FC110: The Technological Background to the Industrial Revolution


FC110 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1649.

The medieval roots of the Industrial Revolution

If new agricultural developments provided the backbone for supporting the Industrial Revolution, various technological innovations were its heart and soul. And the roots of those innovations and the cultural attitudes so vital for their formation go all the way back to the Middle Ages and the Cistercian monks.  What triggered all this was the Cistercians' desire to get away from the evils of the world. This led them to found their monasteries in the wilderness away from civilization, but also away from any outside labor supply upon which they might rely.  Being thrown back on their own resources, they rediscovered, probably in an old Latin or Greek text they were copying, the principles of applying water power with a waterwheel.  The ancient Greeks had come up with this invention, along with the principles of steam power.  However, the abundance of cheap human labor meant there was no real need for water or steam power in the ancient world.  As a result, these principles lay largely unused until this time.

However, the Cistercians did need such principles and started experimenting with labor saving waterwheels, first applying them to the milling of grain into flour.  Two later inventions dramatically expanded its uses.  First, there was the cam, which was a piece of wood set on the drive shaft that struck anything in its way, such as a bellows or trip hammer, with each revolution of the waterwheel.  Second, there was the crank that could convert the circular motion of the waterwheel into oscillating motion.  These two developments led to applying waterpower to a multitude of tasks: They could drive ripsaws, bellows, and water pumps.  They were connected to grinding stones for sharpening and polishing tools, weapons and armor. And they could power trip hammers for fulling cloth, crushing sugarcane, and pounding hemp and rags for rope and paper.

The number of mills that sprang up was astounding.  William the Conqueror's census in 1089, the Domesday Book, listed no fewer than 5624 watermills in England alone.  That was one mill for every 50 families and is estimated to have saved the average peasant wife two to three hours of work per day once the tedious task of milling grain was mechanized.  The main branch of the Seine River going through Paris had 68 mills.  Another sixteen-kilometer stretch of stream had 30 such mills.  Wherever rivers were slow, people built dams to increase the waterpower and floating mills to use that power.  And where there were no rivers at all, they applied these mechanical principles to harnessing other types of energy, building tidal mills along the ocean and windmills (originally a Persian invention) on flat open land.  By 1600, some 40 different types of industries were wholly or partially dependent on water or wind power, mechanizing such tasks as spinning silk, boring the barrels from cannons and muskets, and making gunpowder.  In 1694, Louis XIV's main military engineer, the Marquis de Vauban, estimated that France had 80,000 flourmills, 15,000 industrial mills, and 500 iron mills.

As waterwheel technology spread across Western Europe, so did a growing awareness of how to exploit mechanical principles in general.  In addition to harnessing the power of the tides and winds, Europeans were also developing better clocks (originally a Chinese invention).  In fact, the clock would become the symbol of Europe's increasingly mechanistic view of the universe.  However, while Europeans were harnessing time and parceling it out in discrete units of hours, minutes, and seconds, the clock was also more tightly structuring how Europeans lived their lives.  This would be another important aspect of the Industrial Revolution as far as conditioning factory workers to the time clock and creating a more precise society.

It was Europeans' rising ability of how to exploit mechanical principles that led to three lines of technological development that together would culminate in possibly the most critical invention of the Industrial Revolution: the steam engine.  Those lines of development had to do with mechanical ripsaws, larger bellows, and innovations in the textile industry.

The textile industry in Britain

Britain in the 1700's was the perfect example of the idea that necessity is the mother of invention.  The triumph of the mercantile middle class in the English Revolution of the 1600's and the growth of European colonial empires, especially that of Britain, had created global trade links such as had never been seen before.  However, opening up such new vistas often creates problems, and that was the case with European textile production.  Europe's higher standard of living made its goods and labor more expensive, which led to an influx of cheaper textiles from India that could undersell European, and particularly British, goods.  In order to compete more successfully, British textile producers needed a cheaper and faster way to produce cloth.

The answer came with the invention of the more mechanized handloom (1733) which had a "flying shuttle" that quickly wove the weft thread in between the warp threads This could double the speed of production, except for one other problem.  The spinning wheel used to spin the thread for the loom was too slow.  The solution came with two more inventions in the 1760's: the spinning jenny, which could spin seven threads at a time, and the water frame which could use water power to increase the speed of spinning and weaving even more.  This series of inventions gave the British textile industry a tremendous boost, and soon textile mills were springing up on just about every available bit of river front property.  Unfortunately, the amount of such property was limited, and soon profit hungry businessmen were looking for a new power source to drive their looms and spinning jenny's.  Luckily, all this while a new power source had been emerging.  That was the steam engine

Ripsaws and bellows, coal and iron

As mentioned above, one important application of the waterwheel was to drive larger bellows.  What this made possible was hotter fires with which metal smiths could finally smelt iron.  And that provided purer iron for building stronger boilers and steam engines.

Another important development was the water-powered ripsaw.  This was a much more efficient way to cut timber, so efficient in fact that, by 1600, most of Britain was effectively deforested.  Therefore, the English, largely without their primary heat source, wood (and charcoal processed from wood), had to find something else to burn.  They found it in Britain's plentiful coal deposits.

One problem with coal is that it burns much less cleanly than charcoal, making it harder to come up with good iron.  This was until 1709 when someone discovered a way to process coal into a cleaner and hotter burning substance known as coke.  However, it was not until 1783 that a smelting technique, known as rolling and puddling, was invented which worked the impurities out of iron and made it strong and cheap enough for widespread industrial use.  With stronger and cleaner iron, people could make boilers able to withstand the higher steam pressures needed for more powerful steam engines.  This of course was only relevant once the steam engine had been invented, which brings us to another problem with coal.

Unfortunately, most of Britain's coal was buried in deposits that required the construction of deep shaft mines.  Eventually coal miners ran into that curse of all deep mines: water seepage.  It was here that a crude steam pump was devised to give steam its first practical job.  Unfortunately, this early pump was inefficient and burned nearly as much coal as was being mined.  More efficient models were designed, notably that of Thomas Newcomen.  But a truly efficient design did not come along until 1769 when James Watt introduced a practical two-chamber steam engine that made steam power economical to use in the mines.

Not only was steam power practical for the mines.  It also found applications in the textile mills for those businessmen not lucky enough to have waterfront property and the free power that went with it.  As a result, British textile production jumped by a factor of 30 times.  With each passing year, the hissing, churning, and pumping of the steam engines rang louder in Britain's cities while the black smoke from burning coal steadily darkened its skies.  The Industrial Revolution had been born.