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. In the most advanced civilisations,  the vast majority of populations lived outside large towns and cities. Even in  industrialising England 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 much 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.  Why  England?  David Landes in the  “Wealth  and  Poverty  of Nations”  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”(p201),  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 an explanation   as  any  and  fits  the  flow  of  England’s   historical development.

It is not utterly implausible to suggest that 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.  Nor  did  England produce an industrial revolution only in England, 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-working  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 bourgeoisie 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 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 before the Union.    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 stage to act upon.  Without the union,  the likes of David Hume, Adam  Smith  and James Watt would in all probability  have  been  roses which  bloomed  unseen in the desert air.   That is not  to  decry  the talents and  contributions  of Scots, which are considerable, merely to describe a necessary sociological condition  for their realisation.

Let  me  demonstrate how much of an English enterprise  the  Industrial Revolution was by using the example of the development of steam  power. 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 in 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 Scotsman 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 his association  with   an English  entrepreneur of genius,  Mathew Boulton,    who at  his   Soho works  in Birmingham had probably the best engineering facilities  then in  the  world.  It was also Boulton who pressed Watt  to  develop  the conversion  of linear to rotary action.  It is worth adding  that  Watt was  a timid,  retiring personality who left to his own  devices  would probably  have  achieved  little of practical  consequence.   Moreover, within  a  generation  of Watt’s improvements,  the  English  engineer, Richard Trevithick had greatly improved on Watt’s engine  by  producing a high pressure steam engine, arguably a more important advance than Watt’s innovations because without it steam engines would have remained large and seriously underpowered.. static installations unable to drive vehicles such as trains and ships..

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.

Large scale organisation is also intellectually demanding.  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 were 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  18th  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 the ordinary man, 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 the modern  chemical  industry by discovering the first  synthetic dye;  the first electronic computer was  designed  in  Britain,   after the  theoretical  foundations had been laid  by   the Englishman,  Alan Turing.  (In the previous century another Englishman, Charles  Babbage,  designed  but did not finished  building  the  first programmable machine.) 

Alongside the development of manufacturing ran that of agriculture. 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 “Turnip”  Townsend who greatly increased crop efficiency by various mean  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. 

The  technological inventions and discoveries made by the English   are legion. The list below gives  some idea of their importance and range.

Thomas Savery (1650-1715). Invented the first commercial steam engine -a steam pump. 

Thomas  Newcomen (1663-1729).  Improved Savery’s engine by  introducing the piston.  

Richard  Trevithick  (1771 – 1833). Invented the  high  pressure  steam engine. Built the first steam locomotive.

George Stephenson (1781-1848). Made the railway a practical reality. 

Abraham Darby (1678-1717). Developed the process of smelting iron using coke.

Sir Henry Bessemer,  1813-1898. Devised a process for making steel on a large scale.

James Hargreaves (1722-1778). Invented the spinning jenny.

John Kay  (1733-1764). Invented the  flying shuttle.

Samuel Crompton  (1753-1827). Invented  the spinning mule.

Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) Invented the waterframe.

Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823). Invented the power loom.

John  Harrison  (1693-1776) First to build watches accurate  enough  to solve the longitude measurement problem.

Edward Jenner (1743-1823). Developed vaccination.

Joseph Lister (1827-1912). Developed  antisepsis.

Sir Joseph Whitworth (1803-1887) standardised  screw threads,  produced first true  plane surfaces in metal, developed ductile steel.

Henry Maudslay (1771-1831).   Invented the screw-cutting lathe and  the first  bench  micrometer  that  was capable of  measuring  to  one  ten thousandth of an inch. 

Joseph Bramah (1748-1814). Invented the hydraulic press.

John Walker (1781- 1859).  Invented the first friction matches.

John  Smeaton  (1724-1792) made the first  modern  concrete  (hydraulic cement).

Joseph  Aspdin  (1788-1855) invented Portland Cement,  the  first  true artificial cement.

Humphrey Davy (1778-1829).  Invented the first electric light,  the arc lamp.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Invented the electric motor.

Isambard  Kingdom  Brunel (1806-1859).   Built the first  really  large  steam ships – the  Great Britain, Great Western, Great Eastern.

Sir  Isaac  Pitman (1813-1897).  Devised the most  widely  used  modern shorthand.

Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802 – 1875).  Developed an electric telegraph at the same time as Samuel Morse.

Rowland Hill (1795-1879). Invented adhesive postage stamps.

John Herschel (1792-1871). Invented the blueprint.

William  Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)  Invented the   negative-positive photography and latent image shorter exposure time.

Sir  Joseph  William Swan (1828-1914).  Invented the  dry  photographic plate.  Invented, concurrently with Edison, the  light bulb.

Sir William Henry Perkin (1838-1907). Created the first artificial  dye –  aniline  purple  or  mauveine – and  the  first   artificial  scent, coumarin.  

Alexander  Parkes  (1813-90).  Created the  first  artificial  plastic, Parkensine.

Sir   George  Cayley  (1773-1857).   Worked  out  the   principles   of aerodynamics,  his  “On  Ariel Navigation” showed  that  a  fixed  wing aircraft  with a power system for propulsion,  and a tail to assist  in the control of the airplane, would be the best way to allow man to fly. Also invented the caterpillar track.

Sir  Frank  Whittle  (1907-1996).  Took out the  first  patents  for  a Turbojet.

Sir Christopher Cockerell (1910-1999). Invented the hovercraft.

Charles  Babbage (1792-1871).  Worked out the basic principles  of  the computer. 

Alan Turin (1912-1954). Widely considered the father of modern computer science – worked out the principles of the digital computer. 

Tim  Berners-Lee  (1955-).  Invented the World Wide Web  defining  HTML (hypertextmarkup language), HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) and URLs (Universal Resource Locators).

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1 Response to England and the only bootstrapped Industrial Revolution

  1. Pingback: England was wealthy long before the Empire and Slave Trade | England calling

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