America's Gateway to the British Isles since 1996


History Directories
British Monarchs
Sources & Texts
Church History
Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

The Age of Power

Here we have, in the place of the isolated machine, a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demon power, at first veiled under the slow and measured motion of his giant limbs, at length breaks out into the fast and furious whirl of his countless working organs.


The Duke of Wellington, fierce adversary of Napoleon on the continental battlefield, feared in old age that the railroad would serve to move revolutionaries around. His concern was not misplaced: in 1848 a group of Belgian revolutionaries did attempt to return to Brussels from Paris by way of the railroad; however, they were switched to a side-track by two railroad engineers, and thus were greeted by the army, not by flag-waving compatriots.

This minor incident in a year of great political events is important for its symbolic value. It suggests that the industrial process manufactured social change as well as machine products. For the first time in history people could move about easily and quickly: across continents, around class barriers, and on to a future of greater material comfort.

Mobility came to be a term useful in the description of social relationships as well as of geographical ones. By train and steamboat the most incredible voluntary migration took place, with millions of Europeans moving from countryside to city, from Old Europe to the New World, from American coastal cities inland to prairies and plains. Moreover, new population centers dotted Europe. Manufacturing cities like Manchester and Birmingham in England, or Dusseldorf in Germany, and Lyons in France grew in size and economic importance, spawning in the process a new class of factory "hands." In such locations new industries like steel, locomotive construction, and cotton textiles, required the services of a new professional figure: the engineer. Not only was he trained in a new type of school, the technical institute, but also he quickly figured as the hero of much science fiction, such as that written in quantity by Jules Verne in the 1860s and 1870s.

Finally, technological innovation inspired social reorganization--what later would be called "social engineering"--as well. Model communities were planned complete with mass-transportation systems; the concept of urban zoning was introduced; and the department store--a French "invention" of 1852--appeared as an organized replacement for clusters of shops. As if anticipating the industrialization of every phase of life, a French urban planner of the 1860s proposed that a grand necropolis--a city of the dead--be built north of Paris and joined by railroads which would have their stations conveniently located in the old cemeteries of the city. Coffins and mourners could thus be transported on schedule to the site of eternal rest so that space in the capital would be reserved for more lively uses.

Another Kind of Revolution
The radical change in life's pace, purposes, and organization is reason enough to accept the term "Industrial Revolution." What had heretofore remained constant in daily social existence was now thrust into a state of flux and change. In effect, nearly two thousand years of social behavior went up in a cloud of steam. Consider the following facts: (1) When news of the Battle of Waterloo was brought to London, it traveled no faster overland than had news of Caesar's defeat of the Gauls; (2) When the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote his Iyrical odes, he did so at night in light that provided no better illumination than that available to Charlemagne's scribes; (3) When Louis XIV was operated on in 1686 for the removal of a fistula, he endured the pain due to surgical techniques that the physicians attending the pharaohs of Egypt would have known.

In a short time, all of that changed. Railroad trains moved a mile a minute by the 1850s. Shortly thereafter anesthesia was employed in operating rooms, while epidemical diseases, like smallpox, were beginning to be controlled by inoculation. In the same period, gaslights illuminated poets' verse, and the words of poet and politician alike could be read daily at the breakfast table, thanks to newspapers printed on fast-production rotary presses. On the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of her rule in 1897, Queen Victoria telegraphed a brief message to the people of her empire, and that message was received in Australia, Canada, India, and Central Africa within a few hours.

These rapid changes were made possible by technology. It was not pure science as such, but applied science that triumphed in the nineteenth century. Practical invention and mass production were the key activities of the industrializing world of Europe. They were, furthermore, set in a new social environment: the factory. There, thousands of workers streamed in at dawn and drifted out at dusk. They performed specialized functions, by attending to a stamping machine or assembling a part, such that the final product was not the result of individual creativity, but of group effort. Cotton clothing, footwear, kitchen cutlery, railroad engines, telegraph keys, cast iron fences--these were but a few of the items in the lengthening inventory of factory-produced goods that were marketed in Europe and exported around the world.

However, the age of mass production, even though distinguished by its dramatic appearance, was rooted in the past. The availability of mechanical power certainly goes back to the medieval windmill, used for grinding meal. Small-scaled factories were constructed on the banks of fast-moving streams in France and England in the early eighteenth century. Well-contrived mechanical inventions existed for over a century in the form of pocket watches, music boxes, and even spring-powered automatons that could write or play a tune.

What brought together diverse mechanisms such as these and composed them into the industrial system were practical men seeking answers to practical needs. The first clear movements of modern industrialization were seen in the rocking beam of the piston-driven steam engine contrived by the iron manufacturer Thomas Newcomen in the first decade of the eighteenth century. Newcomen's device helped pump water out of iron mines in England, but it was a very inefficient instrument and remained so until the wit of the Scotsman James Watt improved its efficiency by altering its form late in the century. Watt's machines were soon pumping water out of coal mines as well as iron mines, thus allowing for an increase in coal production and, conversely, in the use of steam power soon to be generated more by coal than wood. By the 1780s, John Wilkinson, an iron manufacturer and skilled technician, had applied steam power to his manufacturing. Between the American and French Revolutions, the Industrial Revolution made its first disturbing, clanking sounds, as iron machinery was driven by the hiss of steam within the confines of the factory.

A few decades later, when the stationary engine was set on wheels, when the wheels were placed on two parallel rails of iron, and when these rails were extended between one city and another, the industrial age moved into clear view. In 1825 the Stockton-Darlington Railroad, all of twenty-five miles long, was in business, the first of its kind in Europe.

Soon shall thy arm, Unconquer'd Steam, afar
Drive the slow barge and move the rapid car.

This heroic couplet was written by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, at the end of the eighteenth century. If not elegant, it was timely. Steam was the motivating force that generated the Industrial Revolution. It utilized the major fossil fuel, coal, and allowed production to proceed regularly and tirelessly. For the first time in history, energy was not subjected to animal fatigue or the vagaries of the weather. Wilkinson's steam-driven hammer, in operation in 1782, moved at a pace of 150 blows a minute, far exceeding anything the village smithy ever wildly dreamed of achieving.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, this industrial process of coal mining, iron manufacturing, and steam application had reached most of Western Europe to a very noticeable degree. Its most obvious measurement of success was the railroad. In 1832 the French built their first railroad; the Germans and Belgians followed in 1835, and Italy in 1848. Later, the impressive Trans-Siberian Railroad was completed in 1903; while the Berlin to Baghdad Railroad, a romantic and political venture, begun in the 1890s was still uncompleted in 1914. Not only did the mania for railroad building increase iron production and thus speed up industrialization, but the railroad also became the most convenient means of carrying bulk items, like coal and iron, thus making industrialization all the more feasible. Although the railroad train ran on straight lines, it provided the circular economic motion of consumption and transportation that accounts for the great productivity of the first industrial age. Railroading was an impressive technological development, but one matched by a distinctive economic organization emerging at the time.

Capitalism and Entrepreneurs
The modern European industrial system was capitalist in mode. Its principal figure was the entrepreneur--a French term seldom translated because it literally means "undertaker," and in American usage that word has little to do with constructive effort. The entrepreneur had the capital or borrowed it. In some instances, commercial banking families that had grown wealthy on the colonial trade of the eighteenth century now turned to manufacturing. In other instances, such banking firms were able to loan money at attractive interest rates below 10 percent and thus induce risk-taking by entrepreneurs beginning new industries. Lastly, intrepid manufacturers saw the wisdom of utilizing new devices and struck out in new industrial ways themselves. It was Matthew Boulton, a Birmingham manufacturer of metal art objects, who recognized the value of Watt's steam engines and financed their manufacture. The combination of Boulton and Watt was an important, but not unusual, one. Entrepreneur and inventor worked together now as patron and artist had in the Renaissance.

The entrepreneur's principal social function was organizational. He brought together the factors of production: resources, equipment, and laborers, by the use of his capital. And he combined them all into a workable unit housed within the factory.

This he did with the clear purpose of accumulating wealth. The industrial system was production-oriented, but profit-motivated. Furthermore, it proceeded from the assumption that the market of consumers was infinitely expandable: the demand for more products and new products would be large enough to absorb all that could be manufactured. The new society, according to more than one economist, was the acquisitive society, in which material comfort and personal possessions were the easily measured components of happiness. As the ruthless and crass industrialist in Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1854) says to the one worker he considers different from the rest: "You don't expect . . . to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon, as a good many of 'em do!" This industrialist, of course, was made by Dickens to impute his own lust for worldly possessions to his employees. But the attitude was a widespread one. As the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in Democracy in America (1835), "The passion for physical comforts is essentially a passion of the middle classes." What Tocqueville and Dickens both observed was a new materialism made possible by industrial productivity.

As never before, wealth also meant power. The captain of industry replaced the captain of infantry as the man of the hour. The House of Krupp, manufacturers of cannon, was more important than the House of Wittelsbach, monarchs of Bavaria. The great shipowner Albert Ballin, founder of the Hamburg-America Line, was a friend and counselor of Kaiser Wilhelm II. And Cecil Rhodes, who mined diamonds and gold in South Africa, meddled in the politics of imperialism to the point that two African colonies--Northern and Southern Rhodesia--were named after him. It was Rhodes who offered what might be considered the slogan of the new age: "Philanthropy is good, but philanthropy at 5 percent is better."

Such philanthropy only trickled down, without much interest of any kind, to the lower classes who were more crushed than uplifted by the early development of industrialization. A new class of urban working poor appeared, those unskilled workers labeled by Karl Marx as the "proletariat." In its early days the industrial process was labor-intensive, requiring large numbers of individuals--"hands"--to both supply and superintend the machines. Such labor had no job security; pay and length of employment were determined by the needs and interests of the entrepreneur or the fluctuations of the market. Frequently, wages were set by that hidden law of "marginal subsistence," with the worker's income barely allowing him to take care of the basic needs of his family--and more than occasionally not reaching that modest goal.

Initially, the hours in the factory were long, the work oppressive. A fourteen-hour workday, maintained six days a week, was not unusual in the textile factories; and more than a half-hour for refreshment was unheard of. Young children worked at a grueling pace in the mines where their small bodies allowed for rather easy passage and in the textile factories where their nimble fingers could keep pace with the weaving machinery. More important was the new female labor force, upon which the textile industry was so dependent. As for the men employed in mine and forge, they were spent at an early age, broken in spirit and body before they turned thirty. A governmental report of 1842 showed that the average age of death for "mechanics, labourers, and their families" in Manchester was seventeen. The hazards of factory employment were high, with industrial accidents a serious cause of injury and dismemberment, and with a new urban-industrial disease, tuberculosis, working its dreadful effects.

NEXT:  Protests Against Industrialsim

Copyright ©2015, LLC   Questions? Comments!