Fossil Fuels, Steam Power, and the Rise of Manufacturing
Abundant fossil fuels, and the innovative machines they powered, launched an era of accelerated change that continues to transform human society.
Smokestacks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1890s © Bettmann/CORBISThe Transformation of the World
Try to imagine what your life would be like without any machines working for you. Make a list of the machines in your household and on your person; you may arrive at a surprising number.
Now imagine earlier generations during their childhood years. How did they move from place to place? How did they communicate? What foods did they eat?
At one time, humans, fueled by the animals and plants they ate and the wood they burned, or aided by their domesticated animals, provided most of the energy in use. Windmills and waterwheels captured some extra energy, but there was little in reserve. All life operated within the fairly immediate flow of energy from the Sun to Earth.
Everything changed during the Industrial Revolution, which began around 1750. People found an extra source of energy with an incredible capacity for work. That source was fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas, though coal led the way — formed underground from the remains of plants and animals from much earlier geologic times. When these fuels were burned, they released energy, originally from the Sun, that had been stored for hundreds of millions of years.
Coal was formed when huge trees from the Carboniferous period (345– 280 million years ago) fell and were covered with water, so that oxygen and bacteria could not decay them. Instead, the pressure of the weight of materials above them compressed them into dark, carbonic, ignitable rock.
Most of the Earth’s oil and gas formed over a hundred million years ago from tiny animal skeletons and plant matter that fell to the bottom of seas or were buried in sediment. This organic matter was compacted by the weight of water and soil. Coal, oil, and gas, despite their relative abundance, are not evenly distributed on Earth; some places have much more than others, due to geographic factors and the diverse ecosystems that existed long ago.
Early Steam Engines
The story of the Industrial Revolution begins on the small island of Great Britain. By the early 18th century, people there had used up most of their trees for building houses and ships and for cooking and heating. In their search for something else to burn, they turned to the hunks of black stone (coal) that they found near the surface of the earth. Soon they were digging deeper to mine it. Their coal mines filled with water that needed to be removed; horses pulling up bucketfuls proved slow going.
James Watt’s “Sun and Planet” steam engine © Bettmann/CORBIS To the rescue came James Watt (1736–1819), a Scottish instrument-maker who in 1776 designed an engine in which burning coal produced steam, which drove a piston assisted by a partial vacuum. (There had been earlier steam engines in Britain, and also in China and in Turkey, where one was used to turn the spit that roasts a lamb over a fire.) Its first application was to more quickly and efficiently pump water out of coal mines, to better allow for extraction of the natural resource, but Watt’s engine worked well enough to be put to other uses; he became a wealthy man. After his patent ran out in 1800, others improved upon his engine. By 1900 engines burned 10 times more efficiently than they had a hundred years before.
At the outset of the 19th century, British colonies in North America were producing lots of cotton, using machines to spin the cotton thread on spindles and to weave it into cloth on looms. When they attached a steam engine to these machines, they could easily outproduce India, up until then the world’s leading producer of cotton cloth. One steam engine could power many spindles and looms. This meant that people had to leave their homes and work together in factories.
Early in the 19th century the British also invented steam locomotives and steamships, which revolutionized travel. In 1851 they held the first world’s fair, at which they exhibited telegraphs, sewing machines, revolvers, reaping machines, and steam hammers to demonstrate they that were the world’s leading manufacturer of machinery. By this time the characteristics of industrial society — smoke rising from factories, bigger cities and denser populations, railroads — could be seen in many places in Britain.
Britain wasn’t the only place that had deposits of coal. So why didn’t the Industrial Revolution begin in China, or somewhere else that boasted this natural resource? Did it start in isolation in Britain, or were there global forces at work that shaped it? Was it geography or cultural institutions that mattered most? Historians have vigorously debated these questions, amassing as much evidence as possible for their answers.
Possible reasons why industrialization began in Britain include:
- Shortage of wood and the abundance of convenient coal deposits
- Commercial-minded aristocracy; limited monarchy
- System of free enterprise; limited government involvement
- Government support for commercial projects, for a strong navy to protect ships
- Cheap cotton produced by slaves in North America
- High literacy rates
- Rule of law; protection of assets
- Valuable immigrants (Dutch, Jews, Huguenots [French Protestants])
Possible reasons why industrialization did not begin in China include:
- Location of China’s coal, which was in the north, while economic activity was centered in the south
- Rapid growth of population in China, giving less incentive for machines and more for labor-intensive methods
- Confucian ideals that valued stability and frowned upon experimentation and change
- Lack of Chinese government support for maritime explorations, thinking its empire seemed large enough to provide everything needed
- China’s focus on defending self from nomadic attacks from the north and west
Global forces influencing the development of industrialization in Britain include:
- Britain’s location on the Atlantic Ocean
- British colonies in North America, which provided land, labor, and markets
- Silver from the Americas, used in trade with China
- Social and ideological conditions in Britain, and new thoughts about the economy, that encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit
By the way, if you’re wondering what oil and natural gas were doing while coal was powering the Industrial Revolution, they had been discovered long before and were in use, but mostly as fuels for lamps and other light sources. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that oil caught up — and surpassed — coal in use.