The Open Door Web Site
Keith Woodall's Lesson Notes Index
KEITH WOODALL'S LESSON NOTES
The Industrial Revolution
In the 18th.century people were, technically, living in essentially the same manner as the Ancient Egyptians or Ancient Greeks. They were still using the same materials to construct their buildings, the same forms of transport (horses for land transport and the oar and sail for maritime transport), the same textiles to make their clothes and oil or wax-based products to provide their light. Wind and water power had been harnessed since Antiquity but almost exclusively for grinding cereal grains into flour for the making of the staple food - bread. This in itself reflects the priorities of peasant-based economies which were universal until the 19th.century.
It was the 18th.century which witnessed, for the first time in the history of humanity a technological revolution which permitted "a take-off into self-sustained growth", in other words an economic revolution that produced continually greater wealth that in turn stimulated further technological advance that in turn led to the ever-advancing speed of our technological progress. We are experiencing its consequences with every day that passes. The Industrial Revolution, intimately connected to the Scientific Revolution which was, in turn, stimulated, by the intellectual Renaissance (despite whatever Professor Butterfield might think) gave to Europe the means to dominate the rest of the world. This domination may no longer be political in the sense that European colonialism is a thing of the past, but it is still technological. The economic world leaders of today, the U.S.A. and Japan have become so only because they adopted and developed the technology and especially "the mentality of technological advance" that developed in 18th.century Europe. Or to be more precise 18th.century Britain.
The Industrial (Technological) Revolution began in Britain in the 18th.century, and it was to give Britain a world domination that only came to an end in 1914. This tiny country with a miniscule population, even in comparison with other countries of Europe, let alone the rest of the world, created the greatest empire the world has ever seen "the empire on which the sun never sets". It did so by military power and military power depended (as it still does) upon advanced technology which in turn depends upon wealth. So why was Britain so wealthy and therefore so powerful ?
The significance of what occurred in Britain in the 18th.century can only be understood if one is reminded of the economic order that had existed since the rise of the first civilisations around 3200 B.C. Without exception all societies were traditionally based upon the peasantry. They constituted about 90% of the populations and produced the essential food surplus (albeit small) which permitted the other 10% to become :
The Economic Revolution in Britain
In order for a revolution in manufacturing technology to take place there had to be a certain number of essential prerequisites. Some are obvious:
Yet the question has to be asked "Why did this revolution begin in Britain in the 18th.century, whereas the rest of Europe did not experience it until a century later?"
In order to understand the answer to this fundamental question it is necessary to examine the developments in England in the early 16th.century.
The reign of Henry VII (1485 - 1509) had produced a profound social and political change. Henry had become king at the end of a bloody civil war known as "the Wars of the Roses" and although the intricacies of it need not concern us here, an important consequence of this civil war was that the traditional feudal nobility almost totally died out or were permanently neutralised, being considered a danger to the throne. The "hole" created was progressively filled by the rich and influential middle class which Henry considered to be, politically, much less dangerous to his authority. The growth of political influence of the English bourgeoisie dates from Henry VII's reign.
The growth of their economic influence began during the reign of his son Henry VIII. (1509 - 1547) and their political influence was reinforced. In 1534 Henry VIII forced "The Act of Supremacy" through Parliament which made England a Protestant country. This was followed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537 which effectively confiscated all property and possessions of the Catholic Church. Henry, like all other kings, was permanently in need of money so he sold most of this confiscated property to the only people who possessed the necessary wealth to buy it, - the English middle class. The result was that by the middle of the 16th.century a new social class appeared in England, a social class that was unique in Europe, the land-owning middle class or "the landed gentry". They were unique in the sense that, whereas in the rest of Europe the land was still the property of the king or the traditional nobility whose incomes continued to depend upon taxing the peasants in the traditional way, this new breed of landowners in England had every intention of using its newly-acquired land to make a profit.
English wealth had, since the late Middle Ages, been based upon the export of wool, and this new entrepreneurial class of landowners quickly set about transforming the inefficient peasant-based agriculture in England into a highly productive and highly profitable new form. Land was "enclosed", or fenced off, in order to permit the raising of enormous herds of sheep because of the profit obtained from their wool, but the first major consequence was the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of peasants from their land. (Throughout the reigns of Elizabeth I and her Stuart successors the problem of "beggars" and "vagrants" was a major preoccupation of government).
The reign of Elizabeth I reinforced the political and economic power of the English middle class. Politically they were essential to her very survival as queen because she was the daughter of Henry VIII's second marriage, after the divorce from his first wife, and Elizabeth was considered illegitimate by all the great Catholic powers of Europe and, therefore not the rightful queen. The English landed gentry found it in their interest for Elizabeth to remain on the throne and for England to remain a Protestant country, because if ever a Catholic monarch was restored to the throne of England all the property that they had acquired since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537 would go back to the Catholic Church without compensation. Both she and they were Protestant by necessity. This is the underlying reason for close co-operation between Elizabeth and Parliament, which was dominated by the landed gentry.
Economically the English middle class were given an almost free hand to make profit. They were not only permitted, but positively encouraged, to found trading companies in order to "make money" because they were the greatest source of income for the royal treasury, and they did so very successfully. ("The Merchant Venturers", "the Muscovy Company" and "the East India Company" are examples). Moreover Elizabeth never interfered in the running of these companies. (unlike la Compagnie des Indes in France which was founded by Colbert in the reign of Louis XIV but because of continual political and financial interference by Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI, it went bankrupt before the French Revolution). Elizabeth invested in them on a personal basis (just like any other investor) and reaped the financial rewards, as did her successors.
The two revolutions in England in the 17th.century (see the work on Liberalism) gave greater political power to the English middle class than anywhere else in the world. This combination of political and economic power made the English bourgeoisie unique in the world and it is one of the fundamental reasons why the greatest economic revolution since the Neolithic Age began in Britain.
By the beginning of the 18th.century Britain had the potential economic advantage inherent in this unique economically and politically powerful social class, but it had yet to be demonstrated, because the France of Louis XIV, simply by its size, its population, the fertility of its soil and its access to the world's major maritime trade routes, as well as the unsurpassed authority of the king himself, had already established itself as the great European power by 1715. Seemingly France had everything in its favour not only to be, but to remain, the great economic, as well as the great military power of Europe.
It was not to be. Throughout the 18th. century Britain gradually established itself, at the expense of France, as the great European economic power. How?
18th.century British Economic "Take-Off"
The Industrial Revolution, which implied a massive transfer of workers from the primary (agricultural) sector to the secondary (industrial) sector, would not have been possible without the significant technical advances in agricultural output that Britain experienced during the 18th.century. As has been stated previously the landed gentry had acquired land in order to make it profitable and the initial stimulus came from textiles (wool being England's principle export since the Middle Ages), hence the enclosing of land and the expulsion of a large proportion of the peasantry. A number of major developments accrued from this:
The increase in the production of wool, in turn, stimulated the search for new and more efficient methods of transforming this wool into cloth. (e.g. the "Flying Shuttle", the "Mule", the "Spinning Jenny").
This search for efficiency and productivity led to a totally new form of production. Previously, textile production everywhere was based upon the "domestic system" in which cloth had been produced by the raw material (wool and linen) being transformed into cloth by the people who produced the raw material itself (peasant women spun the thread and their husbands then wove it into cloth). In 18th. century Britain the factory system was introduced in which centres of cloth production were concentrated into one place - the raw wool arrived at one end of the manufacturing process and finished cloth appeared at the other. The "factory" was born. The great textile cities like Manchester and Bradford developed but could only have done so if the available work force, expertise and markets had existed.
As a massive transfer of population took place from the
countryside to the new industrial
cities it became essential for those who produced food to
produce more than ever before. The profit motive encouraged
experiments into more efficient food production with a smaller
labour force and it is for this reason that 18th.century
Britain experienced a rapid improvement in the production of
arable crops, especially cereals, and in livestock (both in
numbers and quality).
The commercial impetus imparted to agriculture and textiles was rapidly adopted by the iron making industry, so vital in warfare. Although Britain had been a land of forests back in the 16th.century by the middle of the 18th.century this was no longer the case. The ever-growing demand for warships, and therefore the increasing need for timber; the increasing demand for iron, especially for weapons, and the deforestation brought about by the need for more agricultural land had produced a fuel crisis by the early 18th.century. Wood, and its by-product, charcoal, was the only known fuel for the manufacture of iron and Britain was in a critical situation, unlike most other countries. A new, abundant, cheap fuel had to be found. It was. By the mid - 18th.century Britain had found a revolutionary new coal-based fuel which it had in abundance - "coke".
This new fuel, along with improvements in the development of the steam engine (first successfully produced in 1698 by Thomas Savery (not by Denis Papin, who in attempting to build the first steam engine succeeded in inventing "la cocotte-minute", but especially Newcomen and Watt) gave to Britain a form of power in the production of all industrial products that was to prove decisive. Centralised, more rationalised production coupled to the new power source of the rotary steam engine gave Britain a commanding lead in manufacturing especially in the strategic fields of textiles and metallurgy.
The Industrial Revolution in Continental Europe
In comparison to Britain industrialisation in other regions of Europe took very much longer to get started. In fact, with the exception of Belgium which began to industrialise in 1807, the rest of continental Europe only began to do so after 1830 with the beginning of the "railway age".
The first attempt in continental Europe to industrialise on the British model occurred in France just before the Revolution. In 1764 Gabriel Jars, a member of l'Académie des Sciences visited Britain and saw the new techniques of iron making and upon his return to France he wrote a detailed report. In 1777 the French navy minister decided to create a cannon foundry using the new English methods and even managed to recruit William Wilkinson an English engineer who had worked with James Watt. Several possible sites were examined but Wilkinson finally chose Le Creusot, a small town in the Saône-et-Loire region of Burgundy, because of the availability of coal and iron and because of its geographical position midway between the River Loire and the River Saône, giving access to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean coasts. Wilkinson and his British technicians successfully set up the iron foundry and then went home, but it was not long before la Fonderie Royale was facing serious problems :
During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods production at Le Creusot almost ceased. So this first attempt at modern industrialisation outside Britain had failed.
With the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars (1792 - 1815) any further attempts at industrialisation in France came to an end.
How strange that at a vital moment in its history, when technical innovation was vital for success, especially in warfare, France, made no attempt to improve her military technology. Napoleon was, strategically and tactically, a military genius, but in terms of new technology he was a dinosaur.
How else can one explain his persistent refusal to even experiment with new, and potentially decisive weapons of war. Historians are still debating Napoleon's refusal to produce and equip at least some of his line regiments with an equivalent of the British "Baker" rifle, a weapon which more than proved itself during the conflict in Spain, but more particularly a French equivalent of the "carronade". This was an extremely destructive form of cannon, ideally suited to the war at sea which, unlike its more classical counterparts, fired a huge explosive shot filled with bullets. The British navy used "the smasher", to devastating effect against the wooden-hulled ships of the French navy (as well as other enemies) and although the "carronade's" existence was no secret to anyone there was never any attempt to replicate it. Was it because of Napoleon's total ignorance of naval warfare? Was it imposed by France's technical backwardness, or was it Napoleon's own personal conservatism? (He certainly knew of the batteries of explosive Congreve rockets that the British had used against the French in India and Spain, not always with great success it has to be said, but whereas the British were innovative in warfare, he was not).
It was in 1807 that the next, and this time successful, attempt to follow the British model was made. In that year an English engineer William Cockerill founded a textile factory near Liège (in what is now Belgium). He was encouraged to do so because Napoleonic Europe was suffering from the economic blockade of Britain imposed by Napoleon in 1806 after the defeat of the Franco - Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. This had forced Napoleon to abandon his plans for invading Britain. The net result of this economic blockade was that Europe was deprived of British industrial products and suffered as a consequence. Later, Cockerill introduced British iron-making technology. For these reasons the world's second industrialised country, and the only other one before 1830, was Belgium.
The Open Door Web Site is non-profit making. Your donations help towards the cost of maintaining this free service on-line.
Donate to the Open Door Web Site using PayPal