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Keith Woodall's Lesson Notes Index

Introduction to Ancient Athens
Introduction to Ancient Rome



"The so-called scientific revolution outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements within the system of medieval Christendom. It looms so large as the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality that our customary periodisation of European history has become an anachronism and an encumbrance". Herbert Butterfield.

Professor Butterfield may be accused of mild exaggeration if it is remembered that without the intellectual, political and social stimuli provided by the Renaissance and Reformation the scientific revolution and its direct consequence the industrial revolution (or technological revolution) would never have taken place. Nevertheless it has to be remembered that in terms of technological advance mankind has experienced more progress in the last two hundred years than in the preceding five thousand.



Werner von Siemens

Werner von Siemens


European Industrialisation After 1815


After the failure of la Fonderie Royale at Le Creusot the site was taken over by two British engineers, Manby and Wilson, in 1826. They re-equipped the factory with modern machines and introduced the latest manufacturing techniques but their efforts were in vain, because the company went bankrupt during the economic crisis of 1832.

It was the beginning of "the railway age" that permitted France to develop modern industries on the British model. The first railway in France, opened in 1832 with the completion of the Lyon - St.-Etienne line. Others followed rapidly; Paris - Saint Germain, Paris - Lyon but although the finance for these railways was French (particularly the Pereire brothers), all the civil engineering work and most of the rolling stock (locomotives and carriages) were British made until the 1850's.

French industrialisation really began in 1836 when Eugène Schneider, a wealthy businessman from Alsace, bought the site at Le Creusot and began to manufacture railway equipment. (The years 1830 - 1846 witnessed the first period of what became known as "railway mania" throughout western Europe). In 1838 the first French locomotive, "La Gironde", was constructed at Le Creusot, the first of many that were to make the Schneiders' investment secure and when the Schneider family decided to manufacture armaments as well, their fortune was assured: - the finest field-gun of the First World War, the "75", was produced by the Schneider company of Le Creusot.

Despite the success of the Schneiders, French industrialisation during the 19th.century was never as thorough or complete as the British, Belgian or German. It was steady rather than spectacular and was also very regional and tended to be concentrated in and around the big cities such as Paris and Lyon, the traditional textile regions of Lille or the coal producing areas of the "Nord" and the "Pas de Calais". By the end of the 19th.century France was the most industrialised nation in Europe after Britain, Germany and Belgium and this achievement was, in large part, due to government initiative during the Second Empire of Napoleon III, (1852 - 1870).



It is, in fact, wrong to use the name Germany before 1871 when the German states united around Prussia to form the German Empire. During the 18th.century it was Prussia that had emerged as the most powerful German state under the rule of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Prussia played an important role in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and was one of the four great powers to emerge victorious after Napoleon's final defeat in 1815.

The Congress of Vienna in 1815 dismantled Napoleon's empire and re-drew the map of Europe. Until 1815 Prussia had been an exclusively north German Baltic state (and justifiably, considered a "lightweight" in comparison to its powerful allies Russia, Austria and Britain), but the Vienna settlement had given to Prussia most of Saxony and the Rhineland. What nobody knew at the time was that the Rhineland included some of Europe's richest coal deposits and coal was vital for industrial development.

Prussia's early economic development was commercial rather than industrial. It had begun in 1832 when the Zollverein (customs union) was created. This encouraged the growth of free trade between the German states and by 1844 most of them had joined it, with the notable exception of Austria, which Prussia had deliberately not invited.

As in France, it was the coming of the "railway age" after 1830 which stimulated long-distance communications, trade and economic growth among the German states. The first German railway was constructed in 1835 linking Dresden and Leipzig and it proved so successful that the decade of the 1840's was a period of "railway mania" in all the German states and especially Prussia. By 1850 they had constructed half as much as Britain and twice as much as France and because of the Zollverein and the rapidly expanding rail network the German states began to overtake France economically and catch up with Britain between 1850 and 1870. This was particularly true of Prussia which exploited its rich coalfields of Silesia and the Ruhr (Rhineland), as well as its ironfields of Bohemia, to supply a flourishing steel industry.

Alfred Krupp had established an iron foundry at Essen in 1810. It was a very modest affair and even in 1846 still only employed 140 workmen. By 1880 Krupp of Essen, after having invested enormously in the Gilchrist Thomas process of steel making, had been transformed into a giant company employing thousands of workers making a fortune for the Krupp family with its railway locomotive and armaments production. In turn the invention of the electric dynamo by Werner Siemens in 1866 laid the foundations of a new electrical industry in which Germany would lead the world.

The unification of Germany in 1871 stimulated industrialisation even more because the newly united empire could now exploit the rich iron-fields of Lorraine taken from France. By the beginning of the 20th.century Germany had largely overtaken France and was challenging Britain as the world's major industrial power.

N.B. The second half of the 19th.century witnessed changes so important that they are considered to have marked the beginning of the so-called Second Industrial Revolution. Whereas the First Industrial Revolution was "the Age of Iron" the second was "the Age of Steel".

Steel had, of course, been manufactured before the mid-19th.century but unlike iron no method had yet been found to make it cheaply and in large quantities. This changed in 1856 when a British engineer, Henry Bessemer invented a steel making process which revolutionised its manufacture because for the first time iron could be transformed into steel in enormous quantities and very cheaply. The Bessemer process was rapidly adopted in Belgium, France, and the U.S.A. as well as in Britain and as a consequence the pace of industrialisation accelerated rapidly. The one limitation of Bessemer's process was that it could not treat satisfactorily iron ore that had a high phosphorous content and much of the iron ore in continental Europe was of this type.

In 1876-77 a breakthrough was made when two other British engineers, Percy Gilchrist and his cousin Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, invented an improved form of the Bessemer process which not only could treat phosphoric ore but was even more efficient and productive. It was the Gilchrist Thomas process that the newly united Germany adopted and which helps explain its rapid industrialisation in the last two decades of the 19th.century.(The countries that had already invested heavily in the Bessemer process were very reluctant to stop everything and start from scratch) By 1914 Germany had overtaken Britain in steel production and was far in advance of France. What irony! (Sorry about that folks but the temptation was too great).




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The Industrial Revolution

In the 18th.century people were, technically, living in essentially the same manner as the Ancient Egyptians or Ancient Greeks. They were still using the same materials to construct their buildings, the same forms of transport (horses for land transport and the oar and sail for maritime transport), the same textiles to make their clothes and oil or wax-based products to provide their light. Wind and water power had been harnessed since Antiquity but almost exclusively for grinding cereal grains into flour for the making of the staple food - bread. This in itself reflects the priorities of peasant-based economies which were universal until the 19th.century.

It was the 18th.century which witnessed, for the first time in the history of humanity a technological revolution which permitted "a take-off into self-sustained growth", in other words an economic revolution that produced continually greater wealth that in turn stimulated further technological advance that in turn led to the ever-advancing speed of our technological progress. We are experiencing its consequences with every day that passes. The Industrial Revolution, intimately connected to the Scientific Revolution which was, in turn, stimulated, by the intellectual Renaissance (despite whatever Professor Butterfield might think) gave to Europe the means to dominate the rest of the world. This domination may no longer be political in the sense that European colonialism is a thing of the past, but it is still technological. The economic world leaders of today, the U.S.A. and Japan have become so only because they adopted and developed the technology and especially "the mentality of technological advance" that developed in 18th.century Europe. Or to be more precise 18th.century Britain.

The Industrial (Technological) Revolution began in Britain in the 18th.century, and it was to give Britain a world domination that only came to an end in 1914. This tiny country with a miniscule population, even in comparison with other countries of Europe, let alone the rest of the world, created the greatest empire the world has ever seen "the empire on which the sun never sets". It did so by military power and military power depended (as it still does) upon advanced technology which in turn depends upon wealth. So why was Britain so wealthy and therefore so powerful ?

The significance of what occurred in Britain in the 18th.century can only be understood if one is reminded of the economic order that had existed since the rise of the first civilisations around 3200 B.C. Without exception all societies were traditionally based upon the peasantry. They constituted about 90% of the populations and produced the essential food surplus (albeit small) which permitted the other 10% to become :

  • the ruling classes (aristocracy, priesthood or clergy).
  • the administrators.
  • the merchants and traders
  • the artisans
  • the army.


The Economic Revolution in Britain

In order for a revolution in manufacturing technology to take place there had to be a certain number of essential prerequisites. Some are obvious:

  1. raw materials (coal, iron, wool, wood etc.)
  2. transport systems (rivers, canals, roads etc.)
  3. an available workforce (people in sufficient numbers and willing to adapt to new techniques of manufacture).
  4. a market (for without a large number of people ready to purchase what is manufactured there is little point in producing more).
  5. money(capital).

Yet the question has to be asked "Why did this revolution begin in Britain in the 18th.century, whereas the rest of Europe did not experience it until a century later?"

In order to understand the answer to this fundamental question it is necessary to examine the developments in England in the early 16th.century.

The reign of Henry VII (1485 - 1509) had produced a profound social and political change. Henry had become king at the end of a bloody civil war known as "the Wars of the Roses" and although the intricacies of it need not concern us here, an important consequence of this civil war was that the traditional feudal nobility almost totally died out or were permanently neutralised, being considered a danger to the throne. The "hole" created was progressively filled by the rich and influential middle class which Henry considered to be, politically, much less dangerous to his authority. The growth of political influence of the English bourgeoisie dates from Henry VII's reign.

The growth of their economic influence began during the reign of his son Henry VIII. (1509 - 1547) and their political influence was reinforced. In 1534 Henry VIII forced "The Act of Supremacy" through Parliament which made England a Protestant country. This was followed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537 which effectively confiscated all property and possessions of the Catholic Church. Henry, like all other kings, was permanently in need of money so he sold most of this confiscated property to the only people who possessed the necessary wealth to buy it, - the English middle class. The result was that by the middle of the 16th.century a new social class appeared in England, a social class that was unique in Europe, the land-owning middle class or "the landed gentry". They were unique in the sense that, whereas in the rest of Europe the land was still the property of the king or the traditional nobility whose incomes continued to depend upon taxing the peasants in the traditional way, this new breed of landowners in England had every intention of using its newly-acquired land to make a profit.

English wealth had, since the late Middle Ages, been based upon the export of wool, and this new entrepreneurial class of landowners quickly set about transforming the inefficient peasant-based agriculture in England into a highly productive and highly profitable new form. Land was "enclosed", or fenced off, in order to permit the raising of enormous herds of sheep because of the profit obtained from their wool, but the first major consequence was the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of peasants from their land. (Throughout the reigns of Elizabeth I and her Stuart successors the problem of "beggars" and "vagrants" was a major preoccupation of government).

The reign of Elizabeth I reinforced the political and economic power of the English middle class. Politically they were essential to her very survival as queen because she was the daughter of Henry VIII's second marriage, after the divorce from his first wife, and Elizabeth was considered illegitimate by all the great Catholic powers of Europe and, therefore not the rightful queen. The English landed gentry found it in their interest for Elizabeth to remain on the throne and for England to remain a Protestant country, because if ever a Catholic monarch was restored to the throne of England all the property that they had acquired since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537 would go back to the Catholic Church without compensation. Both she and they were Protestant by necessity. This is the underlying reason for close co-operation between Elizabeth and Parliament, which was dominated by the landed gentry.

Economically the English middle class were given an almost free hand to make profit. They were not only permitted, but positively encouraged, to found trading companies in order to "make money" because they were the greatest source of income for the royal treasury, and they did so very successfully. ("The Merchant Venturers", "the Muscovy Company" and "the East India Company" are examples). Moreover Elizabeth never interfered in the running of these companies. (unlike la Compagnie des Indes in France which was founded by Colbert in the reign of Louis XIV but because of continual political and financial interference by Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI, it went bankrupt before the French Revolution). Elizabeth invested in them on a personal basis (just like any other investor) and reaped the financial rewards, as did her successors.

The two revolutions in England in the 17th.century (see the work on Liberalism) gave greater political power to the English middle class than anywhere else in the world. This combination of political and economic power made the English bourgeoisie unique in the world and it is one of the fundamental reasons why the greatest economic revolution since the Neolithic Age began in Britain.


The 18th.Century

By the beginning of the 18th.century Britain had the potential economic advantage inherent in this unique economically and politically powerful social class, but it had yet to be demonstrated, because the France of Louis XIV, simply by its size, its population, the fertility of its soil and its access to the world's major maritime trade routes, as well as the unsurpassed authority of the king himself, had already established itself as the great European power by 1715. Seemingly France had everything in its favour not only to be, but to remain, the great economic, as well as the great military power of Europe.

It was not to be. Throughout the 18th. century Britain gradually established itself, at the expense of France, as the great European economic power. How?

  1. Geographical considerations have to be taken into account. Britain is an island and no place is more than 110 kilometres from the sea so any industries created were inevitably close to a river, a canal or the sea. In contrast, many regions of Europe that had the necessary raw materials were too isolated from major axes of communication.

  2. Political frontiers and political rivalry were often an important hindrance to economic development in continental Europe, whereas Britain had been politically united since 1707, and its internal administration was much more coherent and efficient than others, especially pre-revolutionary France

  3. The necessary available workforce existed in England, unlike most of the rest of Europe where the peasantry was not only still tied to the land but determined to stay so. (Examine the demands of the French peasantry during the Revolution). The thousands of landless English ex-peasants dispossessed by "enclosures" were only too ready and willing to find work of any kind.

  4. The money was available. It is not only necessary to have people with money. They must also be prepared to risk losing that money in order to make a profit (the risk would have to be small, of course) by investing it in new commercial enterprises. In 18th. century Britain this "middle class risk mentality" existed, in the rest of Europe it did not. (The one exception was Holland whose wealth also depended on maritime trade, and therefore on naval power). The English landed gentry and merchant classes were willing to take this risk because since 1689 (The Bill of Rights), they had the political power necessary to abolish laws that discouraged trade and profit and introduce others that did. In this sense also they were unique in Europe. N.B. Another vital point was that Britain was the only country in Europe to have a national bank, "The Bank of England" and a national "Stock Exchange" (or "bourse") which encouraged people to invest money in companies in order to make a profit.(the only other country to have a "stock exchange" was the United Provinces, in Amsterdam, but it had no "national bank" and so was at a disadvantage).

  5. War. The 18th.century was one of almost unbroken warfare and war is usually very destructive in terms of trade, or at least a major hindrance. This was true for most of Europe. Continental .Europe was a semi-permanent battleground, but this was not true of Britain. Being an island it was protected from invasion by its warfleet. Britain, although a major protagonist in these wars, never suffered this inconvenience. On the contrary, the gradual extension of her maritime power, particularly at the expense of her major rivals, France and Holland, made it possible for Britain not only to maintain her commerce but to expand it at their expense.

  6. A Captive Market. Because of these wars Britain built up an enormous colonial empire, particularly The Seven Years' War (1756 - 1763), by the end of which France had lost nearly all its overseas empire to Britain including Canada and India. These colonies not only provided cheap and plentiful raw materials for manufacturing industries they alsoprovided a "captive market" for manufactured products, which meant that the populations of these colonies were forced to buy them from Britain - they were not allowed to produce them themselves nor were they allowed to buy them from another country.


18th.century British Economic "Take-Off"

The Industrial Revolution, which implied a massive transfer of workers from the primary (agricultural) sector to the secondary (industrial) sector, would not have been possible without the significant technical advances in agricultural output that Britain experienced during the 18th.century. As has been stated previously the landed gentry had acquired land in order to make it profitable and the initial stimulus came from textiles (wool being England's principle export since the Middle Ages), hence the enclosing of land and the expulsion of a large proportion of the peasantry. A number of major developments accrued from this:

  1. The transfer of land from peasant-based mixed farming to the intensive raising of sheep for their wool demanded:

    • a. new, more efficient and, therefore, more profitable methods of producing them.

    • b. this encouraged the first scientific attempts to improve the breeds in order to produce better quality wool.

  2. The increase in the production of wool, in turn, stimulated the search for new and more efficient methods of transforming this wool into cloth. (e.g. the "Flying Shuttle", the "Mule", the "Spinning Jenny").

  3. This search for efficiency and productivity led to a totally new form of production. Previously, textile production everywhere was based upon the "domestic system" in which cloth had been produced by the raw material (wool and linen) being transformed into cloth by the people who produced the raw material itself (peasant women spun the thread and their husbands then wove it into cloth). In 18th. century Britain the factory system was introduced in which centres of cloth production were concentrated into one place - the raw wool arrived at one end of the manufacturing process and finished cloth appeared at the other. The "factory" was born. The great textile cities like Manchester and Bradford developed but could only have done so if the available work force, expertise and markets had existed.

  4. As a massive transfer of population took place from the countryside to the new industrial cities it became essential for those who produced food to produce more than ever before. The profit motive encouraged experiments into more efficient food production with a smaller labour force and it is for this reason that 18th.century Britain experienced a rapid improvement in the production of arable crops, especially cereals, and in livestock (both in numbers and quality).
    N.B. It is estimated that with one third of the agricultural land of France, Britain in 1789 was producing more than double the amount of food.

The commercial impetus imparted to agriculture and textiles was rapidly adopted by the iron making industry, so vital in warfare. Although Britain had been a land of forests back in the 16th.century by the middle of the 18th.century this was no longer the case. The ever-growing demand for warships, and therefore the increasing need for timber; the increasing demand for iron, especially for weapons, and the deforestation brought about by the need for more agricultural land had produced a fuel crisis by the early 18th.century. Wood, and its by-product, charcoal, was the only known fuel for the manufacture of iron and Britain was in a critical situation, unlike most other countries. A new, abundant, cheap fuel had to be found. It was. By the mid - 18th.century Britain had found a revolutionary new coal-based fuel which it had in abundance - "coke".

This new fuel, along with improvements in the development of the steam engine (first successfully produced in 1698 by Thomas Savery (not by Denis Papin, who in attempting to build the first steam engine succeeded in inventing "la cocotte-minute", but especially Newcomen and Watt) gave to Britain a form of power in the production of all industrial products that was to prove decisive. Centralised, more rationalised production coupled to the new power source of the rotary steam engine gave Britain a commanding lead in manufacturing especially in the strategic fields of textiles and metallurgy.


The 19th.Century

The Industrial Revolution in Continental Europe

In comparison to Britain industrialisation in other regions of Europe took very much longer to get started. In fact, with the exception of Belgium which began to industrialise in 1807, the rest of continental Europe only began to do so after 1830 with the beginning of the "railway age".

The first attempt in continental Europe to industrialise on the British model occurred in France just before the Revolution. In 1764 Gabriel Jars, a member of l'Académie des Sciences visited Britain and saw the new techniques of iron making and upon his return to France he wrote a detailed report. In 1777 the French navy minister decided to create a cannon foundry using the new English methods and even managed to recruit William Wilkinson an English engineer who had worked with James Watt. Several possible sites were examined but Wilkinson finally chose Le Creusot, a small town in the Saône-et-Loire region of Burgundy, because of the availability of coal and iron and because of its geographical position midway between the River Loire and the River Saône, giving access to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean coasts. Wilkinson and his British technicians successfully set up the iron foundry and then went home, but it was not long before la Fonderie Royale was facing serious problems :

  • it was impossible to find enough qualified technicians to supervise the manufacturing processes, particularly since France and Britain were now on opposing sides in the American Revolutionary War. (France entered the war 1777).

  • the local peasant population was very reluctant to abandon its traditional way of life and, as a result, most of the labour force had to be recruited from as far away as the Pas de Calais, Lorraine and even Germany. This in itself would not have been a problem if the workers from the different regions had not formed mutually hostile communities that refused to co-operate with each other.

  • because of these problems la Fonderie Royale found it increasingly difficult to attract investment, so there was a serious shortage of money.


During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods production at Le Creusot almost ceased. So this first attempt at modern industrialisation outside Britain had failed.

With the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars (1792 - 1815) any further attempts at industrialisation in France came to an end.

How strange that at a vital moment in its history, when technical innovation was vital for success, especially in warfare, France, made no attempt to improve her military technology. Napoleon was, strategically and tactically, a military genius, but in terms of new technology he was a dinosaur.

How else can one explain his persistent refusal to even experiment with new, and potentially decisive weapons of war. Historians are still debating Napoleon's refusal to produce and equip at least some of his line regiments with an equivalent of the British "Baker" rifle, a weapon which more than proved itself during the conflict in Spain, but more particularly a French equivalent of the "carronade". This was an extremely destructive form of cannon, ideally suited to the war at sea which, unlike its more classical counterparts, fired a huge explosive shot filled with bullets. The British navy used "the smasher", to devastating effect against the wooden-hulled ships of the French navy (as well as other enemies) and although the "carronade's" existence was no secret to anyone there was never any attempt to replicate it. Was it because of Napoleon's total ignorance of naval warfare? Was it imposed by France's technical backwardness, or was it Napoleon's own personal conservatism? (He certainly knew of the batteries of explosive Congreve rockets that the British had used against the French in India and Spain, not always with great success it has to be said, but whereas the British were innovative in warfare, he was not).

It was in 1807 that the next, and this time successful, attempt to follow the British model was made. In that year an English engineer William Cockerill founded a textile factory near Liège (in what is now Belgium). He was encouraged to do so because Napoleonic Europe was suffering from the economic blockade of Britain imposed by Napoleon in 1806 after the defeat of the Franco - Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. This had forced Napoleon to abandon his plans for invading Britain. The net result of this economic blockade was that Europe was deprived of British industrial products and suffered as a consequence. Later, Cockerill introduced British iron-making technology. For these reasons the world's second industrialised country, and the only other one before 1830, was Belgium.


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