The Industrial Revolution in Britain

Introduction: The term, Industrial Revolution was coined in the 1830ís to describe the immense boom of inventions and technological developments together with the burgeoning growth of industry in Great Britain. Between 1800 and 1760, industry in Britain had grown at an annual rate of 0.7 per cent; between 1800 and 1830 it grew at an annual rate of 3 per cent; with the greatest rate of growth in the 1780ís, at the end of the American and French Revolutions. The British Isles were fertile soil, for this prodigious development of industry for several reasons:

Innovations in Textiles: The British cotton industry provided the first true factories of the Industrial revolution. Cotton textiles had first been imported by the British East India Tea Company, and a cotton industry developed as early as 1760. The putting-out system of merchant capitalism had worked well in Britain, but there was a constant growth in demand, such that the system could no longer keep up. Among its shortcomings was a constant shortage of available spun yarn. This problem was resolved about 1765 by James Hargreaves, an illiterate carpenter and jack of all trades who invented a machine known as the cotton jenny (obviously short of "Engine," as in Cotton Gin.) At the same time, a barber/manufacturer named Richard Arkwright invented (or pirated) a water frame. The jenny was deceptively simple; it allowed the spinner to move a sliding carriage back and forth and turn a wheel with her free hand to power the machine. As a result, by 1765 one worker, usually a woman could spin one hundred threads simultaneously, whereas with the old spinning wheel, she could spin only one thread of yarn. Whereas before it was the weaver who had to wait on spun yarn, it was now the weaver (usually a man) who could not keep up with the supply of spun yarn. By the 1780ís yarn output increased by 13 per cent per year; by the 1790ís ten times as much yarn was produced as had been in 1770. By 1831, the textile industry, largely mechanized at this point, accounted for 22 per cent of Britainís entire industrial production.

The spinning jenny and water frame seemed to work well only with cotton. Flax (for linen) and wool were hard to spin with the new machines. That factor and the obvious comfort of cotton over wool caused production of cotton textiles to explode.

The water frame was structured differently, and had the capacity for several hundred spindles. It required much more power than human exertion alone could provide, and thus relied on water power. As a result, specialized factories that employed large number of people developed. Some employed as many as a thousand people. The yarn spun by the water frame was course and strong and normally had to be put out for re-spinning on jennies. About 1790, Samuel Crompton developed a revised technique which produced a finer yarn, but also required more strength than a human arm could supply; as a result, all cotton spinning became concentrated in factories.

Improved manufacturing made cotton goods much cheaper, such that people of all classes could afford them. Their most obvious use was for underwear, which previously had been made of linen and worn by only the very wealthy. At that point, it was called "body linen." The poor wore course (and generally filthy) outergarments with nothing underneath. Now they wore cotton slips and underpants as well as cotton dresses and shirts. Additionally, weavers, who had been among the poorer class, became the best paid workers in Britain, because of the supply of yarn and shortage of weavers to manufacture it. Weavers were known to walk through the streets with five pound notes stuck in their hatbands, and dressed like the middle class.

With increased demand for weavers, many agricultural laborers became weavers. The increased demand for weavers (and the high wages they commanded) led to the inevitable invention of the "better mousetrap," in this case a power loom. That device was invented in 1785 by Edmund Cartwright.

Working conditions were less satisfactory in early factories than for cottage workers. Until the late 1789ís, most factories were built in rural areas where they had access to water power. Few people were willing to work in them, as they resembled the poor houses where destitute people worked for little pay. Because so few able workers were willing to labor in the factories and the demand for labor was there, factory owners turned to child labor. Most child workers were children who had been abandoned by their parents and left in the care of local parishes. Many of these so called "foundlings" were "apprenticed" to factory owners. The result was, the parish saved money as it didnít have to feed the children and the factory owners gained workers over whom they held authority approaching that of a slaveholder. Children from poor families who stayed together also worked long hours for cruel masters, but the exploitation of orphans was unprecedented. Many started work at age five and were required to work for their "master" for up to fourteen years. They were fed, housed, and locked up at night in factory dormitories and received little or no pay. They worked 13-14 hours per day, six days per week, and discipline was maintained with harsh physical punishment. It was this exploitation that pricked the conscience of reformers and led to humanitarian attitudes towards children and child labor in the early nineteenth century. The novels of Charles Dickens, often difficult reading, often deal with child labor. Almost all of the subjects of his novels are orphans who are mistreated by cruel masters.

Energy for Factory Operation: The need for energy to operate machines has been a constant issue. In the Middle Ages, the water wheel was developed to grind grain, and wind mills were used to pump water and drain swamps. Still, animals were the primary source of energy. The obvious limitations of these methods was a key factor in keeping many families in poverty.

Wood was also a primary source of energy, both as fuel and for the manufacture of charcoal which was mixed with iron ore in blast furnaces to produce pig iron. The huge demand for wood soon exceeded the ability of the British forests to provide it, and the iron industry thus stagnated. Russia, with its enormous forests, soon became the primary producer of pig iron, but its own limitations soon stalled production there also.

"Pig Iron" was so named because of the method of manufacture. Iron produced in blast furnaces was poured directly on to beds of sand to cool. Individual rivulets of molten iron branched from the main stream, creating a resemblance to piglets nursing a sow. Hence, the main stream became known as the "sow" and the branches, the "pig" iron. Although the pig iron was much thicker and heavier than that produced in the "sow," it had a high carbon content and was brittle.

Since Britain had large deposits of coal, it soon presented itself as a source of energy. It was used to heat homes and also to provide heat for the manufacture of beer, glass, soap, etc. As coal demand increased, it became necessary to dig deeper and deeper in the mines to meet the demand, and mines were constantly filling with water. Mechanical pumps, usually powered by animals, were used to bring water to the surface, and expensive and tedious process. In one mine, five hundred horses walked in a huge circle to pump water from the mines. The first primitive steam engines, invented by Thomas Savage in 1768 and Thomas Newcomen in 1705, attempted to solve this problem. The engines were extremely inefficient. They burned coal to produce steam which was injected into a cylinder. The steam was cooled, creating a vacuum which allowed the pressure of the earthís atmosphere to push a piston down and operate the pump.

The steam engine was vastly improved (not invented) by James Watt in 1763. Watt worked at the time for the University of Glasgow making scientific instruments. He was asked to repair a Newcomen engine used in a physics course, and eventually improved it by adding a separate condenser to condense the steam without cooling the cylinder. He made numerous other refinements over a period of twenty years, often implying other inventors and technicians, including John Wilkinson, who first developed the ability to bore cannon cylinders with accuracy. By the 1780ís the steam engine was a commercial success in Britain.

Although it was designed for use in the coal mines, Wattís steam engine quickly proved useful in other industries. It had something of a domino effect, as it made the production of more coal possible which made the operation of even more steam engines practical. It was used instead of water wheels to mill flour, in breweries, and in the mills exported to crush sugar cane. Wattís stem engine was the most fundamental technological advance of the Industrial revolution.

Among the other industries that benefited from the steam engine, steam driven bellows in blast furnaces helped iron makers switch from charcoal to coke (made from coal) to smelt iron. Henry Cort produced the "puddling furnace" by which molten iron was "cooked" in a tremendous vat, and the melted iron racked from the top for processing. He also developed the steam powered "rolling mill" whereby iron could be produced in every shape and form. Iron output burgeoned as a result. Whereas in 1740, British iron production had been 17,000 tons, by 1788 it had reached 68,000 tons; by 1796 125,000 tons, and by 1806, 260,000 tons. Iron, once scarce and expensive, became the basic building block of the economy. (Where would we all be without the cast iron frying pan?)

The Railroads: The railroad was the last and most extensive invention of the Industrial revolution, which demonstrated more than any other development the power and speed of the new age. Massive train stations became the cathedrals of industry, engineers who built tunnels through mountains and bridges across rivers and valleys became public icons. New phrases were added to everyday vocabulary from the railroads: "building up a head of steam;" "get off track;" "blow your own horn.," even "highball."

Prior to the development of the steam engine, overland shipment of freight relied solely on horsepower. It was limited and expensive. Rivers and canals were far more efficient and economically feasible. It was only logical that steam would be used to develop a means of transporting both freight and people.

Coal mines had long used plank roads and rails to move wagonloads of coal within the mine and to the surface. The rails reduced friction, and made it possible for horses or manpower to pull much more than they might otherwise. The first effective steam locomotive engine was built in 1825 by George Stephenson. Five years later in 1830, his first locomotive, the Rocket, traveled across the newly constructed Manchester and Liverpool railway at sixteen miles per hour, breakneck speed at that time. Many companies followed suit and built large trunk lines across Britain.

The impact of the railroads was enormous. The cost of shipping was reduced dramatically. Markets which had been small and local because of transportation costs grew larger and more centralized. Larger markets led to larger factories with more sophisticated machinery in more industries. These factories produced goods more cheaply and thus spelled the death knell of the old putting out cottage industry system.

The development of the railroads also led to the development of the urban working class. Railroad construction created a strong demand for manual labor. Many landless farm laborers and poor peasants, who were accustomed to leaving villages for temporary employment worked on railroad construction. When the work was finished, many searched for similar work either with the railroad or in factories or construction. By the time these men sent for their families to join them, they had been transformed into urban workers.

Industry and Population: By 1831, Britain produced two thirds of the worldís coal and more than one half of its iron and cotton cloth. By 1860, it produced twenty per cent of the worldís industrial goods. (In 1750, it had produced only 2 per cent.) Between 1780 and 1851, the nationís gross national product quadrupled. At the same time, the British population encountered explosive growth, from 9 million in 1780 to 21 million in 1851.

Economists of the time viewed the population explosion with pessimism. Among them, Thomas Malthus wrote an essay entitled On the Principle of Population. Malthus argued that population would always grow faster than the food supply, and that the only hope of warding off such "positive checks" on population growth as war, famine, and disease was "prudential restraint," that is by marrying late in life. He did not believe this would happen, however, because of the attraction of the young to the opposite sex and their proclivity to marry young and have children. Another leading economist, David Ricardo, was also pessimistic. He spoke of the "iron law of wages," meaning that the pressure of population growth would cause wages to remain at subsistence levels. Workers would live just above starvation level.

The glum predictions of Malthus and Ricardo led to the designation of economics as the "dismal science."

In the long run, they were both wrong, however the process was so drawn out that few ever saw its conclusion. Throughout the industrial revolution, the economy and population growth ran neck and neck. No one who saw the birth of the revolution lived to see the favorable outcome. There were some negative developments, however. With the increase in industrialization and population growth, the wealthy seemed to grow even more so while the poor sank deeper into poverty. This is an issue that will be discussed at length at a later point.