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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
To AD 1750
     Humanity's twin revolutions
     Britain's industrial advantages
     Ironmasters of Coalbrookdale
     Lancashire and cotton
     Kay's flying shuttle

19th century and beyond
To be completed

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Humanity's twin revolutions

Human society has passed through two huge and lasting changes which deserve the name revolution. The first, the Neolithic Revolution, begins in 8000 BC and continues through thousands of years. Its effect is to settle people on the land. It makes peasant agriculture the standard everyday activity of the human species.

The second, the Industrial Revolution, gathers pace in the 18th century and is still developing today. It moves people from the countryside into rapidly expanding towns. It turns labour into a disciplined and mainly indoor activity, with an increasing distinction between owners, employers and managers on one side and workers on the other.


Elements characteristic of industrial society can be seen in isolated examples long before the 18th century. In 1378 the workers in Florence's cloth trade win temporary advantages through standing together in what would now be called industrial action. A knitting machine invented in England in 1589 is so far ahead of its time that it can play a profitable role in factories two and three centuries later. And the development of cloth mills in the late Middle Ages foreshadows the search for new sources of power in the Industrial Revolution.

Nevertheless there is one place and one time - England in the 18th century - in which these threads coalesce into a process of undeniable change.


Industrialization brings preliminary evils of exploitation, pollution and urban squalor, together with longer-term benefits in a general rise of living standards.

There are certain clear reasons why this process occurs first in 18th-century Britain. But once the pattern is established, and cheap manufactured goods begin to prevail in world markets, other regions become eager to follow suit when their own circumstances make it possible to do so. Just as the habit of settling and farming gradually permeated all regions of the world, so now - and much more rapidly - does an international tendency to crowd into cities and produce cheap manufactured goods.


Britain's industrialvantages: 18th century

The conditions enabling Britain to pioneer the Industrial Revolution during the 18th century can be divided into two categories, natural and political.

On the natural side the country has in abundance three important commodities - water, iron and coal. Water in Britain's numerous hilly districts provides the power to drive mills in the early stages of industrializaton; the rivers, amplified from 1761 by a developing network of canals, facilitate inland transport in an age where roads are only rough tracks; and the sea, never far from any part of Britain, makes transport of heavy goods easy between coastal cities.


The ability to make effective use of Britain's iron ore is greatly enhanced by technical advances in the early 18th century, associated particularly with the Darby family. And the abundant supplies of coal become of crucial importance in the second half of the century when steam power is successively applied to every branch of industry thanks to the efforts of Watt and Boulton.

On the political front, the contribution of entrepreneurs such as Abraham Darby and Matthew Boulton is made possible by the changes resulting from the revolution of 1688.


With royal power greatly reduced after 1688, and the nobility enjoying none of the privileges associated with France's ancien régime, a new middle class emerges more forcefully in Britain than elsewhere. There is money to be made, and members of this class are willing to back new inventions and mechanical improvements.

In this atmosphere exceptional men such as Richard Arkwright can rise through their own endeavours from low beginnings to exceptional wealth and prestige (though the duke of Bridgewater may justifiably insist that such flair is not limited to the middle classes).


As a final ingredient in this promising blend of circumstances, Britain can offer its budding entrepreneurs an unusually large market. The union in 1707 of Scotland and England removes internal tariff barriers. The developing British empire provides trading opportunities for much of the century in the American colonies - and when these are lost, begins to replace them with others in India.

And British control of the seas, increasingly established during the century, contributes to a general prosperity which supports the Industrial Revolution. Much of the profitable carrying trade in the world's commerce can be secured for British merchant vessels.


Ironmasters of Coalbrookdale: 18th century

Until the early 18th century the working of iron has been restricted by a practical consideration. The smelting of iron requires large quantities of charcoal, with the result that ironworks are usually sited inaccessibly in the middle of forests. And charcoal is expensive.

In 1709 Abraham Darby, an ironmaster with a furnace at Coalbrookdale on the river Severn, discovers that coke can be used instead of charcoal for the smelting of pig iron (used for cast-iron products). This Severn region becomes Britain's centre of iron production in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Its pre-eminence is seen in the Darby family's own construction of the first iron bridge, and in the achievements of John Wilkinson.


Lancashire and cotton: 18th century

Just as the Severn gorge in Shropshire emerges as the centre of the iron industry, so Lancashire dominates in cotton goods. And textiles are the natural product to lead developments in the new Industrial Revolution.

Food and clothing are the two basic requirements for any population. Unlike food, cotton goods are sufficiently light and long-lasting to be easily transported to any market. The immediate purchasers are the rapidly growing population of Britain itself. But as soon as machines are developed which can slash the cost of production, it even becomes feasible to ship manufactured cotton goods for sale in regions such as India where the raw material has been produced.


Lancashire has certain natural advantages in cornering this lucrative trade. A moist climate makes it easier to work cotton threads, which become brittle if dry (the first reference to cotton goods being produced in the region is in 1641). Plentiful fast-flowing streams make it easy to provide water power for mills. The area has a long textile tradition in the production of woollen goods (there is a mill for fulling wool in Manchester as early as 1282).

And above all Lancashire has, in Liverpool, one of Britain's two main 18th-century ports. It is rivalled only by Bristol as a base for the great East and West Indiamen which now ply regularly across the oceans.


The rapid growth of the textile industry during the 18th century results from these advantages combined with a succession of mechanical inventions which speed up the processes of manufacture. Spinning and weaving, the two very ancient crafts involved in the production of textiles, are both well suited to relatively simple mechanization.

Weaving leads the way, with Kay's flying shuttle of 1733. Spinning at first struggles to keep up, and then does so very effectively with the innovations of Hargreaves in about 1764 and Crompton in 1779. Spinning wins the race in the application of water power, in 1771. By 1787 there are some forty cotton mills in Lancashire deriving their power from mill races.


Kay's flying shuttle: 1733

In 1733 John Kay, son of the owner of a Lancashire woollen factory, patents the first of the devices which revolutionize the textile industry. He has devised a method for the shuttle to be thrown mechanically back and forth across the loom. This greatly speeds up the previous hand process, and it halves the labour force. Where a broad-cloth loom previously required a weaver on each side, it can now be worked by a single operator.

Until this point the textile industry has required four spinners to service one weaver. Kay's innovation, in wide use by the 1750s, greatly increases this disparity. Either there must now be many more spinners, or spinning machines must achieve a similar increase in productivity.


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