Tag: Industrial Revolution

Britain’s Industrial Revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialization of India

… We had for example Sir Richard Otterwy suggesting, challenging the very idea that it could be argued that the economic situation of the colonies was actually worsened by British colonialism. Well I stand to offer you the Indian example, Sir Richard. India’s share of the world economy when Britain arrived on its shores was 23%. By the time the British left it was down to below 4%. Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depradations in India. In fact, Britain’s Industrial Revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialization of India. The hand loom weavers for example, famed across the world, whose products were exported round the world, Britain came right in, there were actually these weavers making fine muslin, light as woven air it was said, and Britain came right in, broke their thumbs, smashed their looms, imposed tariffs and duties on their cloth and products, and started of course, taking the raw materials from India, and shipping back manufactured cloth, flooding the world’s markets with what became the products of the dark and satanic mills of Victorian England. That meant that the weavers in India became beggars, and India went from being a world-famous exporter of finished cloth, into an importer.

– Dr Shashi Tharoor, speaking at a debate at Oxford.

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The Engine

This comic makes use of the artwork Blockmaker engine from Glitch, a former multiplayer online computer game that released all its artworks into the public domain.

Title: "The Engine".

A cartoon scene: two aliens, one blue and one purple, both are basically blobs with one big eye and some tentacles, sit on a grassy backyard lawn, in the background is a house wall with a door. Between the two aliens is a thing that looks like it might be a car engine or a lawnmower engine, with several cords of insulated wire dangling from it. Alien 1: Whoa... is that what I think it is? Alien 2: A real, working, internal combustion engine. Amazing, right? Alien 1: Can I touch it?

Alien 1 (gingerly touching the engine with its tentacles): I've seen them in museums before, but I've never seen one so well-preserved. Look, it's covered in sticky black stuff! Wait, is this stuff poisonous? Alien 2: Only to humans, don't worry.
Close-up of Alien 1 holding the engine in its tentacles: Just imagine! Countless eons past, life appeared on this planet. Then some of the creatures died, and after millions of years their corpses were converted to fuel...

Another close-up of Alien 1 holding the engine: And millions of years after that sentient beings evolved on that planet. They dug up the fuel and, tragically, created an entire industrial civilization that depended on it, even though it was obvious the fuel would one day run out!

The two aliens both peer closely at the engine. Alien 1: So they built these machines... From what I've read, there should be a combustion chamber with cylinders. Which part is the cylinders? Alien 2: I dunno, it's kind of all welded together.

Alien 1: Just thinking about those poor, doomed, long-ago beings gives me chills! Alien 2: But it wasn't long-ago for the humans, for them it's happening right now! They don't know that other alien societies have already been through this.

The door in the background is partly opened and a little girl looks out, but the two aliens haven't noticed her. Alien 1: That must be weird for them. Alien 2: Haha, yeah. Alien 1: D'you think we should tell them how it ends? Alien 2: Nah.

The door to the house has been pushed wide open. A cute little girl with her hair done in Afro-puffs stands in the doorway. Girl: Um, guys? Do you know what happened to the car? Coz my Mom is REALLY mad right now. (Both aliens look at the girl guiltily).

the lead that Europe and America achieved during the Industrial Revolution

From 1900 to 1980, 70–80 percent of the global production of goods and services was concentrated in Europe and America, which incontestably dominated the rest of the world. By 2010, the European–American share had declined to roughly 50 percent, or approximately the same level as in 1860. In all probability, it will continue to fall and may go as low as 20–30 percent at some point in the twenty-first century. This was the level maintained up to the turn of the nineteenth century and would be consistent with the European–American share of the world’s population. In other words, the lead that Europe and America achieved during the Industrial Revolution allowed these two regions to claim a share of global output that was two to three times greater than their share of the world’s population simply because their output per capita was two to three times greater than the global average. All signs are that this phase of divergence in per capita output is over and that we have embarked on a period of convergence.

– ‘Capital in the twenty-first century’ by Thomas Piketty, p47

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.

Slavery’s role in Britain’s industrialization – some notes from chapter 5 of ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams.

Background notes on the Industrial Revolution

Britain’s Industrial Revolution took place in roughly the period 1750-1830. Historians still do not agree on exactly what the Industrial Revolution was and what caused it, but some generally agreed-upon features are:

  • An increase in the overall amount of stuff produced. (Everything from furniture to textiles to plates and cutlery to pins, nails and iron bars).
  • A shift away from crafters working from home or from a small workshop, towards working in larger workshops and factories.
  • A shift from self-employed workers owning their own tools and perhaps a workshop, to wage workers employed by a boss who owns the means of production (the workshop or factory, and the tools and/or machines).
  • Increasing use of machines.
  • Development of new technologies.
  • A great increase in the amount of start-up money (capital) required to start a business in production or manufacture.
  • The business owners / capitalists earned tremendous profits, and the GDP (gross domestic product) rose at an unprecedented rate.

The capital required for industrialization came directly from slavery/the triangular trade

Britain was accumulating great wealth from the triangular trade:

  • Owners of sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations, using slaves to do the work, made huge profits selling their produce, and plantation owners often returned to Britain, bringing their wealth with them.
  • The triangular trade: merchants and/or privateers from Britain bought slaves on the coast of Africa and sold them at a profit in North America and the Caribean, where they bought slave-produced goods (sugar, tobacco and cotton), then returned to Britain to sell these at another profit.
  • The new wealth pouring into Britain increased the demand for consumer items, and producers of all kinds of goods increased their rate of production to meet this new demand. Increasing production often required money up front (“capital” as the economists like to call it) for example to move to a bigger workshop, to hire more workers, or to buy more tools, machines, or materials. On a larger scale, wealthy investors paid for large projects such as constructing Manchester’s huge cotton factories, constructing a network of canals to make the transport of goods faster and cheaper, or funding the research and development of new technologies. The money for all of this came directly from the triangular trade, provided by plantation owners, slave traders, and exporters of slave-produced goods.

    Merchants and international trade, and other euphemisms

    When you read about England in the eighteenth century, you read a lot about merchants and international trade, but these innocuous-sounding terms mask a tremendous amount of violence. “Trade” meant the triangular trade, and the activities of merchants included:
    (more…)

A meditation on the nature of technological progress

There were, in effect, two stages in machine making, indeed two types of machine, which might be regarded as primary and secondary. The steam engine, as developed by Newcomen and later, Watt, was a primary machine designed to carry out a specific function – initially to pump water out of a mine.

Early steam engine making was the province of the millwright whose skills, developed over centuries in the building of windmills and watermills, were the most appropriate ones available. A Newcomen engine, built into a brick or masonry engine house, using a massive timber beam as the link between steam cylinder and pump rods, was generally speaking within the already-existing capacities of the millwright.

In 1774 when John Wilkinson, the celebrated ironmaster, patented his boring mill, initially used for guns but soon after for steam engine cylinders, he was making a major contribution to the efficiency of the steam engine… This boring mill was at least as important in the development of the steam engine as any of Watt’s specific and recognized improvements. Indeed the double-acting engine, depending as it did on a closed cylinder with a stuffing box around the piston rod, could not have been made without an accurately machined bore, and that could only be achieved on a boring mill.

– Neil Cossons, ‘The BP Book of Industrial Archeology’ 1987. p131

Establishing an authorised version of engineering progress

The text of this post is an exerpt from the book “Inventing the modern world, technology since 1750” by Robert Bud, Simon Niziol, Timothy Boon and Andrew Nahum, 2000.

The far-reaching nature of changes in technology became increasingly clear to many in the mid-19th century as new transport and communications networks extended across countries and continents. Such innovations were brought to popular attention through deliberate publicity campaigns, and the promotion of progress also became institutionalised through the holding of regular exhibitions, showcases for new products and inventions.

A poster entitled 'International Exhibition Bussels 1897', showing a woman wearing a black robe and holding a shield, and hand-written text which says: 'Fine Arts - Social Economy - hygiene - Industrial and Decorative Arts, Lightening - heating - Ventilation - Electricity - Traction - Millitary Science - Manufactures - Sporting Apparatus - Sports - Popular Games and Pastimes - Agricultura and Horticultural Competitions - Practical teaching - Industry and Manual Labour for women - Commerce - Colonies - Fetes and Attractions Concerts etc. Brussels.'

One outcome of the popularisation of the notion of progress was the increasing lionisation of the engineer, personified as the creative force responsible for the transformation of the landscape and the dramatic changes affecting so much of everyday life. Among the first to receive such treatment was James Watt, eulogised as the ‘modern Archimedes’ for single-handedly conceiving the steam engine, the mighty invention which formed the basis for Britain’s greatness.

The stereotype of the lone genius, usually from a humble background, struggling with adversity to become a benefactor of mankind, was parodied by Dickens in the 1850s in Bleak house and Little Dorrit. In the following decade, Samuel Smiles established a whole pantheon of heroes of the Industrial Revolution in his Lives of the Engineers and Industrial Biography. These depicted their subjects as paragons of self-help, combining mechanical genius with infinite patience and industriousness, and went a long way towards establishing an authorised version of engineering progress, leading to perceptions which have never quite been eradicted.

A book cover showing two picutres of old men in old-fashioned clothing with the title 'Lives of Boulton and Watt' by Samuel Smiles.

Inventors invariably borrowed freely from the work of predecessors, or colleagues. The extravagant praise heaped on Watt ignored the earlier Newcomen engine and the work of contemporaries such as Trevithick or Hornblower. James Nasmyth did not single-handedly introduce the steam-hammer. Alexander Graham Bell’s contribution to the telephone extended little beyond the first imperfect prototype. The persistent emphasis on a small number of well known inventions plays down the achievements of a legion of unjusty forgotten technicians responsible for the continuous stream of steady improvements which ensured that technology never remained static.

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.

From the triangular trade to the Industrial Revolution

An excerpt from ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams, chapter 3 ‘Commerce and the triangular trade’:

In this triangular trade England – France and Colonial America equally – supplied the exports and the ships; Africa the human merchandise; the plantations the colonial raw materials. The slave ship sailed from the home country with a cargo of manufactured goods. These were exchanged at a profit on the coast of Africa for Negroes, who were traded on the plantations, at another profit, in exchange for a cargo of colonial produce to be taken back to the home country. As the volume of trade increased, the triangular trade was supplemented, but never supplanted, by a direct trade between the home country and the West Indies (the Caribbean), exchanging home manufactures directly for colonial produce.

The triangular trade thereby gave a triple stimulus to British industry. The Negroes were purchased with British manufactures; transported to the plantations, they produced sugar, cotton, indigo, molasses and other tropical products, the processing of which created new industries in England; while the maintenance of the Negroes and their owners on the plantations provided a new market for British industry, New England agriculture and the Newfoundland fisheries. By 1750 there was hardly a trading or a manufacturing town in England which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade. The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution.