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Technological Developments in the
Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolutions came out of the situation at the time, and had a rapidly increasing effect, each part adding demand and opportunities, adding new areas or replacing others. In The Industrial Revolutions we look at the background, what happened and why here we are looking at the technological developments, where they occurred, who developed them and when in more detail. Some of the places featured are included in The European Route of Industrial Heritage covered both in an article and listed in European Route of Industrial Heritage - UK Sites.   Transport in the Industrial Revolution  we look at the changes in transport arrangements over this time.

Textile Manufacture

In the early 18th century, British textile manufacture was a cottage industry, based on wool which was processed by individual home workers, doing the spinning and weaving on their own premises. Flax and cotton were also used for fine materials, but the processing was difficult because of the pre-processing needed, and therefore goods in these materials made only a small proportion of the output.

Use of the spinning wheel and hand loom restricted the production capacity of the industry, but incremental advances increased productivity to the extent that manufactured cotton goods became the dominant British export by the early decades of the 19th century, before this most had come from India.

Lewis Paul patented the Roller Spinning machine and the flyer-and-bobbin system for drawing wool to a more even thickness, developed with the help of John Wyatt in Birmingham. Paul and Wyatt opened a mill in Birmingham which used their new rolling machine powered by a donkey. In 1743, a factory was opened in Northampton with fifty spindles on each of five of Paul and Wyatt's machines. This operated until about 1764. A similar mill was built by Daniel Bourn in Leominster, but this burnt down. Both Lewis Paul and Daniel Bourn patented carding machines in 1748, using two sets of rollers that travelled at different speeds, it was later used in the first cotton spinning mill. Lewis's invention was later developed and improved by Richard Arkwright in his water frame and Samuel Crompton in his spinning mule.

Other inventors increased the efficiency of the individual steps of spinning (carding, twisting and spinning, and rolling) so that the supply of yarn increased greatly, which fed a weaving industry that was advancing with improvements to shuttles and the loom or 'frame'. The output of an individual labourer increased dramatically, with the effect that the new machines were seen as a threat to employment, and early innovators were attacked and their inventions destroyed.

To capitalise upon these advances, it took a class of entrepreneurs, of which the most famous is Richard Arkwright. He is credited with a list of inventions, but these were actually developed by people such as Thomas Highs and John Kay. Arkwright nurtured the inventors, patented the ideas, financed the initiatives, and protected the machines. He created the cotton mill which brought the production processes together in a factory, and he developed the use of power, first horse power and then water power, which made cotton manufacture a mechanised industry. Before long steam power was applied to drive textile machinery.


The major change in the metal industries during the era of the Industrial Revolution was the replacement of organic fuels based on wood with fossil fuel based on coal. Much of this happened somewhat before the Industrial Revolution, based on innovations by Sir Clement Clerke and others from 1678, using coal reverberatory furnaces known as cupolas. These were operated by the flames, which contained carbon monoxide, playing on the ore and reducing the oxide to metal. This has the advantage that impurities (such as sulphur) in the coal do not migrate into the metal. This technology was applied to lead from 1678 and to copper from 1687. It was also applied to iron foundry work in the 1690s, but in this case the reverberatory furnace was known as an air furnace. The foundry cupola is a different (and later) innovation.

This was followed by Abraham Darby, who made great strides using coke to fuel his blast furnaces at Coalbrookdale in 1709. However, the coke pig iron he made was used mostly for the production of cast iron goods such as pots and kettles. He had the advantage over his rivals in that his pots, cast by his patented process, were thinner and cheaper than theirs. Coke pig iron was hardly used to produce bar iron in forges until the mid 1750s, when his son Abraham Darby II built Horsehay and Ketley furnaces (not far from Coalbrookdale). By then, coke pig iron was cheaper than charcoal pig iron.

Bar iron for smiths to forge into consumer goods was still made in finery forges, as it long had been. However, new processes were adopted in the ensuing years. The first is referred to today as potting and stamping, but this was superseded by Henry Cort's puddling process. From 1785, perhaps because the improved version of potting and stamping was about to come out of patent, a great expansion in the output of the British iron industry began. The new processes did not depend on the use of charcoal at all and were therefore not limited by charcoal sources. The Iron Bridge was created in 1778 by Abraham Darby III.

Up to that time, British iron manufacturers had used considerable amounts of imported iron to supplement native supplies. This came principally from Sweden from the mid 17th century and later also from Russia from the end of the 1720s. However, from 1785, imports decreased because of the new iron making technology, and Britain became an exporter of bar iron as well as manufactured wrought iron consumer goods.

Since iron was becoming cheaper and more plentiful, it also became a major structural material following the building of the innovative Iron Bridge.

An improvement was made in the production of steel, which was an expensive commodity and used only where iron would not do, such as for the cutting edge of tools and for springs. Benjamin Huntsman developed his crucible steel technique in the 1740's. The raw material for this was blister steel, made by the cementation process.

The supply of cheaper iron and steel aided the development of boilers and steam engines, and eventually railways. Improvements in machine tools allowed better working of iron and steel and further boosted the industrial growth of Britain.

The Great Exhibition held in London in 1851 demonstrated just how much could then be achieved with a vast amount of iron goods and many items now becoming mass produced and available to a wider population.


Coal mining in Britain, particularly in South Wales started early. Before the steam engine, pits were often shallow bell pits following a seam of coal along the surface, which were abandoned as the coal was extracted. In other cases, if the geology was favourable, the coal was mined by means of an adit or drift mine driven into the side of a hill. Shaft mining was done in some areas, but the limiting factor was the problem of removing water. It could be done by hauling buckets of water up the shaft or to a sough (a tunnel driven into a hill to drain a mine). In either case, the water had to be discharged into a stream or ditch at a level where it could flow away by gravity. The introduction of the steam engine greatly facilitated the removal of water and enabled shafts to be made deeper, enabling more coal to be extracted. These were developments that had begun before the Industrial Revolution, but the adoption of James Watt's more efficient steam engine from the 1770's reduced the fuel costs of engines, making mines more profitable.

Rhondda Heritage Park

Coal mining was very dangerous owing to the presence of firedamp in many coal seams. Some degree of safety was provided by the safety lamp which was invented in 1816 by Sir Humphrey Davy and independently by George Stephenson. However, the lamps proved a false dawn because they became unsafe very quickly and provided a weak light. Firedamp explosions continued, often setting off coal dust explosions, so casualties grew during the entire 19th century. Conditions of work were very poor, with a high casualty rate from rock falls.

Power sources and Steam power

The development of the stationary steam engine was an essential early element of the Industrial Revolution, however, for most of the period of the Industrial Revolution, the majority of industries still relied on wind and water power as well as horse and man-power for driving small machines.

The first real attempt at industrial use of steam power was due to Thomas Savery in 1698. He constructed and patented in London a low-lift combined vacuum and pressure water pump, that generated about one horsepower (hp) and was used in numerous water works and tried in a few mines (hence its "brand name", The Miner's Friend), but it was not a success since it was limited in pumping height and prone to boiler explosions.

The first safe and successful steam power plant was introduced by Thomas Newcomen before 1712. Newcomen apparently conceived the Newcomen steam engine quite independently of Savery, but as the latter had taken out a very wide-ranging patent, Newcomen and his associates were obliged to come to an arrangement with him, marketing the engine until 1733 under a joint patent. Newcomen's engine appears to have been based on Papin's experiments carried out 30 years earlier, and employed a piston and cylinder, one end of which was open to the atmosphere above the piston. Steam just above atmospheric pressure (all that the boiler could stand) was introduced into the lower half of the cylinder beneath the piston during the gravity-induced upstroke, the steam was then condensed by a jet of cold water injected into the steam space to produce a partial vacuum. The pressure differential between the atmosphere and the vacuum on either side of the piston displaced it downwards into the cylinder, raising the opposite end of a rocking beam to which was attached a gang of gravity-actuated reciprocating force pumps housed in the mineshaft. The engine's downward power stroke raised the pump, priming it and preparing the pumping stroke. At first the phases were controlled by hand, but within ten years an escapement mechanism had been devised worked by of a vertical plug tree suspended from the rocking beam which rendered the engine self-acting.

A number of Newcomen engines were successfully put to use in Britain for draining hitherto unworkable deep mines, with the engine on the surface, these were large machines, requiring a lot of capital to build, and produced about 5 hp (3.7 kW). They were extremely inefficient by modern standards, but when located where coal was cheap at pit heads, opened up a great expansion in coal mining by allowing mines to go deeper. Despite their disadvantages, Newcomen engines were reliable and easy to maintain and continued to be used in the coalfields until the early decades of the 19th century.

By 1729, when Newcomen died, his engines had spread (first) to Hungary in 1722, Germany, Austria, and Sweden. A total of 110 are known to have been built by 1733 when the joint patent expired, of which 14 were abroad. In the 1770s, the engineer John Smeaton built some very large examples and introduced a number of improvements. A total of 1,454 engines had been built by 1800.


A fundamental change in working principles was brought about by James Watt. With the close collaboration of  Matthew Boulton, he had succeeded by 1778 in perfecting his steam engine, which incorporated a series of radical improvements, notably the closing off of the upper part of the cylinder thereby making the low pressure steam drive the top of the piston instead of the atmosphere, use of a steam jacket and the celebrated separate steam condenser chamber. All this meant that a more constant temperature could be maintained in the cylinder and that engine efficiency no longer varied according to atmospheric conditions. These improvements increased engine efficiency by a factor of about five, saving 75% on coal costs.

Nor could the atmospheric engine be easily adapted to drive a rotating wheel, although Wasborough and Pickard did succeed in doing so towards 1780. However by 1783 the more economical Watt steam engine had been fully developed into a double-acting rotative type, which meant that it could be used to directly drive the rotary machinery of a factory or mill. Both of Watt's basic engine types were commercially very successful, and by 1800, the firm Boulton & Watt had constructed 496 engines, with 164 driving reciprocating pumps, 24 serving blast furnaces, and 308 powering mill machinery, most of the engines generated from 5 to 10 hp (7.5 kW).

The development of machine tools, such as the lathe, planing and shaping machines powered by these engines, enabled all the metal parts of the engines to be easily and accurately cut and in turn made it possible to build larger and more powerful engines.

Until about 1800, the most common pattern of a steam engine was the beam engine, built as an integral part of a stone or brick engine-house, but soon various patterns of self-contained portative engines (readily removable, but not on wheels) were developed, such as the table engine. Towards the turn of the 19th century, the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick, and the American, Oliver Evans began to construct higher pressure non-condensing steam engines, exhausting against the atmosphere. This allowed an engine and boiler to be combined into a single unit compact enough to be used on mobile road and rail locomotives and steam boats.

In the early 19th century after the expiration of Watt's patent, the steam engine underwent many improvements by a host of inventors and engineers.


The large scale production of chemicals was an important development during the Industrial Revolution. The first of these was the production of sulphuric acid by the lead chamber process invented by the Englishman John Roebuck (James Watt's first partner) in 1746. He was able to greatly increase the scale of the manufacture by replacing the relatively expensive glass vessels formerly used with larger, less expensive chambers made of riveted sheets of lead. Instead of making a small amount each time, he was able to make around 100 pounds (50 kg) in each of the chambers, at least a tenfold increase.

The production of an alkali on a large scale became an important goal as well, and Nicolas Leblanc succeeded in 1791 in introducing a method for the production of sodium carbonate. The Leblanc process was a reaction of sulphuric acid with sodium chloride to give sodium sulphate and hydrochloric acid. The sodium sulphate was heated with limestone (calcium carbonate) and coal to give a mixture of sodium carbonate and calcium sulphide. Adding water separated the soluble sodium carbonate from the calcium sulphide. The process produced a large amount of pollution (the hydrochloric acid was initially vented to the air, and calcium sulphide was a useless waste product). Nonetheless, this synthetic soda ash proved economical compared to that from burning certain plants (barilla) or from kelp, which were the previously dominant sources of soda ash and also to potash (potassium carbonate) derived from hardwood ashes.

These two chemicals were very important because they enabled the introduction of a host of other inventions, replacing many small-scale operations with more cost-effective and controllable processes. Sodium carbonate had many uses in the glass, textile, soap, and paper industries. Early uses for sulphuric acid included pickling (removing rust) iron and steel, and for bleaching cloth.

The development of bleaching powder (calcium hypochlorite) by Scottish chemist Charles Tennant in about 1800, based on the discoveries of French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet, revolutionised the bleaching processes in the textile industry by dramatically reducing the time required (from months to days) for the traditional process then in use, which required repeated exposure to the sun in bleach fields after soaking the textiles with alkali or sour milk. Tennant's factory at St Rollox, North Glasgow, became the largest chemical plant in the world.

In 1824 Joseph Aspdin, a British bricklayer turned builder, patented a chemical process for making portland cement which was an important advance in the building trades. This process involves interring a mixture of clay and limestone to about 1400 C, then grinding it into a fine powder which is then mixed with water, sand and gravel to produce concrete. Portland cement was used by the famous English engineer Marc Isambard Brunel  when constructing the Thames Tunnel, opened 1843, the world's first underwater tunnel.  Cement was used on a large scale in the construction of the London sewerage system a generation later.

Machine tools

The Industrial Revolution could not have developed without machine tools, for they enabled manufacturing machines to be made. They have their origins in the tools developed in the 18th century by makers of clocks and watches and scientific instrument makers to enable them to batch-produce small mechanisms. The mechanical parts of early textile machines were sometimes called 'clock work' because of the metal spindles and gears they incorporated. The manufacture of textile machines drew craftsmen from these trades and is the origin of the modern engineering industry.

Machines were built by various craftsmen - carpenters made wooden framings, and smiths and turners made metal parts. A good example of how machine tools changed manufacturing took place in Birmingham, England, in 1830. The invention of a new machine by Joseph Gillott, William Mitchell and James Stephen Perry allowed mass manufacture of robust, cheap steel pen nibs, the process had been laborious and expensive. Because of the difficulty of manipulating metal and the lack of machine tools, the use of metal was kept to a minimum. Wood framing had the disadvantage of changing dimensions with temperature and humidity, and the various joints tended to rack (work loose) over time. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, machines with metal frames became more common, but they required machine tools to make them economically. Before the advent of machine tools, metal was worked manually using the basic hand tools of hammers, files, scrapers, saws and chisels. Small metal parts were readily made by this means, but for large machine parts, production was very laborious and costly.

Apart from workshop lathes used by craftsmen, the first large machine tool was the cylinder boring machine used for boring the large-diameter cylinders on early steam engines. The planing machine, the slotting machine and the shaping machine were developed in the first decades of the 19th century. Although the milling machine was invented at this time, it was not developed as a serious workshop tool until during the Second Industrial Revolution.

Military production had a hand in the development of machine tools. Henry Maudslay, who trained a school of machine tool makers early in the 19th century, was employed at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. As a young man he would have seen the large horse-driven wooden machines for cannon boring made and worked by the Verbruggans. He later worked for Joseph Bramah on the production of metal locks, and soon after he began working on his own. He was engaged to build the machinery for making ships' pulley blocks for the Royal Navy in the Portsmouth Block Mills. These were all metal and were the first machines for mass production and making components with a degree of interchange ability. The lessons Maudslay learned about the need for stability and precision he adapted to the development of machine tools, and in his workshops he trained a generation of men to build on his work, such as Richard Roberts, Joseph Clement and Joseph Whitworth.

James Fox of Derby had a healthy export trade in machine tools for the first third of the century, as did Matthew Murray of Leeds. Roberts was a maker of high-quality machine tools and a pioneer of the use of jigs and gauges for precision workshop measurement.

Gas lighting

Another major industry of the later Industrial Revolution was gas lighting. Though others made a similar innovation elsewhere, the large scale introduction of this was the work of William Murdoch, an employee of Boulton and Watt, the Birmingham steam engine pioneers. The process consisted of the large scale gasification of coal in furnaces, the purification of the gas (removal of sulphur, ammonium, and heavy hydrocarbons), and its storage and distribution. The first gas lighting utilities were established in London between 1812-20. They soon became one of the major consumers of coal in the UK. Gas lighting had an impact on social and industrial organisation because it allowed factories and stores to remain open longer than with tallow candles or oil. Its introduction allowed night life to flourish in cities and towns as interiors and streets could be lighted on a larger scale than before.

Glass making

A new method of producing glass, known as the cylinder process, was developed in Europe during the early 19th century. In 1832, this process was used by the Chance Brothers to create sheet glass. They became the leading producers of window and plate glass. This advancement allowed for larger panes of glass to be created without interruption, thus freeing up the space planning in interiors as well as the fenestration of buildings. The Crystal Palace is the supreme example of the use of sheet glass in a new and innovative structure.

Effects on agriculture

The invention of machinery played a big part in driving forward the British Agricultural Revolution. Agricultural improvement began in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution got going and played a part in freeing up labour from the land to work in the new industrial mills of the 18th century. As the revolution in industry progressed a succession of machines became available which increased food production with ever fewer labourers.

Jethro Tull's seed drill invented in 1731 was a mechanical seeder which distributed seeds efficiently across a plot of land. Joseph Foljambe's Rotherham plough of 1730, was the first commercially successful iron plough. Andrew Meikle's threshing machine of 1784 was the final straw for many farm labourers, and led to the 1830 Agricultural Rebellion or the Swing Riots.

In the 1850s and '60s John Fowler, an engineer and inventor, began to look at the possibility of using steam engines for ploughing and digging drainage channels. The system that he invented involved either a single stationary engine at the corner of a field drawing a plough via sets of winches and pulleys, or two engines placed at either end of a field drawing the plough backwards and forwards between them by means of a cable attached to winches. Fowler's ploughing system vastly reduced the cost of ploughing farmland compared with horse-drawn ploughs. Also his ploughing system, when used for digging drainage channels, made possible the cultivation of previously unusable swampy land. The traction engine later became a common sight and working threshing machines during haymaking time and ploughing fields.

This article is based partly on extracted information from Wikipedia.


By: Keith Park   Section: Heritage Section Key:
Page Ref: industrial_revolution_technology Topic: Industrial Last Updated: 09/2009

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