A portrait of England in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution

The text of this post is exerpted from the book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams, p106.

In 1783 the shape of things to come was clearly visible. The steam engine’s potentialities were not an academic question. Sixty-six engines were in operation, two-thirds of these in mines and foundries. Improved methods of coal mining, combined with the influence of steam, resulted in a great expansion of the iron industry. Production increased four times between 1740 and 1788, and the number of furnaces rose by one-half. The iron bridge and the iron railroad had appeared; the Carron Works had been founded; and Wilkinson was already famous as “the father of the iron trade”.

An engraving showing the Newcomen steam engine, widely used in England in the 1700s to pump water out of coal mines. The engine is built into a small brick house or shed; a coal-fueled fire heats a boiler (a large metal tank filled with water); steam emerging under pressure from the top of the boiler drives a huge rocking beam. The beam’s motion in turn drives a water pump. Source: Wikimedia, public domain.

Cotton, the queen of the Industrial Revolution, responded readily to the new inventions, unhampered as it was by the traditions and guild restrictions which impeded its older rival, wool. Laissez faire became a practice in the new industry long before it penetrated the text books as orthodox economic theory. The spinning jenny, the water frame, the mule, revolutionized the industry, which, as a result, showed a continuous upward trend. Between 1700 and 1780 imports of raw cotton increased more than three times, exports of cotton goods fifteen times. The population of Manchester increased by nearly one-half between 1757 and 1773, the numbers engaged in the cotton industry quadrupled between 1750 and 1785. Not only heavy industry, cotton, too – the two industries that were to dominate the period 1783-1850 – was gathering strength for the assault on the system of monopoly which had for so long been deemed essential to the existence and prosperity of both.

An early spinning jenny: a wooden frame with (in this example) 14 spindles of cotton along one end. Source: Wikimedia, public domain.

The entire economy of England was stimulated by this beneficient breath of increased production. The output of the Staffordshire potteries increased fivefold in value between 1725 and 1777. The tonnage of shipping leaving English ports more than doubled between 1715 and 1781. English imports increased fourfold between 1715 and 1775, and exports trebled between 1700 and 1771.

A realistic painting of a metal birdge over a river. The bridge has arched supports so that although the top is level, the supports make a semi-circle, and this is reflected prettily in the water. There are some trees and three people in a rowboat passing under the bridge.
‘The Iron Bridge’ by artist William Williams. It was built in 1781 and was the first arch bridge in the world to be made of cast iron. Source: Wikimedia, public domain.