Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Industrial Revolution: Nature of Change

In the latter part of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, Britain underwent what historians have called an ‘industrial revolution’ with factories pouring out goods, chimneys polluting the air, escalating exports and productivity spiralling upwards. This was an epic drama, of Telford, the Stephensons and the Darbys, Macadam, Brunel and Wedgwood, a revolution not simply of inventions and economic growth but of the spirit of enterprise within an unbridled market economy. This is, however, misleading. Industrial change was not something that occurred simply after 1780 but took place throughout the eighteenth century. There was substantial growth in a whole range of traditional industries as well as in the obviously ‘revolutionary’ cases of textiles, iron and coal. Technical change was not necessarily mechanisation but the wider use of hand working and the division of labour. Changes were the result of the conjunction of old and new processes. Steam power did not replace waterpower at a stroke. Work organisation varied: the ‘dark satanic mills’ were not all conquering. In 1850, factories coexisted with domestic production, artisan workshops, large-scale mining, and metal production. Change also varied across industries and regions.[1]

What was the nature and extent of change?

The view that the industrial revolution represented a dramatic watershed between an old and a new world has increasingly been questioned by historians. Growth was considerably slower and longer than previously believed though few historians would go as far as Jonathan Clark,

England was not revolutionized; and it was not revolutionized by industry.[2]

Change in the economy was multi-dimensional. There were dynamic industries like cotton and iron where change occurred relatively quickly and that may be called ‘revolutionary’. In other industries, change took place far more slowly. Between 1750 and 1850, the British economy experienced rapid, and by international standards, pronounced structural change. The proportion of the labour force employed in industry (extractive, manufacturing and service sectors) increased while the proportion working in farming fell. [3]

Much employment in industry continued to be small-scale, handicraft activities producing for local and regional markets. These trades were largely unaffected by mechanisation and experienced little or no increase in output per worker. Increased productivity was achieved by employing more labour.

The experience of cotton textiles, though dynamic and of high profile was not typical and there was no general triumph of steam power or the factory system in the early nineteenth century. Nor was economic growth raised spectacularly by a few inventions. The overall pace of economic growth was modest. There was no great leap forward for the economy as a whole, despite the experiences of specific industries. Productivity in a few industries did enable Britain to sell around half of all world trade in manufacture and by 1850 Britain was ‘the workshop of the world’. This, however, needs to be seen in the context of the characteristics of industrialisation. The ‘industrial revolution’ involved getting more workers into the industrial and manufacturing sectors rather than achieving higher output once they were there. The cotton and iron industries existed with other industries characterised by low productivity, low pay and lower levels of exports.

Between 1760 and 1800, there was a significant increase in the number of patents giving exclusive rights to inventors, what T.S. Ashton called ‘a wave of gadgets swept over Britain’.[4] Between 1700 and 1760, 379 patents were awarded. In the 1760s, there were 205, the 1770s, 294, the 1780s, 477 and the 1790s, 647. Certain key technical developments pre-dated 1760. Coke smelting was developed by Abraham Darby in Shropshire in 1709 but it was not until the 1750s that it was widely used. James Kay developed the ‘flying shuttle’ in 1733 increasing the productivity of weavers but it was thirty years before advances were made in spinning. Registering patents was expensive and as a result some inventions were not patented. Samuel Crompton, for example, did not register his spinning mule.[5] From the 1760s, there was a growing awareness of the importance of obtaining patents and the danger of failing to do so. This may account for some of the increase. Many of the patents covered processes and products that were of little economic importance, including medical and consumer goods as well as industrial technologies. Some patents represented technological breakthroughs while others improved existing technologies. Despite these reservations, there were important groupings of technological advances after 1760.

In the textile industries, there were advances in spinning thread with James Hargreaves’ ‘jenny’ in 1764,[6] Richard Arkwright’s water frame in 1769 and Samuel Crompton’s ‘mule’ in 1779, weaving with Edmund Cartwright’s power loom in 1785 and finishing with mechanised printing by Thomas Bell in 1783.[7] James Kay’s ‘flying shuttle’ had speeded up the process of weaving producing a bottleneck caused by the shortage of hand-spun thread. The mechanisation of spinning after 1764 reversed this situation. The new jennies allowed one worker to spin at least eight and eventually eighty times the amount of thread previously produced by a single spinner. Improvements by Arkwright and especially Crompton further increased productivity. The problem was now weaving. The power loom did not initially resolve the problem and the decades between 1780 and 1810 were ones of considerable prosperity for handloom weavers.[8]

Although the introduction of new machines for textile production, especially cotton occurred over a short timescale, their widespread use was delayed until the 1820s.[9] There were three main reasons for this. First, the new technologies were costly and often unreliable. Modifications were necessary before their full economic benefits were realised and it was not until the early 1820s that the power loom was improved and the self-acting mule was introduced.[10] Secondly, there was worker resistance to the introduction of the new technologies and some employers continued to use handworkers because they were cheaper than new machines.[11] This was particularly evident in the Yorkshire woollen industry that lagged behind cotton in applying new technology.[12] Finally, the original spinning jennies were small enough to be used in the home but Arkwright’s water frame was too large for domestic use and needed purpose-built spinning mills.

These early factories used waterpower though increasingly steam engines were used. By 1800, a quarter of all cotton yarn was spun by steam but factories did not combine powered spinning and weaving until after 1815. By 1850, some factories employed large numbers of workers, but most remained small. In Lancashire in the 1840s, the average firm employed 260 people and a quarter employed less than 100.[13] The mechanisation of the textile industry was a process in technological innovation and modification rather than an immediate revolutionary process.[14]

This was even more the case in the iron industry.[15] In 1700, charcoal was used to smelt iron and was increasingly expensive leading to Britain relying on European imports. Although Abraham Darby[16] perfected coke smelting in 1709 to produce ‘pig’ or cast iron it was not until demand for iron rose rapidly after 1750 that coke replaced charcoal as the fuel for smelting. The stimulus for expansion in iron making came from the wars with France and the American colonies in the 1750s and 1770s and especially between 1793 and 1815. This led technological change. Henry Cort’s puddling and rolling process of 1783-1784 that accelerated wrought iron production was of comparable importance to Darby’s earlier discovery.[17] The new technologies led to a four-fold growth of pig iron between 1788 and 1806, a significant reduction in costs and virtually put an end to expensive foreign imports. The ‘hot-blast’ of 1828 further reduced costs. Rising demand for iron stimulated developments in the coal industry. Here the major technological developments were led by the need to mine coal from deeper pits.[18] Pumping engines, first Newcomen’s and then Watt’s helped in this process. Sir Humphrey Davy’s safety lamp improved safety underground from inflammable methane gas or ‘firedamp’. Increases in productivity were, however, largely achieved by employing more miners.

Contemporaries and later historians emphasised the importance of the steam engine to the industrial revolution but wind and water remained important as sources of mechanical energy. Windmills were used for grinding corn, land-drainage and some industrial processes. Waterpower was far more important and remained so until the mid-nineteenth century.

Before 1800, most textile mills were water-powered and in 1830, 2,230 mills still used waterpower as against 3,000 using steam.[19] Metalwork, mining, papermaking and pottery continued to use waterpower. The development of steam power in the eighteenth century was gradual. Thomas Newcomen developed his steam-atmospheric engine in 1712 that was largely used for pumping water out of mines and though costly and inefficient was in widespread use by 1760.[20] Watt trebled the efficiency of the Newcomen engine by adding a separate condenser in the mid 1760s.[21] This made steam engine more cost-effective but they could still only be used for tasks involving vertical motion. The breakthrough came in 1782 with the development of ‘sun and planet’ gearing that enabled steam engines to generate rotary motion and power the new technologies in textiles. By 1800, about a fifth of all mechanical energy in Britain was produced by steam engines. Steam power was a highly versatile form of energy and its impact on British industry was profound.[22] It allowed industry to move into towns often on or near to coalfields where it could be supplied by canals. Though older means of generating energy remained important, the application of steam power to mining, iron-making, the railways and especially the booming cotton industry meant that by 1850 it was increasingly the dominant form of energy.

The technologies of the Industrial Revolution were adopted in Britain rather than elsewhere because they were profitable in Britain but generated losses elsewhere.[23] This explains Britain’s precociousness in invention: The famous inventions of the Industrial Revolution were invented in Britain because they generated enough profit to make the cost of developing and perfecting them worthwhile. This can be seen especially in relation to the spinning jenny. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that in 1764, James Hargreaves was inspired to develop the machine by seeing how a spinning wheel that had toppled over on its side, continued to rotate and spin automatically. Improvements in the jenny were rapid in the 1770s. The wheel was changed from a horizontal to a vertical orientation and the treadle that turned it was replaced by a simpler hand operated device. A roller was introduced that allowed the number of spindles to be increased to as many as the operator could turn. The first jennies had 12 spindles, but quickly 24 spindles became a standard design. These jennies were used in people’s houses. By 1780, a 120 spindle jenny was built, although 80 spindles became a standard. These jennies were located in workshops. This mode of production was cheaper than small jennies in cottages, and large workshop jennies had displaced smaller cottage jennies by 1790. Despite its revolutionary effects, the jenny was a simple machine that did little more than run a lot of spindles off a single spinning wheel and was hardly a conceptual breakthrough. The jenny was taken up very rapidly in England. The spread of jennies, especially larger ones in workshops, was punctuated by riots and arson as spinners protested against their use but by 1788, it was reported that 20,070 jennies were spinning cotton in Britain.

How important was technical advance to the industrial revolution? In 1776, Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations seemed unaware that he was living in a period of technical change and mechanisation. For him, economic growth was achieved through the organisational principle of division of labour rather than the application of new technologies. Others followed Smith in assigning less importance to technical change than historians subsequently did. The effect of technological change was neither immediate nor widespread until after 1800. Cotton and iron set the pace of change but other industries, like glass and paper-making, shipbuilding and food-processing were also undergoing organisational and technological change. Change varied across industries and regions. Steam power did not replace waterpower at a stroke. Work organisation and the uses of newer technologies varied and in 1850 factories coexisted with domestic production, artisan workshops and large-scale mining and metal-producing organisations. Both revolutionary technologies and traditional techniques remained important to Britain’s economic development

The pace of economic change and its geographical distribution after 1780 was uneven. Dynamic growth took place in specialised economic regions.[24] Cotton was largely based in south Lancashire and parts of Derbyshire and Cheshire. Wool was dominant in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Iron dominated the economies of Shropshire and South Wales. Staffordshire was internationally renowned for its potteries. Birmingham and Warwickshire specialised in metal-working. Tyneside was more diverse with interests in coal, glass, iron and salt. London with its huge population, sophisticated manufacturing and service sectors and its docks, warehouses, engineering, shipbuilding, silk weaving, luxury trades, the machinery of government and the law, publishing and printing, financial centre and entertainment was an economic region in its own right. De-industrialisation was also regional in character. After 1780, the West Country and East Anglia textile industries declined. The iron industry disappeared from the Weald in Kent and the Cumberland coalfield waned.

Regional growth or decline depended on a range of factors. Growth depended largely on access to waterpower as an energy source or as a means of processing, easy access to coal and other raw materials, and an ample labour force. In 1780, regions and their industries retained their rural character in varying degrees. Increasingly, however, industrial growth took on an urban character and the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the rapid expansion of towns that specialised in various industries. Around each of these urban centres clustered smaller towns and industrial villages whose artisan outworkers specialised in particular tasks. Walsall in the Black Country, for example, specialised in buckle-making; Coventry in ribbon production and tobacco boxes at Willenhall. The concentration of specialised commercial and manufacturing industries, especially skilled labour, in and around towns was a major advantage for entrepreneurs and businessmen. They were helped by the expanding communication network of roads and canal and after 1830 railways providing cheap supplies of raw materials and fuel as well as helping distribute finished products.

Economic change and population growth led to the rapid expansion of urban centres.[25] Towns, especially those in the forefront of manufacturing innovation, attracted rural workers hoping for better wages. They saw towns as places free from the paternalism of the rural environment and flocked there in their thousands. For some migration brought wealth and security. For the majority life in towns was little different, and in environmental terms probably worse than life in the country.

They had exchanged rural slums for urban ones and exploitation by the landowner for exploitation by the factory master. Between 1780 and 1811, England’s urban population rose from a quarter to a third, a process that continued throughout the century and by 1850, the rural-urban split was about even. The number of towns in England and Wales with 2,500 inhabitants increased from 104 in 1750 to 188 by 1800 and to over 220 by 1851. England was the most urbanised area in the world and the rate of urban growth had not peaked. London, with its one million inhabitants in 1801, was the largest city in Europe. The dramatic growth of the northern and Midland industrial towns after 1770 was caused largely by migration because of industry’s voracious demand for labour. Regions where population growth was not accompanied by industrialisation or where deindustrialisation took place found their local economies under considerable pressure. Surplus labour led to falling wages and growing problems of poverty.

Population growth, economic and social change, technological advances, changes in the organisation of work, the dynamism of cotton and iron as well as urbanisation were bunched in the last twenty years of the eighteenth century and the first thirty years of the nineteenth. This was revolutionary change. However, change was itself a process that extended across the eighteenth century. The revolution in the economy did not begin in 1780 nor was it completed by 1830.


[1] Ashton, T.S., The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830, (Oxford University Press), 1948 is a straightforward introduction, though his conclusions are rather dated. It should be supplemented with Chambers, J.D., The Workshop of the World, (Oxford University Press), 1968, Checkland, S.G., The Rise of Industrial Society 1815-1885, (Longman), 1964, Deane, P., The First Industrial Revolution, (Cambridge University Press), 2nd ed., 1983, Landes, D.S., The Unbound Prometheus, (Cambridge University Press), 1969, Hobsbawm, E.J., Industry and Empire, (Penguin), 1968, Mathias, P., The First Industrial Nation: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1914, (Methuen), 2nd ed., 1983 and More, C., The Industrial Age: Economy and Society 1750-1995, (Longman), 2nd ed., 1997. Hudson, Pat, The Industrial Revolution, (Edward Arnold), 1992 is a valuable summary of research on both economic and social history. Daunton, M.J., Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain 1700-1850, (Oxford University Press), 1995 and Wealth and welfare: an economic and social history of Britain, 1851-1951, (Oxford University Press), 2007, Mokyr, Joel, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850, (Yale University Press), 2009 and Floud, Roderick and Johnson, Paul A. (eds.), The Cambridge economic history of modern Britain. Volume 1: industrialisation, 1700-1860, (Cambridge University Press), 2004 and The Cambridge economic history of modern Britain. Volume 2: economic maturity, 1860-1939, (Cambridge University Press), 2004 are the most up-to-date studies. Floud, R., The People and the British Economy 1830-1914, (Oxford University Press), 1997 is the best short overview. Dodgshon, R.A. and Butlin, R.A., (eds.), An Historical Geography of England and Wales, 2nd ed., (Academic Press), 1991 and Lawton R. and Pooley J., (eds.), Britain 1740-1950, (Edward Arnold), 1992 are excellent collections of papers. The best approach to the notion of a ‘slow growth’ industrial revolution remains Crafts, N.F.R., British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution, (Oxford University Press), 1985. Alternative approaches can be found in Lee, C.H., The British economy since 1700, (Cambridge University Press), 1987, 2nd ed., 1994. Mokyr, J., (ed.), The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective, (Westview Press), 1993 and Snooks, G.D., (ed.), Was the Industrial Revolution Necessary?, (Routledge), 1994. Digby, A. and Feinstein, C., (eds.), New Directions in Economic and Social History, 2 Vols. (Macmillan), 1989 and 1992 summarise developments in historical thinking. Ibid, Brown, Richard, Economic Revolutions 1750-1850: Prometheus Unbound? combines text with sources.

[2] Clark, J.C.D., Revolution and Rebellion: State and society in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, (Cambridge University Press), 1986, p. 39.

[3] The   nature   of   industrial   organisation and the persistence of a ‘domestic’ system is examined in Thomis, M., The Town Labourer and the Industrial Revolution, (Batsford), 1974 and Responses to Industrialisation, (David   &   Charles), 1976   Clarkson, L.A., Proto-Industrialisation: The First Phase of Industrialisation, (Macmillan), 1985 examines the literature critically.

[4] Ibid, Ashton, T.S., The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830, p. 48. See also, MacLeod, Christine, Heroes of Invention: Technology, Liberalism and British Identity, 1750-1914, (Cambridge University Press), 2007 and Inventing the Industrial Revolution: The English Patent System, 1660-1800, (Cambridge University Press), 1988. Allen, Robert C., The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, (Cambridge University Press), 2009 and ibid, Mokyr, Joel, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850 place technological ideas and change at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

[5] See Calling, H., ‘The development of the Spinning Mule’, Textile History, Vol. 9, (1978), pp. 35-57.

[6] Aspin, Christopher, James Hargreaves and the spinning jenny, (Helmshore Local History Society), 1964.

[7] Hills, R.L., ‘Hargreaves, Arkwright and Crompton: why three inventors?’ Textile History, Vol. 10, (1979), pp. 114-126. See also, Aspin, Christopher, The water spinners, (Helmshore Local History Society), 2003, Fisk, Karen., ‘Arkwright: cotton king or spin doctor?’, History Today, Vol. 48, (3), (1998), pp. 25-30 and Merrill, J.N., Arkwright of Cromford, Matlock, 1986.

[8] Chapman, Stanley D. and Butt, John, ‘The Cotton Industry 1775-1856’ and Jenkins, D.T., ‘The Wool Textile Industry 1780-1850’, in Feinstein, C. H. and Pollard, Sidney, (eds.), Studies in capital formation in the United Kingdom, 1750-1920, (Oxford University Press), 1988, pp. 105-125, 126-140.

[9] Chapman, Stanley D., The cotton industry in the Industrial Revolution, (Macmillan), 1972 remains a good bibliographical essay. Rose, Mary B., (ed.), The Lancashire cotton industry: a history since 1700, (Lancashire County Books), 1996; Thompson, James, ‘Invention in the Industrial Revolution: the case of cotton textiles’, in Prados de la Escosura, Leandro, (ed.), Exceptionalism and industrialisation: Britain and its European rivals, 1688-1815, (Cambridge University Press), 2004, pp. 127-144; Farnie, Douglas A., The English Cotton Industry and the World Market, 1815-1896, (Oxford University Press), 1976.

[10] Lazonick, W., ‘Industrial relations and technical change: the case of the self-acting mule’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 3, (1979), pp. 231-262.

[11] Randall, A., Before the Luddites: Custom, community and machinery in the English woollen industry 1776-1809, (Cambridge University Press), 1991 places Luddism in a longer context and is particularly valuable for its discussion of community and cultural opposition to new technology. Thomis, Malcolm, The Luddites: Machine-breaking in Regency England, (David & Charles), 1970, Binfield, Kevin, (ed.), Writings of the Luddites, (John Hopkins University Press), 2004, pp. 1-68 and Vincent, Julien, Bourdeau, Vincent and Jarrige, François, Les Luddites: Bris de machines, économie politique et histoire, (Maisons-Alfort), 2006, pp. 17-54 consider the Luddite outbreaks.

[12] Crump, W.B., The Leeds woollen industry, 1780-182, (Thoresby Society), 1931, Rees, Henry, ‘Leeds and the Yorkshire woollen industry’, Economic Geography, Vol. 24, (1), (1948), pp. 28-34; Caunce, Stephen, ‘Complexity, community structure and competitive advantage within the Yorkshire woollen industry, c.1700-1850’, Business History, Vol. 39, (4), (1997), pp. 26-43; Smail, John, ‘The sources of innovation in the woollen and worsted industry of eighteenth-century Yorkshire’, Business History, Vol. 41, (1), (1999), pp. 1-15.

[13] Gatrell, V.A.C., ‘Labour, power, and the size of firms in Lancashire cotton in the second quarter of the 19th century’, Economic History Review, Vol. 30, (1977), pp. 95-139 considers the size of enterprises.

[14] Harley, C.K. and Crafts, N.F.R., ‘Cotton textiles and industrial output growth during the industrial revolution’, Economic History Review, Vol. 48, (1995), pp. 134-144 examines the sixty years between 1770 and 1830.

[15] Harris, J. R., The British iron industry, 1700-1850, (Macmillan), 1988 looks at the research while Davies, R. S. W. and Pollard, Sidney, ‘The Iron Industry, 1750-1850’, in ibid, Feinstein, C. H. and Pollard, Sidney, (eds.), Studies in capital formation in the United Kingdom, 1750-1920, pp. 73-104 considers investment.

[16] Raistrick, Arthur, Dynasty of iron founders: the Darbys and Coalbrookdale, (Longman, Green), 1953; Flinn, M. W., ‘Abraham Darby and the coke-smelting process’, Economica, ns, Vol. 26, (1959), pp. 54-59; Trinder, Barrie, The industrial revolution in Shropshire, 3rd ed., (Phillimore), 2000.

[17] Mott, R. A., Henry Cort, the great finer: creator of puddled iron, ed. P. Singer, (Metals Society), 1983. Cort took out patents in 1783 for the grooved rolling process and 1784 for his balling or pudding furnace, allowing the manufacture of crude, standardised shapes. His work built on the existing ideas of the Cranege brothers and their reverberatory furnace (where the heat is applied from above, rather than forced air from below) and Peter Onions’ puddling process where the iron is stirred to separate out impurities and extract the higher quality wrought iron.

[18] Pollard, Sidney, ‘Coal Mining 1750-1850’, in ibid, Feinstein, C. H. and Pollard, Sidney, (eds.), Studies in capital formation in the United Kingdom, 1750-1920, pp. 35-72.

[19] Harris, J.R., ‘The employment of steam power in the 18th century’, History, Vol. 52, (1967), pp. 133-148.

[20] Mott, R.A., ‘The Newcomen Engine in the Eighteenth Century’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, Vol. 35, (1964 for 1962-63), pp. 69-86 and Harris, J.R., ‘Recent research on the Newcomen engine and historical studies’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, Vol. 50, (1980 for 1978-1979), pp. 175-192.

[21] Hills, R.L., James Watt, 3 Vols. (Landmark), 2002-2006 is a major study. See also, Hills, R.L., ‘James Watt and his rotary engines’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, Vol. 70, (1), (1999), pp. 89-108 and Kanefsky, J., Boulton and Watt and the development of the steam engine: a reassessment, (Exeter University Press), 1978.

[22] Tunzelmann, G.N. von, Steam power and British industrialisation to 1860, (Oxford University Press), 1978, Crafts, N.F.R. and Mills, Terence C., ‘Was 19th century British growth steam-powered?: the climacteric revisited’, Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 41, (2004), pp. 156-171, Tann, Jennifer, ‘Fixed Capital Formation in Steam Power 1775-1825’, in ibid, Feinstein, C. H. and Pollard, Sidney, (eds.), Studies in capital formation in the United Kingdom, 1750-1920, pp. 164-181, Hills, R.L., ‘The Importance of Steam Power during the Nineteenth Century’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, Vol. 76, (2006), pp. 175-192 and Samuel, R., ‘The workshop of the world: steam power and hand technology in mid-Victorian Britain,’ History Workshop, Vol. 3, (1977), pp. 6-72.

[23] See, Allen, Robert C., ‘The Industrial Revolution in Miniature: The Spinning Jenny in Britain, France and India’, (Oxford University, Department of Economics), Working Paper 375, 2007.

[24] Hudson, Pat, (ed.), Regions and industries: a perspective on the industrial revolution in Britain, (Cambridge University Press), 1989.

[25] Clark, Peter, (ed.), The Cambridge urban history of Britain, Vol. 2: 1540-1840, (Cambridge University Press), 2000 and Daunton, Martin J., (ed.), The Cambridge urban history of Britain, Vol. 3: 1840-1950, (Cambridge University Press), 2000 are essential.

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