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The unmentionables and the revolutionaries of the Industrial Revolution

The unmentionables

What a funny old world. When I studied history in school, I was told that the Industrial Revolution was sheer hell for workers. There was truth in this exaggeration. The revolution occurred like a massive series of explosions in Britain and its unintended consequences were hard to control.

The bizarre disjunction was this - while concentrating on deplorable working conditions, my teachers neglected or faintly praised the extraordinary results of the Revolution, which were visible all around us in the clothes we wore, the lights in our classrooms and the construction of our school buildings, not to mention our roads, refrigerators and telephones - not to mention the fact we were in school and not slaving in a field.

I do not think that I am alone in suffering this educational dysfunction. It's gone on for decades. We can see it in all those people who want to go back to a so-called Eden while driving a car, using a credit card at the gas station and turning up the thermostat when it snows.

But the simple life I theoretically preferred was not only a far cry from industrialization, it was a far cry from reality. And since in the long run I came to prefer reality, I eventually discovered facts.

Among those unmentionable facts were the many men and women, including Lord Shaftesbury and Richard Oastler, who made energetic and widespread efforts to improve working conditions.

But the most important of the unmentionables and the most essential for all of us were these -

Our modern world was founded on freedom in Britain, including free speech and the free economy, which encouraged the Industrial revolutionaries to invent. Our world was created because widespread schooling and an apprenticeship system in Britain imbued persons with discipline and skills, and the teamwork of volunteer societies all over the country helped aspiring young scientists. Our prosperity was built on the protection of property rights, which encouraged innovators to take business risks, and on the essential civilized stability that supports and protects advances. Can a nation that forgets these facts survive?

The revolutionaries


Richard Trevithick
His new steam engine was adapted for railroads - "the seminal invention of the 19th century". France's first major railroad line, between Paris and Rouen, which opened in 1847, was built by British engineers.

In his new book The Industrial Revolutionaries, Gavin Weightman describes "the most remarkable period of practical inventiveness in world history". John Steele Gordon describes the results in his WSJ review -

The factory system, first deployed on a large scale in the British cloth industry, greatly increased productivity as machines came to do some of the tasks that humans had done - or allowed workers to do their tasks more efficiently. Originally powered by falling water, the factories sprang up where the water was, often deep in the countryside.

The steam engine, first made practical by Thomas Newcomen and then made vastly more fuel efficient by James Watt, made work-doing energy cheap for the first time in human history.

. . .Soon after the turn of the 19th century a new type of steam engine, using high pressure, proved far more powerful per unit of weight than Watt's engine. "In one of the most remarkable coincidences in the history of invention," Mr. Weightman writes, two versions of the high-pressure steam engine were developed "almost at the same time," in Britain by Richard Trevithick - "a giant of a man with immense energy" - and in America by Oliver Evans.

. . The railroad made possible national markets - and huge economies of scale that brought down prices and increased demand. Goods that had once been reserved for the rich - carpets, wallpaper, china, books - became common objects in middle-class homes.

Making connections

The synergy of the new industrial era was remarkable. . .The collapse in the price of steel - thanks to Henry Bessemer, the Englishman whose process allowed steel to be produced by the ton - greatly increased the demand for iron ore and coking coal. That in turn spurred demand for steel railroad tracks and rolling stock. The new railroad routes proved the perfect place to string telegraph lines, which, in turn, fostered communication that allowed the trains to run more efficiently.


Weightman describes the mavericks who made this possible with their inventiveness and business exploits. He also describes the spies.

There were spies everywhere in eighteenth-century Britain. Though they disguised themselves in a variety of ways, they all had one ambition – to unearth the secrets of Britain's industrial success. . .

Perhaps if the British Government were to read this book, it might learn what those secrets were?

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