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The Industrial Revolution

The Creation of the Modern World 1776 - 1914

Gavin Weightman

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It is almost impossible to say with any surety who invented what, as there was widespread plagiarism and multiple small improvements.

Machines driven by 'gins' an abbreviation of engine of horses or a waterwheel.

Wassn't easy for Continental powers to simply copy Britain's induastrial system. Had to be based on coal to run steam engines. So industry either had to be established near coalfileds orthere had to be reasonably priced transport. Britain fortunate that rich coalfileds lying close to tidal rivers. In France, the coalfields were in the north, while thetextile industry was in the south.

But the most impt thing was not the resources, the inventors or the skilled craftsmen. It was the talented entrepreneur who got the new factories off the ground.

The power of expanding steam had been known for centuries. The priests in Greek temples used it to hoodwink believers into thinking they could open theheavy gates with supernatural power. (They used fire to boil water in one container which the spilled into another, the weight pulling the tomb doors open).

'Iron Md' Wilkinson had perfected a large boring machine to make perfect cylinders for cannons. Without that, James Watt could not have built the second part of his revolutionary steam engine. The separate condenser needed a tight fitting cylinder and piston to stop steam escaping as waste.

The guillotine was named, not after its inventer, butafter a member of the French parliament interested in equality. Dreadful executions such as breaking on a wheel, or being quartered, were the ways the lower classes were desptched, whereas an aristocrat was given a few blows to the neck by a sharp sword.

The Mississippi gave US a head start in steam powered transport, because the heavy engines of early C19 could be put into paddle steamers, even though they were too heavy for the brittle rails of the day.

When they started to plan the Great Exhibition of 1851, no architect could suggest a suitable building. The man who did design it was Joseph Paxton, who was not an architect but the head gardener for the Duke of Devonshire. He'd built several glasshouses incorporating ingenious structures to deal with condenstaion and decay.

The original design had to be modified to include some fine elm trees which were 135 feet high, but there was no steam powered cranes at that stage, so the whole thing was built with simple three-legged hoists and an aerila railway to supply the glaziers. Crowds came to watch, and eventually they were charged an admission fee.

Conspiracy theories swirled around the Great Exhibition, prompting relatives of Prince Albert to warn him to get out of London while it was on. He wrote back to say "The rumours ... are inventions concocted by the enemies of an artistic and cultural venture and of all progress to frighten the public.... Mathematicians have calculated that the Crystal Palace will blow down in the first strong gale, Engineers that the galleries will crash in and destroy the visitors, Political Economists have predicted a scarcity of food in London owing to the vast concourse of people, Doctors that the coming together of so many races will bring back the Black Death, Moralists think that England will be infected by all the scourges of the civilized world, and Theologians that this second Tower of Babel will draw upon it the vengeance of an offended God."

By 1851 England was the first urban country - more people living in towns and cities than lived in the countryside.

And by now, the process of innovtion had gone global - inventions were modified and improved all over the world, and fed back to original makers who then improved their offerings. Napoleon put up a prize for anyone who could produce a very fine linen yern which would rival cotton and thus undermine British industry and prosperity. A frenchman more or less succeeded about the time of Napoleon's defeat. He then took his technique to Warsaw, where industrialists there improved it. It was copied and then perfected by textile millers in Yorkshire. So a successful business in Britain using a technique which had been developed to win a prize for undermining British industry.

Henry Bessemer made his first fortune by producing immitation gold powder. He'd bought some to decorate a book, and was surprised at how expensive it was. Tested it and found no gold in it all. The process was controlled by German chemists in Nuremberg, but because it had been unchanged for centuries, Bessemer was able to find the recipe in an old C12 textbook. He figured out how to mechanize the process, and rather than patent it (which would only protect it for fourteen years) he built his factory in a high security, windowless shed. He was able to keep the secret for forty years, monopolising the market and making huge profits.

Bessemer invented a simple process to convert pig iron into good steel by blowing cold air across it. But didn't work with high phosphorus content iron ore. That problem was solved by Sidney Thomas, who built furnaces lined with dolomite, which absorbed the gaseous phosphorus. The Thomas-Gilchrist adaptation to the Bessemer process brought on the age of steel.

In the last years of C19 the cost of horses rose dramatically. Britain's road transport needed 15 million acres of farmland to supply the annual demand for hay and oats. Each horse produced about seven tons of manure a year.

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