How The Industrial Revolution Got Traction - And Brought Us Tomorrow

31 Dec 2015. Robert E. Kaplan

The industrial revolution changed the world completely and, it seems, irreversibly, yet how it all began is not common knowledge. Most people have only a vague or patchy idea. Since that was also true of me, I dug into some research. (By far the best of the several books I read on the subject is Unbound Prometheus, by David Landes, a brilliant scholar with encyclopedic knowledge who writes extraordinarily well.)

In doing the research, it struck me that, fundamentally, the industrial revolution like all revolutions came down to elemental transfers of control or power, in the sense of who governs. It is no accident that the very term was lifted from the then-recent French Revolution and American Revolution, each of which were utter and complete change-overs in control. Interestingly, the industrial revolution began in England where, just 75 years earlier in 1688, the Glorious Revolution had redressed the imbalance in power between royalty and parliament. Material to any entrepreneurial economy, it secured property rights. The king or queen could no longer seize property at will.

At its crux the industrial revolution was technological. It radically and drastically changed the way work was done and the way things were made. There were actually two technological revolutions that happened in quick succession. In the first, the actual tool or equipment for making stuff was stripped from the hands of the worker, who previously had authority over it. Putting aside the benefits of automation and the drawbacks of manual work, it's a little like someone skilled at playing the piano being replaced by a player piano and reduced to turning it on and off.

Consider the maiden product of the industrial revolution: cotton fabric. Of the several stages of converting raw cotton to fabric—ginning, carding, spinning, weaving, finishing— take spinning. To spin is to make thread out of cotton. Done by hand it meant pulling strands of raw cotton from a skein and then twisting those strands around a stick. Spinning was done that way for centuries until the middle ages when the spinning wheel was introduced. Still, the operator held and drew the cotton, feeding it to the wheel, which did the twisting. Equipped with a single spindle, the spinning wheel produced only one thread at a time. The “spinning jenny,” invented around 1750, boasted multiple spindles, eight initially and the number escalated from there. The next generation of spinning equipment, introduced in 1770, was equipped with several hundred spindles. A huge multiplier.

The second major technological revolution had to do with the source of power, the force that set the cloth-making equipment in motion and kept it moving. As with the working equipment itself, nature was replaced by machinery as a power source. No longer, in the language of the time, was it “man-power.”  Or “horse-power.” The spinning wheel, originally driven by foot on a peddle, a treadle, was now driven by water power, only to give way in short order to steam-powered engines, cut loose from nature, constant, tireless.

Driven by the working-equipment multiplier and the force multiplier resulting from machines taking sole possession of the means of production, output of cotton cloth in England went through the roof. In 1760, when spinning and weaving were still done by hand, England produced 2.5 million pounds of cotton cloth. Just 17 years later, when most of the work was done by machines, output multiplied almost tenfold, to 22 million pounds. And that was before working equipment was harnessed to the engine. The first steam engine used to spin cotton was installed in 1780 and shot productivity into the stratosphere.

With geometric leaps in productivity, economic growth took off in England—and, not long after, in other European countries and eventually around the world. There was no precedent in history for such sustained world-wide economic growth.

Economic growth took off because technological innovation fanned out to other fields that propelled the cotton industry and were propelled by it. Coal mining, already common in pre-industrial England, took off as the fuel that fired steam engines migrated from wood to coal. The chemical industry jump-started with the manufacture of artificial bleach, first made of sulphuric acid, then chlorine. The iron industry, based upon the chemical process of smelting, grew to build steam engines and to make bigger and bigger cloth-making equipment. All this happened, by the way, without electricity, which wasn’t even adequately conceptualized until the early 1820s when Humphrey Davies gave a series of ground breaking lectures at the Royal Society.

Prior to that time, the standard of living for most people, as measured by per capita income, had generally changed very little since the birth of Christ. Whenever the economy grew, and with it the supply of food, it was not long before population growth caught up, fating most people to a brutish subsistence-level existence at best. Starting in 1815 or 1820, however, per capita income in England rose annually at 2%. That may not seem like much, but between 1820 and 2000 that rate resulted in an eightfold increase in per capita income.

However, as a result of the two dramatic technological revolutions, a third change took place, this time in a totally different category: way of life. People could no longer work in their cottages because the spinning equipment or the loom, not to mention the steam engine powering it, no longer fit. In just a few decades, labor-intensive craft work—“handicrafts”—for the most part died out. In a forced migration, workers re-located to factories, aversive places where for very long hours at low pay they were at the mercy of unrelenting machines and under the thumb of draconian supervisors. In a massive power shift, workers lost their autonomy and their self-determination. Before long a labor movement developed in an attempt to redress the imbalance of power.

It may seem like the industrial revolution began in the hazy distant past—as hazy in our minds as are our parents’ immediate ancestors that we never knew—but it wasn’t that long ago. Take someone who turns 100 this year, 2015. That person was born in 1915. Subtract just one-and-a-half of his or her lifetimes and, bam, you’re back at the start of the industrial revolution, the 1760s, the jumping off point for the mechanization of physical labor.

Fast forward to the computer age when mental labor—computation, voice translation, finding your way, driving a car—is increasingly being mechanized, and take into account that the rate of change is fast increasing. What then is the next revolution in the mechanization of human capacity? Artificial intelligence, the mechanical ability to reason, a machine that doesn’t just duplicate human intelligence but exceeds it. Given intensive AI efforts all over the world—Google, for example, is amassing capability—this mega shift could easily occur in the next few decades, quite possibly in your lifetime. And if the collective gas pedal on technical advancement, as it usually does, exerts greater force than the brake that foresees trouble, we run the risk of losing control of our productivity-enhancing methods and our ingenious labor-saving devices. That would be the ultimate power shift, a spectacularly ironic displacement/replacement scenario.

 

© Kaplan DeVries Inc.