Sunday, 9 January 2011

Industrial Disputes

"Ask yourselves - What can upset Hari Seldon's careful scheme of history, eh?" He peered from one to the other with a mild, questioning anxiety. "What were Seldon's original assumptions? First, that there would be no fundamental change in human society over the next thousand years. "For instance, suppose there were a major change in the Galaxy's technology, such as finding a new principle for the utilization of energy, or perfecting the study of electronic neurobiology. Social changes would render Seldon's original equations obsolete. But that hasn't happened, has it now?" (Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov)

In the first of two programmes, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Industrial Revolution. Between the middle of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth, Britain was transformed. This was a revolution, but not a political one: over the course of a few generations industrialisation swept the nation. Inventions such as the machine loom and the steam engine changed the face of manufacturing; cheap iron and steel became widely available; and vast new cities grew up around factory towns.

All this had profound effects - not all of them positive - as an agrarian and primitive society was turned into an industrial empire, the richest nation on Earth. But why did this revolution take place here rather than abroad? And why did it begin in the first place?

Jeremy Black - Professor of History at the University of Exeter
Pat Hudson - Professor Emerita of History at Cardiff University
William Ashworth - Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. (1)

This programme was something of a first, it went out live, so that Melvin Bragg's newsletter was written before the programme began. In it, he asked:

"And then there's this great Industrial Revolution. I wonder what they're going to say? In the briefings and the extracts that I've read, there is a tendency to play down the contribution of individuals. There is talk of how the colonial possessions of Britain gave it a flying start. Of how the slave trade brought in goods which plumped the economy and the Indian textile industry fed, and was fed by, Britain in protectionist and unfair ways. There is talk about mercantile nexus. On it goes. With some historians it's a bit of a fight to foreground individuals. All is flow. Perhaps I'm being unfair. One of the pleasures of this programme is to have your own ideas and find them expertly proved to be wrong when you hit the air at 9:02." (Melvin Bragg) (2)

Poor Melvin. There must have been blood on the Green Room carpet afterwards. He innocently asked the question about the main factors behind the industrial revolution, and was pounced on by Professor Pat Hudson, who not only criticised the role of individuals, but also accused him, in a heated discussion, of being racist when he asked if individuals had no part to contribute in the shaping of the industrial revolution:

Bragg: Pat, what were the 3 main causes of the Industrial Revolution?

Hudson: "We must get away from the idea that the Industrial Revolution was caused by a wave of gadgets or by a peculiar inventive ability of British science or scientists-"

Bragg: Why?? WHY?? You are not giving this fair due in my mind-Why must we get away from it? People invent stuff, they made things, this made things happen and you keep denying it.

Bragg: ..."Oh its all to do with the broad sweep of history". Listen people invented things that hadn't been there before which enabled things to happen that had not happened before.

Hudson: Can I say that that really does characterise nationalistic accounts of the period with a peculiar sort of emphasis on British genius or.

Bragg: I didn't say that!

Hudson: "Or the superiority of the British as a race, this characterises some really almost racist accounts of the Industrial Revolution."

Bragg: Hold on! When you start talking about my arguments as racist-that's really not on!

Of course, Professor Hudson is well known for downplaying the part of individuals and technology. In her article in BBC History Magazine, no doubt also a summary of her book on the subject, the reader will look in vain for any mention of entrepreneurial or engineering genius:

For a few decades in the 19th century British manufactured goods dominated world trade. Most mass manufactured items were produced more efficiently and competitively in Britain than elsewhere. She also had the commercial, financial and political power to edge out rivals at home and abroad. In some industries, most notably textiles, massive changes took place in technology and in the organisation of production causing dramatic productivity growth. This in turn brought a steep decline in prices. In many other sectors more modest organisational improvements coupled with greater specialisation and the employment of cheap labour brought similar, though less dramatic, results. An unprecedented range and variety of products thus came within the grasp of a new mass market both within Britain and overseas. No other country could at first compete so Britain became the workshop of the world.

This is the "lucky geography" argument that is becoming increasingly prevalent in today's history. A society becomes dominant because it has the resources available, whether in agriculture, or natural resources such as coal, which can hence be exploited more readily than in other societies, and so that society steals a march on others.

There is also what C.P. Snow called a "Tolstoyan" idea of history. Snow suggested that there were two competing ideas in historical explanation. One was the Tolstoyan one, that individuals didn't really matter, so that if one individual had not come up with an idea or invention, or done something important, someone else would have done pretty much the same thing. A good example from the field of science is the calculus, which was independently invented by both Newton and Leibniz. Again, both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were thinking along the same lines about evolution. But Snow saw that there were exceptions. On Einstein, he commented that:

As with Rutherford, as with most scientists, if Einstein had never lived, most of his work would soon have been done by someone else, and in much the same form. He said himself that that was true of the special theory of relativity. But, when he generalised the special theory so as to include the gravitational field, he did something that might not have been done for generations: and, above all, might not have been done that way. It might, some good theoreticians have suggested, have ultimately been done in a way easier for others to handle. It remains an extraordinary monolith, like a Henry Moore sculpture, which he alone could have constructed. (CP Snow, Variety of Men)

The "Churchillian" notion of history sees it as driven by individuals who seize the moment, rather than a general background of forces; it is these individuals who change the world. As can be seen from Snow's account, history can in many ways be understood best on Tolstoy's terms, but the Churchillian people do exist, and do make changes. Whoever was President in the White House would have probably ordered the atomic bomb to be used against Japan. Germany might well have headed towards dictatorship and war regardless of who was the dictator in charge. But individuals also make a difference - another dictator in Germany more in the mould of Mussolini, or Stalin, or Franco, might not have put in place a genocidal policy to destroy the Jews.

Moreover, with her decrying of a "wave of gadgets", Professor Hudson nevertheless brings in the same gadgets, minus inventors, by the back door:

The period from the late 18th century to the mid-Victorian years witnessed a major shake up and change in both the economy and society. This was seen in the organisation and finance of industry and commerce, the skills and work practices of production and technology, massive population growth and urbanisation and the development and disciplining of labour. Canal, river, road and sea transport were all greatly improved. From the 1840s, railways revolutionised the speed of communication and the transport of passengers and, more gradually, freight.

If the steam engine is not a "gadget", I don't know what is. Moreover, while canals could move freight around more easily and faster than the bad and almost unusable roads of the time, the railway could move freight around at huge speeds. With the invention of the telegraph (another gadget), communication also changed beyond recognition. The gadgets also changed the way society worked - time became centralised and standardised because of the railways. Wars also changed - the problems with supply lines could be radically altered, and far more cheaply than any other means of transport.

Now it is possible to take the Tolstoyan view, and say the time was ripe for these inventions, and if one person had not invented one, someone else might have done so. Nonetheless, the "gadgets" and their inventors also fed back into the industrial revolution, especially as entrepreneurs saw the opportunities provided by inventions. Taking Professor Hudson's point, the background culture had also to be ripe for such change - what she didn't cite, but might have done, was that earlier steam engines, such as that described by Hero of Alexandria, or the those mentioned by Taqi al-Din in 1551 and developed by Giovanni Branca in 1629 never saw any practical use.

The steam engine didn't come out of nowhere either - Papin's digester, a steam pressure cooker for extracting fats from bones by high pressure steam used a steam-release valve, which was to prove essential in the later development of the steam engine. But it was Newcomen and Watt who developed the steam engine as such, and Watt, more than Newcomen, applied scientific concepts rather than just existing technology to improve the engine, and also saw the economic potential of a massively improved design. 80% of the steam used by the Newcomen engine was wasted. Humphrey Gainsborough had also similar ideas to Watt, but did not have the commercial nous to exploit the market for such engines.

Likewise, in a different field, George Stephenson and Humphrey Davy both had similar ideas for a mining safety lamp, and Stephenson was actually accused by Davy of stealing Davy's ideas, although this was proven to be unfounded. The designs were different, but worked on the same principle, of letting air into the lamp by tiny holes.

But the importance of the "gadget" can most clearly be seen in the invention of the wheel. No one knew who invented the wheel, yet its use in transport and farming was of immense importance, so that the knowledge of the technology spread rapidly, but not to South America, where no such invention was ever made. Geography does play an important role here, but it is hindering the dissemination of technological knowledge, rather than anything "lucky" about geographical resources.

Moreover, the suppression of knowledge can also play a part. If it hadn't been for the Reformation, which aided significantly by the printing press (another gadget), Europe would have been under the sway of a Catholicism wedded to Aristotelian ideas about the universe, and resistant to any changes. How long it would taken for astronomy to have changed is debatable, but the freer movement of ideas after the Reformation undoubtedly contributed to scientific advances. The Reformation led to a culture in which there were more scientific geniuses outside of the domain of Catholicism not because of any racial superiority, but definitely because of a culture of freedom. This could be described as "uniquely Reformation". In a similar way, British non-conformist culture definitely provided more non-University educational opportunities for self-taught individuals, and more opportunities for inventors to get commercial exploitation of labour saving inventions.

Returning to Professor Hudson's remarks on the industrial revolution not occurring because of the "peculiar inventive ability of British science or scientists". I can agree more with this remark, because the Royal Society actually played little part in the industrial revolution. George Stephenson was self-taught. Watt was working as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow. The main inventors seem to have been outside the mainstream of the scientific community. But perhaps this should be considered in more detail. Why were the inventors mostly outside the scientific establishment? Why were there no major inventions coming from there? Why were there such opportunities for creative inventors?

It can also be argued that there are two parts to the industrial revolution. One comes with improvements such as Hagreave's spinning jenny, which was a technological advance, a labour saving device, but not one which changed the basic operations in textiles, which were still functioning by manpower. The other comes with the introduction of automatic mechanical power, such as we find in steam engines and railways.

The first kind of improvement introduces a new gadget, but the second introduces a real revolution in how - in terms of physics - "work" is done - taking it from manpower to automation. It was these "power gadgets" that made the Industrial revolution quite unlike any other development, and changed the demographics, the way of working, the marking of time, and made a fundamental change in human society quite unlike any other, so that in around one hundred years, there was a seismic shift from 80% of the population working on the land to 80% working in the cities.

Once they arrived, the "power gadgets" began a process of change which is still with us today, which is why I see this as the critical tipping factor in the Industrial revolution, marking it out from other changes, and making it qualitatively different (provided the sources of energy are not consumed) and why I begin with the quote from Asimov - "suppose there were a major change in the technology"

The ideological agenda which ignores this change is misguided. When Professor Hudson uses a washing machine, or turns on an electrical gadget, I hope she reflects on the fundamental change in society that "power gadgets" have brought about, and how they set in motion an impetus for change and better gadgets that is with us still. We are still struggling to understand and cope with the environmental and ethical problems brought about by that change.



Old OV said...

Its good to hear Professor Hudson, a woman to boot, taking issue with Bragg, to whome his guests are usually oh so deferential. She has no truck with his simple nationalistic explanations.

His guests are extremely stroppy and unusually so. Excellent!

TonyTheProf said...

Yet her explanations were also simplistic in removing the individual from the history. As one commenter noted:

"To willfully ignore the inventors and suggest that coal was responsible for the steam engine is like saying Google Search was the product of silicon in Silicon Valley and not the genius of Brin and Page."

Also another comment came from someone who went into more detail what I only touched on, the peculiar role of non-conformity in British society - wealth, but no access to traditional routes (only open to the members of the CofE):

"It is no co-incidence that the scientists, inventors, engineers and industrialists were predominantly Quakers, Unitarians or Congregationalists. These people were not allowed to attend the universities, and founded their own Academies, where the subjects taught (apart from those suitable for the training of ministers of religion) were scientific. No science subjects were taught at Oxford and Cambridge. In fact it could be said that very little was taught at those two places at all! The Academies were of such a high standard that even Anglicans sent their children there.
Sunday Schools also promoted discussion of all subjects, and itinerant preachers spread ideas around the Dissenting congregations. The Non-conformist Sunday Schools also created a literate population for the first time, and they were hungry for more information and further advances, as well as for human rights and easier ways of living."

That was also touched on quite strongly by James Burke back in the 1980s in his history of science, and I'm surprised no one mentioned it.

Anonymous said...

PH has little grasp of engineering - what she describes pejoratively as 'tinkering' I would describe as the highly skilled and responsible process of 'engineering development'.
She tries to claim that most of the inventions and pioneering work was carried out not in Britain, but one of the (four) examples she gives of this is in steam engines. I can find no evidence of any pioneering work other than that of Savery and Newcomen - they built the only engines that actually ever pumped water prior to 1720. Papin and Huygens had contemporary ideas (post Somerset), but never pioneered an engine.
But finally, just consider this polished diamond:
"The steam engine wasn't made fully workable and efficient into well into the 19C; the 500 or so steam engines sold by Boulton and Watt had an average horsepower of 14"! I'm an engineer, and that claim is meaningless to me. Firstly, efficiency and rated power are not similar parameters, and are only weakly related to each other, and secondly, she almost certainly does not understand that even a 14 hp steam engine would be capable of delivering enormous quantities or torque. If Boulton and Watt's progress was so small, how come they made their fortune by charging a proportion of the efficiency savings their engines made over those of Newcomen? And then there's a bogus use of averaging. To try and understand the stupidity of what she's saying, try:
"The speed of aeroplanes didn't improve well into the 21st century: aeroplanes built in the 20C had an average take-off weight of less than 1 ton".

Peter Betess said...

As an engineer myself, who greatly admires the achievements of the engineers of the Industrial Revolution I find it quite upsetting to hear them described as ‘tinkerers’ and their inventions as ‘gadgets’. We would not describe the Elizabethan dramatists as ‘scribblers’ or the French impressionists as ‘daubers’. Whether or not you think that the IR would have happened without these engineers I do not see that such sneering language from Professor Hudson adds anything to the debate.

The Doodler said...

Thank you Tony, I think your remarks are are quite on the mark. I'm a bit late to the show but having just listened to the IOT program I was struck by the vehemence, the intensity with which Hudson rejected the value of acknowledging the designers of the "gadgets" that were undeniably the backbone of the industrial economy. It strikes me that even if one accepts the notion that most devices that humans have created probably would have emerged even if their specific inventors were subtracted from history (an idea that I generally agree with), it is still, at least intersting and at best deeply informative to explore the lives and contributions of those inventors.inevitability or deep history.
I am, by no means an advocate of the "great man" theory of history (although it seems undeniable that certain individuals made indelible marks in the human record)but I can't bring myself to endorse any mechanism of historical analysis as providing a complete and unimpeachable explanation of event causation. I'm not a positivist. I don't believe that a complete set of rules fully explaining the causation of historical events will ever be synthesized. But I do believe that the ballanced employment of a variety of critical methods from geographic determinism, market theory to deep history (to name just a few) can enlighten. Wow, I'm a wind bag!
I guess her sense of certainty regarding her idealogical single mindedness put me off to Professor Hudson.