Industrial Revolution Facts I: The Most Important Names to Remember About the Industrial Revolution

Beginning in England in the 1760, the Industrial Revolution changed the world, creating capitalism, socialism, cities and pollution along the way.

Before the Industrial Revolution, people around the globe lived off the land by farming and animal husbandry. Manufactured goods, such as clothing, furniture, and metalwork, were created within people's homes by blacksmiths, weavers and furniture makers. The Industrial Revolution was the process of change from that agrarian and handicraft economy to one of industry and machine manufacturing.

By the late 1700s, Britain was the world's leading colonial power, with colonies in the United States, Canada, India, Australia, Egypt, the Caribbean, East, and South Africa, East Asia, China,  and the Middle East. These colonies produced a great many raw materials, and Britain herself had large deposits of coal and iron ore.

Map of British colonies
Source: General History Map of British colonies circa 1920

The Textile Industry Leads the Way

As the demand for manufactured goods increased, English inventors, especially in the textile industry, stepped up. In 1733, Englishman James Kay improved upon hand looms with his flying shuttle, however, a way was still needed to to pull and twist cotton fibers to make a strong thread.

In 1764, James Hargreaves invented the spinning "jenny", which did just that. The "jenny" greatly reduced the amount of effort required to make cloth, and it allowed the simultaneous production of up to 120 spools of thread. That process was improved by Lancashireman Samuel Crompton, who between the years 1775 and 1779, invented the spinning mule, which spun thread on 1,320 spindles.

The spinning
Source: Markus Schweiß/Wikimedia Commons The spinning "jenny"

In 1785, Edmund Cartwright patented the power loom, which used water power to speed up the weaving process. That design was so popular that by 1850, there were over 260,000 power looms in operation around Britain.

From Pig Iron to Steel

Advancements were also being made in the iron industry. Earlier in the 18th century, Englishman Abraham Darby had developed a method for producing pig iron in a blast furnace that was fueled by coke instead of charcoal.

It wasn't until the 1850s when British engineer Henry Bessemer developed the famous Bessemer Process, which inexpensively produced steel from molten pig iron. The key principle of Bessemer's was blowing air through the molten iron, which caused oxidation and removed impurities from the iron. Iron and steel were becoming increasingly necessary to build machines, tools, ships, and buildings.

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The Bessemer process
Source: Wikimedia Commons The Bessemer process

The Steam Engine

During the 1770s, Scottish inventor James Watt improved upon an earlier steam engine that had been created by Thomas Newcomen. The steam engine was initially used to pull water from tin mines but, it quickly came to power textile mills with the power mule and power loom. Watt’s steam engine went on to power machinery, railroad locomotives and ships.

Watt steam engine
Watt steam engine

The unit of power, the watt, is named after James Watt. It is defined as: "the power conveyed by a current of an Ampère through the difference of potential of a Volt." So, the next time you buy a 150-watt light bulb, you know who to thank.

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The Steamboat

Before the steam engine, transportation was by horse-drawn wagons and canal boats. Then, a young American painter named Robert Fulton went first to England, and then to France. In France, he proposed the the first submarine, to be called the Nautilus, which could be used in France's war against the British. The French thought the idea a dishonorable way to fight.

Undeterred, Fulton built the Nautilus at his own expense, and conducted trials on the river Seine. Then, Fulton met Robert Livingston, who was a U.S. minister to France. Together, Fulton and Livingston built a prototype steamboat using Fulton's design. It had a side paddle wheel, was 66-feet (20-meter) long, and had an eight-horsepower engine, which was eventually upgraded to 24-horsepower.

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Returning to New York in December 1806, Fulton set to work building a new steamboat that would have two side paddle wheels, and by early August 1807, the 150-foot- (45-metre-) long Steamboat, as Fulton called it, was ready. The boat traveled 150 miles (240 km) between New York City and Albany, NY in 32 hours, while sailing ships required four days to cover that same distance. Eventually, Fulton's steamboat was christened the Clermont.

The Clermont
Source: NYPL The Clermont

In the early 1800s, British engineer Richard Trevithick constructed the first railway steam locomotive, and in 1830, England’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway became the first to offer regular passenger services. By 1850, Britain had more than 6,000 miles of railroad track.

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Catching a Killer

During the 1830s, the first telegraph was invented by Englishmen William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, and their design continued to be used for the next 100 years. Their invention was even used to catch a killer.

In 1814, John Tawell, a Quaker, was charged with possessing forged banknotes. He was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment and transported to England's penal colony at Sydney, Australia. Once released, Tawell was joined in Australia by his wife and children, and he opened the colony's first pharmacy.

Following his return to London in 1838, Tawell began an affair with his wife's nurse, who he installed in a cottage in the town of Slough. On January 1, 1845, Tawell traveled to Slough where he poisoned his mistress, but he had been seen leaving her house and boarding a train headed to Paddington Station in London.

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The police used the new telegraph to send a message to Paddington Station and Tawell was arrested and eventually hanged for his crime. The telegraph transmitter and receiver used to apprehend Tawell can be seen today in the Science Museum, London.