one and only bootstrapped Industrial Revolution took place in England. Indeed, without England the world might have had no Industrial Revolution. Those who would scoff at such a proposition should consider the cold facts:  even with England and Britain’s example to follow no other nation matched her industrial development until the 1870’s and then the first country to do so was a state ultimately derived from England, namely the USA. Moreover, England and eventually Britain did not merely produce an industrial revolution, they actively exported and financed it throughout the world. For example, most of the European railway building of the years 1840-70 was the result of British engineers and money.

Some may point to scientific advance in Europe from 1600 onwards as reason to believe that industrialisation would  have been achieved without England. It is true that Europe advanced scientifically in the seventeenth and eighteenth  centuries, but scientific knowledge is no guarantee of technological progress. Moreover, a good deal of that scientific advance came from England. Nor does scientific knowledge have any natural connection with the severe social upheaval required for a transformation from the land dominated pre-industrial state to capitalism. Indeed, the  landowners of pre-industrial Europe had a vested interest in not promoting industrial advance. Moreover, in many parts of  Europe, particularly the East, feudal burdens became greater not less after 1500. This was so even in as advanced a  country as France. Consequently, the widespread social mobility which historians have generally thought necessary to promote a bootstrapped industrial revolution simply did not exist in Europe at the beginning of the British  Industrial revolution. Even the country most like England in its commercial development, the Netherlands, became socially and politically ossified in the Eighteenth century, with a bourgeoise developing into an aristocracy and representative government narrowed to what was in effect a parliament of nobles.

There will be those – Scots in particular – who will chafe at  the idea that the British industrial revolution was dependent upon England. The facts are against them.

Scotland before the union with England (1707) was a remarkably poor state. Nor, despite its much vaunted  educational system – supposedly much the superior of England – had it produced many men of international importance. Read  a general history of Europe, either old or modern, and you will find precious few Scots mentioned on their own account.  The names John Eringa and Duns Scotus with perhaps a nod to John Knox are the best the reader may hope for, and the former two had to leave Scotland to make their names. If any other Scotsman who lived before the union is mentioned, he will be noticed only because of his connection with another country, most commonly England. It required the union with England to give Scots a larger platform to act upon. Without  the union, the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith and even James Watt would in all probability have been roses which bloomed unseen in the desert air. That is not to decry the talents or contributions of Scots, which are considerable, merely to describe a necessary sociological condition for their full display.

Let us suppose that the union had never occurred. What then? All the evidence suggests that the first industrial  revolution would still have occurred when it did, perhaps slightly slower or with a different emphasis.

Let me demonstrate how much of an English enterprise the Industrial Revolution was by taking the Dragnet approach  (“Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts”). Take steam power. It is the epitome of the industrial revolution. Contrary to  many a schoolboy’s imagining, James Watt did not invent the steam engine. That was the province of Englishmen, The  Marquess of Worcester may have produced a working steam engine on his estates in 1663. James Savery certainly did by 1698. This was improved by another Englishman, Thomas Newcomen. Their machines were crude beam engines, but the technological Rubicon had been crossed.

It is true that the Scotchman, Watt’s, improvements to the steam engine – the conversion of linear to rotary action and   the introduction of a separate condenser – were profoundly important and provided the means to extend the use of steam  engines from their limited applications in pumping water from mines. But it should be noted that he had to come to England to achieve his improvements through the patronage of an Englishman, Mathew Boulton, who in his Soho works in Birmingham had probably the best engineering facilities then in the world. Moreover, within a generation of Watt’s improvements, the English engineer, Richard Trevithick had greatly improved on Watt by producing a non-condensing high pressure steam engine,

But before steam could play its full role there had to be a revolution in iron production. This was accomplished by Englishmen. Until Abraham Darby began smelting iron with coke made from coal in the early 1700s, iron making was an  expensive and uncertain business carried on in small foundries using charcoal to fire the kilns (an ironmaker  named Dudley claimed to have used coal successfully for smelting as early as 1619 but died without establishing a  business to carry the work on). Compared with coal, charcoal was in short supply. Worse, it did not produce the same  intensity of heat as coal converted into coke. Darby and his son solved the basic problem of smelting with coke made from coal. Henry Cort’s puddling process allowed cast-iron to be refined to remove the brittleness. A little later Benjamin Huntsman improved steel making. In the middle of the next century the Bessemer revolutionised steel production to such a degree that its price fell dramatically enough to make steel no longer a luxury but the common material of construction. All these advances were made by Englishmen.

 If a ready and cheaper supply of iron was a necessary condition for the industrial revolution, so was the very idea  of large scale manufactories using machines. Undertakings employing hundreds of men on one site were not unknown before the 18th century – a clothier named Jack of Newbury had a factory employing 500 in Tudor times – but they very rare.  In 18th century England such enterprises became if not commonplace, at least not extraordinary. By the next century they were the norm. Industry became for the first time geared to a mass market. Nor was this new method of   manufacturing confined to the necessities and banalities of  life. Factories such as Josiah Wedgewood’s at Etruria manufactured high quality and imaginative china directed deliberately at the growing middle classes. All the most  successful 18 century machines for mass production were developed by Englishmen. Arkwright’s water frame, Crompton’s  mule, James Hargreaves spinning jenny.

Once the first blast of the industrial revolution had passed, the fundamental fine tuning was undertaken by Englishmen,  with men such as Whitworth leading the way with machine tools and new standards of exactness in measurement and industrial cutting and finishing. All very boring to most, but utterly essential for the foundation of a successful  industrial society.

Many vital industries since have originated in England. To take a few. George Stephenson produced the first practical  railway (the railway probably did more than anything to drive the Industrial Revolution because it allowed a true national market to operate within England), Brunel issued in the age of the ocean going steamship. William Perkins laid the foundation for a vast part of the chemical industry by discovering the first synthetic dye. The first electronic  computer was designed in Britain, after theoretical  conception by the Englishman, Alan Turing. In the previous  century another Englishman, Charles Babbage, designed but did not finished building the first programmable computer.

For much of the nineteenth century Britain remained utterly dominant as an industrial power in a way that no nation, not even the USA, has been since (the nearest approach was America’s position in the immediate post war years). To give an example: in the mid 19 century Britain produced two and a half times the iron produced in the rest of Europe. Even when Britain’s predominate position had gone she still dominated certain industries and trades massively. She built two thirds of the world’s shipping between 1890-1914 and possessed fifty per cent of the world’s carrying trade  between 1890-1914

Along side the development of manufacturing ran that of agriculture at which England became the leader during the  eighteenth century. The enclosure movement was already well advanced by 1700. By the middle of the nineteenth century  it was effectively finished. Not merely feudalism but the peasantry were gone. The old, inefficient open-field system was a dead letter. With enclosure came agricultural innovation. In the eighteenth century we have Jethro Tull,  whose seed drill greatly reduced the amount of seed needed for sowing, Robert Bakewell whose selective breeding  greatly increased the size of sheep and cattle and “Turmip” Townsend who greatly increased crop efficiency by various  means such as the marling of sandy soil. The importance of  such developments cannot be overestimated because the population of Britain rose so dramatically in the next century.

Why did the first Industrial Revolution occur in England and not elsewhere? The short answer is that no one knows. The explanations given by historians comprise a melange of social development, scientific discovery, legal development, political stability, geographical position, historical circumstances and commercial advance. But the problem is that any of the circumstances can be found in other countries. Obviously it was a confluence of developments which made England unusual. For myself, I give greatest weight to intangibles such as intellectual development, political maturity, legally enforced respect for private property and a sound system of money and credit for without those state underwritten assurances, it is difficult to see how human beings may begin to build the necessary structures for a sophisticated commercial and industrial system.

David Landes  sees the historical process of industrialisation as twofold. First,  comes a pre-industrial preparatory period in which irrationality of thought is gradually replaced by scientific method and what he calls “autonomy of intellectual inquiry” (p 219), that is,  thought divorced from unquestioned reliance on authority, irrationality, especially superstition. At the same time technology begins to be something more than by-guess-and-by-God. This gives birth to industrialisation by creating both the intellectual climate and the acquired  knowledge, both scientific and technological, necessary for the transformation from traditional to modern society. It is  as good a general explanation as any and fits the flow of England’s historical development.

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