The Fruits of Civilization – Industrialization


“The way of industrialism is the way of the machine.” ~ American farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry

By the beginning of the 18th century, European businesses had increasingly focused on and achieved productivity improvements. There were sizable concentrations of rural industry in western Europe, mostly in textile manufacture.

With the advent of industrialization, life for workers became dire, both in the factory and at home. British cotton textile workers succumbed to lung diseases from the dust generated during production. This was typical of working hazards, which were multifarious.

“Have mercy, cried the blacksmith. How’re you going to replace human hands? Found guilty, said the judge, for not being in demand.” ~ Canadian musician Robbie Robertson in the song “Last of the Blacksmiths” (1971)

Under the crushing wheel of industrializing capitalism, those with craft skills lost their livelihoods; replaced by poorly paid, unskilled workers at unsafe machines. 70–80 hours per week labor was the norm, and many worked over 100, with just half of Sunday off.

Laws to protect workers were nonexistent. Men rebelled so frequently that factory owners took to hiring women and children, subjecting them to horrendous working conditions.

The urban working class lived in crowded hovels, sometimes 15 to 20 in a room. Hundreds typically shared a single toilet.

Workers died off like flies. In poor areas of Manchester, England, life expectancy was 17 years: 30 years less than what it had been for the English before the Norman conquest, 9 centuries earlier.

This privation was according to plan. The economic thinking that dominated Europe from the 16th century was that poverty was instrumentally beneficial. Albeit miserable for those caught in the merciless grip of the market system’s “invisible hand,” plentiful cheap labor was what kept the economic engine humming – to the great benefit of investors and industrial masters.

“In a free nation where slaves are not allow’d of, the surest wealth consists in a multitude of laborious poor.” ~ 18th century Dutch political economist Bernard Mandeville

Not until the 1990s did economists manage to fashion a coherent theoretical framework which suggested that high levels of poverty might be an economic drawback.

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The misery that industrializing capitalism created sparked reaction. Some tried to turn the clock back. The Luddites – supplanted English textile craftspeople – took to destroying the machines that had replaced them.

(Mill owners replied to the Luddites by shooting them. The movement was eventually extinguished by military force.)

Others sought a more constructive response. Welsh entrepreneur Robert Owen tried to build a communal community to illustrate how socialism could work for the benefit of all.

The most notorious respondent to industrializing capitalism was English academic Karl Marx, who derided the efforts of Owen and others as “utopian.” Marx imagined a “scientific socialism”: a polity which took the reins of capitalism and turned it into an egalitarian society with a command economy. Marx had no impact during his lifetime, but his legacy became legendary.

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Until 1750, peasant life expectancy in France was 35 years; no better than hominids a million years earlier. Britain was little better. This owed to malnutrition. Chronic hunger continued for the mass majority in the industrializing world into the 19th century. The exception was the United States, where people were better fed.

Though facing dismal prospects, people kept breeding. Population growth rose rapidly during the early stages of industrialization. Although infant mortality declined, the chances of surviving childhood did not improve with industrialization.

“Industrial processes and organization have robbed the worker of his craft and its heritage.” ~ American political economist Harry Braverman

Child Labor

With limited opportunity for education, and long a source of easy exploitation, children were put to work. There was no need for strength to operate a machine, and, as industrial systems were new, there was no experienced adult labor pool. Some machines were even designed for child operators.

Most importantly to those needing laborers, a child could be paid much less, even as its productivity was comparable. This made children the labor of choice in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Children as young as 4 years worked. Beatings and long hours were the norm. Animals in preindustrial times were treated far better than children during industrialization, who, beyond being abused, were regularly mutilated or poisoned at their place of work, if not killed outright. Many working children starved to death.

The first laws against child labor were passed in Britain in 1833 and 1844. A scarcity of inspectors effectively eviscerated the legislation for decades. In the United States and continental Europe, child labor remained a norm into the 20th century. For much of the rest of the world, child exploitation remains common. Child labors powers the economies of most of sub-Saharan Africa.


India has more child laborers than any other country: estimated in 2012 to be ~45 million. ~20% work as domestic help.

Child labor and trafficking is commonly considered a symptom of poverty: destitute families sell their offspring, who end up as prostitutes and manual laborers. In India, the exploitation of children is a sign of growing wealth: a burgeoning middle class has created a surging demand for domestic workers. These jobs are often filled by children.

“There is a huge, huge demand.” ~ Indian lawyer Ravi Kant

Indian law offers only limited safeguards against child exploitation, and enforcement of those safeguards is practically nonexistent. Public attitudes are permissive.

“There is no fear of the law.” ~ Ravi Kant

Even in the lowest rungs of the middle class, families often have at least 1 live-in servant. The well-off have a retinue of attendants in various capacities.

A kidnapping industry arose to meet demand. Every 6 minutes, a child goes missing in India. Over 90,000 children are officially reported missing every year (2011 statistic).

“The cheapest and most vulnerable workforce is children – girls in particular. The demand for cheap labour is contributing to trafficking of children from remote parts of India to big cities.” ~ Indian children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi


One of the most salient points to be made about the nature of capitalists, the exploitative evil of which was most obvious during industrialization, is that most put up fierce resistance to reform. This same objection to decency remains apparent today, with concerted efforts to block regulations which may protect workers, consumers, or the environment.

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Concentration of wealth into the hands of a tiny minority is one of human history’s few economic continuities. Capital was always available to exploit resources. What changed was technology: machinery, and the means to power it.

The transformation to the industrial age had 3 distinguishing characteristics: 1) extensive employment of mechanically powered machinery, 2) greater use of energy from inanimate materials, notably fossil fuels, and, 3) prevalent use of materials not found in Nature.

The most meaningful technology improvements involved machinery and mechanical power, affording production that was previously done by human or animal power more slowly and/or laboriously, or not at all.

Since antiquity, pulleys, wheels, and levers had effectively multiplied applied power. Water and wind had long been used for mills and sailing ships. During the 18th century, these garnered even more use for a greater diversity of tasks. But power from these sources was still limited, and therefore limiting.

In the early stages of industrialization, the substitution of coal for charcoal and wood, and the introduction of the steam engine – for mining, manufacturing, and transportation – made all the difference. This large leap in power also produced prodigious amounts of pollution. It concomitantly created, much later, the perception of a trade-off between growth and environmental quality, with growth always winning, at least until the environment had been made obviously uninhabitable. Then the false issue became one of sustainability: how much rape could Nature take before it became unlivable.

With greater power resources, the use of processed metallic ores became manifold. As chemical science advanced, synthetic materials took an ever-increasing prominence. This too created a pollution problem, in production and especially after consumption. Synthetics were often created for their durability, which meant that they were not biodegradable.

Garbage grew exponentially in scale from consumption-driven growth. But its disposal raised no fuss greater than in earlier times.

In the Middle Ages, urban dwellers dumped their wastes into the streets from their doors and windows, letting the rain wash it away. Medieval European cities were rank. By the 1200s, the overwhelming stench led to laws requiring cesspits (holes in the ground), which were emptied regularly by town workers, with the waste carted to larger dump sites outside of town.

Industrial Evolution

The Industrial Revolution was another of those extraordinary jumps forward in the story of civilization. ~ English architect, teacher, and writer Stephen Gardiner

The term industrial revolution became common in the late 1830s. Serious scholars protested the term as inaccurate, to no avail. Catchy color commentary often trumps actuality in the popular imagination. Stephen Gardiner’s foregoing fantastic characterization is illustrative of myth perpetuation.

Although the pace picked up owing to the number of people working at it, technological advance was ever incremental during the Age of Enlightenment. Industrialization in the form of factories was a process of evolution. There was no revolution of industrial prowess, only a propagation of its application.

Scientific progress during the early modern period sowed the seeds of technological advance that led to industrial evolution. In England, the influence of philosopher, politician, and scientist Francis Bacon led to the founding of the Royal Society in 1600, “for improving Natural Knowledge.”

“Knowledge is power.” ~ Francis Bacon

Science was slow to lend its brain wattage to industrialization. It was not until the last half of the 19th century, with the flowering of the electrical and chemical sciences, that industry benefited from scientific theories.

In contrast, the practical part of the scientific method – observation and trial-and-error experimentation – had an increasing influence on production processes from the late 17th century on. Tinkering was not confined to men with training. Indeed, much technological advance in the 18th to early 19th centuries was the product of self-taught enthusiasm. The term engineer acquired its modern meaning in the early 18th century.

The institutional setting in Europe for the economic changes that transpired during the 19th century, especially in Britain, was a juxtaposition of conducive elements, none individually new. Rule of law for commercial concerns, social mobility, private property, and a functional private banking system all provided a framework for those with material means to exploit opportunities.

“The advancement of capitalism in the Western European countries and their offshoots in the 19th century is often attributed to the spread of free trade and free market. This could not be further from the truth. The government played a leading role in the early development of capitalism both in Britain and the US, as well as in other Western European countries.” ~ South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang

The sine qua non of industrialization was replacing animal power – including that of humans – with machines. Increased production did, for a time, provide jobs, albeit requiring less skill than those supplanted. This aspect of industrial evolution is familiar in the present day.

(Industrialization continued to evolve in waves. From the mid-20th century, the physical displacement of work began to take cerebral form, with computerization usurping mental labor, such as accounting and file-keeping. This trend accelerated into the 21st century with industrial robots.)

The promise economists dreamed of – of a better society – was not met. Socially, the onslaught of industrialization transformed exploited and overtaxed peasants into an exploited and overtaxed urban proletariat.

To spare the wealthy, taxes were designed to be regressive. The political influence of wealth and accompanying economic thought as to the importance of capital let money sweet talk its way to favoritism. This too was a historical constant.

Just as the pace of technology increased, so too the concentration of economic power. Amalgamation of capital became increasingly important to fund the emergent machine regime.

If there was a revolution in the making, it was within the minds of the mass populace. The stratification of society that always existed became somewhat more economic as opposed to generational, though, by virtue of inherited wealth, that too remained.

Opportunities were gradually created where more fortunate, diligent, and creative workers might transcend the socioeconomic class of their forefathers. This hope, along with propaganda by a plutocratic press, fertilized the myth that capitalism was a natural economic order.

“Capitalism is the legitimate racket of the ruling class.” ~ American gangster Al Capone, who understood rackets.


England being the first nation to industrialize on a large scale owed to it being the first to ramp its agricultural productivity. By the end of the 17th century, England was ahead of continental Europe, with only 60% of its workforce producing food. The proportion steadily declined to 36% by the beginning of the 19th century, 22% mid-century, to less than 10% when the 20th century dawned. This improvement came from experimenting with new crops and crop rotations.

Probably the most important agricultural innovation came in the 19th century with convertible husbandry: alternating field crops with pastures, which were frequently sown with fodder crops. The dual advantage was restoring soil fertility through better crop rotations, and carrying more livestock, thus producing more dairy, meat, produce, wool, and manure fertilizer. There was also the selective breeding of livestock to gain desired traits.

A prerequisite to these innovations was consolidation and enclosure of fields. Under the traditional system of open fields, it was often excruciatingly difficult to get agreement about new crops or rotations. Likewise, livestock grazing in common herds made selective breeding problematic.

Enclosure by private agreement had been ongoing since the late Middle Ages. It picked up pace in the late 1600s, into the 1760s. By that time, over half of England’s arable land had been enclosed. Since then, Parliament passed laws to finish the property partitioning. There was considerable opposition to this, particularly from cottagers and squatters without open field holdings of their own. With enclosure, the prospect was lost of grazing a beast or 2 on the common pasture. Hence, those with the least lost out.

Enclosed farms of 40–120 hectares replaced nucleated agricultural villages surrounded by open fields. Along with enclosure came consolidation. By 1850 over 30% of cultivated acreage were farms larger than 120 hectares. Only 22% of the land went to farms smaller than 40 hectares. Even so, there were twice as many people on these small properties.

Small farms were family owned and occupied, worked by the residents. In contrast, the larger lands were capitalistic tenant farmers, who rented the land and hired landless agricultural laborers.

Apportioned agriculture increased the demand for labor. Not until the last half of the 19th century did the absolute number of agricultural workers begin to decline. The reason was the introduction of farm machinery: steam plows, threshers, and harvesters.

In the meantime, improving productivity enabled feeding a burgeoning population. England exported food from 1660 to 1760, until population growth outpaced agricultural productivity.

England was also ahead of continental Europe in having a relatively prosperous rural population. Hence, there was a ready market for manufactured goods, ranging from agricultural implements to clothing and housewares.

By the end of the 17th century, only the Netherlands exceeded British foreign trade per capita. London had already developed into a sophisticated commercial and financial center and was beginning to rival Amsterdam.

Already by the 16th century, London was a locus of growth for the English economy. This owed to the ancient imperial Romans, who selected the city’s site. The network of roads that the Romans built still served London area transport in the 16th century, and in later centuries. By around 1700, London surpassed Paris as the largest city in Europe.


Commercialization depended upon financial support. England’s efficiency there was stunted by governmental centralization.

The origins of England’s banking system are obscure. After the Restoration of 1660, when a unified monarchy of England, Scotland, and Ireland was restored, a number of goldsmiths in London began acting as bankers: issuing deposit receipts that circulated as banknotes. Creditworthy entrepreneurs got loans.

The Bank of England, founded in 1694, forced private bankers to stop issuing banknotes, as the bank was granted a legal monopoly. But private bankers still accepted deposits, drafts, and discounted bills of exchange.

The Bank of England established no branches. Its large-denomination banknotes did not circulate outside the capitol. Areas outside London were without formal banking facilities. In the provinces, wealthy merchants, brokers, and attorneys performed some elementary banking functions.

The Royal Mint’s practices were inane. Its gold coins were too big for paying wages or retail trading, and it minted a scant number of silver and copper coins.

The dearth of small change prompted private enterprise to step in. Merchants, industrialists, and even publicans issued scripts and tokens that acted as currency.

Thus arose country banks: any bank not in London. Their growth was especially explosive during the 2nd half of the 18th century. By 1810 there were 800 country banks.


The growing industrial economy depended upon moving copious quantities of bulky goods: grains, timber, coal, and ores. The cost and dependability of delivery directly affected economic growth.

Britain owed much of its enviable position at the onset of industrialization to being an island nation, close to others with which trade was convenient. The watery buffer that kept it away from continental warfare, except when it chose to participate, also provided a means for inexpensive transportation.

Internally, the many navigable rivers and streams of the British Isles lessened the need for overland transport. This, and the relatively compact land mass, put England at an advantage compared to most of the European continent.

For all that, Britain busied itself with improving transport facilities. From 1660–1749, Parliament passed hundreds of private acts for river and harbor improvement.

In the 1750s came the canal age. Artificial waterways were created to connect navigable rivers with each other, or to more readily get mining ores to their markets. By 1820, all the major production centers and markets were linked, as well as ready access to foreign trading ports.

Traditionally, road maintenance responsibility belonged to the parishes, using the forced labor of local inhabitants. Road conditions were generally deplorable.

Beginning in the 1690s, Parliament created, by private acts, turnpike trusts, to build and maintain toll roads. The greatest spurt of turnpike construction was during the 1750s and 1760s. Road mileage peaked in 1836, by which time railways had begun to diminish the commercial importance of roads and canals.

The first railways in Britain were built at coal mines. Railed coal carts were pulled by horses until the early 19th century, when stationary steam engines became employed to pull carts via cables. By the time the locomotive steam engine arrived – the earliest in 1801 – Britain already had several hundred kilometers of railways.

 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.


Industrialization was a regional phenomenon, both within countries and across the continents. After England’s early lead, the United States, Belgium, France, and Germany were early industrializers. Belgium’s proximity to Britain was helpful, but the region had a long industrial tradition, beginning with textile production in the Middle Ages. The economic growth of the US during the 19th century was most spectacular, positioning the country well for the world-changing events that transpired in the early 20th century.


France had the most aberrant growth pattern. While its scientists and inventors took the lead in several industries, it lacked the coal resources that helped fuel other early industrializers. Though modern economic growth began in the 18th century, it was tripped up by the 1789 revolution and its aftermath. France suffered a long run of inept governance.

The French government unwittingly slowed the country’s economic development via the Méline tariff: a protectionist measure introduced in 1892. (The tariff was named after French politician Jules Méline.) The tariff raised food prices by more than a quarter, in the process boosting agricultural wages. It had considerable societal impact.

Countries go through a demographic transition during industrialization, from high fertility and mortality to lower rates of both. If a greater proportion of children survive, parents tend to have fewer of them and to invest more in their education. This in turn increases the useful qualities of a country’s people, and thus improve a country’s growth prospects.

Fertility rates rose and primary-school attendance fell in the regions that benefited most from the Méline tariff. Higher farm wages engendered offspring while discouraging parents from sending them to school. Whereas a child on the farm is an extra pair of helping hands, one being educated is less useful to its keepers.

For France, the Méline tariff halted a century-long decline in birth rate and set educational development back 15 years. This helps explain why Britain’s economy – which did not protect agriculture at all at the time – outperformed France in the early 20th century.


Germany was the laggard of the early industrializing countries. A divided polity meant that Germany was poor and backward during the 1st half of the 19th century: predominantly rural and agrarian. Yet, by the eve of the Great War, the unified German Empire had become the dominant industrial nation in Europe. Its ascent in the last half of the 19th century was especially rapid. The country’s extensive railway network and its exploitation of coal in the Ruhr valley were key.