They did believe in progress

Part of the answer lies in the country’s rich natural resources. Enterprising developers benefited from local supplies of iron, coal, and wood, the essential raw materials needed for automating manufacturing and industrial processes. Just as significantly, Britain profited from her imperial possessions and the global circulation of people, wealth, and goods, kept running with gold mined by slave labour in Africa. To satisfy their growing overseas markets, British manufacturers had to invent more efficient ways of converting cotton and metals – cheap imports from Africa and Asia – into fine cloths and luxurious ornaments for North Americans, who paid with plantation crops produced by enslaved Africans. Britain’s industrial wealth depended on oppressing not only the working classes at home, but also her colonial subjects around the world.

In the interests of large-scale efficiency, landowners abolished the traditional system of small personal allotments, replacing them with large open fields. To bring in raw materials and send out finished goods, factory owners commissioned cross-country canals and invested in large, paved roads. Displaced workers gravitated towards employment possibilities, so that for the first time, northern centres became larger and more important than provincial ports and cathedral cities in the south. Whereas wealth had previously depended on inheritance and agriculture, by the early nineteenth century, self-made industrialists were richer than many aristocrats.

Victorian critics expressed their horror at belching chimneys, noisy trains, and dilapidated slums, castigating prosperous employers who ignored the dirt, sickness, and poverty they inflicted on their labourers. But the eighteenth-century entrepreneurs who first introduced new manufacturing techniques were unaware that their innovations would have such deleterious effects. Although their main aim was to increase their own profits, they did also believe in progress. Machines would, they claimed, not only improve their own positions but would also bring more opportunities to their workers and to the nation. Paternalistic landowners predicted that steam automation would benefit their employees by alleviating the drudgery of manual work. It is only with hindsight that their confidence seems naively optimistic, a self-justifying excuse for exploitation.

– Patricia Fara, ‘Science: a four thousand year history’, p 202-203.

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