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Pont Cysyllte: 1795-1805

In 1795 Thomas Telford applies cast-iron technology in a bold new context. In 1793 he has been appointed engineer and architect to the Shropshire Union canal, which is to link the Mersey with the Severn. Near Llangollen the proposed route crosses the Dee valley, which is more than 300 yards wide and drops down about 120 feet to the river level below.

The number of locks needed to get a barge down and up again would represent a costly delay for the bargees. Yet an aqueduct of this height and length is a daunting project. The valley is much wider and deeper than the one spanned by Brindley in his heavily buttressed aqueduct at Barton. But Telford accepts the challenge.

Telford constructs at Pont Cysyllte what is in effect an enormous cast-iron gutter. Cast to the correct curves and then welded together, Telford's plates combine to form a channel which is nearly 12 feet wide, with a path alongside for the carthorse. The metal is much lighter than the thick layer of pounded clay and sand used by Brindley to contain the water of the Bridgewater canal. So Telford's aqueduct can be a slender structure of nineteen tall stone arches.

Pont Cysyyllte is ready for the first barge to make the journey across the valley in 1805. Walter Scott describes it as 'the most impressive work of art' which he has ever seen.

The growth of industrial cities: 18th - 19th century

The availability of work in Britain's mills and factories, particularly after the introduction of steam power, has the effect of drawing ever-increasing numbers of people from the countryside into rapidly expanding cities. Manchester and the closely related town of Salford have 25,000 inhabitants between them in 1772. In 1821 the joint population is 181,000. By 1851 this conurbation has grown to 455,000.

The growth of Manchester's textile industry brings equivalent prosperity to the nearby port of Liverpool - just in time since the slave trade, the previous source of Liverpool's wealth, is made illegal in 1807. Cotton saves the day. Eight new docks are built in Liverpool between 1815 and 1835.

The amount of raw cotton brought ashore in Liverpool shows a threefold increase between 1820 and 1850, from half a million bales a year to 1.5 million. There is a comparable rise in the population - with a leap of 60% in a single decade, the 1840s, from 250,000 to 400,000 inhabitants.

The other great industrial city of the era, Birmingham, starts from a lower base. Its population increases from 86,000 to 233,000 between 1801 and 1851. Birmingham's interests are broader than those of Lancashire, where textiles predominate. Birmingham is blessed with an abundance of coal, iron and wood in the immediate neighbourhood, and with a position at the very heart of England.

Birmingham's real potential is realized only with the arrival of the railway. The line to London is completed in 1838. By then the city's workshops, specializing in metal-based industries, are ready to supply a wider market. A French visitor in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, describes the place as 'an immense workshop, a huge forge', where one sees only 'busy people and faces brown with smoke' and hears 'nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of steam escaping from boilers'.

To a detached observer the Industrial Revolution can seem romantic in the 1780s and fascinatingly strange in the 1830s. But it is also becoming evident that it creates an environment in which it can be extremely unpleasant to work.

New Lanark and elsewhere: 1800-1847

In 1800 Robert Owen takes charge of a cotton mill at New Lanark on the Clyde. It has been previously owned by his father-in-law, who established it in 1785 in partnership with Arkwright. It is therefore a thoroughly modern enterprise, well run by the standards of the time. But the idealistic young Owen is distressed by the conditions in which the employees and their families (some 2000 people in all) live and work.

Seeing ignorance, crime and drunkenness in the community, he blames it not on the workers but on their environment. And he considers the environment at New Lanark, or in any other factory, to be the direct result of the mill owners' overriding concern to make money.

For the first time, in this perception, the ideals of socialism are directly opposed to the tenets of capitalism. The two great rivals of 20th-century politics discover each other.

Owen's reforms make New Lanark an essential port of call for anyone interested in social reform. Visitors admire the high standards in housing and the conditions in the factory. They note that goods are sold in the village shop at almost cost price. They see the care shown for the health of the families and the education of their children (Britain's first primary school is opened here in 1812). New Lanark becomes, and is recognized to be, a model industrial community.

Yet New Lanark is also a conventional business, making a good profit for its owners. Owen begins to dream of more utopian ways of solving society's ills. He promotes the idea of self-contained communities of agricultural workers and craftsmen, owning everything in common including their land. With no capitalist owner to cream off the profit, he imagines such communities being so successful that they soon become the standard form of human society.

He proves less effective as utopian theorist than as benevolent mill owner. Four Owenite communities are founded between 1825 and 1839 (the best known is at New Harmony in Indiana). Squabbles and bankruptcy finish off every one of them within a very few years.

Robert Owen severs his connection with New Lanark in 1829, the very year in which the trials at Rainhill introduce the railway era. The replacement of canals by railways for the transport of freight greatly speeds up the process of the Industrial Revolution, and makes possible the growth of the great manufacturing cities of the 19th century.

New Lanark, an elegant and isolated experiment in the countryside, is not a viable model in these circumstances. More effective in the long run, as a way of restraining the tendency of employers to exploit workers, is the painstaking process of welfare legislation.

Factories and slums: 19th - 20th century

In any peasant community children work in the fields. As families move in from the countryside to work in Britain's developing industrial cities, there is nothing intrinsically strange about children joining their parents in the factories. And the entrepreneurs who own the factories welcome a supply of labour trapped by economic circumstances into accepting long hours and low pay.

The living conditions of the poor in any rapidly growing city, without sanitation, are invariably worse than the condition of peasants in the countryside. But in Britain in the early 19th century it is exploitation within the factories which prompts the first measures of reform.

The first Factory Act, in 1802, introduces a regulation which by later standards seems astonishing. It limits the amount of time which a child may work in a factory to twelve hours a day.

After much opposition the reformers achieve significant improvements in the Factory Act of 1833. Children under nine are now not to work at all. Those aged between nine and thirteen are limited to eight hours of work and must be given two hours of education each day (this is the first small step towards compulsory education in Britain). And an inspectorate is set up for the factories, albeit initially with only four inspectors for the entire country.

The last significant regulation of hours of work is achieved in the Ten Hour Act of 1847, which stipulates that number of hours as the maximum working day for women and children in the nation's factories and textile mills. This act is largely the achievement of Lord Shaftesbury, who is responsible also for the Mines Act of 1842. This makes it illegal for women of any age and for boys under thirteen to be employed underground.

By the mid-century Shaftesbury is much concerned with the condition of London slums, campaigning actively for improvements in housing and public sanitation. In the 20th century environmental pollution comes to be seen as another deficit to be charged against the Industrial Revolution.

Industrialization, with its blend of benefits and drawbacks, spreads gradually round the world from its first manifestation in Britain. When a developing country has an adequate transport system, and the ability to provide the starting costs of industrial enterprises, it can begin to manufacture its own goods, from its own raw materials, rather than buying them from a more advanced economy. In certain industries the cheap labour of a developing economy can soon give a competitive edge in world markets.

Exploitation and slums remain characteristic of the Industrial Revolution anywhere in the world. But gradually, along with the pain and the misery, the average standard of living rises in any nation which takes this familiar path.

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Electric and Electronic Revolutions: 20th century

The 20th century provides two further turning points in human social development which historians of the future may judge of equal significance to the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions. The two may eventually seem to merge as a single revolution, since both are made possible by the discovery of electricity.

But from our closer perspective there seems an intrinsic difference between the Electric Revolution (by now a century old and familiar in its main applications) and the Electronic Revolution - which first impinges on the general public in the 1990s and still retains, in the 21st century, an unimaginable potential for transforming human life.

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