Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book: The Industrial Revolution by Jonathon Downs

“This was the age of the gentleman scholar and collector, the amateur scientist and the traveller. Collecting had become as widespread among the lower middle classes as among the educated dilettante of the upper set, and people could demonstrate their fashionable and scholarly pretensions by having local antiquities – or, even better, Greek or Roman relics – displayed in a ‘cabinet of curiosities’.



This little book by Jonathon Downs is a perfect reminder or introduction to the Industrial Revolution. It focuses on the period 1770-1810, capturing the key changes in technology, economy, society and landscape that took place over this tumultuous phase of our history, setting in train a path of progression and production which continues today. The book is also laden with excellent pictures (why so many books for adults lack pictures, I will never understand.)

Indeed, while we often look at the pace of change today (technology, internet, globalisation, etc) as faster than ever before, it pays to look back to look back to the Industrial Revolution to appreciate that today’s changes, while transformative around the margins, have not impacted how we live as deeply and profoundly as the changes that took place from 1770-1810 (caveat: the current revolution is still going on and who knows what treats await us just around the corner).

The central invention and driving force behind the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine, as invented by Watts. Almost overnight, the world had a new source of motive power to complement water, animal and human power. Early steam engines existed prior to Watt’s invention but they were highly inefficient to operate (Watt’s engine burned 75% less fuel). The engine was quickly demanded by mines owners to pump water out of their lower levels, but it quickly went on to find use in grinding, milling and weaving operations. In the world of textiles, the spinning jenny (1770) changed weaving from a household craft activity in to a proper manufacturing activity and utilisation of water power and then the arrival of steam power enabled massive jumps in productivity.

As technology was revolutionising the manufacturing and production landscape, an agricultural revolution was taking place as farmlands became increasingly “enclosed”, with agricultural land ownership moving out of the hands of the many to the few. The end of the medieval style of village based farming resulted in a surplus of farm workers, who were forced to leave for the cities in search of work.  Hence, just as factories and foundries start to ramp up production levels, they were greeted with an abundance of labour.

To enable goods to be transported around the country, canal network projects were developed and heavily invested in (barges were pulled by horses along the tow-paths). At the same time, Watt’s engine was giving birth to the steam railway industry; the first working steam locomotive built by Robert Trevithick (first journey in 1804).

The period was also a thriving era for the slave trade, which had the UK at its centre. English ships sold cheap goods to Africa and the Caribbean in return for slaves, who would be sent to work on plantations in North America and the West Indies. For the return journey to the UK, the slaving ships would load up with plantation produce (e.g. tobacco and sugar).

Working conditions were often harsh and hours long, yet for many the new world still offered the choice to work and build a better life and on average life conditions improved (average wages rose along with life expectancy, and education and welfare also started to improve substantially). Also, the rise in wealth levels, enterprises and town populations led to an increase in middle class professions (e.g. lawyers, doctors, bankers). In many instances, this was a new era when people of low station could rise from apprentice to men of position. And so began the cultural shift as the Industrial Revolution created a class of “nouveaux rich”, who were often looked down upon by the traditionally wealthy. In contrast to today, when self-made men are admired, during the Industrial Revolution these people were often viewed in a negative light as having bought their way into the upper class way of life.

It is important to note that child labour existed well before the Industrial Revolution, with children often working in ghastly conditions in mines and in agriculture. It was only in the 19th century that legislation came into force banning paid labour for children under 9 years. Prior to this, the parishes would readily supply the mills and factories with a pool of orphan labour at a cheap rate (it is important to put this cruelty in historical context and to also to appreciate that this practice was effectively a state enterprise. “Free” child labour also existed alongside the parish children but the numbers of these children were often low).

Some factories voluntarily employed doctors to maintain the welfare of their workers (conditions were not only dangerous but also cramped, which made the spread of disease possible). However, the first Factory Act of 1802 marked a turning point for the welfare of factory workers, as stated that the burden of expense for disease treatment and control would fall on the master or mistress of the mill.

The above notes are made to help me recall some of the meat of the book, but there is much more colourful content besides what I have commented on.

*** 1/2

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