The Industrial Revolution is the name we give to the time of amazing change that began in Britain about 1700. New methods and materials combined with the power of steam to create a huge increase in the production of many types of goods. Machine power replaced hand-workers. Factories, iron foundries, railways, and mines transformed the landscape. By about 1820 the Industrial Revolution had spread to parts of northern Europe and North America.
BEFORE THE INDUSTRIAL AGE
In 1700, more than 90 per cent of Europeans lived and worked in the countryside. Most of these were peasant farmers, growing their own food and using tools and other goods made locally. They usually rented their land, paying the landowner by working for him or giving him part of what they grew. They had few possessions and little money. Travel was very difficult because of the poor roads.
The only sources of power were natural ones. The muscles of humans, oxen, and horses did most of the labour. Wood provided fuel for heating, and light came from candles of wax or fat. Wind power or the flow of water from rivers turned many kinds of mill. These mills did dozens of jobs, from grinding corn and sawing timber to pumping water from the fields.
NEW WAYS OF SPINNING AND WEAVING
Since the Middle Ages, one of the biggest and richest industries in Britain had been cloth-making. Wool from sheep was cleaned and then spun into thread on spinning wheels. The thread was then woven into cloth on hand-held looms. There were very few factories, and almost all spinners and weavers worked at home.
However, a change was coming—very fast. From the middle of the 17th-century businessmen started importing raw cotton from Asia as an alternative to wool. The British population was growing rapidly, and so was the demand for cloth. A search began to find quicker and cheaper ways of producing it. The first notable invention was the flying shuttle that was developed by John Kay in the 1730s. This moved a shuttle holding the thread backwards and forwards across the room.
Weavers could now work at twice their previous speed. But this soon meant that they needed more thread. In about 1764, James Hargreaves invented the machine called the spinning jenny. It could spin eight threads at once and allowed one worker to make as much thread as eight people did previously. Edmund Cartwright built a power loom for weaving in 1785.
COAL, IRON, AND STEEL
People had been making iron for more than 2,000 years. They smelted iron ore in a hot furnace to burn off the impurities. Then they poured the molten metal into moulds and hammered it into shape. Iron makers used charcoal (made from wood) as fuel for the furnaces, but by 1700 the supply was running out. In about 1709, Abraham Darby of Shropshire invented coke smelting. He found a way of turning coal into coke by baking it. Coke made furnaces burn much hotter, and so produced better iron.
The next advance was made by Henry Cort in 1784. He stirred, or “puddled”, the molten iron with long rods so that more impurities burned away. This and other new processes meant that there was a much bigger supply of iron. At the same time, there were new methods of shaping it. Mechanical rollers and hammers could turn the hot metal into a huge variety of forms. By the 1750s iron was being used to make everything from ploughs and pipes to machine parts and barges. The first ever iron bridge was built over the River Severn in 1779. The place is still called Ironbridge today.
Steel is even more useful than iron. It is an alloy, a mixture of iron and carbon, and is much stronger and more flexible than just iron. Traditional methods of steel-making had been slow and produced only small quantities. In 1740, Benjamin Huntsman made cast steel by heating iron to a very high temperature in small vats called crucibles. Henry Bessemer improved this a century later by forcing air into the molten metal. Soon steel had replaced iron in many products, such as bridges, metal-framed buildings, and guns.
The early factory machines used animal or water power to drive them. By the 1780s a new and much stronger kind of power was available—steam. For centuries scientists had known that water expands into steam when heated. If steam is put in an airtight container and cooled, it will create a vacuum, and this can be used to pull a piston. It was only when people developed better methods of making and shaping iron that anyone could make a cylinder that was airtight.
The result was dramatic. In 1712 Thomas Newcomen built a steam pump that drained water from mines. This allowed miners to dig even deeper to extract coal or tin. In 1763 a Scottish engineer called James Watt developed a much more efficient kind of steam engine, which was more powerful and used less fuel. Soon steam was everywhere. It drove spinning and weaving machines in cotton mills. It pulled ploughs and threshed corn. It worked bellows for blasting air into foundry furnaces. It helped to hammer iron and steel into shape.
CANALS, TRAINS, AND STEAMSHIPS
As industry expanded in the 18th century, it needed bigger supplies of heavy raw materials such as coal and iron. One horse could only pull one tonne of cargo on the muddy and rutted roads of the time. The same horse, however, could pull up to 30 tonnes when it was loaded onto a canal boat. Between 1760 and 1800 over 6,800 kilometres of canals were built in Britain. Canal boats carried not only coal and iron but stone and gravel for new roads and timber and slate for buildings.
Railways brought an even more dramatic change. In the early 19th century engineers developed steam engines that could move along iron rails. George Stephenson improved these steam locomotives so that by 1825 he was able to open the world’s first public railway line between Stockton and Darlington in the north of England. Within 20 years there were lines linking all of Britain’s major cities.
For the first time in history, people could travel faster than a galloping horse. Trains could also carry huge cargoes over long distances. They transported food to feed the growing populations of the towns, and raw materials to the centres of industry. Railways crossed whole continents. By 1869 there was a line between the east and west coasts of the United States. Other railways crossed Russia from Moscow to Siberia and crossed the Andes Mountains in South America.
By now steam engines were driving ships as well. The first ship to be powered by steam was the American vessel Savannah. It crossed the Atlantic Ocean partly under steam power in 1819. In 1838 the Great Western built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel crossed the Atlantic, pushed along by its paddle wheels. Soon faster and more efficient ships were built of iron and steel and driven by screw propellers. These steamed even greater distances, carrying passengers and goods as far as India, China, and Australia.
INVENTING A NEW AGE
Iron, coal and steam power were the vital ingredients of the industrial age. Put together, they inspired an incredible number of new ideas. Inventors and engineers improved on old machines and devised entirely new ones. Some of the most important were the tools that shaped iron and steel by cutting, bending and drilling. John Wilkinson’s boring mill of 1775 produced the cylinders for steam engines. Henry Maudslay’s lathe of 1794 was able to cut screws accurately for the first time.
Completely new materials also appeared. When coal was baked to make coke, it gave off a gas called coal gas. By the 1840s several cities were burning this gas in lamps to light their streets. In 1855 Alexander Parkes made the first kind of plastic, using wood fibres (called Parkesine). In 1856 William Perkin invented the first artificial dye out of tar, which he called “mauveine”, but which we know better today as mauve.
LIFE IN THE FACTORY TOWNS
The Industrial Revolution changed the shape of society in Britain. By 1851 more than half of the population lived in towns. The enclosure of land and new machines had taken away many of the traditional farming jobs. At the same time, machines had encouraged the building of factories, where workers were always needed. Country people flocked to the towns, desperate to find work.
The industry also changed the landscape. The ancient open countryside disappeared under a patchwork of fenced fields. The railways, with their embankments and tunnels, cut straight lines through it. The new factory towns grew at enormous speed, with long streets of cheap housing for the workers. Tall chimneys belched out thick smoke that filled the air and left layers of dust.
Of course, this expansion of trade and manufacturing made many people rich. Mill owners, bankers, and merchants could afford large houses on the outskirts of the towns, but for most of the factory workers, life could be very grim. In 1840 many of them worked for 12 hours a day for 5 days, with a “half day” of 9 hours on Saturdays. Conditions in the mills and factories were often dangerous and unhealthy.
By about 1900, most countries in northern Europe and North America had industrial societies, dominated by machines and factory work. The old way of life had disappeared, and populations had grown at huge speed. The Revolution made several nations rich and powerful and provided a higher standard of living for many people.