The enlightened revolution

The enlightened revolution

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Dr Matt Thompson with the Broseley Wheel – an astonishing and important piece of 17th-century railway history.

The Industrial Revolution. When we use this term it sounds as though we are talking about something clear-cut, planned; that it had a definite beginning, an appropriate middle and a neat, conclusive end.

But this doesn’t really do it justice. Once you start to pull on the threads of the accepted stories of when and where something started things always become slightly more complex.

In short it is almost impossible to define, or talk about, a single historical period without making reference to what came before or after. Indeed, even terms such as ‘before’ and ‘after’ imply clear definitions when, in fact, it was more a case of overlapping and interlinked stories and developments, each influencing all the others.

Dr Matt Thompson with the Broseley Wheel – an astonishing and important piece of 17th-century railway history.
Dr Matt Thompson with the Broseley Wheel – an astonishing and important piece of 17th-century railway history.

Some historians have recently begun to talk in terms not of an ‘Industrial Revolution’, but of an ‘Industrial Enlightenment’ in which knowledge and understanding of technical processes were as important as the development of the processes themselves.

The economic historian Joel Mokyr summed it up neatly by stating that, before 1750, most people who invented new things or processes “did not have much of a clue as to why or how they worked”; it was very much “ . . . a world of engineering without mechanics, iron-making without metallurgy, farming without soil science, mining without geology, water-power without hydraulics, dye-making without organic chemistry, and medical practice without microbiology and immunology.”

The biggest breakthrough of the industrial period, the single biggest factor that began to grow the economic productivity of the nation, which included the ironmasters of Shropshire as much as anyone else, was knowledge. Water and steam may have powered the mills and machinery of Coalbrookdale but it was knowledge that enabled them to work in ever more sophisticated, and profitable, ways.

When Abraham Darby I took over the furnace at Coalbrookdale around September 1708 he came already armed with both technical ability and knowledge. One of his greatest achievements was to use coke as a fuel for producing iron in a way that was economically viable (something that, in the space of a generation, was to transform the industrial activity of the country).

It seems possible that, before leaving Bristol for Coalbrookdale, [Darby] could have encountered Quakers from Broseley who would have been able to give him information about the furnace at Coalbrookdale.

But this was not happy accident or chance; he had previously been apprenticed to malt mill makers in Bristol who had, for many years, been successfully using coke, and not charcoal, as fuel. He learnt his trade and began to understand how to apply his knowledge to other, more lucrative areas such as iron-making.

On arrival at Coalbrookdale it took him only around five months to begin producing iron with coke, a period so short that it would seem to indicate that he had excellent prior knowledge of how successful his venture was likely to be.

However, Abraham Darby’s knowledge was not necessarily all gained first hand. As a Quaker he was very active in the regular series of meetings that, on a weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual basis, brought together Quakers from all over the country. It seems possible that, before leaving Bristol for Coalbrookdale, he could have encountered Quakers from Broseley who would have been able to give him information about the furnace at Coalbrookdale – and perhaps even the experiments of its previous operator, Shadrach Fox, who unsuccessfully attempted to use coke as fuel in the 1690s.

In this way Darby would have been able to combine his own skills with this local intelligence to make a well educated guess that his endeavours would prove profitable.

This story demonstrates just one way that knowledge, gained through practical experience or through effective networks of likeminded people, was the sine qua non of industrial innovation. The coupling of technical skills with a close knit, but widespread, community where such skills could be shared, discussed and debated would seem to support the theory that, however revolutionary, industry required enlightenment to flourish.

 

The Old Furnace, where Abraham Darby perfected the technique of smelting iron with coke.
The Old Furnace, where Abraham Darby perfected the technique of smelting iron with coke.