Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Industrial Revolutionaries

The Making of the Modern World 1776-1914

by Gavin Weightman

“[An] engaging survey . . . Weightman expertly marshals his cast of characters across continents and centuries, forging a genuinely global history that brings the collaborative, if competitive, business of industrial innovation to life.” —Stephen Mihm, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 432
  • Publication Date May 18, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4484-3
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.95
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 432
  • Publication Date April 14, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1899-8
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $27.50
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date April 15, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4885-9
  • US List Price $16.95

About The Book

In this vivid, sweeping history of the industrial revolution, Gavin Weightman shows how, in less than one hundred and fifty years, an unlikely band of scientists, spies, entrepreneurs, and political refugees took a world made of wood, powered by animals, wind, and water, and made it into something entirely new, forged of steel and iron, and powered by steam and fossil fuels. Weightman weaves together the dramatic stories of giants such as Edison, Watt, Wedgwood, and Daimler, with lesser-known or entirely forgotten characters, including a group of Japanese samurai who risked their lives to learn the secrets of the West, and John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson, who didn’t let war between England and France stop him from plumbing Paris. Distilling complex technical achievements, outlandish figures, and daring adventures into an accessible narrative that spans the globe as industrialism spreads, The Industrial Revolutionaries is a remarkable work of original, engaging history.


“Entertaining and informative.” —John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal

“Refreshingly old-fashioned . . . In this lively study, there is little room for the dry academic prose that so often makes economic histories a painful reading experience. Instead we have a wealth of vivid portraits of figures from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. . . . Weightman is excellent at demolishing some of the myths of the industrial revolution.” —Leo McKinstry, Literary Review

“The author of some fine business histories, Weightman elevates his game in this work. Skeptical of theoretical explanations of the Industrial Revolution, he highlights entrepreneurs behind inventions symbolic of the world’s transformation from agrarianism to manufacturing. Beginning with innovators of iron smelting and winding up with the founders of the chemical industry, Weightman profiles the often obsessed personalities whose technical advances made watching capitalists take notice and invest. His narrative of the iron story sets the tone: it depicts the man who introduced coke into the smelting process, which rendered previous methods obsolete, and whose effusion of business schemes earned him the sobriquet John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson. Indeed, eccentricity seems a common trait in Weightman’s cast of characters’ Integrating lively biography with technological clarity, Weightman converts the Industrial Revolution into an enjoyably readable period of history.” —Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

“One of the many pleasures of The Industrial Revolutionaries is learning the convoluted stories behind familiar inventions, from the first steam engines up through the torpedoes that changed the course of naval warfare. . . . Most inventions were invented more than once, sometimes simultaneously in different countries, and were the culmination of long periods of trial and (more often than not) error. Steam-powered ‘automobiles,’ for instance, were chugging down English lanes as early as the 1860s, but in terms of industrial evolution they were dead ends; modern gasoline-powered cars evolved from, of all things, tricycles. . . . [Weightman’s] enthusiasm for his subjects, and his insistence that the Industrial Revolution was the doing of more than a handful of Great Men, propels the book forward. It’s one that anyone with a passing interest in economic history will thoroughly enjoy.” —Drew DeSilver, The Seattle Times

“As familiar as the outlines of the Industrial Revolution are, no one will be surprised to learn that every steam-powered invention has a murky history of rivalries, precedents, and counterclaims. However unsurprising it may be, it is still fun to learn that a century before Edison had his Tesla, Watt had his Trevithick. The more gripping tale that Gavin Weightman has to tell in Industrial Revolutionaries, though, is of the commercial cold war waged especially by England and France through and over iron and steam, with many sidewise glances toward America.” —Sean Redmond, Barnes & Noble Review

“It is one of the pleasures of Weightman’s book to see how technology rose above nationality. . . . The interconnectedness of this world of invention and technology is extraordinary.” —Judith Flanders, The Sunday Telegraph

“A whirlwind tour-de-force of the foundations of industrialization. ” a popular, accessible history. Highly recommended.” —J. Rogers, Choice

“Eye-opening.” —Steve Goddard,

“Swirling with seers, savants, and sorcerers of the mechanical age, every page of this epic saga will dazzle even the most technologically jaded reader.” —William J. Bernstein, author of A Splendid Exchange

“Abraham Gesner is hardly a household name today, but this country-doctor-turned-geologist in Nova Scotia was the first person to transform the raw sludge of fossil remains into kerosene and other fuels. . . . Gesner is but one of the fascinating characters Gavin Weightman brings to life in The Industrial Revolutionaries, his engaging survey of the countless men and women who wedded technological innovation to capitalist profit or nationalist agenda, and in the process helped usher in the modern era. . . . Weightman believes the industrial revolution was an incremental process in which credit for any innovation or invention rightly belongs to innumerable individuals scattered throughout the world. He is remarkably successful at capturing this process, skillfully stitching together thumbnail sketches of a large number of inventors, architects, engineers, and visionaries. . . . Weightman expertly marshals his cast of characters across continents and centuries, forging a genuinely global history that brings the collaborative, if competitive, business of industrial innovation to life.” —Stephen Mihm, The New York Times Book Review


Chapter One — Spies

There were spies everywhere in eighteenth-century Britain. Though they disguised themselves in a variety of ways, they all had one ambition—to unearth the secrets of Britain’s industrial success. They came from many different European countries, from Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Prussia, but the most eager of the spies were from Britain’s greatest rival, France. Many were very erudite men who posed as disinterested tourists, compiling reports which they presented as purely academic treaties. Others posed as workmen in the hope of getting close to some fiendishly clever piece of machinery. And wherever the spies failed to gain entry, they were often reduced to lurking around local inns, hoping to engage knowledgeable workmen in conversation and induce them to cross the Channel for some splendid reward.

It was already evident to the French and other Europeans that Britain was gaining an industrial lead in the first half of the eighteenth century. There was, for example, the newly acquired technique of smelting iron with purified coal or “coke” instead of charcoal, a fuel which was becoming prohibitively expensive.

There were processes for the preparation of raw wool which were trade secrets and much sought after, as were some of the arcane skills of watchmakers. In the absence of any really reliable textbooks or journals which might disseminate information on how things were done, the most effective way to steal an innovation was simply to bribe a skilled workman to leave his employer. Indeed, in 1719 the British government had passed a law forbidding craftsmen to emigrate to France or any other rival country and put a penalty on attempted enticement. At that time the chief concern was the loss of iron founders and watchmakers. But after the mid-century it was the astonishing developments in textiles which were the chief target of foreign spies and the subject of protectionist legislation outlawing the export of tools and machinery as well as skilled men. It was in this trade that the English turncoat, John Holker, the master of all French spies, began an extraordinary career which spanned half a century of rapid innovation.

The invention of machines for preparing and spinning raw cotton into a strong, even yarn was exclusive to a few pioneers in England, some of whom grew rich in just a few years. They built the first spinning mills which were worked night and day by children and women on thirteen-hour shifts. Much of the cotton thread was turned by hand-loom weavers into cheap and colourful cotton cloth which was sold around the world. Millions of miles of thread was exported to countries that had not learned the secrets of how to make machinery that would produce yarn of such quality so cheaply. The first of the revolutionary cotton-spinning mills was built in 1771 in the Derbyshire countryside on the River Derwent, the flow of which provided its power: it was not until a few years later that steam engines were devised which could drive spinning or other machinery.
Cromford Mill, as it was named, was the work of two men: Richard Arkwright, a former barber-surgeon and wig-maker, and Jedediah Strutt, a Nottingham manufacturer of stockings and inventor of an ingenious “frame” for the machine-knitting of ribbed stockings. The novelty of Cromford Mill and the great secret the stone building kept hidden was the “water frame”, a complex piece of mostly wooden machinery, a confusing mass of cogs and pulleys and subtle devices which could turn ninety-one spindles at a go—the equivalent of nearly a hundred cottagers sitting on their porches with a single-bobbin spinning wheel. Cotton thread produced on spinning wheels or spinning jennies was not generally strong enough to be used as the warp as well as the weft of cloth, which meant that it had to be interwoven with linen or wool yarn. However, the spindles of the Arkwright water frame turned out a high-quality yarn which could be used for both warp and weft so that cloth could be woven which was 100 per cent cotton.
In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and for long after, the spinning of thread and the making of cloth was the single most important industry in Britain and much of Europe. By tradition, home-grown sheep’s wool was the basic raw material, along with linen, which is made from the pounded stalks of blue-flowered flax. The very finest cloth was made of silk which came from China or was produced in some regions of Italy and France where the planting of mulberry trees, on which silk worms feed, was successful. Cotton, grown in Egypt or India, could not be raised in the temperate climate of northern Europe and was, until the 1770s, relatively unimportant. A speciality of one part of Lancashire, cotton yarn was generally woven with wool or linen thread to produce a variety of cloths.

For hundreds of years, colourful, lightweight and washable pure cotton cloth had been produced in India and was sold on a world market into which Europeans entered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The British East India Company, founded in 1600, for many years picked up Indian cotton cloth at the Malabar coastal town of Calicut and traded it in Indonesia for spices. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Company, seeking new ways of making money, brought back to England some cargoes of colourful Indian cotton cloth. It was a sensation, not only in England but throughout Europe. When it was washed, the dyes did not run, though how this was achieved nobody outside India knew. As the East Indiamen returned from the Thames to the Malabar coast, they carried instructions as to which kinds of pattern might be popular in England.

But the East India Company was soon in trouble, accused of unpatriotic profiteering. In the woollen-weaving and silk-producing districts of England, cotton became a dirty word. In France and other European countries too, the threat that these wonderful Indian goods presented to the established textile industries brought a swift reaction. Women seen wearing cotton gowns were attacked in the Spitalfields district of London in what became known as the “calico riots”—calico being the term for all cotton goods derived from the entrepot of Calicut. The selling and wearing of pure cotton goods was outlawed to protect indigenous industries. In Britain the ban lasted from 1721 until 1776, though many ingenious ways were found to get around it. Similar bans were imposed in Europe.

The popularity of cotton was established, however, and while British dyers puzzled over the secrets of the fast colours of Indian cottons, others set out to discover how the yarn could be produced in greater quantities and more cheaply. There were a number of false starts in the 1740s with machines that could spin cotton but for one reason or another were not successful. It was in the 1760s, although it is impossible to say exactly when, that the first ‘spinning jennies’ appeared. The invention is generally attributed to a Lancashire textile worker called James Hargreaves, who fashioned the first prototype with a penknife. It was a small machine which could revolve up to nine bobbins at a time with the turn of a single wheel which was worked by hand. There was a certain knack to it as a tension had to be kept in the threads, but it could be operated by a child and could fit into the rooms of a cottage. Revolutionary though it was, reproductions based on the original patent application show a piece of machinery that looks primitive, if not decidedly medieval.

Hargreaves was allegedly driven out of Lancashire and developed his jennies in Nottingham. The new machines were quickly copied and soon there were hundreds and then thousands at work. Not long after, Richard Arkwright arrived in Nottingham with his plans for a spinning machine that could be driven by “gin” (an abbreviation of “engine”) horses or a waterwheel. Arkwright had no background in textiles and appears to have consulted a clock-maker about the mechanisms he needed, and he found a ready and skilled partner in Jedediah Strutt. Once their Cromford Mill began to whirr, it drew from other parts of the country, and from all over Europe, fascinated visitors, many of whom were quite obviously industrial spies.

If you glance at a diagram of the first of Arkwright’s water frames, it is immediately apparent that copying it would be no easy task. There were those who bribed workmen to allow them a glimpse of spinning machines and other British technological novelties and attempted to fathom how they worked. But with all this early equipment there was no substitute for finding someone who had spent time in the Mill and might be enticed abroad with the prospect of higher wages and a more comfortable life. Any workman who accepted such offers was taking a considerable risk, for under English law any possessions they left at home could be confiscated and they faced jail if they wanted to return.

The threats did not, however, do much to inhibit the efforts of John Holker, who was successful in enticing large numbers of English artisans to work in France. Holker was born in 1719 in Stretford near Manchester, the son of a blacksmith who died when John was in his infancy. When he was in his early twenties, Holker worked in the Manchester textile trade as an apprentice calenderer, a skilled job in which cloth was pressed between rollers to make it smooth. He went into partnership with a man called Peter Moss, who had money, and by 1745 they owned a thriving business. It was in that year that the forces supporting the claims of the “Young Pretender” to the English throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie, reached Lancashire. Both Holker and Moss were Catholic and joined a rapidly assembled Manchester Regiment under Colonel Townley to fight for the Pretender in the uprising known for ever after as the “45. It was a mad venture which was quickly and brutally crushed, the decisive victory going to the Duke of Cumberland at Culloden. Moss and Holker were taken prisoner at Carlisle in Cumberland and, along with other officers and men involved in the rebellion, were sent to London’s Newgate prison to await trial.

Newgate was a grim fortress in the mid-eighteenth century but run on commercial lines. Prisoners could pay for privileges and Peter Moss managed to bribe their jailer to sell them rope and tools to bore a hole in the prison wall. Holker was a big man and after Moss had eased through he became stuck and his friend had to go back to widen the gap. According to Holker, who would regale his French friends with the story many years later, they lowered themselves on knotted sheets to a roof which enabled them to leap across on to a merchant’s house adjoining the prison. Holker missed a jump and landed in a barrel of water, but was still able to make his escape. One version of the story has Holker hidden for six weeks by a London woman with a greengrocer’s stall before he got away to Holland and on to Paris, which he reached in 1746.

In France, Holker joined a regiment of Scottish infantry fighting in Flanders and, by his own account, once again risked his neck by accompanying Bonnie Prince Charlie on a secret mission to England in 1750. The following year, he found himself a home in Rouen, Normandy, where there was an established homespun textile industry in which he took a professional interest. He went into partnership with two French associates, making velvet, but still in 1753 appears to have had a desire to return to England. Peter Moss’s daughter had married into the prominent Gartside family and through them Holker asked if he might be pardoned for his treacherous Jacobite activities. Either he was refused this amnesty, or he received no reply, for in 1754 he accepted an offer to set up a textile works in Rouen. This was before the invention of the spinning jenny or the water frame, but in England at the time there were machines for preparing raw wool or cotton for spinning, and Holker persuaded the French Inspector of Cloths at Rouen that it would be worth importing some Lancastrian expertise. He was introduced to the head of the French Bureau of Commerce, Daniel Charles Trudaine, creator of the postal system and the bridges and roads department, who was convinced of Holker’s abilities and knowledge.

Trudaine quickly found the money (about “350) to pay for Holker to return to England in disguise so that he could snoop around Manchester and other Lancashire towns. Holker’s mother was still alive and helped him find samples of cloth and key workers with knowledge of particular processes. He worked frantically for three months, dispatching workers to be greeted by his wife at a temporary reception centre and then sent on to Rouen. In a short time a textile business with royal patronage was established in Saint-Sever on the outskirts of the town. Under Holker’s direction, there was a team of English workmen including carpenters, joiners, calenderers and others. In October 1754, out of a total of eighty-six artisans at Saint-Sever, there were twenty English skilled workers and over the next few years they became influential in developing machinery for preparing and spinning cotton, not only there but in other parts of France as well.

Under Trudaine’s patronage Holker flourished, earning a large salary and almost certainly prospering more than he might have done as a manufacturer back in Lancashire. That his main duty was as a spy is made clear in a letter in Trudaine’s files: “If one proposes to bring to France foreign skills, and principally those of England, where industry has made more progress than anywhere else, one can first use Sieur Holker to set up and maintain a secret correspondence with England to get thence surely and quickly all the models of machines and the samples and tools one needs.” Holker himself appears to have experienced little difficulty in bypassing the English customs officers, favouring the overcrowded port of London for transporting skilled artisans and machines to France. He chose ships sailing from the Thames to Rotterdam to allay any suspicion that cargoes were heading to Rouen. All the latest pieces of equipment—the spinning jennies from the 1760s onwards and the water frames and mules, which were hybrids of the jenny and water frame, from the 1770s—were shipped across to France illegally.

Some spies were caught. Charles Albert, a native of Strasburg, came to England in 1791 as the agent for a Toulouse firm which had cotton mills. While trying to recruit skilled workers, including a man called Geoffrey Scholes, he was arrested. He was tried in 1792 at Lancaster Assizes, where he was convicted, fined “500 and sentenced to one year in jail. Albert was unable to pay the fine and spent five years in Lancaster prison before returning to France where, undaunted, he set up his own spinning mill with the help of expatriate English artisans. He never looked back, establishing himself in Paris as a manufacturer of textile machines for which he was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Industrial Exhibition of 1806. Albert then moved into the manufacture of steam engines, for which he and his partner won more medals. Nevertheless, he ended his career simply buying in foreign inventions from England and America before his eventual retirement to Strasburg.
Holker was never caught, and in time he persuaded the French authorities that if he were given a high-ranking official position and were well paid, his conspicuous success would encourage more British artisans to follow. In April 1755 he was made one of just seven Inspectors General of Manufactures and attempted to encourage the best in British industrial practice in his adopted country, not only in textile manufacture but other areas as well. Towards the end of his life Holker became a distinguished figure, elevated to the French aristocracy and honoured by the Academy of Sciences. He was visited by the American publisher, scholar and inventor, Benjamin Franklin, and was friendly with Thomas Jefferson, who took over from Franklin as ambassador to France in 1784. Holker was anxious to forge a closer relationship with the United States, but he died in 1786, just three years after America’s victory in its War of Independence from Britain.

In the year before Holker died, a piece appeared in The Daily Universal Register, the forerunner of the London Times, which stated unequivocally that at one stage Holker (his name was spelt “Haulker”) had wanted to return to England and had asked for a pardon. Haulker was then already established in France but, so the piece claimed, offered to abandon his manufactory in Rouen if the Duke of Newcastle would allow him to establish a business again in England. According to the newspaper report, the Duke responded: “It’s all a mere trick to get a pardon, which he never shall obtain; and he may carry on what trade he pleases.” So Haulker ‘reluctantly concluded with the Court of France and began to fabricate cotton cloth”.

The Duke of Newcastle then realized his mistake and offered Holker not only a pardon but a bribe of “400 if he would abandon his French factory. “His answer,” says the Universal Register, “was noble, and does him credit, though us an injury. . . . All I wanted [said he] was a pardon—this offer is now too late, as several gentlemen have embarked their property with me, depending on my honour to fulfil my agreement.” From this cause was the cotton manufacture introduced into Normandy, and from that period, the French have done all in their power to encourage it. Spies have been repeatedly detected at Manchester and other places with models of the machinery.” In the opinion of the Universal Register, Holker had “entailed more ruin and mischief on this kingdom than perhaps even the loss of America”.1

Holker was a spy, pure and simple. But there were many other visitors from France who did not travel cloak and dagger but were, on the face of it, honoured guests. Travellers such as Faujas de Saint-Fond and Monsieur Le Turc, and indeed carriageloads of distinguished Frenchmen, wrote up their observations on the wonders of English industrialism in all apparent innocence. On their tours they were bound to take in Cromford Mill and might observe it at night with the spindles whirring under candlelight or the fiery hell of Coalbrookdale’s iron foundries in the steep-sided gorge of the River Severn. Here, indeed, was the world’s very first iron bridge, opened to traffic in 1781. Then there were the works at Soho just outside Birmingham where Matthew Boulton made what were known in the eighteenth century as “toys”—buttons and buckles and all manner of metal trinkets. From the 1770s Boulton’s factory also manufactured the most celebrated stationary steam engines of the day designed by the Scot, James Watt. And any serious tourist was bound to visit Etruria, where Josiah Wedgwood had his world-famous pottery which made splendid crockery and tea sets always with an eye to the latest fashions.
There was a dilemma for the leading industrialists of the day when confronted with a visitor from abroad. Men like Boulton and Wedgwood sold their wares all over Europe and they did not want to upset potential customers. It was always possible, too, that a visitor might want to order some of their wares or one of their machines and they were not necessarily averse to selling. And on occasion a foreigner might let slip some really useful piece of technical information, as happened from time to time. Matthew Boulton, for example, used his French contacts to discover the secret of or moulu (literally, “ground gold”) for gilding and employed at his Soho works some celebrated engravers, including the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Droz and Conrad Heinrich Kuchler from Flanders. On the other hand, they could never be quite sure if their guest had an eye to steal their trade secrets, and a decision had to be taken about how much to show them, or whether to let them in at all. Quite a few distinguished visitors were disappointed by their arm’s-length treatment.
Josiah Wedgwood was one who felt seriously threatened by attempts to lure his skilled workmen away to France. In 1783 he published a little pamphlet he titled An Address to the Workmen in the Pottery on the subject of Entering into Service of Foreign Manufacturers, signing it “Josiah Wedgwood FRS, Potter to her Majesty”. Prefacing his pamphlet with the proverb “A rolling stone gathers no moss’, Wedgwood put forward a telling argument to the effect that any of his workmen who were enticed abroad by the offer of higher wages were bound to end up poorer than when they left his employ. Why could French property masters, for instance, afford to pay them at a rate six times higher than the local wage rates? “Now they certainly cannot be gainers, so long as we are able to send among them a better and cheaper commodity than they can make themselves: and surely we shall not find it difficult to do this whilst they give double the wages that we do.”2

Inevitably, therefore, the foreign potter would seek to use the Englishmen to train up French apprentices and, once they had learned the trade, the English instructors would no longer be necessary and would certainly not command very high wages. In fact, in the long run they would probably be offered less than the locals. “And such low wages would afford but miserable subsistence to Englishmen brought up from their infancy to better and more substantial fare than frogs, hedgehogs and the wild herbs of the field.”
It was not necessarily inventiveness that was stolen when a skilled worker went abroad but his knowledge of industrial technique. And that, in the eighteenth century, was what the British were thought to be especially good at: turning novel ideas into successful commercial ventures. Daniel Defoe, in his A Plan of the English Commerce, had written in 1728: “It is a kind of Proverb attending the Character of English Men, that they are better to improve than to invent, better to advance upon the Designs and Plans which other People have laid down than to form Schemes and Designs of their Own; and which is still more, the Thing seems to be really true in Fact and the Observation very just “”3 As another proverb had it, “For a thing to be perfect it must be invented in France and worked out in England.”

Within Britain, the theft of techniques and the enticing away of workmen from one firm to another was widespread. And it is quite probable that the celebrated inventors of textile machinery, James Hargreaves and Richard Arkwright, were really plagiarists. Conclusive evidence of who invented what does not exist. Either way, claiming an invention did not guarantee success. Hargreaves was, in the end, a failure, while Arkwright became a very rich man. It is extremely unlikely that Arkwright had the know-how or technical ability to invent any complex machinery. He was more in the way of a fixer, who said what he wanted and got others to solve the problem. In the case of the water frame, the inventive genius was quite likely a watchmaker called John Kay whom Arkright had met in his days as a travelling peruke- or wig-maker. Kay challenged the validity of Arkwright’s patent for the water frame and won the legal battle, but only long after Arkwright had already become wealthy and been honoured with a knighthood.
The laws against the export of men and machines, which were extended throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, were the subject of a parliamentary review in 1824. Though the Select Committee, which took evidence from a wide range of manufacturers, found that espionage and the enticement of workmen abroad was still rife, the new enthusiasm for “free trade” put an end to attempts to stem the flow of native know-how out of the country. The committee wondered if it was still true that finding workmen with special skills was so important in an age where the nature of inventions had become much more complex, the patent laws more rigorously applied and more information was available in technical publications. Skilled workers were now free to go abroad without fear of having their luggage searched for specialist tools. But the ban on the export of key machinery—the steam engine was a puzzling exception—remained until the 1840s.

In any case, as the French were to discover, transferring industrialism in bits and pieces across the Channel was never just a simple matter of enticing workmen away from home. In the age of the steam engine, an abundant and relatively cheap supply of coal was needed. Either industry had to be established on the coalfields or there had to be reasonably priced transport, which meant by boat before the coming of the railways. Britain had the huge advantage of rich coalfields lying along tidal rivers linked to each other by coastline. Most of France’s coalfields were in the north while much of its textile industry was on the Rhone in the region of Lyons. That was just one fundamental difference between the two countries. There were many others to do with government’s attitude to industry—which, for instance, was much more controlling in France than in Britain—as well as the attitude to manufacturing of the moneyed classes. As Arnold Toynbee was to argue in his 1888 Lectures on the Industrial Revolution, the key to “take off” was a loosening of old guild restrictions and other cultural inhibitors of industrial growth.

The key figure, then, was perhaps not so much the skilled artisan as the talented entrepreneur or businessman. Men such as Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgwood combined both skills. In a later period they might well have considered moving their factories abroad to tap cheaper land and labour or to expand their business. As it was, they were content to sell to foreign buyers. However, there was a contemporary of theirs who seemed to suffer no fear at all of foreign competition, especially from the French. So assured was he of his superiority that he had no compunction in planting his industry on French soil, and it was not without reason that he became known as “Iron Mad” Wilkinson.

Author Q&A

Q. What was your inspiration for The Industrial Revolutionaries?

A. It was a question that had been in my mind for a long time: how did a new kind of industrial society which took shape in 18th century Britain spread to other parts of the world. Did it arise spontaneously or was it a matter of copying British know-how in the early stages?

Q. And what was the answer?

A. In the early days, from the mid-18th century to the 1830s, any country eager to industrialise and to compete with Britain tried to get hold of its expertise. It was a case of borrowing and stealing and for that period Britain put a ban on its artisans taking their knowledge and the technology abroad. After the United States gained Independence there was a big drive to develop home-grown industries and a great deal of knowledge was shipped across the Atlantic not only from Britain but from France and Germany as well. I have a chapter on what I call the “tool bag” travellers which gives an account of the importation of expertise.

Q. So it was a case of borrowing technology to get started?

A. Yes. Once industrialism was established, however, it rapidly developed quite independently of its British or European origins and was soon competing vigorously in many fields of manufacturing. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the industrialisation of Japan from the late 1870s which was achieved entirely with imported expertise, much of it Scottish, in the first thirty years or so. With astonishing speed, however, it became a new kind of very powerful industrial nation capable of defeating Russia and destroying its Navy by 1905.

Q. When would you say the United States began to develop its own version of Industrialism?

A. From the mid-19th century onwards. Before Independence Britain banned the development of industries in the American colonies. After Independence it banned its artisans from taking their expertise to America, not that the law was very effective. It is not surprising therefore that it took a while for American industry to get established. There was no coal mining to speak of and up to the 1830s timber was the main source of fuel and building materials. However, by the time of the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, the United States was just beginning to show its mettle with the Colt revolver and McCormick’s horse-drawn reaper. By 1900 Britain was importing American expertise for its first electric trams and train lines.

Q. You take issue with the reputation of some of the most famous inventors in history. Were you surprised to discover that certain inventions were attributed to the wrong people?

A. In some instances I was, in others I was aware that the popular histories were wrong or distorted. For example, I had long known that James Watt, the Scottish instrument maker, did not invent the steam engine, the earliest versions of which were working away in mines twenty years before he was born. I was aware too that Samuel Morse did not invent the electric telegraph, as many still believe. I found Thomas Edison fascinating because he is one of those great characters who attract wild adulation which obscures their real achievements. My view is that the only thing he really did invent was the phonograph which caused a world wide sensation though the quality of sound of the first models was not good enough to make it commercial. Edison’s team at Menlo Park also created a commercial incandescent light bulb in record time but they did not invent it. As with so many other technological advances no one individual can be said to be the inventor. In that respect the phonograph was exceptional.

Q. Would you pick out any one individual as the most remarkable “Industrial Revolutionary”?

A. Henry Bessemer would be one. His name does not sound English and he was in fact descended from French Huguenots, but he was brought up in England and was astonishingly inventive from a young age. He made a fortune manufacturing gold paint which was very expensive until he designed machine to mass produce it working to a Medieval formula. He used that fortune to invent many other things and then discovered a method of mass producing steel while working on a new gun for the British army. After some serious teething troubles his “Bessemer Converter” revolutionised the steel industry worldwide. But there are many others such as Justus Liebig the German chemist who founded Fray Bentos, and the American Jacob Perkins who tried his luck in England, demonstrated a steam machine gun to the Duke of Wellington in London’s Regents Park and founded a printing firm which produced England’s first Penny Black stamps.

Q. You go into some detail about the development of the bicycle which is perhaps not always thought of as a major industrial development.

A. The history of the bicycle is, I believe, fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly its development depended on the discovery that it is possible to hold your balance while rolling along on two wheels. With the forerunners, such as the hobby horse, you would do this only while flying down hill. Then there was the evolution of steering and gearing of a self-propelled vehicle. The problem of suspension and speed was solved first by high-wheeling, the rider atop a “penny farthing” with one huge wheel and one small one. The inflatable tire was invented twice over but proved crucial for the bicycle as it gave suspension and speed with a smaller wheel. As cycling became a craze demands were made for better roads and competitions were held to establish the best models. The idea that you could move fast over long distances without a horse was inspirational and the bicycle paved the way for the first motor-cars. The bicycle which looks so obvious and simple to us today was created over half a century of technological innovation yet histories either ignore it or imagine its only influence was on the freedom it gave to women.

Q. What would you say you learned most from your research for this book?

A. I think the way in which old technologies are vital for the development of those which supersede them. The industrial revolution in Britain, Europe and North America would have been quite impossible without horses and yet the assumption remains that the railway did away with horse drawn traffic. Horses were not only vital for building the railways, until the arrival of the motor car they hauled the goods and passengers to and from the railway stations. Mechanisms developed to work with steam engines — all the precision engineering required — could easily be adopted to the petrol and electrical motors which took over from them. Nearly all innovations which appear to burst upon the world quite suddenly have had a very long evolution.

Lastly I suppose I could accept that a criticism of my study is that I have not offered the world a new theory about how industrialism spread as it did, where it did. I confess that I was overwhelmed by the variety of human endeavour that had gone into it and was quite unable to reduce it to any kind of formula. While it is true that industrialism appears to be an unstoppable force which is frightening for many people it is not, in my view, something essentially impersonal. Nothing has been achieved in the realm of technological change, for good or ill, without a huge amount of human effort and it is that which I have emphasises in The Industrial Revolutionaries.