The view that the industrial revolution represented a dramatic watershed between an old and a new world has recently been questioned by historians. Growth was considerably slower and longer than previously believed. Few historians would go as far as Jonathan Clark, “England was not revolutionized; and it was not revolutionized by industry”. Recent research suggests the following:
Change in the economy was two-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) increased while the proportion employed in farming fell.
Much employment in industry continued to be small-scale, handicraft activities producing for local 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.
By 1850, Britain was ‘the workshop of the world’. Productivity in a few industries did enable Britain to sell around half of all world trade in manufacture. 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 low levels of exports.
Inventions and mechanisation
Between 1760 and 1800, there was a significant increase in the number of patents giving exclusive rights to inventors, what the historian T.S. Ashton called “a wave of gadgets swept over Britain”. Between 1700 and 1760, 379 patents were awarded. In the 1760s, there were 205, the 1770s, 294, the 1780s, 477 and the 1790s, 647. These figures have to be used with care.
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. Thomas Newcomen’s steam-atmospheric engine was invented between 1709 and 1712 but its cost and inefficiency meant that it too was not widely used until mid-century. James Kay developed the ‘flying shuttle’ in 1733. This increased the productivity of weavers but it was thirty years before advances were made in spinning.
Registering patents was expensive and some inventions were not patented as a result. Samuel Crompton, for example, did not register his spinning mule. 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 (James Hargreaves’ ‘jenny’ 1764, Richard Arkwright’s water frame 1769 and Samuel Crompton’s ‘mule’ 1779), weaving (Edmund Cartwright’s power loom 1785) and finishing (mechanised printing by Thomas Bell in 1783). 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.
Although the introduction of new machines for textile production, especially cotton occurred over a short timescale, their widespread use was delayed until the 1820s. 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. It was not until the early 1820s that the power loom was improved and the self-acting mule was introduced. 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. This was particularly evident in the Yorkshire woollen industry that lagged behind cotton in applying new technology. 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. It was not until after 1815 that factories combined powered spinning and weaving. By 1850, some factories employed large numbers of workers, but many remained small. In Lancashire in the 1840s, the average firm employed 260 people and a quarter employed fewer than a 100. The mechanisation of the textile industry was a process in technological innovation and modification rather than an immediate revolutionary process.
This was even more the case in the iron industry. In 1700, charcoal was used to smelt iron. It was increasingly expensive and Britain relied on European imports. Although Abraham Darby perfected coke smelting in 1709 it was fifty years before coke-smelted iron posed a major threat to charcoal. It was not until demand for iron rose rapidly after 1750 that coke became 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 1782 was of comparable importance to Darby’s earlier discovery. 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. Pumping engines, first Newcomen’s and then Watt’s helped in this process. Sir Humphrey Davy’s safety lamp helped improve safety underground from inflammable methane gas (or ‘firedamp’). Increases in productivity were, however, largely the consequence of employing more miners.
Historians have emphasised the importance of the steam engine to the industrial revolution though this has been played down by recent writers. 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 used waterpower as against 3,000 using steam. Metalwork, mining, papermaking and pottery continued to use waterpower. The development of steam power in the eighteenth century was gradual. Newcomen developed his engine in 1712. It was largely used for pumping water out of mines and though costly and inefficient was in widespread use by 1760. Watt trebled the efficiency of the Newcomen engine by adding a separate condenser in the mid 1760s. This made steam engine far 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. 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 the dominant form of energy.
How important was technical advance to the industrial revolution? Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations published in 1776 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 that 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.
Geographical diversity and urbanisation
The pace of economic change and its geographical distribution after 1780 was uneven. Dynamic growth took place in specialised economic regions. Cotton was based in south Lancashire and parts of the joining counties 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 pottery. Birmingham and Warwickshire specialised in metal-working. Tyneside was more diverse with interests in coal, glass, iron and salt. London with its huge population and sophisticated manufacturing and service sectors – 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 region in character. After 1780, the West Country and East Anglia textile industries declined. The iron industry disappeared from the Weald in Kent. The Cumberland coalfield disappeared.
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, 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 that provided 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. 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, from 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, the urban component of England’s population rose from a quarter to a third. This process 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 country 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.
Economic growth and rates of development
What was ‘economic growth’ in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries and what were its major characteristics? The main indicator of long-term growth is the income the country receives from goods and services or gross domestic product (GDP). During the eighteenth century, GDP grew slightly from just under one per cent per year to just over it. Between 1800 and 1850, growth remained at over two per cent per year. Growth in GDP depends on three things: an increase in labour, an increase in capital investment and an increase in productivity. Growing population accounted for the increase in labour after 1780. Labour grew at around one per cent per year between 1780 and 1800 and 1.4 per cent for the next fifty years. Increased capital investment is also evident after 1780. Between 1780 and 1800, capital investment rose by 1.2 per cent per year. This rose slightly to 1.4 per cent between 1800 and 1830 and, largely because of investment in railways rose to 2.0 per cent between 1830 and 1850. Increasing productivity is more difficult to estimate.
The debate about economic growth and rates of development is largely statistical. Historians face major problems in trying to work out precisely what rates of development were in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Statistical information is far from reliable. This has led to major discrepancies in modern estimates. For example, the production of coal in the late eighteenth century is estimated to have grown annually at 0.64 per cent or alternatively at 1.13 per cent, twice that speed. The statistics also show only part of the picture and it is very difficult to extrapolate from specific data on specific industries to the economy as a whole. Total figures also blur the important differences between the experience of different industries and regions. It was not until the development of the railways after 1830 that the notion of a British economy, as opposed to localised economies had real meaning.
Historians face significant problems in examining the industrial revolution. First, there is the problem of what precisely the ‘industrial revolution’ was. Secondly, its national nature has been questioned. How far was there a British industrial revolution or was economic change essentially local or regional? Thirdly, there is the question of timing. When did the revolution begin? When did it end? Finally, historians increasingly recognise the diversity of economic experiences and the existence of both change and continuity of experience in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century? The ‘industrial revolution’ is increasingly seen as a metaphor for the changes that took place in the British economy between 1780 and 1850. While it would be perverse to refrain from using a term ‘hallowed by usage’, it is important to recognise that change occurred slowly in most industries and rapidly in a handful.
Contemporaries were aware that they were living through a period of change. Robert Southey wrote in 1807, ‘no kingdom ever experienced so great a change in so short a course of years’. 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 entirely completed by 1850.