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Thoughts on the origin of the Industrial Revolution

June 15, 2013

We were all taught in school that the Industrial Revolution began in England in the “dark, satanic mills” after machines had been invented to replace the slow labor of many human workers. The Industrial Revolution soon expanded to the United States and other nations and was the impetus for the invention of the steamboat, the locomotive and the dynamo. By the end of the 1800s there had been a virtual explosion of mechanical inventions of all sorts.

But is this true? Very few good ideas spring up without some form of inspiration. And I think I might have stumbled upon one of the inspirations.

While doing a web search on historic images of the Chinese spinning process I was astonished to discover this pair of images on the blog http://habetrot.typepad.com/habetrot/2007/04/spinning_in_chi.html. One is an engraving from the late 1800s showing a woman spinning on a wheel with THREE fliers and the other shows a man spinning on a similar wheel with TWO fliers. [Click either image to enlarge.]

No Western wheel has more than a single flyer. No Western spinner has any ability to spin more than one thread at a single time.

Consider this alternative suggestion for the founding of the Industrial Revolution: perhaps it began in the late 1700s because the British had become embedded in India at that time. It’s altogether possible that Englishmen based in India and engaging in trade along the coast of South Asia all the way to China had observed the far superior spinning and weaving technology of the East and brought these ideas back home to their native land, thus triggering the Industrial Revolution and its textile machinery.

After all, most life-changing innovations are the result of tossing around existing ideas in order to generate something new. Food for thought.

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From → ideas and trends

4 Comments
  1. Here’s what I was taught:

    It happened because like today, there was an energy crisis. Everyone used wood for everything: shelter, tools, transportation, fuel. Goodbye forests!

    It became cheaper to blow up mountains to get coal than to chop down trees. Coal burns hotter than wood, so for the first time people were able to consistently & easily melt iron. The hotter the temperature, the more impurities sort out from the iron, which results in a stronger metal. So, make a piston engine to run a foundry that burns hotter, get stronger & more pure iron, use that stronger iron to make a stronger & bigger piston engine, repeat process.

    New materials lead to new technology & many inventions. Some guy decided to put a carriage on a track around his house, attached a piston steam engine & the train was born. For the first time ever in human history, people were able to easily leave their home towns & quickly trade or find work in other cities or countries. Goods, ideas & new inventions could move faster, so the economy boomed, letting more people make more inventions & better iron. And everyone from other countries wanted the power of the steam engine, so the revolution quickly spread.

    • Thanks for writing! You have pinpointed one of the supporting causes for the burst of new technology — new fuel from coal — but I find it very interesting that the first use of all-new industrial machinery was not the steamboat or the locomotive, but textile apparatuses in the form of the spinning jenny and the power loom. Even though Europe boasted of its Jacquard looms by the early 1800s, Asian nations had been weaving world-class patterned silks for millennia. The first effort of the British Industrial Revolution appears to have involved the attempt to catch up (by newly-industrialized means) with the fiber expertise that was already going on in Asia. Remember, we are only taught the Western-centric version of our own history.

      • Being of Asian descent, I’d love to contribute the Industrial Revolution to envy of Asian fiber prowess 🙂 But, Britain never would have been able to run those machines if they first didn’t build a better piston engine by continually refining their iron. That’s what all those spinning machines & looms were powered by. While I don’t know for sure, I don’t believe the piston engine was merely invented to speed up fiber production. I suspect it was first applied to farm equipment & used in transportation.

      • Definitely, we couldn’t have had those “dark, satanic mills” without the piston and/or the waterwheel. But most sources, including Wikipedia, agree that textile machinery was the first generation of Industrial Revolution machinery. (Flying shuttle, 1730s; spinning jenny, 1760s; power loom, 1785; first locomotive, early 1800s, steam traction engine, 1850s). See Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution)

        I’m a spinner and weaver, and many of the professors who teach the Industrial Revolution are male and honestly have no idea what a spinning jenny or a flying shuttle actually mean in hands-on terms. Wikipedia’s separate entry on textile development during the Industrial Revolution states that the spinning jenny sped production by 1000%. This was HUGE, back in the days when cloth yardage was handspun and handwoven and enough cloth for a suit of clothes cost several month’s wages for ordinary working people. It meant that cloth, which everyone wanted and needed, was suddenly 1000% more affordable.

        And in modern times, we have taken the machinery and replaced our own industrial workers with cheap southeast Asian slave labor who now produce our cloth and clothing for even lower prices. That cheap price comes with blood on it. That’s why my weaving & spinning group has resolved to start making our own “slow clothing”, just like slow food. We want to strike a balance between cloth being unaffordably expensive and dehumanizingly cheap. If we do the labor ourselves, the cost isn’t really all that terrible.

        Thanks for writing!

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