Engineering the industrial revolution (1770-1850)

by Gillian Cookson (University of Leeds)

The Age of Machinery: Engineering the Industrial Revolution, 1770-1850, is published in February by Boydell Press for the Economic History Society’s series ‘People, Markets, Goods’.

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9781783272761_4Early machine-makers have always seemed tantalisingly out of reach. This was a localised, workshop-based trade whose products, methods, markets, skill-sets and industrial structure remained ill-defined. Yet out of it, somehow, was created the machinery – especially textile machines and steam engines – fundamental to industrial change in the eighteenth century. There are questions of great significance still unanswered: How could a high-tech mechanical engineering industry emerged from the rudimentary resources of a few localities in northern England? What can be known of the backgrounds and careers of these pioneering mechanical engineers? How did they develop skills, knowledge and system to achieve their ends?

As a research topic this was clearly a winner. But what is the historian to do when faced with such a dearth of substantial sources? Here is the explanation of why the subject has not hitherto been addressed. Evidence of early engineering was seriously lacking, business records almost entirely absent. It turned out, though, that the industry was hiding in plain sight. We’d been looking in the wrong places.

An early breakthrough came in the Hattersley of Keighley papers. Enough of Richard Hattersley’s early accounts and day books have survived, the first from 1793, to demonstrate a thriving pre-factory industry with Hattersley at its hub. He engaged a wider community in specialist component manufacture, using sub-contracting and various other flexible working practices as circumstances demanded. Hattersley’s company did not itself build machinery at that time, but he fed those who did with precision components, vital in making workable machines. The earliest production systems rested on networking, and can be most neatly described as a dispersed factory[1].

It wasn’t that archives had gone missing (though one or two are known to have been lost); but that businesses were so small scale that by and large they never generated any great weight of documentation. It was community-based sources – directories, muster rolls, parish registers, rate books, the West Riding deeds registry, and a painstaking assemblage of all kinds of stray references – that came to the rescue. While this may not exactly be a novel approach to industrial history, it turned out to be the only realistic way into exploring these small, workshop-based ventures in close-knit communities. Remarkably, too, it shone a light on aspects of the industry which business records alone could not have achieved. Community sources bring forward more than an account of business itself, for they set the actors upon their stage, placing engineers within their own environment. In particular, parish register searches, intended as no more than a confirmation of identities and movements, ultimately exposed remarkable connections. As short biographies were constructed, intermarriages and relationships were revealed which seem to explain career changes and migration (often from south to west Yorkshire, or Scotland to Lancashire) which otherwise had seemed random. So this context, which proved so influential, was not confined to engineering itself, but embraced surrounding cultures that were social and familial as much as industrial and technical. Through this information, we can infer some of the motives and concerns which impacted upon business decision-making.

All this, then, is central to The Age of Machinery. For a fully rounded account, other contexts needed unpacking: Which were the seminal machines, in terms of using new materials and parts that demanded different kinds of skills? Where did technological concepts originate, and how did technology move around? Why did engineering lag a generation behind its customer industry, textiles, in moving into factories? How did bans on machinery exportation and artisan emigration impact upon textile engineering, and why were they abandoned? And in an environment generally very welcoming of innovation, how to explain Luddism?

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[1] See Gillian Cookson (1997) ‘Family Firms and Business Networks: Textile Engineering in Yorkshire, 1780–1830’, Business History, 39:1, 1-20

British engineering skills in the age of steam

by Harry Kitsikopoulos (academic director, Unbound Prometheus)

Wiki Commons. The side-lever Engine, 1849 ca.


Engineering skills in Britain improved during the eighteenth century but progress was not linear. My research uses a novel approach to quantifying the trends from the first appearance of the technology of steam power (1706) through to the last quarter of the century (the Watt era), using a large amount of data on fuel consumption rates.

Britain was a very unlikely candidate for the invention of steam engines, as I argue in my 2016 book, Innovation and Technological Diffusion: An Economic History of the Early Steam Engines. It was French and Italians who first rediscovered, translated and published the ancient texts of Hero of Alexandria on steam power; they also discovered the existence of vacuum in nature, the main principle of a steam engine’s working mechanism.

But Britain had two advantages: first, a divorce-obsessed king who detached the island from the Catholic dogma and its alliance with the Cartesian epistemological paradigm, both denying the existence of vacuum in nature. The same king also brought a seismic institutional transformation by passing monastic properties under the ownership of lay landlords, a class far more keen on solving the water drainage problem plaguing the mining industry in its drive to exploit mineral wealth.

Britain was also fortunate in another respect: it was relatively backward in terms of mining technology! That proved to be a good thing. While mining districts in Germany and Liège used a technology that resolved the drainage problem, Britain failed to imitate them, hence forcing itself to seek alternative solutions, thereby leading to the invention of the steam engine.

Grand inventions earn glorious references in school textbooks, but it is the diffusion of a technology that contributes to economic growth, a process that relies on the development of relevant human capital.

The records reveal that there were not much more than a dozen engineers who were active in erecting engines during the period 1706-75, including Thomas Newcomen, the obscure ironmonger from Devon who came up with the first working model. The figure increased to at least 60 during the last quarter of the century through the action of the invisible hand: the initial scarcity of such skills raised wages, which, in turn, acted as stimuli transferring talent from related engineering occupations.

My new study traces the production and marketing strategies of this group, which ranged from the narrow horizons of certain figures concentrating on the erection of engines in one locality, a single model, or focusing on one industry all the way to the global outlook of the Boulton and Watt firm.

The last question I pose is perhaps the most interesting: did British engineers get better during the eighteenth century in managing these engines?

Measuring skill is not a straightforward affair. Two well-respected experts at the time came up with tables that specified what the ideal fuel rates ought to have been for engines of different hp. When plotted in a graph these two variables depict a curve of ideal rates.

My analysis uses two distinct datasets with 111 fuel rate observations recorded in working engines – one for the older Newcomen model and another for the newer Watt engines. These actual fuel rates were plotted as bullet points around the respective ‘ideal’ curves. A progressively narrower distance between the curves and the bullet points would indicate higher efficiency and improved engineering skills.

The results reveal that for the first 25 years following the appearance of both models, there was no consistent trend: the bullet points alternated coming closer and moving away from the ideal curves. But the data also reveal that these initial patterns gave way to trends revealing consistent progress.

In an era of practical tinkerers lacking a formal educational system when it comes to this particular skill, British engineers did get better through a classic process of ‘learning-by-doing’, But this only happened after an initial stage of adjustment, of getting used to models with different working mechanisms.