HistoryBits: Industrial Revolution

HistoryBits: Industrial Revolution

Bits and Pieces of History


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Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution progressed from the ground up. It’s the “stuff in the ground”—crops and coal and water (both for mills and for transport)—that predictably forms the base of any economic pyramid (and always will, no matter how high-tech we get). Once again, it was freeing up the individual to do his own thing that paved the way for farming to become a paying proposition, just like industry. The concept of private property ownership–rather than farming communal village lands–lay at the heart of it, allowing owners to fence off their own land and farm as they saw fit. That meant the freedom to grow new crops that the market wanted and was willing to pay good money for, instead of growing what the village demanded for its subsistence. And the more the farmer thought about making money instead of just subsisting, the more he got interested in better ideas: using manure as fertilizer; rotating between root and seed crops; using hybrid seeds; draining their land properly. Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before farmers were starting to sound just like any other smokestack capitalist, going on about reduced unit costs, increased volume, and such, which ultimately meant more food to support more people and their diversity of trades and industry in the cities. And while England didn’t have cotton (it got that from India), it did have lots of coal, which in turn fueled steam engines, which opened the way to the industrialized production of goods everywhere (no wonder they called steam an “Englishman”—no doubt the highest accolade anything or anyone might earn). With her colonies, their raw materials, and their captive markets worldwide, England then turned then to the stock markets for the capital needed to make it all work. This, then, was the genius and golden key of capitalism: the incentive and opportunity that it offered every man to bring his natural avarice into full bloom and fruition by giving him a piece of the action at an affordable price.

Industrial Revolution/Arkwright

Arkwright was one of those quick wits of the Industrial Revolution to appreciate the possibilities of James Watt’s steam engine, which would open the way to the industrialized production of goods everywhere. No wonder they said “steam is an Englishman”—no doubt the highest accolade anything or anyone might earn.

Industrial Revolution/Brunel

Brunel reminds me of Galileo, who swung some of the biggest advances of the Scientific Revolution by selling the local muckamucks on the military and mercantile benefits of bridges. It seems that the future of science will always be in the deep pockets of Big Money: even the theoretical, “pure” research done in the big universities is largely funded by corporate entities that can finance the long timelines involved with taking an idea from theory all the way to the end user. At the same time, the tendency for academe to become beholden to such interests should raise the kinds of questions that should have been asked about Dow Chemical and napalm, for example, that was developed at certain Ivy League institutions during the Vietnam War. Any academic dalliance with corporate money is potentially—as it is in politics–an unholy alliance indeed.

Industrial Revolution/Changes in Family Structure

One consequence of the Industrial Revolution was that there were more people to form a mass market for more goods—and industry would prove to be the only way to provide those goods on a mass basis. The rising population owed itself to several factors—a lowering of the average age of marriage, a sharp increase in the rate of illegitimacy, and a steady aging of the population. All this meant more children, which began to be valued more for their own sake than as economic assets. What’s more, as increasing social mobility provided young people with more opportunities for free association, they began to value marriage for love over marriage for economic exigency. Social mobility was more and more in the direction of the towns and cities, stoked as it was by the opportunities, delights, and marital possibilities of the city and by the desire for a better view than that customarily afforded by the back-end of an ox. It all sounds like a chicken-or-the-egg sort of debate, as to whether the industrial-urban lifestyle was the result of more people, or whether more people were the result of the new lifestyle.

Industrial Revolution/Child Labor

The abuse of child labor in the Industrial Revolution provides us with useful insight into the predatory nature of unbridled capitalism. The free market economy, if left completely unregulated, will stop at nothing to ensure that the bottom line is well populated with profits. After all, it’s a life-or-death proposition: profit is the lifeblood of a business, and without it, it dies, and with it dies the means of modern human existence. If a business cannot be depended upon to treat its workers fairly, then it must be left to the state to do so. Capitalism must be leavened with regulation, for while it’s true that we cannot survive without business, it’s also true that we wouldn’t want to live the kind of life that business that is guided strictly by the profit motive would leave us with.

Industrial Revolution/Factory System

Women were the mainstay of the “putting out” system that farmed piecework out to cottage industries was the starting point to which, irony of ironies, we seem to be returning as more and more of us opt (or are forced) to become plug ‘n play independent contractors. We engage our services on an as-needed basis, and tote around our own 401(k) and medical plans with us wherever we go, thus sparing employers those expenses and sparing us the exquisite agonies of bending our independent spirits to Dilbertesque workplace routines. And contortion was precisely what the new factory system required of all those who had gotten used to doing piecework on their own time and terms: reporting for a fixed schedule of work whether you felt like it or not, obeying countless workplace specs and strictures, and putting up with bosses who were forever on your backside like a dirty diaper! It’s amazing that it took us this long to come home again.

Industrial Revolution/First and Second Compared

The Industrial Revolution progressed from the ground up. It’s the “stuff in the ground”—crops and coal and iron and water (both for mills and for transport)—that predictably forms the base of any economic pyramid (and always will, no matter how high-tech we get). The First Industrial Revolution, which held sway in Britain from 1760 to 1820, couldn’t have accomplished much without the Agricultural Revolution that accompanied it: once again, it was freeing up the individual to do his own thing that paved the way for farming to become a paying proposition, just like industry. The concept of private property ownership–rather than farming communal village lands–lay at the heart of it, allowing owners to fence off their own land and farm as they saw fit. That meant the freedom to grow new crops that the market wanted and was willing to pay good money for, instead of growing what the village demanded for its subsistence. And the more the farmer thought about making money instead of just subsisting, the more he got interested in better ideas: using manure as fertilizer; rotating between root and seed crops; using hybrid seeds; draining their land properly. Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before farmers were starting to sound just like any other smokestack capitalist, going on about reduced unit costs, increased volume, and such, which ultimately meant more food to support more people and their diversity of trades and industry in the cities. And while England didn’t have cotton (it got that from India), it did have lots of coal, which in turn fueled steam engines, which opened the way to the industrialized production of goods everywhere (no wonder they called steam an “Englishman”—no doubt the highest accolade anything or anyone might earn). With her colonies, their raw materials, and their captive markets worldwide, England then turned then to the stock markets for the capital needed to make it all work. So while the First Industrial Revolution transformed the stuff in the ground into the rudimentary first forms of industry—textile sweatshops and iron foundries–the Second Industrial Revolution built on that base and brought science and electricity to bear in secondary industries that refined the stuff in the ground–chemicals and petroleum, notably. But this time, it was the Germans and the Americans—with their unequalled talent for technology and innovation—that took the Industrial Revolution to a new level.

Industrial Revolution/Inventions

How did we suddenly arrive at the critical mass that resulted in an explosion in inventions of all kinds… that in turn jolted the Industrial Revolution into high gear? Lesson #1 in the Business of Life: wherever there’s a mystery, look to the bottom line (the one with the dollar sign next to it) for the answer. Consider how it all happened: the profit motive that impelled the Industrial Revolution progressed from the ground up. It’s the “stuff in the ground”—crops and coal and water (both for mills and for transport)—that predictably forms the base of any economic pyramid (and always will, no matter how high-tech we get). It was freeing up the individual to do his own thing that paved the way for farming to become a paying proposition, just like industry. The concept of private property ownership–rather than farming communal village lands–lay at the heart of it, allowing owners to fence off their own land and farm as they saw fit. That meant the freedom to grow new crops that the market wanted and was willing to pay good money for, instead of growing what the village demanded for its subsistence. And the more the farmer thought about making money instead of just subsisting, the more he got interested in better ideas: using manure as fertilizer; rotating between root and seed crops; using hybrid seeds; draining his land properly. Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before farmers were starting to sound just like any other smokestack capitalist, going on about reduced unit costs, increased volume, and such, which ultimately meant more food to support more people who lived by their wits in the cities… coming up with ever more ingenious ways to use machines and other peoples’ money to make money. This, then, was the genius and golden goose of capitalism: the incentive and opportunity that it offered every man to bring his natural avarice into full bloom and fruition by giving him the incentive to build a better mousetrap and make money… instead of just making a living.

Industrial Revolution/Railroads

It was the simplest of leaps to take the operative concept of the steam engine that the English had pioneered and apply it to the railroad: what could draw water could be made to draw loads along rails—same idea. The rest was detail: as locomotives quickly became bigger and better, mass and time and distance—those most ancient and intractable of barriers to commerce—fell like wheat before the scythe.

Industrial Revolution/Steam Engine

Steam is what turned the Industrial Revolt into a Revolution; no wonder they said “steam is an Englishman”—no doubt the highest accolade anything or anyone might earn.

Industrial Revolution/Second Industrial Revolution

The Second Industrial Revolution took matters from the factory to the political level so that government–whether the Labour and Social Democrat parties, socialism or syndicalism–and might align itself more closely with the interests of the worker. No longer was it the means of production that was at stake, but the political process that organized the economy. This reflected a fundamental change in capitalism’s orientation: much as we realized that society could no longer afford to allow robber-baron capitalism to plunder the social and natural environment at will, we realized that capitalism had to accommodate more than just the demands of the market. As the biggest and best companies today have come to understand, it is no longer enough to be guided purely by the Invisible Hand of market forces; ultimately, the market—and the production processes that support it–must work as well for the workers who comprise the supply side, as it does for the demand side of the equation.


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