J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In Our Time and the Industrial Revolution

My favorite podcast is In Our Times with Melvyn Bragg from BBC Radio 4. In each episode Bragg, a peculiarly British combination of broadcast host and novelist, sits down with three academics to discuss some topic from history, culture, science, or philosophy. The archives of the podcast stretch back over a decade, to when the show was half an hour instead of forty-five minutes—which must have meant even more reminders from Bragg to hurry along.

The History section of the website has a show on “Washington and the American Revolution.” Many more episodes cover elements of the British Empire in the eighteenth century: “The Enclosure Movement,” “Women and Enlightenment Science,” “The Jacobite Rebellion,” “Edmund Burke,” “The East India Company,” “Electrickery,” “The Sublime,” and so on. There are also a lot of shows on aspects of the classical world, which helped to shape that culture.

But I’m also pleased to hear about topics only remotely connected to the stuff of Boston 1775, especially those I don’t know anything about. Right now my MP3 player includes files on Shinto, Delacroix, and the siege of Tenochtitian. I don’t feel I have time to read books on such topics, but I can fill a subway ride listening to an erudite chat about them.

One of the liveliest conversations in the bunch comes in the first of two shows on “The Industrial Revolution.” Bragg usually voices the understanding of an exceedingly well read amateur. One of his guests is anxious to dissuade him of the notion that there was something special about the British (or the Scottish) in spearheading that technological change. The main difference was coal, she says—northern Britain simply had more coal than France did. Self-congratulatory harrumphing about British ingenuity verges on “racism.” Bragg bites back at that, but can’t argue with the data on coal supplies.

I thought back to that show while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s article on Steve Jobs in this week’s New Yorker. He notes the coal theory, but then points to this April 2011 paper by Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr, summarizing it like this:
They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.

In 1779, Samuel Crompton, a retiring genius from Lancashire, invented the spinning mule, which made possible the mechanization of cotton manufacture. Yet England’s real advantage was that it had Henry Stones, of Horwich, who added metal rollers to the mule; and James Hargreaves, of Tottington, who figured out how to smooth the acceleration and deceleration of the spinning wheel; and William Kelly, of Glasgow, who worked out how to add water power to the draw stroke; and John Kennedy, of Manchester, who adapted the wheel to turn out fine counts; and, finally, Richard Roberts, also of Manchester, a master of precision machine tooling—and the tweaker’s tweaker. He created the “automatic” spinning mule: an exacting, high-speed, reliable rethinking of Crompton’s original creation.
I immediately wanted to know what Melvyn Bragg and his guests thought of the theory. Is it old-fashioned harrumphing in new language, or a clever application of new sociological thinking? Not that any discussion will settle the question (we can’t experiment with history, after all), but it’s always healthy to look at old ideas in new ways.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, I was looking for interesting podcasts to listen to on my walks.

Chaucerian said...

I saw the paragraph in the New Yorker article that you quote, and I found it self-serving and annoying. All right, England was better at engineering -- because it had more engineers? That's like saying Bali became the most musical country because it had the most musicians (I know nothing about Bali, I'm trying to make a point -- the point being that to maintain that a country became something that it already was is absurd.) I think in logic this approach to the problem is called "begging the question," and it is a fallacy.

G. Lovely said...

"Self-congratulatory harrumphing" or just plain old-fashioned chauvanism, the fact is other European nations had, and have, highly capable engineers and mechanical geniuses, their attentions were often just directed elsewhere, due in part to coal, but also to politics and culture. (Paging Mr. Jared Diamond)

For evidence/grist peruse the 17th and 18th century collections at Paris' Musee des Arts et Metiers (www.arts-et-metiers.net), then contemplate why it is the Swiss became renowned for watches and not railroads.

Charles Bahne said...

Ah, but Switzerland is known for its railways, at least in modern times! (And they run on time.)