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 Age of Exploration, part two

Christopher Columbus knew that the world is round. So did all the other educated Europeans of his time. More than a thousand years earlier, Greek mathematicians in the Roman Empire had demonstrated the shape of the world and had also measured its size quite accurately by comparing the length of shadows in different cities at high noon. Sailors five hundred years ago knew that the world is round. They did not fear falling off the edge of the world; they feared a journey that would take them so far from land that they would run out of drinkable water and edible food. A ship had only so much room for basic supplies; they had to stop and renew food and water regularly to keep the sailors alive. Traveling from Europe to Asia across the ocean, given the knowledge and abilities they had then, meant death from dehydration and starvation.

But Columbus thought the trip was manageable. He thought that Asia was bigger than it is. He also thought that the world is not round like a sphere (as it is), he suggested that it is round like an egg, bigger from top to bottom than from side to side. For one thing, Columbus argued, God the Creator would not have wasted so much of the earth’s surface on empty ocean.

Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain funded Columbus’ search for a shortcut to Asia. Columbus, of course, happened upon islands in the Caribbean Sea. Based on his calculations, he figured that he had missed Japan and China and reached the islands between China and India, those that today make up the country called Indonesia. Therefore, he called the Taino residents of the Caribbean islands “Indians,” and the name stuck. Other mapmakers distinguished the Asian islands from the Caribbean islands by calling them, respectively, the East Indes and West Indes.

Columbus never admitted, in writing, that he had made a mistake and discovered lands previously unknown to Europeans. He made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, insisting that he was visiting
Asia each time. Other Europeans quickly realized what Columbus had found. In 1494, two years after Columbus’ initial voyage, the governments of Spain and Portugal signed a treaty drawing a line between the land Spain could explore and colonize and the land Portugal could explore and colonize. The line was later extended across the Pacific to circle the Earth. In theory, the Treaty of Tordesillas gave Spain the right to claim the New World, or western hemisphere, while Portugal had similar rights in Asia and the south Pacific. But, because the terms of the treaty were not carefully researched, Portugal ended up getting a part of South America, and Spain ended up getting Pacific islands near Europe. This is why Brazilians speak Portuguese and Filipinos speak Spanish.

Only Spain and Portugal signed the treaty. They both financed further voyages of discovery, but England and France and the Netherlands also sent out explorers, claiming parts of North America and the Caribbean, as well as lands in Asia and the Pacific. Sometimes, the “colonies” were mere trading posts, places where merchants interacted with the local inhabitants. Sometimes they were full-out invasions, taking over land from earlier inhabitants. Attitudes toward the original dwellers of the New World varied wildly—some treating them as animals to be exploited, while others considered them equal beings with full human rights. The former attitude is mentioned more often today and is rightly condemned. But many of the explorers, colonists, and missionaries who traveled to these distant lands valued the inhabitants of those lands as fellow human beings who deserved respect, consideration, and any benefits that European civilization could offer.

European exploration increased the development of what recently has been labeled “Globalization.” Already, the Silk Roads linked multiple nations and cultures in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Similar trade patterns linked many cultures in the western hemisphere. Even in the Pacific, occasional voyages connected people of southern Asia, the Indonesian islands, Australia, and New Zealand with further distant cultures from Hawaii to Easter Island—possibly even to the western shores of South America. New connections made the exchange of salable products—and of people, ideas, and diseases—more prevalent, as the many nations of the world grew closer and more dependent upon one another. J.

The Silk Roads

More than war and conquest, more than voyages of exploration, trade is the most significant kind of encounter between two or more civilizations. Even in ancient times, trade connected and benefited diverse cultures. Egypt, for example, received artwork, tools, and other valuable items from its neighbors in Africa, western and southern Asia, and the Mediterranean basin, as is demonstrated by archaeological finds in Egypt. Likewise, Egyptian items have been found in all those places. In a similar way, trade among various native civilizations in the western hemisphere can be detected by the existence of unique its from one region beyond found in other regions, sometimes far away, and occurring many centuries ago, before the arrival of European explorers and travelers in the western world.

 The main trade routes of the eastern hemisphere are called the Silk Roads (or sometimes Silk Road). They included highways, rivers, canals, and sea lanes. Trade existed before the growth of the great empires, but the empires unintentionally facilitated trade as they built and improved roads. The Persians were among the first, tying their large empire together with roads for royal messengers and for the army; these roads were built and maintained by the government for its own purposes, but they were used as well by merchants and traders. The Mauryan Empire in India imitated the Persian development of roads, and the Han Dynasty also improved the roads of China. Phoenician and Greek travelers began commerce throughout the Mediterranean world, and the process of government-facilitated transportation was completed under the Romans. Two thousand years ago, Chinese silk could be bought in Rome and Italian glass could be bought in Chinese cities. People did not always know what they were buying: European purchasers assumed that silk was made from a plant textile, and Chinese purchasers assumed that glass was some sort of stone found in the far west.

Very few people traveled the Silk Roads from one extremity to the other. Most items were bought and sold several times on their way from one civilization to another. Merchants in the ancient world were like truck drivers who picked up a trailer in one city and drove it down the highway to another city, then acquired a new trailer in the second city and drove it back up the highway to the first city. Of course merchants made a profit every time they sold in one city what they had bought in another Various kinds of taxes—tolls, fees, and permits, among others—also increased the cost of the items that traveled on the Silk Roads. As a result, silk was an expensive luxury in the Roman Empire, and glass was an expensive luxury in China. The governments in the middle, including the Persians and the Mauryans, became wealthy because of the money they gained from the use of the Silk Roads within their borders.

Anything that could be bought and sold traveled on the Silk Roads: textiles, artwork, tools, precious metals and gemstones, ivory and precious woods, grain and vegetable foods, livestock (which was transported alive and slaughtered after delivery to keep the meat fresh), spices, work animals, and human slaves. Some slaves were condemned criminals, others were debtors, and many were prisoners captured in war; they came from all kinds of civilizations and cultures. Today, descendants of African slaves live in India and China, far from their native land, just as other displaced Africans later found themselves in the western hemisphere. Spices were preferred by merchants because of their compactness—spices had a greater value per pound or per cubic inch than any other commodity. Spices were valued, not only as flavoring and preservatives in food, but also for perfumes, medicines, and ingredients in magic potions and powders.

In addition to commodities, other ephemeral things traveled on the Silk Roads. Ideas traveled from place to place. Technology from China and Arabia was brought into the Roman Empire and its European successors. Political and economic ideas were introduced into new places. Religions traveled along the Silk Roads—especially Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Less ephemeral but equally significant, diseases also traveled the Silk Roads. Parasites, bacteria, and viruses all were spread by travelers carrying cargo from one city to the next. The bubonic plague, or Black Death, of the 1300s is only the most famous outbreak of disease linked to Silk Road exchanges; smallpox, measles, leprosy, anthrax, and liver flukes were also carried from place to place by travelers using the Silk Roads.

Empires rise and fall. Kingdoms wax and wane. Civilizations emerge, prosper, and decay. The economy continues through all these changes, shaping and uniting people in ways that human governments can neither imitate nor control. 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.