Powering the Past

Powering the Past

Kirsty Gray explores the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution and their impact on people’s lives

Header Image: An 1832 illustration of a 'steam manufactory’ in Bolton, Lancashire

Kirsty Gray, Lecturer and Author

Kirsty Gray

Lecturer and Author

The Industrial Revolution transformed the world and the way in which millions of people lived. Starting in Britain in the mid-18th century, its effects were more revolutionary than any other development since the discovery of agriculture more than 5,000 years ago.

A triumph of ingenuity and invention, the new sources of power, better manufacturing methods and expanding transport systems brought fantastic changes affecting every walk of life. Man and machine worked side by side to produce materials of our dreams on a scale never before imagined.

over shot waterwheel
One of three over shot waterwheels at Finch Foundry. This is the one that drives the centrifugal blower for the hearths and furnaces. The site originally had reciprocating piston blowers but these were replaced. The water overflowing from the mill race is seen passing the wheel on the right. This foundry is actually a 'forge’ although there is evidence that it did cast small quantities of crucible steel that was converted from blister steel made on site

Since the Middle Ages, water had been used for powering bellows in iron smelting and for milling. Until the invention of Thomas Newcomen’s steam, or ‘fire’ engine, at the beginning of the 18th century, wind and water were the only sources of power beyond that of the brute muscle of men or specially harnessed animals. Harnessing the power of water was complicated. Until well into the 19th century, the developing economy of North America relied on waterwheels for almost all its power but by the end of the 18th century, such reliance was becoming extremely problematic in Great Britain. Finding locations on natural waterways suitable for watermills of sufficient power became increasingly difficult.

Based on water and steam power, new technologies created new skills as they destroyed old ones. For over 300 years, small-scale industrial processes were powered by water. In one critical case – pumping water out of flooded mines – water was bound to fail as a source of power especially as the highest point of the whole complex of shafts and galleries constructed for exploiting a mine was the only possible site for the pumping machinery. This demand did not measure up to the demands of coal mining.

Coal and gas
The pre-industrial world relied on wood for many of its needs including as a fuel for industry and the home. This intensive use of wood meant that in many regions and countries it came to be in short supply. ‘Sea-coal’, transported from the north-east of the country to London on ships, was the first solution to the English fuel crisis. Coal became the key power behind the Industrial Revolution, providing fuel for steam engines and later, for locomotives; it was also essential in the smelting of iron and production of gas.

Providing what seemed to be a limitless reservoir of energy, coal made industrialisation possible. By 1800, Britain was leading the way in exploiting coal, using over 10 million tons per year. From a spectator’s point of view though, mining was a risky business for both owners and workers. There were so many imponderables from geology and technology to finance and demand, as well as the labour force itself.

Pit brow lasses
'Pit brow lasses’ (coal mine surface workers) in Wigan, Lancashire

Reliant upon physical strength for their earning power, miners achieved their peak income at a relatively young age, a factor which encouraged early marriage and hence large families. Earnings could be high but unreliable and also clearly related to status. Surface workers ranked lower than underground workers but even they had their own hierarchy, ranging from skilled carpenters, farriers and boilermakers down to unskilled labourers, women, boys and disabled people.

The work of a coalminer was risky with the possibility on every shift of sudden death or permanent invalidity from rock fall or explosion. Between 1850 and 1914 the average fatality rate in Britain was 100 per year, with teenagers twice as likely to die as adult workers. Coal mining reached its peak around 1913 and some idea of the vast quantities involved can be gained from the output of just one area. The Great Northern Coalfield in Durham employed nearly a quarter of a million men and boys and produced over one million tons of coal per week from more than 400 pits.

The waste products from making coke included tar, coal gas and other chemical waste. Coal gas was quickly taken up for lighting and cooking with every town or city having its own gasworks in the 1850s. Coal was also used in electricity generation which, like gas, was a local industry until the concept of the national grid made today’s massive power stations feasible. William Murdock (sometimes Murdoch), principal engineer in Cornwall for the company of Boulton & Watt, first demonstrated the combustible properties of a mixture of coal, gas and air in 1792. He successfully lit a room in his home in Redruth using coal gas burner and in the following year, the company’s Soho Foundry in Birmingham was lit entirely by Murdock’s new invention. This remarkably useful by-product of the exploitation of coal transformed both industrial and domestic power consumption in Britain.

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Population explosion
One of the most significant by-products of industrialisation was the population explosion which occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries. This involved a great movement of people from rural areas to crowded accommodation in towns and cities, as well as migration from one part of the country to another for work. This led to the creation of a new graduation within society – ‘the working class’ – which had a powerful influence on the development of British culture similar to the rise of the merchant class in the previous era.

Britain has some of the most extensive remains of industrialisation in the world, ranging from buildings and machinery to entire landscapes. They represent an invaluable resource for understanding the past and the foundations of the present. But what should we preserve? What is the best way of preserving the past? What can be destroyed or allowed to decay? How do we ensure what remains has meaning for the generations of the future?

It is important to see heritage not as individual monuments and sites but as a tapestry of interlinked elements that can create an experience of the past as well as the foundations of the world in which we now live and which future generations will inherit.

high pressure steam engine
Mining engineer and steam locomotion pioneer Richard Trevithick’s high pressure steam engine, built in 1804. The original can be seen in London’s Science Museum

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