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).