27 Feb 2011 11:30 am

Posted by under Book Review

You say you want a revolution…

In this case, the industrial revolution. Like most, maybe all, revolutions, the industrial revolution began uncertainly, proceeded unsteadily and eventually changed the world unreservedly.

The Industrial RevolutionariesThe Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World 1776-1914 by Gavin Weightman (ISBN 978-0-8021-1899-8), 2007, Grove Press
This fairly hefty 400+ page book is less of a comprehensive history of the immense changes of the industrial revolution than it is a collection of essays, flying in loose formation. The 21 chapters proceed in rough chronological order from the roots of modern industrialism in the mid-18th century England to the dawn of the modern era signaled by the Great War. Each essay addresses a particular aspect of the changing technologies, political fortunes, industrial processes or cultural imperatives sparked by the enlightenment that moved the world from it’s dependence upon wood, stone and animals towards something new – steam and electricity, steel and iron.

The arc of the movement of industrialization through history is a fascinating look at mankind’s simultaneous penchant for amazing, insightful creativity and astounding, obstinate unwillingness to change. Yet change comes regardless, often times through the exertions of individuals seeking only to better their own situation rather than through some desire to improve society at large. The industrial revolution was not driven by grand political movements, but by the sum of the efforts of hundreds and thousands of scientists, tradesmen, engineers, businessmen and entrepreneurs. To be sure, the politics of empires and colonies, grand navies and wars, industry and agriculture all shaped the progress and pace of the industrial revolution. Yet the concept that shines through is that of the individual seeing and then seeking opportunity in the new-found technological marvels that the industrial revolution both created and consumed.

Not surprisingly, the pace of industrialism varied widely – advanced by insightfulness and systematic encouragement by industry or government then retarded by protectionism and legal roadblocks. In America, for example, the petroleum industry sprang out of obscurity very rapidly when oil-men, used to digging for oil with picks and shovels, thought to engage the services of salt-well drillers to drill for oil. Soon the availability of oil led to the development of the internal combustion engine and eventually the automobile. However, America’s entry into the automotive industry was delayed for over 20 years by the existence of an absurd patent application held by one man who effectively blocked all progress until Henry Ford eventually won a lengthy legal battle contesting the patent.

Weightman’s book is a worthwhile read for anyone with a curiosity to understand more about the dramatic changes that became the foundation of the modern age. The style is a little elliptical and it can be a challenge to keep the names of the key figures straight as they interweave with each other through the narrative, but overall I found it to be an engaging and informative work.

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