Industrialism in England 1700-1850

Industrialization: The First Phase: 1700-1850

While Europe's "great men" plotted grand schemes to pursue their political and intellectual ambitions during the crisis of the Old Regime, French Revolution, and Napoleonic wars, obscure British inventors designed machines whose impact would dwarf their efforts.

They industrialized textile making by using machines and new power sources to accomplish a task formerly done by human and animal power. They began what has been called by some the Industrial Revolution.

The huge increase in productivity made possible by using machines can be shown in the amount of raw cotton Britain imported in 1760 and 1850. In 1760 the British imported a bit over 1000 tons; in 1850 the number had risen to over 222,000 tons.

The story behind the growth of the textile industry is one of a continual "catch-up" game between the spinners and weavers to respond to a growing market.

After the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland, Britain possessed an expanding population with a larger per capita income than that of any other European state. The population growth stemmed from a gradual decline in death rates and an increase in the birth rate. ^14 It provided more customers and workers.

[Footnote 14: J. D. Chambers, "Enclosures and the Labour Supply in the Industrial Revolution," Economic History Review, 2nd series, V, 1953, pp. 318-343, as cited in David Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 115.]

[See Latin America 1826]

 

The Revolution In Making Cloth

Practical people seeing the need for greater output solved the practical problems of production. In the many steps from the raw cotton to the finished cloth, there were bottlenecksprimarily in making yarn and weaving the strands together.

In 1733, John Kay (1704-1764), a spinner and mechanic, patented the first of the great machines - the flying shuttle. This device made it possible for one person to weave wide bolts of cloth by using a spring mechanism that sent the shuttle across the loom.

This invention upset the balance between the weavers of cloth and the spinners of yarn: ten spinners were required to produce enough yarn needed by one weaver. James Hargreaves (d. 1778), a weaver and carpenter, eliminated that problem in 1764 with his spinning jenny, a mechanical spinning wheel that allowed the spinners to keep up with the weavers.

Five years later, a barber named Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) built the water frame that made it possible to spin many threads into yarn at the same time. Ten years after that Samuel Crompton (1753-1827), a spinner, combined the spinning jenny and water frame into the water mule, which, with some variations, is used today.

By this time the makers of yarn were outpacing the weavers, but in 1785 Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823) invented the power loom that mechanized the weaving process. In two generations what had once been a home-based craft became an industry.

The appetite of the new machines outran the supply of cotton. Since most of the material came from the United States, the demand exceeded the capability of the slave-based southern economy to fill the supply.

The best worker could not prepare more than five or six pounds of cotton a day because of the problems of the seeds. American inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825), among others, devised the cotton gin, a machine that enabled a worker to clean more than fifty times as much cotton a day. This device coincidentally played a major role in the perpetuation of slavery in the United States.

Finally, the textile industry became so large that it outgrew the possibilities of its power source: water power. Steam came to drive the machines of industrializing Britain. In the first part of the eighteenth century a mechanic, Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729), made an "atmospheric engine" in which a piston was raised by injected steam. As the steam condensed, the piston returned to its original position.

Newcomen's unwieldy and inefficient device was put to use pumping water out of mines. James Watt (1736-1819), a builder of scientific instruments at the University of Glasgow, perfected Newcomen's invention. Watt's steam engine also was first used to pump water out of mines.

It saved the large amounts of energy lost by the Newcomen engine and led to an increase in coal productivity. After 1785 it was also used to make cloth and drive ships and locomotives.

The application of steam to weaving made it possible to expand the use of cloth-making machines to new areas, and after 1815 hand looms began to disappear from commercial textile making, replaced by the undoubted superiority of the cloth-making machines.

These inventors made their contributions in response to the need to solve a particular problem. Their machines and the new power sources expanded productivity and transformed society in ways never before dreamed of. The transition from a rural agrarian to an urban lifestyle merits applying the term revolutionary to the process of industrialization.

The steps in increasing textile production were repeated and continue to be repeated in other goods as well. The liberation from the productive limitation of human and animal power to satisfy essentially unlimited demand is the great gift of industrialization.

[See Power Looms: Power looms in operation in an English mill in the 1820s.]

Britain's Dominance

Industrialization began in Britain in the eighteenth century for a number of reasons. Neither the richest nor the most populous country in western Europe, it did, nevertheless, possess at virtually all levels of society a hard-working, inventive, risk-taking private sector that received strong support from the government.

Industrialization could not begin and grow without individual business owners who took a chance on something new.

The British kept this close tie between private initiative and creative governmental support throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Thanks to early governmental support of road improvements and canal construction, Britain had a better transportation network than any other country in Europe. The British also had mastery of the seas, excellent ports, and a large merchant fleet.

They enjoyed the advantage of living safely on their island, away from the carnage of war, even during the Napoleonic wars.

The chance to industrialize in stable conditions gave them the opportunity to profit from war contracts between 1792 and 1815. They developed their industrial capacity without fear of battle damage or loss of life.

Probably the most important factor was the relative flexibility of the British social and political systems. Members of the elite, unlike their colleagues on the continent, pursued their wealth in the new industrial framework with great energy.

They worked closely with the middle classes and workers, even to the point during the nineteenth century of sponsoring gradual reform efforts to stifle any chance of revolution from below.

The combination of inventiveness, growing markets, governmental support, and social flexibility made Britain the world's dominant economic power until the end of the nineteenth century.

Napoleon's interference had hurt economic growth, but had also spurred the British to look for new manufacturing methods and markets.

Once the wars were over, Britain flooded the continent and the Americas with high-quality, inexpensive goods. No nation could compete against British efficiency.

When Britain began industrializing before 1789, there were isolated areas on the continent such as the French Le Creusot works that could have served as the base for a similar growth. Twenty-six years of revolution and mercantile policies made that competition impossible. ^15

[Footnote 15: E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 44-73.]

Cotton production continued to increase and was supplemented by the arrival of the modern Iron Age. In 1800 Russia and Sweden had exported iron to Britain. By 1815 Britain exported more than five times as much iron as it imported.

By 1848 the British produced more iron than the rest of the world combined. As in textile production, in ironmaking a number of inventions appeared to respond to problems. Refining of the brittle cast iron was improved to make it more malleable and tougher. At the same time more efficient mining processes for both coal and iron ore were used to ensure a constant supply of raw materials.

To further dominate the metals market, in the 1850s Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) developed a process to make steel, a harder and more malleable metal, quickly and cheaply.

So effective was the process that between 1856 and 1870 the price of British steel fell to one half the amount formerly charged for the best grade of iron. The drastic reduction in price, a mark of industrialization, had a positive impact on all areas of the economy.

In the period after midcentury Britain produced more than two-thirds of the world's coal and more than half of the world's iron and cloth. Industrial development encouraged urbanization and by 1850 more than half of the population lived in cities and worked in industries.

The British continued to enjoy the highest per capita income in the world, and the island nation stood head and shoulders above the world in terms of economic and material strength.

[See England Early 19th C.: Industrial England, Early 19th Century]