The Industrial Revolution, part two

The Industrial Revolution did not happen overnight. Everywhere it occurred, it was a gradual process. Ways were developed to manufacture more and more items that people needed or wanted. High-quality steel and steam power were applied to more and more uses. Transportation radically changed with the introduction of railroads and steam-powered boats. Later would come the horseless carriage, or automobile, first powered by an electric battery, but soon improved with gasoline engines. By the twentieth century, air travel also appeared.

Technology led to more technology, and also to scientific discoveries, and then new scientific discoveries offered new technology. Electricity was understood and harnessed for technology. Glass lenses, already invented in the late Middle Ages, were combined into telescopes—Galileo was one of the first to aim a telescope at the sky rather than at distant features on earth—and then into microscopes. Chemical research and development multiplied the rate of innovation. Cheaper production of paper—made from wood pulp rather than from cotton rags—opened a new world of books, magazines, and newspapers. Before long, technology offered instant communication and the preservation of sounds and images, all of which would have seemed magical to people who lived only a short time earlier.

Every historic change brings both gains and losses. Access to new forms of material wealth and comfort enticed many people away from the timeless promises of religion and of the Church. Meanwhile, urban poverty also multiplied as more families left agriculture and crowded into the cities. Factory owners hired women and children; their smaller hands and bodies suited the new machinery, and they were less likely than men to demand better working conditions and higher pay. Unemployed men sometimes turned to crime or to alcoholism. Prisons were filled with petty criminals and with men whose only crime was debts they could not repay. Frequently their wives and children joined them in the prisons because they had nowhere else to live. Meanwhile, the crowded conditions of the cities and the output of the factories caused pollution of the air, the water, and the land.

In theory, the capitalist laws of supply and demand would fix these problems. Factory owners, seeking to maximize their profits, would compete with each other for the better workers, offering higher wages. Competition for more customers would result, not only in lower prices, but in higher-quality products. In theory, governments would remain uninvolved in the economy—“laissez-faire,” meaning “leave it alone,” was the capitalist message to governments. But even Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations acknowledged a need for some government regulation. Governments exist to protect citizens from dangers abroad and dangers at home. Governments do more than arrest and punish thieves and murderers. They inspect factories and their products, ensuring safety for workers and for customers. They respond to pollution, treating sewage and gathering garbage and requiring respect for the environment. Governments even created child labor laws, sending the children to school instead of the factories. An image was created of the Victorian family—the father earning wages to support the family, the women staying home to care for the house and the children, and the children having time to play and lessons to learn. Many families were unable to achieve this dream, but the ideal existed all the same.

Christians in Europe resisted the problems of industrialization. Christians denounced the emptiness of life with more wealth and comforts but no spiritual meaning or significance. They also reached out to their neighbors most in need. Often the romantic arm of the Church—the Pietists and Methodists and others of that ilk—were most active in resisting the darkness. Members were urged to turn from petty crime and from addictions to alcohol, tobacco, opium, and other dangers. Doing so, they were also equipped to reach out to the poor, the hopeless, and the victims of addiction. Sunday Schools met the needs of children still employed six days a week in the factories. Food and shelter and medical care was offered to families in need. Even though more lives reflected the novels of Charles Dickens than those of Jane Austen, Christianity offered spiritual hope and practical help to many who otherwise were victims of the dark side of industrialization.

The same Christianity also defended the Enlightenment principle that all people are created equal, with human rights to be respected and protected. Abolition of slavery followed industrialization as it moved from the United Kingdom to other European nations and to parts of the world colonized by European nations. At times, the freed slaves and their descendants were as badly oppressed in a wage-earning economy as they had been under slavery. Still, the message of equal rights and equal opportunity sent educators and social rights activists to the people with the greatest needs—and those who sent them were generally leaders of the Church.

For a while, the proposals of Enlightenment thinkers remained interesting theories. European governments grew increasingly powerful, centered around royal leaders such as Louis XIV of France and Peter the Great of Russia. Warfare over national policy was just as destructive as warfare over Christian doctrine had been. Indeed, exploration and colonization meant that European wars had now become World Wars, even without Roman numerals to identify them. The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748), and the Seven Years War (1756-1763) all involved many European governments, their armies, their navies, and their possessions overseas. King Charles of Sweden set a pattern later to be followed by Napoleon and Hitler when, in 1708 he invaded Russia, eventually destroying an empire (his own). But Enlightenment theories and industrialization would soon lead to a new kind of conflict, revolutions which would not be industrial or scientific, but which would be political, economic, and world-changing. J.

The Industrial Revolution, part one

One thousand years ago, China led the world in research and technology. The wheelbarrow was invented in China. So was the water wheel. The magnetic compass was a Chinese invention. The printing press also came from China. Gradually, this technology traveled along the Silk Roads, adding to the resources of other nations and cultures. The printing press was adapted in Europe just in time to help spread Martin Luther’s contributions to the Reformation of the Church.

Chinese chemists discovered gunpowder. They recognized the military potential of this discovery, but they did not develop it as thoroughly as other cultures. The Mongol Empire used cannons and bombs based on Chinese inventions. The Ottomans effectively used the same weapons against the Byzantine Empire. Firearms began to be used by Europeans during the Hundred Years War between England and France. Eventually, European refinements of this technology would be effectively used in their exploration and conquest of much of the world, even including China.

Another chemical innovation in China may be more important to history than gunpowder. Around a thousand years ago, Chinese chemists developed a new recipe for steel. Iron technology began among the Hittites (living in what is now called Turkey) about three thousand years ago. Knowledge of iron working gradually spread, or was independently discovered, throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. Pure iron is a powder, useless for any kind of tool or craft. But pure iron does not occur naturally; it is contained in ores, which are reduced by heat. When the oxygen is released from iron ore and a little carbon is added, the resulting alloy makes a strong metal substance called cast iron. Because cast iron cannot be melted by a wood-burning fire, skillets and kettles are made from cast iron. A hotter fire, produced by blowing air into the blaze, melts iron to make it shapable into tools such as skillets and kettles, plows, knives and swords, horseshoes, and many other items. Because iron was always smelted in wood-burning fires, carbon was accidently added to the iron from its first discovery. Better refinement of iron only happened after the metal was being used for many generations.

The new Chinese recipe for steel controlled the amount of carbon added to the iron. Such control was managed more easily by using coal instead of wood as a carbon source. This knowledge, like other Chinese technology, gradually spread along the Silk Roads until it reached the British Isles, where—as was the case with the printing press—history was ready for a new direction made possible by this new knowledge.

In China, iron ore deposits were not near coal deposits, and neither was near major rivers (which were useful for both transportation and for generating power). In the United Kingdom, iron and coal were found near each other and near rivers. Moreover, the new steel recipe arrived in western Europe at a time that the population was recovering from its losses due to the Black Death. Population growth was assisted by new food sources coming from the western hemisphere, such as maize (corn) and potatoes. On top of that, many landowners were shifting agriculture from food crops to wool production, which required grazing land for sheep. The Enclosure movement, as landowners fenced their land for grazing, sent peasants out of the country and into the city. This urban migration meant that workers would be available to operate the new technology that defined the Industrial Revolution.

The other innovation (besides better steel) was turning wheels with steam power rather than river power. Steam was produced by heating water—wood was useful fuel for that process, but coal was even more efficient. Even today, burning fossil fuels provides far greater energy at a lower cost than wind power, water power, or solar power. Even electrical devices, from light bulbs to cars, draw their power from generators that burn fossil fuels. (In the United States, in the year 2020, sixty percent of the electricity generated came from burning fossil fuels; twenty percent from nuclear reactors, and twenty percent from wind and water and other resources.) Burning coal, natural gas, and petroleum was as important to the Industrial Revolution as was steel, as important as the growing population of available workers, who also were available customers for the products being made and sold.

The United Kingdom was also prime for creating an Industrial Revolution because of the European understanding of human rights and of capitalism. A capitalistic economy had started to be developed by the guilds and leagues of the Middle Ages. This development was hastened by banking practices in Italy, then in other European lands, during the Renaissance. Also the principles of capitalism would not be enunciated until Adam Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, his ideas were popular because they were already firmly entrenched in the practices of England, Scotland, and the Netherlands.

When Spain and Portugal sent explorers, colonists, and trade missions across the ocean, their governments financed these missions and profited directly from their results. Spain, for example, claimed twenty percent of the silver mined in their western hemisphere colonies. But England and other countries chose only to task profits made from exploration and trade. The governments did not invest in these activities, not profiting directly from them and not risking loss of money in them. Instead, wealthy individuals sponsored colonies and trade missions. Often several investors would combine resources to share the risk and the profit, thus creating the corporation. This same business model was used when raw materials arrived at the European ports, ready to be converted into products that customers wanted to buy.

Cotton was planted, grown, and harvested overseas, then shipped to the Old World. This cotton had to be spun into thread, woven into cloth, chemically treated to make the cloth fuller, and then cut into pieces that were sewn into garments. At first, the capitalist investors and corporations employed the oddly-named “putting-out system.” The cotton was given to one person or family to spin into thread; the thread was given to another person or family to weave; the cloth was given to a third person or family to be treated; the treated cloth was given to a fourth person or family to be tailored. Spinners and Weavers and Fullers and Tailors were all paid by the job for their work (and many families carry on these names, even as later generations have moved on to other kinds of work).

Steel production, steam power, and some clever inventors combined to produce machines that could do more work more rapidly than individuals and families working in their homes. The putting-out system was replaced by factories. Such factories and their machinery were expensive to build, but the investment produced a large profit. Therefore, only wealthy capitalists and corporations could build factories. Once they did so, they put the smaller producers out of business. Now workers reported to the factories and were paid an hourly rate for running the machines. Cotton garments were rapidly produced, providing affordable clothing for Europeans and even for the colonists serving the system overseas.

The United Kingdom tried to maintain a monopoly on the technology of the Industrial Revolution, but ideas were bought or stolen, and soon other European nations were also participating in the Revolution. This major economic change made it possible for societies to experiment with some of the other ideas that had sprung from the Enlightenment. These ideas, accompanied by the success of industry under capitalism, would eventually change the world. J.

The ages of human history

As a custom, historians divide eras of people according to the material from which they made their tools. The earliest tools were made of stone, and so we have the Stone Age. Then follow the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. More recently, a finer alloy of iron allowed greater expansion of industry, so we can refer to a Steel Age. Then, around the middle of the twentieth century, we entered the Plastic Age.

Here is a trick question: when does one age end and another begin? The question cannot be answered until we specify the area in question and even which group within that area. The Bible describes a time, when Saul was king of Israel, that the Israelites were in the Bronze Age while the Philistines were in the Iron Age. This gave the Philistines advantages over the Israelites—military advantages and agricultural advantages—because the Philistines were using better tools.

Each of these ages is further divided into various segments, often very detailed in their descriptions. Pottery, basket weaving, and other early industries help to define these segments; they also indicate when two or more groups of people exchanged items they had made. The larger ages are sufficient for a general discussion of history, although the Stone Age is generally divided. When I was younger, we learned about the Paleolithic Age, or Old Stone Age; and the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, and the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. I never learned all the distinctions among the three stone ages, aside from the fact that the Paleolithic came first and the Neolithic is most recent. Now books only separate the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages. The distinction is easy: Paleolithic people have no set home; they travel to hunt and harvest their food. Neolithic people have settlements; they raise flocks and herds of animals, and they plant seeds and tend the plants that grow and harvest the crops when they are ripe.

Extremely useful tools are made from stones. Flint and obsidian are especially helpful because sharp blades can be chipped from these stones. Sharp stones became knives that cut food, axes that cut wood, and weapons that helped when hunting animals or when battling other groups of people for resources. Many North Americans have gathered what are commonly called “arrowheads.” Most of these shaped stones are too large for arrows; they were used instead on short spears that were thrown at a target, such as deer or bison. Professional historians and archaeologists classify these tools as “projectile points.”

Back to the trick question: speaking on a world-wide basis, the Paleolithic Age has never ended. Some people today still choose to live in a Paleolithic pattern. Not only are their tools made of stone; they travel to hunt and to harvest their food. They have no permanent settlements. They are aware of newer possibilities in civilization—bronze and iron and steel and plastic. They choose to perpetuate the ways of their ancestors. Australia, Siberia, and many other parts of the world are home to Paleolithic groups that preserve their ancient customs and choose not to adapt to newer ways.

No written records describe the discovery of bronze. Bronze is an alloy, a mixture of copper and tin. (Some parts of the world had a Copper Age before they entered the Bronze Age.) Copper and tin ores exist naturally in some rocks; historians assume that people who gathered rocks to line their fire pits found a new substance in the morning when the fires had gone out. This new substance, bronze, could be shaped more easily than stone. Bronze blades on weapons and other tools lasted longer than stone blades. The advantage of bronze tools made them the choice of most civilized groups that encountered them, either by their own discovery or through trade with other groups.  

Iron is even more durable than bronze. Iron does not melt in a normal fire, which is why many campers use cast iron pots and skillets. Pure iron is a powder, but a mixture of iron and carbon produces an alloy which is extremely useful. Once people learned how to blow air into a fire to make it hotter, they were ready for the Iron Age. The earliest appearance of that industry seems to have occurred among the Hittites, living in what now is the country called Turkey. The technology spread to neighboring civilizations. It appears to have arisen spontaneously in China and in central Africa as well. Iron technology caused a great gap between “haves” and “have-nots” in the ancient world. Some civilizations, including the Philistines, attempted to preserve a monopoly on iron technology, but they were only able to hold that monopoly for a few years, never for long.

About a thousand years ago, chemists in China found a new way of combining iron and carbon which made a finer version of iron, which we call steel rather than cast iron. Once again, this new technology offered advantages over the older iron tools. Gradually, this chemical knowledge moved along the trade routes called the Silk Roads, until it reached the British Isles in western Europe. The British had advantages which had not existed in China or in other civilizations on the Silk Roads: they had iron deposits, coal deposits, and running water for generating power all located near one another. Chinese inventors made the first water wheels—wheels turned by a flowing stream of water, generating power to operate machinery such as grain mills. Europeans improved this Chinese invention by positioning the water wheels vertically instead of horizontally in the streams of water. This allowed gravity to add to the energy of the moving water, generating even more power. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain a few centuries ago because of the use of these Chinese discoveries—the recipe for finer steel, and the power that comes from a wheel turned by water.

Now most of the tools we use are made, at least in part, from plastic. Plastic is made from petroleum, so people will need to continue mining and refining petroleum even if it ceases to be a source of energy to operate vehicles and to generate electricity. Plastic is extremely useful for tools, but plastic can cause more damage to the environment than stones or metal, since it does not exist as such in nature. People have shown in the past that we can be inventive, finding new materials to improve older technologies. Perhaps even now researchers in a laboratory somewhere are experimenting with a new substance that will replace plastic and move humanity into yet another age. J.

Stepping back to see the big picture (socialism, continued)

The idea of socialism arose as a response to the Industrial Revolution and to some of the problems within that Revolution. In turn, the Industrial Revolution was a consequence of several large historical movements that came together in a particular time and place to shape human history.

When historians seek to understand and explain an event or a movement, they must take a step back and look at the broader picture. Often this requires further steps back, sometimes to view the entire panorama of history. Analyzing the causes of the Industrial Revolution includes such steps and such a view.

The Persian Empire, Mauryan Empire, Han Empire, and Roman Empire each constructed roads to facilitate government communication across their stretches of land and to accommodate the travel of armies. As a result of those roads (and associated waterways), merchants and merchandise began to flow through and beyond these empires. Imperial governments favored the exchange of merchandise, since it could be taxed every time it changed hands. Two thousand years ago, Italian glass could be bought in China, and Chinese silk could be bought in Italy. Anything that could be moved, bought, and sold traveled along these roads and waterways: fabrics, spices, precious metals and gems, artwork, food, livestock, and slaves. Over the centuries, travel and trade ebbed and flowed because of other political and economic conditions. Along the same routes traveled ideas—religious ideas, political and economic ideas, and technology—and disease also spread from culture to culture along the same roads.

Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Empire sparked additional travel and trade along these routes. Asian produce and technology traveled into Europe. Bubonic plague (the Black Death) began somewhere in inland China but spread to the cities of China and to Mediterranean cities, and from there to all the populated areas of Europe. This disease had a devastating consequence upon commerce and economic activity, both because of the high death rate of the disease and because of the fear of disease that spread throughout the population.

Disruption of trade, caused by disease and by political developments in the eastern Mediterranean, caused western European governments to seek a shortcut to African and Asian goods, eliminating some of the middlemen. Using Asian technology, including the Chinese compass and the Arabian astrolabe, Portuguese mariners set sail down the coast of Africa and into the western ocean. Spain, England, and the Netherlands eventually followed. Early results of the Portuguese expeditions included expansion of the sugar industry and development of the African slave trade. But Columbus’ abortive attempts to cross the ocean between Spain and east Asia revealed an expanse of islands and continents in the western hemisphere. Soon commerce between the Old World and the New World brought new foods to Europe; those new foods helped to support a growing population, recovering from the plague.

As the population grew, though, landowners found that they could enclose their land for more specific use, such as the grazing of sheep to produce wool. This removed peasants from the land and from their agricultural activities, sending them into the towns and cities. The growing urban population disrupted the guilds and other work that the tradespeople had developed over centuries. More new technology met this change in population dispersion to ignite the Industrial Revolution in England.

A Chinese inventor had learned how to harness the power of a flowing river with a wheel, channeling that energy to other uses. Europeans improved the water wheel by installing it vertically instead of horizontally, effectively letting the power of gravity increase the power generated by the moving water of the river. Later, the same idea was converted to generation of power from steam, which no longer needed the immediate presence of a river.

Around the same time, a Chinese chemist found a new recipe for steel. Iron technology had begun in Anatolia (the location of modern Turkey) about three thousand years ago. Pure iron is a powder, but iron combined with carbon makes cast iron, which produced tools stronger and more durable than the stone and bronze tools used previously. (Ironworking was discovered independently in central Africa around the same time.) About a thousand years ago, a new recipe for iron and carbon produced steel, a great improvement over cast iron. The new recipe used coal instead of burnt wood as a carbon source. Coal and iron deposits both exist in China, but not near each other. In England, iron and coal and running water are found in close proximity. Deforestation of England also provided greater interest in coal, both as fuel and as an ingredient for making steel. The Industrial Revolution was ready to emerge.

As the urban population grew, new businesses began to exploit the work force to get around the guild economy of Europe. Shepherds and shearers would sell the raw wool from their sheep to moneyed peasants. These peasants would then hire some families to card the wool in their homes. The carded wool was then returned to the business owners, who hired other people to spin the wool into thread. The spinners returned the thread, which the business owners then sent to weavers, who used looms to change the thread into cloth. The cloth was chemically treated by fullers, and the improved cloth was sent to tailors, who cut the cloth into pieces and sewed it into garments. Shepherds, Shearers, Carders, Spinners, Weavers, Fullers, and Tailors were each paid for their labor, and afterward they all bought clothing from the businesses that had paid them for their work. Today many family names reflect the role of their ancestors in this industry.

Steel tools and steam power made factories possible. No longer did the work have to be sent into homes and brought back to the businesses: the businesses could own the buildings and machines where the work was done. These machines could produce far more clothing from far fewer laborers. The Industrial Revolution began in England, spread into other European countries and then to North America, and eventually filled the world. The impact of this revolution changed the lives of many people, from wealthy business owners to impoverished workers. J.

Labor Day

The industrial revolution changed the world. One thousand years ago, Chinese technology created a new and better version of steel. Over the centuries that recipe spread, until it reached the British Isles, where iron and coal were abundant and were near each other, and where transportation by water made it easy to distribute what was manufactured. Labor-saving devices such as mechanical spinners and looms allowed increased production, and what happened in Britain began to happen in other European countries, in North America, and eventually throughout the world.

Capitalism had already begun to develop in medieval Europe. Workers formed guilds which controlled each craft, putting the power of production into the hands of workers. Along with the guilds came financial leagues which led to modern banking and a new financial system. With the industrial revolution came a new form of capitalism. Only those who had access to wealth could buy the new machines. Now workers came into the factories and worked for the investors instead of working at home and controlling their own careers. Following the precepts of capitalism, investors and factory owners paid as little as they could to workers and got as much work out of them as possible, thereby keeping prices low for their customers which allowed them to gain a profit.

Many people realized the problems implicit in the system of capitalism. Even Adam Smith, who wrote the book defining and defending capitalism, explained that workers needed to be treated well to produce a better product—and to be the customers that the factories required. Karl Marx was not the first thinker to attack capitalism, but he offered the most dramatic solution. He complained that the system was rigged to keep the many workers under the control of the few people who had wealth. Government and even religion, he said, always took the side of the wealthy few against the many workers. Marx predicted that the workers would rise in revolt. They would overthrow the wealthy few, along with government and religion, and create a new and fairer system. For a time, the government would own and control the factories and farms on behalf of the people (socialism). After a while the government would wither and die and the people would own the factories and the farms. They would distribute the wealth they produced according to the workers’ needs, and each worker would willingly labor according to his or her ability (communism).

Marx said that the revolution would begin in the countries where the industrial revolution began and would spread as industry had spread. When it had reached the entire world, then the conversion from socialism to communism could happen. Marx did not foresee any way the workers could achieve their goals of proper wages and decent working conditions without violent revolution. He did not foresee any way that capitalism could be preserved.

Marx was wrong. Workers in Europe and North America found ways to organize themselves into unions which could speak to the owners of factories on behalf of all the workers. Christian sensibilities took the side of the workers and implored factory owners to treat them better—fair wages, fewer hours of work, better and safer working conditions. Swayed by Christians and by the growing power of the labor unions, governments began making laws to require the workers in factories to be treated properly. Child labor was gradually abolished, work hours were regulated, and inspectors were sent into factories to guarantee the safety of the workers. Although there were exceptions, generally governments required factory owners to permit their workers to form unions that would negotiate with the owners for the good of the workers. Socialism and communism were not necessary. Capitalism, under limited government regulation, could be preserved, with investors and customers and workers all benefiting from the system.

In the United States we celebrate workers and their contribution to the nation and the world with a holiday called Labor Day. Unlike Memorial Day (which was originally May 30, until it was moved to the last Monday in May), Labor Day has always been celebrated on a Monday, the first Monday in September. Originally that Monday was meant to be a time when workers would parade through the streets of the city to be recognized by their fellow citizens. It was, naturally, an extra day without work for the laborers, a day when they could gather with their families and those of their coworkers in picnics and other festive occasions. Labor Day weekend has become the social end to summer, as Memorial Day weekend is the social beginning of summer.

Every Memorial Day a few people speak out about the importance of recalling the reason for the holiday. Memorial Day is not just about cook-outs and the beginning of summer. On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who lost their lives fighting for their country. I have written such reminders myself. Scolding Americans because we have forgotten the meaning of Labor Day happens far less often. Of course we should be grateful to those workers whose labor improves our lives. We might not go into factories and shake the hands of laborers there, but each of us can mark this Labor Day weekend in some appropriate way. Be kind to the restaurant workers and grocery store workers you encounter. Thank them for doing their jobs. Think of those other laborers who do not get time off for the holiday—police officers, fire fighters, hospital workers, pastors, and all those expected to continue working on a holiday weekend.

Labor Day recognizes workers. It also reminds us of a process—the way labor unions, governments, and Christians concerned about the lives of factory workers combined to assist those workers. Along the way, they rescued capitalism from the danger of revolt. We continue to debate how much regulation is necessary and which laws hinder capitalism excessively. We should debate these things. On Labor Day, though, we also rejoice and are glad for the good things we have because of the work of our neighbors. J.