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Bridgewater Canal:1759-1761

In 1759 a young self-taught engineer, James Brindley, is invited to visit the duke of Bridgewater. The duke is interested in improving the market for the coal from a local mine which he owns. He believes his coal will find customers if he can get it more cheaply into Manchester. He wants Brindley to build him a canal with a series of locks to get barges down to the river Irwell, about three miles from the mine.

Brindley proposes a much bolder scheme, declared by some to be impossible but accepted by the duke. He will construct a more level canal, with less need for time-wasting locks. He will carry it on an aqudeuct over the Irwell on a straight line to the heart of Manchester, ten miles away.

On 17 July 1761 the first bargeload of coal is pulled along the completed canal. Brindley's aqueduct (replaced in 1894 by the present swing aqueduct) crosses the Irwell at Barton. The strange sight of a barge floating in a gutter high up in the air becomes one of the first great tourist attractions of the Industrial Revolution. The investment in this private canal rapidly pays off. The price of the duke's coal is halved in the Manchester market.

The Bridgewater canal is the first in Britain to run its entire length independently of any river. It is the start of the country's inland waterway systerm, for which Brindley himself will construct another 300 miles of canals.

James Watt and the condenser: 1764-1769

In 1764 a model of a Newcomen steam engine is brought for repair to the young James Watt, who is responsible for looking after the instruments in the physics department of the university of Glasgow. In restoring it to working order, he is astonished at how much steam it uses and wastes.

The reason, he realizes, is that the machine's single cylinder is required to perform two opposing functions. It must receive the incoming steam at maximum pressure to force the piston up (for which it needs to be as hot as possible), and it must then condense the steam to form a vacuum to pull the cylinder down (for which it needs to be as cool as possible).

The solution occurs to Watt when he is walking near Glasgow one Sunday in May 1765. The two functions could be separated by providing a chamber, outside the cylinder but connecting with it, in which a jet of cold water will condense the steam and cause the vacuum.

This chamber is the condenser, for which Watt registers a patent in 1769. The principle has remained an essential part of all subsequent steam engines. It is the first of three major improvements which Watt makes in the basic design of steam-driven machinery. The other two are the double-acting engine and the governor, developed in the 1780s.

Early in the 1770s Watt goes into business with Matthew Boulton, an entrepreneur with a large factory at Soho near Birmingham. Boulton has the capacity to manufacture steam engines to Watt's patented design, and the first two are delivered to customers in 1776.

One of them, installed by Watt himself at John Wilkinson's ironworks at Broseley in Shropshire, is of special significance. Wilkinson is the only ironmaster in the country capable of producing cylinders of sufficiently accurate dimensions to deliver the potential benefits of Watt's improved engine.

Hargreaves' jenny and Crompton's mule: 1764-1779

An accident is said to have given a Lancashire spinner, James Hargreaves, the idea for the first mechanical improvement of the spinning process. In about 1764 he notices an overturned spinning wheel which continues to turn with the spindle vertical rather than horizontal. This gives him the idea that several spindles could be worked simultaneously from a wheel in this position.

He develops a version with eight spindles for use by his own family, thus immediately raising their output eight times. News of this causes jealous local spinners to invade his house and smash his machines.

Hargreaves moves to Nottingham, where he sets up a small cotton-mill using his invention. It acquires the name of spinning jenny, traditionally explained as being the name of the daughter who gave Hargreaves the idea when she knocked over her spinning wheel. He patents his device in 1770. By the time of his death, in 1778, the latest versions of his machine work eighty spindles each - and there are said 20,000 jennies in use in the cottages and small factories of Britain.

This is still an entirely hand-operated mechanism. The next essential development is the application of power. This is solved by Richard Arkwright, who takes out a patent for his machine in 1769.

Arkwright's innovation is in drawing out the cotton by means of rollers before it is twisted into yarn. He succeeds first with a machine worked by a horse, but two years later - in 1771 - he successfully applies water power, with the result that his invention becomes known as the water frame. It is in place just in time for an immense new expansion of the cotton industry after a high tax on pure-cotton fabrics (aimed at calicoes imported from India) is reduced in 1774.

Arkwright's machines are suitable for spinning the strong yarn required for the warp of the woven cloth. They are less good at the finer material needed for the weft. Yet conversely, Hargreaves' spinning jenny is only suitable for the weft.

The technologies of Arkwright and Hargreaves therefore complement each other for a few years until the merits of each are combined by Samuel Crompton, a worker in a Lancashire spinning mill. In doing so he takes the final step in the spinning technology of the early Industrial Revolution.

Crompton observes the tendency of the spinning jenny to break the yarn, and he resolves to improve this aspect of the process. He does so in a machine which he perfects in 1779.

Crompton's machine combines the principles of Hargreaves' jenny and of Arkwright's water frame. The name which it acquires - Crompton's mule - is a pun on that fact. As the offspring of a jenny (a female donkey) and of another creature, the new arrival is clearly a mule.

Crompton's machine is capable of spinning almost every kind of yarn at considerable speed. The flying shuttle in the 1750s put pressure on the spinners to catch up. Now the mule challenges the weavers. They respond in 1785 with the first water-driven power loom, invented by Edmund Cartwright after visiting Arkwright's mills at Cromford. With all this technology in place, the pressure is now on the suppliers of raw cotton in America.

Ironbridge: 1779

In the space of a few months in 1779 the world's first iron bridge, with a single span of over 100 feet, is erected for Abraham Darby (the third of that name) over the Severn just downstream from Coalbrookdale. Work has gone on for some time in building the foundations and casting the huge curving ribs. But in this new technology little time need be spent in assembling the parts - which amount, it is proudly announced, to 378 tons 10 cwt. of metal.

The lightness of the structure strikes all observers. An early visitor comments: 'though it seems like network wrought in iron, it will be uninjured for ages.' It is uninjured still. A great tradition, bringing marvels such as the Crystal Palace, begins in this industrial valley.

Machine tools, gun barrels and cylinders: 1774-1800

John Wilkinson, an ironmaster in Staffordshire and Shropshire, has been building up a lucrative arms trade. In 1774 he invents a machine, powered by a water wheel, which can drill with unprecedented accuracy through the length of a cast-iron cylinder to create the barrel of a cannon. It is a turning point in the development of machine tools.

James Watt realizes that Wilkinson's new machine is capable of the precision required for an efficient steam-engine cylinder. In 1775 Wilkinson delivers to Birmingham the first of the thousands of cylinders he will bore for the firm of Boulton and Watt. Boulton finds them 'almost without error; that of 50 inches diameter doth not err the thickness of an old shilling' in any part.

The Boulton and Watt engine delivered to Wilkinson in the following year is intended for a new purpose. Instead of the usual pumping of water, it is to undertake a more sophisticated role - working the bellows which pump air into one of Wilkinson's blast furnaces of molten iron.

The owners of the mills and mines of the young Industrial Revolution have many tasks to which a source of mechanical power, other than the traditional water of a mill race, could be usefully applied. They await with interest reports of this new type of engine. And the reports are good. By the time Watt's patent expires, in 1800, more than 500 Boulton and Watt engines have been installed around the country and abroad.

The increased efficiency of the new engines, compared with the previous Newcomen version, enables Boulton and Watt to charge by a novel and very profitable method. The machines are provided and installed free, and customers pay a royalty of one-third of the amount saved on fuel. One group of merchants interested in the Boulton and Watt machines, the London brewers, have no previous machine use for comparison. They present Watt with an interesting billing problem which results in the concept of Horsepower.

From 1783 the saving (and the royalty) is even greater, because in that year Watt puts on the market another major innovation - his double-acting engine.

Richard Arkwright, entrepreneur: 1767-1792

By the 1780s, on the eve of the French Revolution, Britain is a society profoundly changed from a century earlier. The form of monarchy characterized by the Stuarts, and still practised by the Bourbon rulers in France, has given way to different structures. There is now political power in middle-class hands. And new opportunities are available in the developing Industrial Revolution.

There is no more striking example of this flexible society, in which merit can find its own rewards, than the career of Richard Arkwright. Born the youngest of seven children of a barber and wigmaker, he dies sixty years later immensely wealthy and a knight of the realm.

Arkwright begins his career travelling the country in his father's trade, buying hair for wigs and dying it by his own secret process. But soon he becomes interested in spinning. In 1767 he begins to construct a spinning machine. In 1769 he patents it and sets up a mill in Nottingham where his machine is worked by a horse.

Two years later Arkwright takes several steps of great significance. He raises capital to build an entirely new mill at Cromford, on the river Derwent in Derbyshire. He successfully adapts his spinning machine, making it work by the much greater power of the river and a mill wheel. And he builds cottages to house workers in the immediate vicinity.

Arkwright thus creates the factory environment. His industrial workers are a community centred on the factory - in strong contrast to the traditional working life of peasants, dependent on the fields and the seasons.

Within the factory, Arkwright's employees specialize in different tasks, each providing his or her own particular service for the relentlessly demanding machines. Discipline is essential if this system is to work, for the machines cannot be left untended. But it is no longer the variable discipline of sunrise and harvest. It is the inflexible and potentially harsh pressure of clock and overseer.

Arkwright's factory system works brilliantly - and in its early small-scale river-based form the environment of industry has considerable picturesque appeal, as Arkwright's surviving mill at Cromford still demonstrates.

Arkwright builds cotton mills on suitable rivers elsewhere in the country, as far away as Scotland. By 1782, just fifteen years after his first attempt to build a spinning machine, the great entrepreneur has a capital of some £200,000 and is employing 5000 workers. And British society welcomes this rapidly self-made man. In 1786 he receives a knighthood. In the following year he is appointed High Sheriff of Derbyshire.

Derby's great painter of the period, Joseph Wright, records features of this impressive story. In 1783 he paints a view of Cromford Mill by moonlight, contributing to a growing perception that industry and its processes provide a romantic subject. In 1789 Wright provides a portrait of the great industrialist. He sits alone, appearing prosperous but slightly gross, in a room decorated only by a model of his spinning machine.

In the following year Joseph Wright paints Arkwright's son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in three group portraits. They look like the most elegant and refined of aristocrats, to the manner born - compelling evidence of the new flexibility of English society when William Pitt becomes prime minister.

Double-acting engine and governor: 1782-1787

Just as James Watt applied a rational approach to improve the efficiency of the steam engine with the condenser, so now he takes a logical step forward in a modification patented in 1782. His new improvement is the double-acting engine.

Watt observes that the steam is idle for half of each cycle. During the downward stroke, when the vacuum is exerting atmospheric force on the piston, the valve between boiler and cylinder is closed. Watt takes the simple step of diverting the steam during this part of the cycle to the upper part of the cylinder, where it joins with the atmospheric pressure in forcing the cylinder down - and thus doubles its effective action.

The most elegant contraption devised by Watt is in use from 1787. It is the governor - the first example of the type of controlling device required in industrial automation, and a feature of all steam engines since Watt's time.

Watt's governor consists of two arms, hinged on a central pivot and rotated by the action of the steam engine. Each arm has a heavy ball at the end. As the speed increases, centrifugal force moves the balls and the arms outwards. This action narrows the aperture of a valve controlling the flow of steam to the engine. As the power is slowly cut off, the speed of the engine reduces and the balls subside nearer to the central column - thus slightly opening the valve again in a permanent process of adjustment.

Watt's many improvements to the steam engine leave it poised to undertake a whole new range of tasks. Its new efficiency means that it can become mobile. Each engine can now generate more power than is required merely to move itself.

By the time of his death in 1819, in quiet retirement near Birmingham, Watt has seen the introduction of commercially successful steam boats and the dawn of the railway age. In each case the vehicles are powered by engines of the type which he has developed.

Puddling and rolling: 1783-1784

In successive years Henry Cort, an ironmaster with a mill near Fareham in Hampshire, patents two processes of lasting significance in the story of metallurgy.

One is the technique which becomes known as puddling, for which Cort patents a machine in 1784. Cort's innovation is a furnace which shakes the molten iron so that air mingles with it. Oxygen combines with carbon in the metallic compond, leaving almost pure iron. Unlike the brittle pig iron (or cast iron), this purer metal is malleable. Capable of being hammered and shaped, it is a much more useful metal in industrial processes than cast iron.

In the previous year Cort has also patented a machine for drawing out red-hot lumps of purefied metal between grooved rollers, turning them into manageable bars without the laborious process of hammering. His device is the origin of the rolling mills which subsequently become the standard factories of the steel industry.

Cort's subsequent career exemplifies the risks involved in the entrepreneurial excitements of the Industrial Revolution. After spending all his own money on his inventions, he raises further capital from the deputy-paymaster of the navy. It turns out to have been embezzled. Cort is ruined before his inventions bring him a profit.

Cotton gin: 1793

The mechanization of spinning and weaving in England, between 1733 and 1785, greatly speeds up the industrial process and rapidly leads to a shortage of cotton. During most of the century the bulk of raw cotton arriving at Liverpool for the Lancashire mills is from India. The cotton grown in the southern states of America is commercially less viable because it is short-fibred.

The cotton fibres, which will be spun into cotton, have to be separated from the seeds which they protect and enmesh. This process, known as cotton picking, is done entirely by hand. The short fibres make it a slow and expensive task.

In 1793 Eli Whitney, a graduate of Yale, invents a machine which solves this problem. It consists of a hand-turned roller with projecting spikes. Each spike passes through a slot in a grid, wide enough to allow the spike to drag the cotton fibres through but too narrow for the cotton seeds to pass. They fall out into a separate container, while a revolving brush cleans the fibres, or lint, off the spikes.

Whitney's machine immediately trebles the speed at which cotton can be ginned, with major effects on the economy of the southern states of America. About forty times as much cotton (now established as 'king cotton') is produced in 1810 as in 1793. Vast new areas are taken in hand as plantations. The demand for slaves increases accordingly.

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