Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 130,446 pages of information and 207,488 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Industrial Revolution

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May 1939.

Lighting

The invention of gas for lighting had a major effect of factories and general living conditions

Canals

The Duke of Bridgewater became famous for the installation of many canals in Britain. They were essential for the creation of much needed work, the transport of goods linking major trading centres and even for logistics during war. Some major contributors of their design and construction include Thomas Telford, William Jessop, Benjamin Outram, Marc Isambard Brunel, John Rennie (the elder) and Robert Stephenson.

Steam Ships

The earliest Steam Ships in the UK were -

Textile Industry

  • 1743 Lewis Paul and John Wyatt opened a factory in Northampton with their patented Roller Spinning machine
  •  ?? Lewis Paul invents hand driven carding machine
  • 1769 Richard Arkwright invented the water frame

Steam Engine

  • 1705 Thomas Newcomen first modern steam engine to improve the pumping equipment in mines
  • 1763 James Watt, an instrument-maker for Glasgow University, began to make improvements on Newcomen's engine
  • 1769 Nicholas Joseph Cugnot First steam-powered road vehicle
  • 1774 Matthew Boulton the industrialist took James Watt into partnership, and their firm produced nearly five hundred engines before Watt's patent expired in 1800.
  • 1803 Richard Trevithick First steam railway locomotive, and various practical application of high pressure steam.

Electric Power

  • 1831 Michael Faraday demonstrated how electricity could be mechanically produced
  • 1873 A dynamo capable of prolonged operation was developed by Zenobe Gramme

Communications

  • 1840 A penny post on all letters was inaugurated in Britain
  • 1876 Alexander Graham Bell transmitted the human voice over a wire
  • 1900 Wireless Telegraphy
  • 1920 Radio.


What was the Industrial Revolution?

Such a vast topic as the Industrial Revolution can only be covered in brief. What follows is, by necessity, merely a snapshot...

The Industrial Revolution has many arguable dates of inception, but it is generally understood to have begun in the mid-18th century, sometime after 1750.

It occurred when developments in agricultural methods, manufacturing and transportation altered radically. So major were the effects that they spread from Britain to Europe; from Europe to America; and then on to the rest of the world.

The change from manual labour to mechanisation caused a domino-effect within industry. It began with textiles, and with the invention and improvement of the steam engine. There were many inventors, the most notable of whom were James Hargreaves (1722-1778), with his Spinning Jenny of 1754, and Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), with his spinning frame of 1769.

James Watt (1736-1819) did much to improve the steam engine and from about 1763 the developments were rapid.

The pottery industry saw many changes too; perhaps the most prominent of the time and still famous to this day, was Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), although there were numerous others.

From those small beginnings the ripples spread far and wide: to iron-making techniques, to the refinement of coal and to the building of canals, railways and roads.

Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), the son of a mine manager and a manager's daughter, was a Cornish inventor, mining engineer and builder of the first working railway engine. He was a champion of high pressure steam, and was the first to construct a steam railway locomotive, in 1803. He died in extreme poverty without ever being able to fully realise his dream and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Throughout the 1800s, the use of steam-powered machines led to a massive increase in the number of factories, particularly in the textile industry. People began to move from the country to the towns. Jobs in agriculture were poorly paid, so cities and towns filled to overflowing with people searching for work in mills and factories. By the middle of the 19th century, fifty per cent of the country lived in London, the population having more than doubled in just fifty years.

Workers’ living conditions were squalid. In most towns and cities housing had been hastily erected close to the factories. In many cases these houses were no more than back-to-back hovels, built as cheaply as possible, with no outside space, few, if any, windows and a sewer down the middle of the street. The majority of houses were over-crowded and the streets were filthy with refuse and sewage.

Disease was rife and people died by the thousand from outbreaks such as dysentery, cholera, typhus, tuberculosis and smallpox. The health of many was compromised still further by pollution from the smoke that belched constantly from chimneys of every size and shape, night and day.

The work-force of many factories included small children who often started as young as four or five years old. Although they were poorly paid, any pittance would help a family buy food. Children were usually found in mines, cotton mills and brickworks and, although it was banned by law in the early 1830s, they were still regularly used as chimney sweeps.

At the opposite end of the scale, many factory owners became very rich and were able to build fine houses and mansions filled with expensive objects and furnishings. It was truly the birth of the middle classes and a time when industrialists and businessmen enjoyed a wealth that had previously only been the privilege of nobility and gentry, who often regarded the newly affluent as "vulgar".

Many of the great engineering successes were amply aided by private funding from the nouveaux riches, who were readily willing to invest in progress.

Throughout the 19th century, roads and canals were quickly built and these became the lifeblood of the country – an arterial network of increasing traffic – that moved goods from one place to another with relative ease.

George Stephenson (1781-1848) was known as the father of the railways and built the first public railway to use a steam engine. His first locomotive of 1814 was designed to haul coal, although there were problems with the fragility of wooden rails until cast-iron ones became robust enough not to break under the weight.

His son, Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), became famous for his Rocket and also as an engineer who built bridges.

Another engineer of the times was Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), remembered today as the creator of many bridges, including the Clifton Suspension in Bristol; a series of steamships including the SS Great Britain, (now preserved as a museum in dry dock in Bristol); and the Great Western Railway.

Parallel developments came in medicine, which improved in leaps and bounds. Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) was a French chemist who made incredible discoveries in the world of microbiology and the theories of linking germs with disease.

The Victorian era (1837-1901) marked the height of the Industrial Revolution and the most successful period of the British Empire.

Charles Darwin (1809-1892) gained respect among scientists for his work in geology and his Theory of Evolution. In 1859 his book, The Origin of Species, was published.

In 1876, the Scottish scientist and inventor, Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), was awarded the first U.S. patent for the invention of the telephone. Known as 'the father of the deaf', his discovery had come about through experiments with hearing devices.

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) developed locally generated electricity as a viable alternative to gas. At the end of 1881, the world’s first public electricity supply appeared in Godalming, Surrey, when the streets were lit for the first time.

The year of 1886 saw the arrival of the motor car and from then on the development of the internal combustion engine for road vehicles was rapid.

Other major discoveries in the field of radioactivity were also occurring: Whilem Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923) discovered X-rays in 1895, and in Paris the brilliant Polish physicist and chemist, Marie Curie (née Maria Sklodowska, 1867-1934), would soon be recognised for her work in the field of radioactivity, which would later be used to treat the wounded in the Great War. She was the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne and also won two Nobel Prizes.

Guglielmo Marconi (1834-1920), the Italian-Irish Electrical Engineer, pioneered his radiotelegraphy during the 1890s. In 1901 he made a successful trans-Atlantic transmission.

Following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the Edwardian era saw the beginnings of a rigid class system and a leaning towards socialism. The Suffragettes made their stand and more attention was paid to the needs of the poor.

The Wright brothers had their first successful flight in 1903, and this was to pave the way for aviation as we know it today.

When Edward VII (1841-1910) died, he was succeeded by his son, George V (1865-1936). This period saw the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the Great War, 1914-1918.

At the end of the war and by the 1920s, the development of machine tools enabled an increase in manufacturing machinery which, in turn, enabled more production for other industries.

The war years had seen a time of such privation that the post-war era became a period approaching gay abandon. Industry flourished and Art Deco thrived. Britain was buoyant but not safe from what was round the corner.

Still recovering from the effects of the Great War, the arrival of the Great Depression, in 1929, hit Britain hard. The rapid growths of the electrical and motor industries were not enough to protect it from the economic difficulties stemming from the debt accumulated for war involvement throughout Europe. The resultant destabilisation lasted until 1936.

Elsewhere in the world, and although hit equally with depression, the United States witnessed one of the construction marvels of the time – the Hoover Dam – built across the Colorado River, between 1931 and 1935, and officially opened in 1936.

The turmoil continued with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when once again there was great hardship for the population. Hunger and theft were rife, and for many there was the certain knowledge that their loved ones would never return home.

The years of warfare brought great improvements in the field of armoury, vehicles and ships. Submarines were widely used by the naval forces of Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United States and Japan.

Factories turned once again to the war effort, producing vast quantities of munitions for guns of every description and parts for military vehicles.

During hostilities a particularly important role was played by the RAF, which had become a formidable fighting force since its inception, in 1918, at the end of the First World War.

Other great advancements were made with the use of jet engines in aviation, and Radar – used to defend Britain from the German Luftwaffe bombers.

The first computers were constructed: firstly the British Colossus, which became operational in January 1944, followed in 1946 by the American ENIAC.

It was also the dawn of the Nuclear Age...

In 1945, a Scottish biologist and pharmacologist named Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) received a Nobel Prize. This was for his development of penicillin, which he had discovered by accident in 1928. Many clinical trials and tests had taken place throughout the intervening years before it could be used in a purified and stabilized form. His discovery has since saved millions of lives.

After the war ended in 1945, rationing continued until 1954. It had been in place since 1940 – fourteen long years.

Post-war growth in the economy brought many changes in Britain. As the use of motor vehicles increased, traffic on canals and railways waned. By the 1960s, the 'Beeching Axe' had fallen on the British railway system. This was due to a report by Dr Richard Beeching in the 1950s, based on the losses sustained as a result of the expansion in road transport.

Towards the end of the 1950s the Space Age began. It started with the USSR and Sputnik. In 1961 a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, became the first man in space; and, in 1968, Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon.

Since then we have seen things that are now regarded as common-place – such as tumble-dryers and microwave ovens, which first gained popularity during the 1970s. Today we have mobile phones, iPods, DVDs, plasma TVs and all manner of electronic gadgets, gizmos and wizardry. So – even now, in the twenty-first century, the revolution continues in its own way; the rest, as they say, is history...