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.