Short Narratives : Industrial Revolution


Medieval society was largely agricultural, urban population making out about 5 % of the total population. The other 95 % were involved in food production, a rather inefficient process, the staple crop being wheat. The rural population was largely analphabetic, many were serfs, belonging to the land. Their owner was responsible for feeding, clothing and lodging them - throughout the year, no matter if the season required a lot of work or not.
The AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION, by making agricultural production more efficient, resulted in the gradual abolition of serfdom in England; the serfs being freed meant the landowner was no longer responsible to care for them in times when he could not provide work; the rural population no longer employed in agriculture provided a potential industrial workforce. In addition large scale agriculture provided a direct incentive for the industrial revolution by a demand for agricultural machinery.
The establishment of POLYTECHNIC COLLEGES (many in the course of the later 18th century) promoted the development of engineering.


The agricultural revolution was centered in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom; France also had a rich agricultural tradition, yet the country was behind the UK in regard to serfdom. Britain provided over three further preconditions of the Industrial Revolution - coal, iron ore, and wool production. France had iron ore (Lorraine) but hardly any coal, the Dutch Republic practically no minerals.


In 1769 JAMES WATT improved the STEAM ENGINE constructed by ROBERT NEWCOMEN in 1705/1712. Watt's steam engine was efficient and reliable, a source of energy independent of animals, wind and running water (horses, oxen, sails, windmills and watermills hitherto were the main energy sources). The steam engine provided the power to pump water out of mines and thus permitted the exploitation of deeper pits; the rapidly increasing demand for coal thus could be met. Two inventions, the STEAMSHIP (1817) and the LOCOMOTIVE (railway, 1829) are applications of the steam engine.
A steel industry developed in England to meet the growing demands of the machinery industry; British steel, however, for a long time was inferior to imports from Sweden.
Another area where great progress was made was the textile industry. Until then, spinning (immortalized in the Grimm brothers' fairytale "Sleeping Beauty") and weaving was manual labour. Machines such as the SPINNING JENNY (James Hardry, 1764) accomplished the task of dozens of spinners in less time and produced yarn at a much lower price. RICHARD ARKWRIGHT established what is regarded the first modern (textile) FACTORY in Manchester. The MECHANICAL WEAVING-LOOM resulted in the industrial production of cloth, large quantities at low prices. England, traditionally a wool exporter, turned into an exporter of yarn and cloth (and imported large amounts of cotton).
Often overlooked are developments which took place on the continent. Among those worthy to mention are the emergence of the BEET SUGAR INDUSTRY, which during the CONTINENTAL BLOCKADE (1806-1813) found favourable conditions, as the import of cane sugar was interrupted during that period.


On the continent, BELGIUM and later GERMANY industrialized according to the British model, coal mining, the steel and machinery industry the most important industries. Quickly a RAILROAD NETWORK covered Central Europe, growing further into peripheral regions and growing denser in central regions.
New institutions, such as PATENT OFFICES, new rules such as the marking of imports by the country of origin (MADE IN GERMANY, intended to distinguish then substandard German imports from quality British products) were introduced.
The BESSEMER STEELWORKS finally were able to produce large amounts of steel matching the quality of the Swedish exports (produced with preindustrial technique, in small quantities at higher prices).


In the later 19th century, industrialization went through another stage, the so-called second industrial revolution. The leading industries were the ELECTRIC INDUSTRY (LIGHT BULBS, the TELEGRAPH and TELEPHONE, the ELECTRIC STREETCAR (Tram)), and the CHEMICAL- PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY (synthetical dyestuffs, ASPIRIN etc.). These industries were centered in Germany, Switzerland, the USA.
Inventions of importance were the INTERNAL COMBUSTION ENGINE by Nikolaus Otto (1876; like Watt, he did not build the first of its kind, but a machine much more efficient than its predecessors), the CAR by Carl Benz (1886), the airplane by the WRIGHT BROTHERS, the MOVIE by the LUMIERE BROTHERS; these inventions did not have that much of an immediate impact, but were to shape the economies of later decades.


ADAM SMITH had made every man responsible for his own fortune (the former serfs now had to take up factory work in order to feed themselves). The English government, concerning the newly emerging factory industry, pursued a LAISSEZ-FAIRE policy, refused to interfere. Industrial production was characterized by long working hours, child labour, hazardous (accidents) and unhealthy (pollution) working conditions, no job security, no vacation, very low pay, malnourished and poorly clothed workers.
The industrial revolution had placed many spinners and weavers out of work. A group of desparate persons, named LUDDITES after their leader, blaming the machines for their misery, went out to destroy the latter in an iconoclastic frenzy (1817), which was stopped by armed forces.
The social misery of the working classes has been described in songs of the time, has influenced writers such as CHARLES DICKENS (who nevertheless focussed on individuals rather than the working environment). FRIEDRICH ENGELS described the situation in his SITUATION OF THE WORKING CLASSES IN ENGLAND (1848).


The second half of the 19th century would see the emergence of TRADE UNIONS as well as of SOCIALIST (LABOUR) PARTIES, of socialist, communist, social darwinist and christian social ideologies, of government policies outlawing child labour and introducing mandatory insurances (OTTO VON BISMARCK, HEALTH, RETIREMENT, UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCES, Germany 1880es). More details on this topic in the chapter SOCIAL QUESTION, focussing on the later 19th and early 20th century.
Employers were not necessarily the greedy, insensitive exploiters communist propaganda described. Factory owner ROBERT OWEN provided his workers with decent housing (WORKERS' TOWN), even recreational facilities, and still ran a profitable business. In Germany, the KRUPP family was following his lead. In France, CHARLES FOURIER came up with a scheme for such a harmonious factory, but did not find financers or entrepreneurs interested in its realization. Another Frenchman, CLAUDE HENRI DE ROUVROY, COMTE DE SAINT SIMON, is regarded the main proponent of UTOPIAN SOCIALISM; he advocated a state oriented on production, lead by businessmen who also were scientists. In 1848, London-based German exiles KARL MARX and FRIEDRICH ENGELS wrote DAS KOMMUNISTISCHE MANIFEST, which held the capitalist system and the bourgeois state responsible for the workers' misery, called for the violent overthrow of both (revolution) and the establishment of a communist system in which all factories and all farmland would be state property, the property of all.
Initiatives such as those taken by Owen, concepts such as Fourier's attempted to solve the problems on the basis of an individual enterprise. The SOCIAL DARWINISTS cynically stated that nature would take care of the situation, the weaker ones would die while those who survived would learn to adapt. Saint-Simon and Marx/Engels proposed solutions which would transform the entire state and society; the latter were models for a future, regarded as utopian by those who created them. Marxism would not have an impact until the PARIS COMMUNE of 1871.

written on October 19th 2002; last revised on October 20th 2002