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The Inventors of the Industrial Revolution.

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An Introduction To Biographies
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An Essay On
The Industrial Revolution

Three material inventions combined to bring the period (the Middle Ages) to a close and to usher in the modern world. In each case the actual origin of the invention is a matter of dispute.

  1. The Mariner's Compass seems to have been introduced into Europe by Italian traders at the time of the Crusades, and to have been used in the later Middle Ages by English merchants voyaging to Iceland.
  2. Gunpowder was known in the thirteenth century, but was first put to warlike use by the Florentines early in the fourteenth.
  3. The printing-press was invented in the first half of the fifteenth century, probably by Lourens Coster of Haarlem, thus, it seems, the invention occurred prior to Gutenberg of Mainz.

Of these three inventions -- the work, not of monks or knights, but of traders and burghers -- the first made ocean navigation possible, the second ended the military domination of the feudal lords, and the third ended the clerical monopoly to learning. Without the first two it is unlikely that the new civilization of the West, jammed between Islam and the Atlantic, would even have survived. Without the third its survival would have been culturally sterile.

There were a large number of 18th century inventors, some known and of whom much has been written, a few of whom to which we shall shortly refer; but there were a greater number whose names and the nature of their inventions have been lost to history. T. S. Ashton thought that it is likely that we have laid too much emphasis on these well known inventors and "too little on those, who, by adding one tiny device to another, or modifying this or that process, prepared the way for such men." (An Economic History of England: The 18th Century.)

It was Adam Smith, who, in 1776, speculated as to what it was that drove men to be inventive.

"... much labour is facilitated and abridged by the application of proper machinery. It is unnecessary to give any example. I shall only observe, therefore, that the invention of all those machines by which labour is so much facilitated and abridged seems to have been originally owing to the division of labour. Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things. But in consequence of the division of labour, the whole of every man's attention comes naturally to be directed towards some one very simple object. It is naturally to be expected, therefore, that some one or other of those who are employed in each particular branch of labour should soon find out easier and readier methods of performing their own particular work, wherever the nature of it admits of such improvement. A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the inventions of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it. Whoever has been much accustomed to visit such manufactures must frequently have been shown very pretty machines, which were the inventions of such workmen in order to facilitate and quicken their particular part of the work. In the first fire-engines, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his playfellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour.
All the improvements in machinery, however, have by no means been the inventions of those who had occasion to use the machines. Many improvements have been made by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines, when to make them became the business of a peculiar trade; and some by that of those who are called philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do anything, but to observe everything; and who, upon that account, are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects. In the progress of society, philosophy or speculation becomes, like every other employment, the principal or sole trade and occupation of a particular class of citizens. Like every other employment too, it is subdivided into a great number of different branches, each of which affords occupation to a peculiar tribe or class of philosophers; and this subdivision of employment in philosophy, as well as in every other business, improves dexterity, and saves time. Each individual becomes more expert in his own peculiar branch, more work is done upon the whole, and the quantity of science is considerably increased by it." (The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 1.)

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Arkwright, Sir Richard (1732-92):
He was of humble origin, the youngest of thirteen children; yet, he was to become a leader of the Industrial Revolution. Richard Arkwright was born at Preston in an area of midwest England know as Lancashire. As a young man, Arkwright took up barbering and set up shop in Bolton, not far from his birth place. Around about 1767, Arkwright is to be found assisting an older clock maker, an exposure that led Arkwright to the business of inventing, full time. By 1768 he was back at Preston where he set up his spinning frame, -- "the first machine that could produce cotton thread of sufficient tenuity and strength to be used as a warp." (See Chambers Biographical Dictionary.) "The new, cheap textiles may not have been as hardwearing as broadcloth, but they were more abundant; and the fact that they would be washed with out suffering harm had a bearing, if not on their own life, at least on the lives of those who wore them." (T. S. Ashton in his essay, "The Treatment of Capitalism by Historians" as is contained the book edited by Hayek, Capitalism and the Historians, p. 37.) In 1771, Arkwright joined forces with Jedidiah Strutt. After Arkwright's machines and processes became popular, a number of competitors helped themselves to his patented work which led to numerous legal suits, and which, in the end only led to the revocation, in 1785, of his patent. To those who did the work laboriously by hand, Arkwright was a pariah. In 1779, Arkwright's mill at Chorley was destroyed by a mob. Though, I am sure, wearied and perplexed, Arkwright nonetheless continued on with his work undaunted. In 1790, he introduced the steam engine into his works at Nottingham.
[For further, see: The Strutts and the Arkwrights 1758-1830 (1959) by R. S. Fillon and A. P. Wadsworth, and the biography by Crabtree (1923).]

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Babbage, Charles (1791-1871):
Babbage was a mathematics Professor at Cambridge (1823-39); he invented the calculating machine (first computer) one that can yet be seen at the Science Museum, London.
[For further, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufacture (1832), On the Calculating Machine (1889), Moseley's biography on Babbage in 1964.]
Bessemer, Sir Henry (1813-1898):
Bessemer comes at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution as we have defined it; though, indeed, it was Bessemer who led the way into what has been described as "The Second Industrial Revolution," viz., the age of steel ships, steam locomotives, steel bridges, and, alike. Bessemer's invention, which he patented in 1856, was "a process for decarbonizing and desiliconizing pig-iron so as to convert it into steel or malleable iron, by passing currents of air through the molten metal." Chemically, steel is a nearly pure iron. Once steel was artificially made through the "Bessemer Process" it was to be distinguished from that as first reduced from the ore, pig-iron, by certain physical properties, especially steel's greater hardness and elasticity. The process rendered steel suitable as material for cutting instruments, and for various other industrial purposes.
[Bessemer did an autobiography.]
Bramah, Joseph (1748-1814):
Bramah was the son of a Yorkshire farmer, who, apparently met with an accident in his sixteenth year such that he was left lame. It was then thought best to apprentice the young Bramah with the village carpenter. Bramah learned his carpentry lessons well and at some point found his way to London where he earned a reputation as a fine cabinet builder. I quote from Chambers: "... he distinguished himself by the number, value, and ingenuity of his inventions and improvements, including a beer machine used at the bar of public houses, a safety lock, (patented 1788) and a very ingenious machine for printing banknotes (1806). He was one of the first to propose the application of the screw-propeller."
Brewster, Sir David (1781-1868):
David Brewster was a Scottish physicist and natural philosopher. His invention of the kaleidoscope (1816) was one result of his notable light-polarization studies. He improved the spectroscope and devised a new method for lighthouse illumination. Among his many writings is a major biography (1855) of Sir Isaac Newton.
[See Home Life of Brewster (1832) by his daughter, M. M. Gordon.]
Brindley, James (1716-72):
Brindley was "humbly born" (he died "illiterate") and first became known as the man who "contrived a water engine for draining a coal mine." (Chambers.) In 1759, Brindley designed the Worsley-Manchester Canal, the first of its kind in England. He went on to be one of England's most respected engineers, constructing 365 miles of English canals over which much of the input and output of the English Industrial Revolution was carried.
[See life by Meynell (1956).]
Brunel, Sir Marc Isambard (1769-1849):
Brunel, was French, born near Rouen. In the year in which Louis XVI was to be beheaded, in 1793, Brunel fled Paris and went to the United States. He was, for a time to be employed by New York City as its chief engineer. In 1799, however, Brunel sailed for England, there he married and was to settle down. There was, in Brunel's time a great demand for blocks, viz., a pulley or system of pulleys employed especially for the rigging of ships (a big navel ship of the line used up over 1,000 of these blocks). By the beginning of the new century Brunel had set up a production line at Portsmouth, and, by 1803 was turning out, with 10 unskilled persons, as many blocks as had previously taken 110 expert craftsmen as was employed by the antiquated Southampton factory of Fox & Taylor, where blocks were hand-made; those at Fox & Taylor figured blocks could not be made in any other way. Brunel was to cash in on the Royal Navy's requirement for 100,000 rigging blocks a year.
"What made Brunel's Portsmouth production line unique, however, was not just the inventiveness of the individual machines - though nothing like his mortising machine, the cone-clutch clamps of his hole-boring machine, or the split-nut in the pin-polishing machine, had ever been seen before. The historic novelty was the coordinating of these machines, which had interchangeable parts, into a single production line. Men who had grown old in the trade could not believe their eyes. ... Visitors were awed. Maria Edgeworth noted: 'Machinery so perfect appears to act with the happy certainty of instinct and the foresight of reason combined.' Sir Walter Scott, after a tour of the plant in 1816, said he had never witnessed 'such wonderful sights.'" (Johnson's Birth of the Modern, p. 577.)
In 1814, fire led to the destruction of Brunel's sawmills at Battersea, which, in turn, led to his bankruptcy in 1821; and, thereafter, Brunel was thrown into prison (in those days they took very seriously the obligations of paying one's debts). It would not appear that Brunel was to spend too much time in jail; he was bailed out by a grant from parliament. Brunel was soon at work again. He oversaw the building of the Thames Tunnel (1825-1843), which, at the time, was a most remarkable feat.
[See lives by Beamish (1862) and Clements (1970).]

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Cort, Henry (1740-1800):
An iron master, the inventer, in 1783, of a process known as "rolling and puddling," viz. "the process of decarbonizing cast iron by stirring and turning it over continuously in a furnace, so as to render it malleable."
Crompton, Samuel (1753-1827):
The inventor of the "spinning mule" was born in Lancashire. At the age of six, Samuel's father died and thereafter he assisted his widowed mother in the operation of the family's farm near Bolton (where, incidently, at about the same time, Arkwright was working in his barber's shop). During these days, running a small farm meant that everything was done, and done, pretty much by hand. This included, of course, the spinning of yarn. Young Crompton, being fed up with the yarn breaking so often "set to work to invent a spinning-machine better than Hargreaves'. (Hargreaves invented his "Spinning Jenny" in 1767.) By 1779, Crompton "framed a machine which produced yarn of such astonishing fineness that the house was beset by persons eager to know the secret. Though he went to great lengths to keep his process secret (he could not afford the cost of getting a patent), Crompton sold his rights for a promise and was to eventually only receive 67£.
[See life by French (1860).]

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Davy, Sir Humphry (1778-1829):
While more the scientist, in 1815, Sir Humphry invented the safety lamp, his most famous invention, and which undoubtedly has saved numerous lives of those who worked in the coal mines. During the last of his years, Sir Humphry carried out studies in electromagnetism.
[See Davy's own works (extensive), including: Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812) On the Safety-lamp (1818)]; and see lives by Thorpe (1896), Kendall (1954).]

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Fairbairn, Sir William (1789-1874):
Fairbairn was another of those amazing early 19th century Scotsmen. Born at Kelso, he was apprenticed at the age of 15 to an "engine wright" at North Shields. Becoming adept at working in iron (he built the first iron boats), Fairbairn devised new techniques in bridge construction; it is said (Chambers) that Fairbairn built a thousand bridges. He eventually made an acquaintance with George Stephenson
[Fairbairn did an autobiography.]

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Hancock, Thomas (1786-1865):
Hancock is credited with successfully, mechanically, working Indian rubber, or, as it was then known, "gum elastic." The substance was long known, the first specimens of it having come to Europe as early as 1736. It was the coagulated juice of certain trees and plants of South America, Africa, the East Indies, etc., which forms a highly elastic and flexible substance. The natives of Peru knew it as caoutchouc. It was Hancock, who, in 1820, took out the first patent. (It was a few years later before Charles Macintosh of Glasgow patented the process of brushing rubber onto cloth so to form an impervious layer.)
"Mr. Hancock had, previous to his turning his attention to India-rubber, no acquaintance with chemistry; but he was skilled in mechanical engineering and the use of tools, and this knowledge proved to be precisely the kind most valuable for dealing with the first stages of caoutchouc manufacture. His first patent was for the use of India-rubber for the wrists of gloves, for braces, for garters, for boots and shoes instead of laces, and for other similar purposes." (Routledge's Discoveries and Inventions of the Nineteenth Century.)
(I follow this note up on Hancock with a note on Charles Goodyear. It was Goodyear, in the United States, who came up with his own process for making rubber boots; and, by 1842, these boots were being exported far and wide. Goodyear's process (involving a vulcanization of the rubber with sulfur) was superior. Goodyear's rubber "had the advantages of not sticking to other bodies at any ordinary temperatures, and preserving its elasticity even in the coldest weather, whereas ordinary India-rubber becomes rigid by cold.")
Hargreaves, James (d.1778):
Hargreaves' background is obscure. Chambers simply states, he "was an illiterate weaver and carpenter of Standhill." In 1767, Hargreaves invented the "Spinning Jenny." This machine was "considered as the first and leading discovery which carried improvement into every branch of the manufacture -- which, as it proceeded, changed the nature and character of the means of production, by substituting mechanical operations for human labour ... The 'jenny' in a short time put an end to the spinning of cotton by the common wheel." [The Treasury of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Viking, 1992) pp. 178-9.] The "jenny" saved much labour, and, like so many of the labour saving devices invented during these times, it was despised by those who were employed in the old labour intensive processes. A mob broke into Hargreaves' house and destroyed his machine; indeed, mobs of that age roamed the country and "broke to pieces every carding and spinning machine they could find." (Ibid.) Though Hargreaves continued to manufacture yarn until his death, he, however, died "in great poverty." (Ibid.)

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Leslie, Sir John (1766-1832):
Again, as much, or more the scientist, Sir John, due to his experiments in heat, "succeeded in freezing water under the air pump." He invented such instruments as the differential thermometer, the hygrometer, the photometer, the pyroscope, the atmometer and the aethrioscope.
[See Memoir by Macvey Napier (1838).]

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Macintosh, Charles (1766-1843):
Macintosh, from Glasgow, took out a patent in 1823 (patent no. 4804) for a process by which material was waterproofed. The process was simple enough, it consisted of taking two or more layers of cloth and cementing them together with India-rubber (see Thomas Hancock). Thereafter, and yet today, an Englishman might refer to his waterproofed coat, as, his "Macintosh."
Maudsley, Henry (1771-1831):
Maudsley was apprenticed to Joseph Bramah. In 1797, Maudsley set out on his own and was to invent "various types of machinery, including, a screw-cutting lathe." Maudsley was to eventually join up with one, Joshua Field (1786-1863), and, thus, there came into being, Maudsley, Sons and Field (1810).

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Stephenson, George (1781-1848):
Stephenson was the inventor of the steam locomotive; he was born at Wylam near Newcastle.
[In addition to the work on Stephenson's life done by
Samuel Smiles there are the lives done by Rowland (1954) and Rolt (1960).
Strutt, Jedidiah (1726-1797):
Strutt was from Derbyshire, and, with his brother-in-law, William Woollatt, patented, in 1759, a machine which when fixed to a stocking frame made possible ribbed goods.
[For further, see: The Strutts and the Arkwrights 1758-1830 (1959) by R. S. Fillon and A. P. Wadsworth.]

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Telford, Thomas (1757-1834):
Telford, a shepherd's son, at the age of fourteen, was apprenticed to a stonemason handy to his Scottish home at Langholm. Telford was an engineer, and, some day, I hope to develop a page on the early English engineers; but, for now, I include Telford here among the inventors -- I suppose, at any rate, all successful engineers must be inventors. In 1780, Telford went over to Edinburgh; in 1782 he went off to London. In 1784, he was working at the Portsmouth dockyard. In 1787, Telford was appointed the surveyor of public works for Shropshire. It was in this area, Shropshire, that Telford erected two bridges over the Servern. In 1801, Telford was off to Scotland to oversee the building of the Caledonian canal. To sum up, Telford, during his life as an engineer oversaw the building of "1,000 miles of road, and 1200 bridges, besides churches, manses, harbours, etc." (Chambers.) Just two of his outstanding engineering feats were the building of the St. Katherine's Docks (1826-28) and the works that were required for the draining of "The Fens." Telford was to be the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Thomas Telford was buried in Westminster Abby.
[Telford did an autobiography (1838); and there are biographies written by Sir Alexander Gibb (1935), R. C Rolt (1958) and R. M. Pearce; and "studies" by A. Penfold (1980); and, of course, there is the biography by Samuel Smiles
Trevithick, Richard (1771-1833):
Another engineer; but, for sure, Richard Trevithick was an inventor. Trevithick, it seems, first started out as a mining engineer at Penzance. A simple steam engine had been long used to pump out mines; so, like Watt, Trevithick was to get a solid grounding in the operation of the steam engine. The invention for which Trevithick will be remembered are the improvements which he made to the Watt engine, turning it into a workable high pressure engine. During the years 1796-1801, Trevithick connected up one of his high pressure engines to a carriage "which ran between Camborne and Tuckingmill at from four to nine miles an hour." (Chambers.) Thus the locomotive came into being. (Watt, in fact, described the steam locomotive in his patent dated 1784.) By the middle of the 19th century a network of railways had spread all over Europe.
[See life done by son (1872) and work done by Dickinson and Titley (1934).]

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Watt, James (1736-1819): [Image]
Watt was born at Greenock, Scotland. His father was a merchant. As a young man Watt received training as a mathematical-instrument maker, and, as such, attempted to establish himself at Glasgow. (Apparently, he wasn't able to set himself up in business because of the troubles which the local unions, or guilds, gave to him; being hired by the university, however, Watt was able to carry on with his trade as an instrument builder.) Due to the nature of his work (and more likely to the nature of Watt, himself) Watt was led into a number of related activities, including being involved in the survey work needed for the building of canals and the deepening of the Scottish rivers such as the Clyde and the Forth. One day, in 1759, being the handy man he was, Watt was called upon to fix a Newcomen steam engine [named after its English inventor, Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729), an engine which had long been used to lift water out of mines.] Well, Watt fixed this engine, alright, and, in the process of striping it down, realized that a number of practical improvements might be made to it. By 1774, patents having been secured, and in partnership with Matthew Boulton, new and improved steam engines were being turned out at the Soho Engineering Works located at Soho, Birmingham.
[Doubtless, many books might be located which deal with the life and works of James Watt, including the works done by I. B. Hart (1958), and H. W. Dickinson and R. Jenkins (1981).]
Whitney, Eli (1765-1825):
Whitney is one of the few Americans that I deal with in this page (America's Industrial Revolution never got under way until after the American Civil war, 1867) In 1794, Whitney patented a simple device for freeing cotton-wool from the seeds, the "cotton-gin." Prior to his invention, cotton was labouriously cleaned by hand and as a result there was never enough to keep any kind of a mill going for long. With the "cotton-gin" great volumes of cotton, ready for spinning, could be delivered to the mills. The cotton cloth then came on the market in great quantities; people could finally buy cheap washable clothes. Cotton led the United States into the industrial age, one that had started fifty years earlier in England. In 1813, we see where the Boston Manufacturing Company was organized with its object to produce cotton cloth in Waltham, Massachusetts. It is with this event that we may mark the transformation of the United States from a commercial to an industrial nation. Whitney was never to make much money on this labour saving device. His success simply prompted people to steal his invention. He fought for years in the courts to assert his rights; any money he earned with his invention was frittered away with legal bills. Interestingly, Whitney turned to a much more profitable activity, he turned to filling government orders for guns and "made a fortune in this business." (Chambers.)


2014 (2019)

Peter Landry