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.