Tag: steam engine

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.

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.