Where did it all begin? Iron Pots? Pressure Cookers? Penny Coffee ? Or ????

Ironbridge, Shropshire

Every schoolchild has to learn some sort of history. So, really, history just can’t be that hard to figure out. “Everybody knows” that The Industrial Revolution ran from 1750 to 1840, give or take a decade or so, on each end. (There are a few folks who also lump all things vaguely Victorian in with the Industrial Revolution, as well, but surely historians are a tolerant lot and will not quibble over more inclusive time boundaries.) Likewise, it is common knowledge that this revolution was the era of iron-smelting, steam power, trains, bridges, canals, the textile industries, and, above all, factories, with associated Dickensian visions of slums, tenements, child labor, poverty and horrific working conditions.

But engineers have pretty strong tendencies toward realism, pragmatism, and solving problems with verified data whenever possible. Good problem-solving means getting a firm handle on the real questions, winnowing the wheat from the chaff of good and bad information, assumptions, facts, and fantasies. So what if there are a few significant language differences, some of them supposedly in English, and a few centuries, give or take, between us and our definition? It just means that defining the problem, specifying parameters, constraints, hypotheses, and strategies, and then coming up with answers is going to be more along the lines of a final senior project instead of a quick homework assignment due the next class period.

In reality, this history stuff gets pretty complex. Deciding how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is a piece of cake compared to defining just what the Industrial Revolution was, which would, in turn, help us decide what time period to consider so that we actually have a relevant and manageable data set to examine. Then maybe we will have a chance to squeeze some useful information out of all that data.

Darby Pot

A Darby Pot

Likely candidates for the birth of the Industrial Revolution abound. Did it start with good-quality iron? Abraham Darby III, a member of the Quaker iron dynasty, completed casting the famous Ironbridge in 1779, but his grandfather, Abraham Darby I, coke-smelted iron pots in 1709. These “Darby Pots” were a technological breakthrough: affordable, durable, unbreakable cast-iron, thinner, cheaper, and lighter than the competing Dutch cast-iron cookware. Was steam the beginning? The discovery of steam itself is, of course, lost in the vapours of time. Better documented, however, is “The Miner’s Friend” , Thomas Savery’s functional steam pump designed to remove water from mines (1698). “Trains”, in the broadest sense, debuted with Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive demonstration in 1804. As is not unusual, it was over 20 years from Trevithick’s proof-of-principle to practicality. George Stephenson led the effort which resulted in the first commercial steam railway engine, inaugurated in 1825. However, all these steam machines owed a debt to a previous practical “steam machine”: the “digester” or pressure cooker of Denis Papin, reportedly a Huguenot refugee, who patented this machine in 1679. Shortly thereafter, King Charles and the Royal Society enjoyed the culinary product of the digester, to critical acclaim. Besides producing culinary delights, Papin’s digester boasted the first safety valve, which could be adjusted by sliding a weight along a lever external to the pressure vessel.

Papin’s Digester, complete with safety valve

Just looking at two criteria, steam and iron, we could possibly justify dates from 1679 to 1825 for the official beginning of the time period of study. We have not yet touched the textile question.

There is, of course, the possibility that the Industrial Revolution began percolating even earlier. In the seventeenth century, coffee houses became popular throughout Europe. Ever enterprising, some eighteenth century English coffee houses hosted “Penny Universities”. For a penny, patrons could drink coffee, discuss matters of all sorts with their fellow men, and attend high-quality lectures from well-respected academics. The interested citizen could be well-informed on the latest developments in mathematics, literature, and economics by choosing his coffee house well. This tradition of affordable continuing education contributed to an intellectual climate which crossed class boundaries, a natural incubator for innovation, ideas, and inventions.

We have not yet sounded the depth of the iceberg. Stay tuned and do not hesitate to offer suggestions.


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