The Age of Canals and Steam
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
In another field a great change was inaugurated, the precursor of another change which was to be in operation three-quarters of a century later. Until after the middle of the eighteenth century, traffic and communication were conducted entirely by road, that is, by the packhorse and the waggon, or by sea. Practically no use was made of waterways; the roads themselves were for the most part villainously bad, and the cost of transport was exceedingly heavy. The Duke of Bridgewater was the pioneer of the canal system. He discovered an engineer of extraordinary genius in the person of the wholly illiterate James Brindley, and in 1758 he obtained sanction by an Act of parliament for the construction of a canal between Worsley and Manchester. In 1761 the canal was opened, although Brindley's schemes for it had been jeered at as visionary and impracticable. Men saw with amazement ships passing over an aqueduct, forty feet above the river Irwell. So much did this seven-mile canal reduce the cost of carriage between Worsley and Manchester that the price of coal in Manchester was halved. The effect of Brindley's success was instantaneous. In the next twenty years many hundreds of miles of canals were planned and carried out; before the end of the century there was a network of canals all over the country. An infinitely greater bulk of goods could be carried in much greater security on barges than in waggons, at a very much smaller expenditure of horse power and labour, though there was no diminution of either, owing to the enormous increase in the amount of traffic.
The role of iron
The spirit of invention was abroad. Hitherto we have spoken of it only in its application to the industries which touched the agrarian population. English pottery also rose to a new eminence, Josiah Wedgwood leading the way. But of all the inventions the most decisively influential on the national industries were those which were concerned with iron, coal, and steam. The development of the iron industry depended upon the furnace, and in the first half of the century charcoal was still the necessary fuel. Hence, although the quantity of iron in the soil was immense the output was small; the iron-fields were limited to the regions where forests were available, and Sussex held a foremost place among the-iron counties. Coal was of no use, because a sufficient blast could not be obtained, although towards the middle of the century there was a considerable development in the use of coke in the works of the Darbies of Coalbrookdale. But in 1760 Smeaton applied water power to the production of a blast which at once enormously increased the employment first of coke and then of coal as fuel, as well as the output of iron. Iron rapidly became the standard material for purposes for which it had hitherto been undreamed of, and the first iron bridge was carried over the Severn in 1779.
This association of iron with coal instead of with charcoal gave an enormous advantage in production to the districts where iron and coalfields were contiguous, and it drove out of the industrial race the iron districts like Sussex, which depended upon charcoal, as they were too remote from the coal regions to make use of that fuel. In these districts, therefore, there was a diminution of employment; whereas there was rapidly increasing employment both in the coalpits and in the iron works of the north and the midlands. It must be borne in mind, however, that the shifting of the population only followed the shifting of employment very slowly. The physical difficulties of migration were immense. It is easier today for the working-man to transport himself with his family from England to Canada than it was a hundred and fifty years ago for the Sussex labourer to remove himself to Lancashire. And to the physical difficulty of transport was added the artificial barrier of the Restoration Law of Settlement, which allowed the local authority to send the immigrant back to the parish or hundred of his birth.
The development of the coalfields and of the iron industry necessarily went together; the development of both and their mutual need of each other was enormously advanced when the inventions of James Watt made steam the motive power of machinery. Iron was the material of which the new machinery was made, and the steam by which it was driven demanded coal. The steam-engine was the last and most important factor in the creation of the new industrialism which subsisted upon coal and iron. The steam-engine had established itself securely in the iron works before the American War was over and during the next decade; and it was rapidly pushing to the front as the leading power for driving mills. The effects will be discussed in a later chapter dealing with the period when they had come into full play.
In the first twenty years of George III the employment of steam power was still in its infancy. Watt's steam-engine was the child of Newcomen's steam-pump, which, with modifications, had been worked in mines for half a century without leading to any notable development, when James Watt began his experiments. Watt, who at the time was engaged as a maker of mathematical instruments in Glasgow, was employed to repair one of these engines in 1763. The pump suggested experiments from which Watt very soon realised the tremendous powers of steam and the principles by which it could be employed in the service of man. The first opportunities for developing his ideas in practical material shape were given him in Roebuck's iron works at Carron near Glasgow; but it was not till 1776 that a really successful engine was constructed for Wilkinson, the Iron King, at Boxley; hitherto the practical difficulty of obtain-ing accurate workmanship in the hard metal which was required had stood in the way. When once that difficulty was mastered progress was rapid.