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What is the Industrial Revolution ? Why a steam engine ?

Everybody knows what the Industrial Revolution is and I invite you to explore this website ( to remember some details.

In our case, the important point is about the technological changes brought by this Revolution. In fact, it is difficult to talk about a Revolution (the subject is well known by Maurice Daumas, Le cheval de César ou le mythe des Révolutions techniques, 1991) : the modifications were made gradually with improvements of former techniques and their new adaptations.

But, when the steam engine began to be well diffused, it profoundly transformed the way of working and particularly the resort to animals.

Let us see this interesting video : Steam engine

So, to use steam engine, you need a new raw material : coal.

I would like to focus on a book of Emma Griffin, A short history of the British Industrial Revolution, 2010, especially the chapter 7 about “Coal : the key to the British Industrial Revolution” (p. 105-125)

The Victorian imagination allowed negative aspects and images of the Industrial Revolution : cityscapes blighted by coal-dust and smog, railways puffing out their black smoke, works of women and children in deeply buried coal mines etc. But the coal was fundamental to make for a modern civilization.

Around 1700, demographic and industrial increases entered in competition to use natural ressources. The population needed land to cultivate crops for food and trees for firewood, but industry wanted the same land to grow timber to fuel the furnaces upon which production depended. It is what Tony Wrigley called as an “organic economy”, opposed to an “inorganic” one.

In the « organic economy », all energy needs for both the people and manufacturing are derived from organic matter alone. It had undoubtedly prospered at certain points in history, but as population and economy both depended upon organic matter, the growth of one was limited by the other.

In the second one, the industrial economy used different raw materials and fossil fuels in particular. When industry began to burn coal rather than wood and to dig under the soil, it was possible to save several millions of acres of land which would be required to grow timber. Wrigley has suggested that the output of the British coal industry in 1800 (15 million tons) provided the equivalent energy supplied by about 15 million acres of land. By exploiting her coal reserve, Britain broke free from the constraints of the organic economy and the conflict between human needs and industrial production was broken…this pivotal role was played by coal.

In fact, the production and the consumption of coal in Great Britain increased during the 18th century and especially the 19th one. There were, of course, many alternatives to coal : muscle power of humans or animals, wind, water or trees. But, by the early 18th, coal was more important than the other.

Industrial production, coal consumption, iron production and development of steam engine contributed to modify the society.

Newcomen invented the steam pump in 1712, which was used to pump water in much larger quantities and more profoundly in coal mines. Watt invented the “double acting rotative engine” in 1784, which could transmit power on both the down and the upstroke and convert it into circular motion. These ameliorations replaced the animal force in the mines or the waterwheels in the textile industry.


Here is a double water wheel (Newcomen steam engine) : it is interesting to notice that the engine doesn’t entirely replaced the work of the horse, which carries the buckets of water away from the surface.

Furthermore, it was an important transformation of the transport with the railways. In 1700, Britain’s waterways played a pivotal role in the movement of industrial goods. But making canals took a long time and moving the ships by horses was boring : horses needed to be fed in lands reserved for fodder. During the 19th century, steam locomotives and railway tracks facilitated and improved the transport.

Finally, key industries (mining, iron-making, textiles and transport) abandoned their reliance on horses, charcoal and water and switched to coal instead.


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