The Birth of the First Industrial Revolution

In The Perfectionists, Simon Winchester explains how precision engineers created the modern world. For example, in the first chapter, he points out that machines — for the first time — could be made that would make other machines, “and make them with accuracy, with precision…This was something quite new, and it begins, essentially, with the first [steam-powered] machine on May 4, 1776…On the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, and precisely two months after the culmination of events, on July 4, 1776, a whole new world was to be created. The United States of America was born, with implications unimaginable by all.”

The key players in the sequence of events that precede (in effect) the birth of the first Industrial Revolution are John (“Iron-Mad”) Wilkinson, “the father of true precision,” an Englishman obsessed with what can be done with metallic iron;  John Harrison, “England’s, perhaps the world’s most revered horologist…who most famously gave mariners a sure means of determining  a vessel’s longitude”; Thomas Newcomen, a Cornish ironmonger who “was the first to turn the principle of steam power into a product”; and James Watt, employed by the University of Glasgow, whose study of the Newcomen engine convinced him that it could be “markedly improved…possibly be made extremely powerful.” In 1765, he “changed Newcomen’s so-called fire engine into a proper and fully functioning steam-powered machine. It became in an instant a device that in theory could produce almost limitless amounts of power.” He saw the need for two improvements and then collaborated with Wilkinson who solved a steam-leaking problem. Over time, Wilkinson bored no fewer than five hundred cylinders for Watt’s engines, “which were being snapped up by factories and mills and mines all over the country and beyond.”

Here is one of Simon Winchester’s key points: “For precision to be a phenomenon that would entirely alter human society, as it undeniably has done and will do for the foreseeable future, it has to be expressed in a form that is duplicable; it has to be possible for the same precise artifact to be made again and again again with comparative ease and at a reasonable frequency and cost.”

Steam power was used to drain water out of coal mines. Then coal was removed in carts, dumped into horse-drawn wagons that hauled it to harbors where wind-driven ships transported to other ports. Coal was then loaded into horse-drawn wagons….

Wagons, ships, carriages, and eventually railroads inevitably became steam-driven as did factories and their assembly lines.

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The Perfectionists was published by Harper/An imprint of HarperCollins (May 2018). I also highly recommend William Rosen’s The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, published by Random House (2010).




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