The upcoming UN climate change summit COP26 in Glasgow features an art exhibition entitled Polar Zero, with its centrepiece ‘1765 – Antarctic Air’. This sculpture by Wayne Binitie is a cylinder of ice containing flecks of Antarctic air from 1765, considered by some to be year zero of the Industrial Revolution and thus setting into (Brownian) motion the pollution of the atmosphere which has led to global warming. Binitie might say, then, that the ice have it.
Why would 1765 be designated the beginning of the Industrial Revolution? Scottish inventor and industrialist James Watt is said to have figured out a new design for the steam engine that year while crossing Glasgow Green (where his statue now stands). This issue of Early Modern Times discussed how Watt devised improvements to the steam engine invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, which he then patented in 1769. The spread of Watt’s steam engine was possible only with the collaboration of Watt’s business partner Matthew Boulton, whose Soho Manufactory is depicted above. As indicated in Early Modern Times, however, historians have argued that this dream steam team impeded the progress of the steam engine, especially high-pressure technology. Watt’s patent and scepticism over high-pressure engines caused innovation to run out of steam.
Nevertheless, in this 2008 article, historian P.M. Jones argues that Boulton’s Soho Manufactory is a case study in what Joel Mokyr calls the ‘Industrial Enlightenment’, whereby the factory was a site of knowledge exchange and diffusion in the English Midlands–with visitors hailing from across the British Isles and Europe. There is no doubt that changes in manufacturing shifted Britain and later other countries in Europe and across the globe from rural to urban economies. By the mid-18th century, former farm labourers were moving to towns due to improved agricultural techniques, and working in factories mass producing manufactured goods due to the use of steam power and to other favourable conditions. Indust-real changes were afoot.
The factory system transformed work life and spurred further changes. In contrast to traditional artisanal craftsmanship, the factories relied on the division and specialisation of labour–as pointedly advocated in Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith’s famous example of the pin factory near the beginning of his 1776 Wealth of Nations. In turn, factories producing goods such as textiles generated demand for machines and tools which led to further mechanisation. Industrial export and import depended on effective infrastructure, hence the expansion of canals in Britain and the later development of railways and paved roads. Industrialisation changed the face of Britain–generating rapid economic growth alongside socio-economic crises arising from unchecked urban expansion, low wages, slum housing, and the use of child labour–and fuelled British imperialism overseas in the search for new markets and resources. Other countries have followed suit, with disastrous consequences for the environment and traditional ways of life. The Industrial Revolution, then, not only changed the physical environment–changing Glasgow Green to Glasgow grey on smog days–but also powered modern imperialism and coal-onialism.
Till next time,
Early Modern Indust-to-dustrial Studies Program