The Fruits of Civilization (24-3-2) Industrial Innovation

 Industrial Innovation

Cotton products were imported into England from India during the last half of the 17th century. This influx competed with the endemic wool and the linen industries. So, in 1700, Parliament banned imported cotton goods.

Cotton’s popularity led to a home-spun industry using raw material from the colonies. A series of successive inventions in the 18th century vastly improved productivity.

By 1800, cotton mills were constructed using the latest technology. Spinners and weavers no longer worked for themselves. The investment required to render economies of scale meant textile workers became employees of capitalists. Low wages, 18-hour workdays, and child labor became the norm.

While cotton is often cited by historians as emblematic of England’s industrial evolution, 2 other innovations – respectively involving coke and steam – were also especially important.

Into the early 18th century, many attempts were made to replace charcoal with coal in a blast furnace, but impurities in raw coal doomed them all. In 1709, English metalworker Abraham Darby “charked” coal the same way that timber was processed to get charcoal. The resultant residue was high-carbon coke with few impurities. This may have been a repetition of a process known to the Chinese in the 4th century.

Darby’s breakthrough only slowly diffused. In 1750, only 5% of British iron was produced via coke fuel.

An innovative process for refining pig iron into higher-quality wrought iron, patented by English ironmaster Henry Cort in 1783, along with continuing charcoal price increases, finally led to the widespread use of coke. This led to ironmasters achieving economies scale by placing production facilities near coal mines. Coal and iron output soared.

By the end of the 18th century, England was making 180,000 tonnes of coke-smelted iron annually. The country became a net exporter of iron and its wares.


Steel is harder and more durable than iron; hence it had been prized for centuries. But making steel was costly.

English engineer Henry Bessemer wanted to improve gun construction; so, in the early 1850s, he developed a manufacturing process that allowed steel to become an industrial commodity.

The Bessemer process was not in and of itself sufficient to produce high-quality steel. The remaining problem lay in attaining the exact combination of ingredients. English metallurgist Robert Mushet carried out thousands of experiments, turning the Bessemer process into a practicality, something Bessemer himself had failed at.

In trying to license his innovation, Bessemer was at first rebuffed by industrialists. So he started his own company, and undersold the competition; whereupon licenses were applied for in such numbers as to render Bessemer a very rich man.

Bessemer gave Mushet neither credit nor cash for his contribution. By 1866, Mushet was destitute and in ill health. That year Mushet’s 16-year-old daughter paid Bessemer a visit, confronting him with the fact that his success was partly the product of her father’s work. To avoid the prospect of legal action, Bessemer paid Mushet a tidy pension for over 20 years, though it was a tiny fraction of what Bessemer had made.

Steel had a profound impact on other industries. Steel made rail travel safer and less expensive. Ships of steel were lighter, faster, and larger. Steel enabled skyscrapers. Steel became the standard material for hundreds of products, from engines to hair pins.


Steam engines were first put to work in mines. Beginning in 1785, engines put steam in the stride of the cotton industry. Production became more industrialized and capital-intensive, while lessening the need for manual labor.

Unlike cotton, the linen and wool industries were encrusted with tradition and regulation. Further, the physical characteristics of the raw material hindered mechanization. Mechanical innovation for these fabrics only began in the early 1800s, and these industries were not fully transformed until the latter half of the 19th century.

Not all industrial innovation was a product of machinery. While James Watt was working his steam engine, economist Adam Smith was writing about pin factory productivity via specialization and division of labor.

2 facets embodied industrialization: the increasing employment of machines, and the rationalization of human endeavor. Smith’s pin factory was emblematic of many industries that produced consumer goods: from simple pots and pans to sophisticated clocks and watches.

 Industrial Chemistry

Advances in chemical science and industrial application were intertwined. In the 18th century, chemists learned much from industrial experimentation, as manufacturers of soap, paper, paints, dyes, and other products sought to cope with raw material shortages.

Sulfuric acid etches an example. Known to medieval alchemists, this versatile and imminently useful substance was both dangerous and expensive because of its corrosive power.

In 1746, English industrialist and chemist John Roebuck devised an economical production process employing lead chambers – thus sulfuric acid was commercialized. The acid’s most popular use at the onset was as a bleaching agent, until replaced in the 1790s by chlorine gas.

At the other pH extreme, alkalis – especially caustic soda and potash – were widely used in industrial processes. In the 18th century, alkalis were had by burning vegetative matter, especially kelp and barilla. Inelastic supply encouraged a substitute.

In 1791 French chemist and surgeon Nicholas Leblanc discovered how to make soda ash from salt and sulfuric acid. Hydrochloric acid was a useful by-product. Artificial soda, as it was called, had many industrial uses, including the making of soap, glass, paper, paint, and pottery.