New Machine Tools Are a Catalyst for the Industrial Revolution

views updated

New Machine Tools Are a Catalyst for the Industrial Revolution


Machine tools were the instruments of industrialization. They enabled the first capitalists to mass-produce inexpensive, quality goods. They also allowed the industrial nations to eradicate many deadly diseases and to become the dominant economic and political forces in the world. These tools would also change forever the concept of human labor.


Charles Darwin (1809-1882) shocked the nineteenth-century Victorians when he explained one of the most important evolutionary periods in humankind's history. In The Descent of Man Darwin described how our ancestors descended from the trees, our original home, to walk upright on the ground. This was the pivotal moment in the development of our species. Standing upright not only increased our locomotion, but it would eventually free our hands and allow us to become the premier tool-using species on the planet.

Our earliest Homo sapiens ancestors were not the only humanoid creatures competing for control of the environment, but by the end of the Paleolithic Age all the others had died off. This occurred because Homo sapiens had certain advantages over other humanoids. Most importantly, they had larger brains and free hands with opposable thumbs. This allowed for the development and use of tools and weapons. Scientists today know that there is an important cause and effect relationship between the use of tools and increased brain function. The process of creating and using these first tools stimulated the cortex of the brain, which increased the intellectual power of our early ancestors. Most anthropologists believe that language developed as a result of this increased brain function.

Tools were so important in humanity's development that social scientists actually classify different periods in prehistory by the material that was used to create many of these first implements. The Paleolithic or Old Stone Age is designated as the earliest period of humankind's development. These early people had two distinct characteristics in their technological evolution. They were the first to use existing tools to create new and more sophisticated instruments, and they were also the first to develop the idea of a toolbox. This is very significant because it shows that intellectual development had advanced to a point where there was a recognition that these tools would be used in the future to solve similar problems. This occurrence set the stage for the development of collective memory and the practice of passing on established knowledge and skills to the next generation. The impact of this was crucial: it not only insured that every generation had an established knowledge base, but it also provided a basis for the development of education and research. It thus created a model for increasing technological capabilities by developing the system of building upon prior knowledge and experience.

The most important invention of the Paleolithic Age was the ability to use fire. It was a multipurpose resource that went beyond cooking, heating, and light to allow early man to make more sophisticated tools. Ultimately, it was fire that allowed Paleolithic people to move out of Africa and into Asia and Europe at the end of the last ice age. Early humans used fire to harden their weapons and tools. This increased the effectiveness of hunters, which resulted in the adoption of a high-protein diet. The first effective tool was the hand axe, which allowed early humans to crack open the bones of animals to extract the protein-rich marrow inside. Archeologists believe these tools were constructed by skillfully using stones to fashion an implement that was both sharp and strong. Many anthropologists believe this was one of the original skills passed on from generation to generation. The hand axe eventually evolved into the spear and arrow points found among the artifacts of most Paleolithic sites. These tools allowed Homo sapiens to eventually dominate the food chain, which resulted in the extinction of other humanoids.

The Neolithic Revolution, which began between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago, witnessed the use of tools to drastically transform material culture and to create the conditions for the onset of civilization. This new way of life was based upon sedentary agriculture. These cradlelands of civilization were located along four great river systems: the Tigris/Euphrates in what is now modern Iraq, the Nile in Egypt, the Indus in Pakistan, and the Huang He in China. Neolithic communities were able to take advantage of the dependable water and rich soil because they had the technological ability to do so. Digging sticks, axes, sickles, and eventually plows allowed the first farmers to successfully cultivate the land.

Man's tool-making ability continued to evolve during both the Classical and Medieval eras. Over the course of centuries, mathematical and scientific theory combined to create even more sophisticated tools. By the mid-eighteenth century many factors were in place to begin humanity's second great revolution in material productivity, and for this tools would become more important than ever before.

The basis of the Industrial Revolution (c. 1750-1900) was the movement away from the slow and more costly production of goods by hand to the use of machines and inanimate power. The most significant impact of machine tools was the reduction in the cost of production. Western manufacturing moved from the production of one product, which consisted of a certain number of handmade pieces, to the mass production of thousands of interchangeable parts from which hundreds of products could be constructed. This created the manufacturing model based upon the concept of the division of labor. For example, no longer was a highly skilled craftsman needed to create a rifle. Instead, a semi-skilled group of workers could assemble one from a mass-produced set of interchangeable parts. This process increased the number of products that could be produced in a specified amount of time. This decreased the cost of manufacturing, which in turn lowered the cost of the item. The assembly line model would dominate manufacturing for almost 300 years.

The increase in production began with the development of a new generation of lathes that could hold a precision tool and increase the accuracy of the tool's performance. Increased precision helped create new inventions and designs, which consequently allowed for the development of mass production techniques.

The movement toward higher precision can be first seen in the development of highly accurate and affordable clocks. Antoine Thiout (1692-1767) and Robert Hooke (1635-1703) developed lathes that could uniformly cut the pieces of the internal mechanism of a clock. The two most important components of a timepiece are the clock wheels that accurately move the mechanism and the screws that hold the wheels in place. Once these two parts could be mass-produced, accurate time measurement would become a common characteristic of both manufacturing and scientific research. The availability of inexpensive, accurate timepieces also had a major impact on Western imperialism. One reason is that it allowed for the accurate measurement of longitude, which is the distance east or west of the Prime Meridian. Based on the precise knowledge of time, John Harrison (1693-1776) was able to use a chronometer and a quadrant to accurately pinpoint longitudinal position. Combined with the correct latitude, the distance north or south of the equator, it was now possible to develop highly accurate maps and charts. This enabled the industrialized nations to undertake voyages that would eventually spread Western civilization throughout the globe.

The early Industrial Revolution was powered by steam, and machine tools had a direct impact on the evolution of the steam engine. The theory behind this source of power was that boiling water created steam, which would exert pressure that could be harnessed to drive an engine or to operate a machine. The pressure would move a piston, which in turn drove the particular device. One of the major problems faced by both Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) and James Watt (1736-1819) was to construct a cylinder large enough to hold a piston big enough to be useful in a steam engine. John Wilkinson (1728-1808) created a machine tool that could in fact bore a cylinder big enough to hold a large piston. This accelerated the use of the steam engine, which subsequently provided energy for the Industrial Revolution.

Steam radically changed the environment of the Western world. It produced a source of energy that could be used 365 days a year. Steam would eventually power the machines of the textile factories. These massive instruments would later replace thousands of spinners and weavers. Originally, these machines had been powered by falling water. The reliability of water, however, fluctuated with the seasons. When the water was high manufacturing could take place at a steady pace. When the water level was low or constricted by ice, its reliability was greatly reduced. Steam was steady and made production quotas far more predictable.

The mass production model also required the availability of affordable machines and tools. As with the production of clocks, most machines need gears and screws for their operation. Once again the model of the new power lathe was used to solve the problem. Henry Maudslay (1771-1831) and Joseph Whitworth (1803-1887) both perfected power lathes that could accurately mass-produce the cut screws and gears needed to run the new machinery of the Industrial Revolution. The impact on productivity was two-fold: they reduced the initial cost of manufacturing by making the machines less expensive, and they also decreased the "down time" for repairs. Instead of waiting for the services of a skilled craftsman, the defective part could be quickly replaced with an exact replica by the machine operator himself. The availability of inexpensive, interchangeable parts also allowed for greater control over production quotas and schedules.

Over time, improvements in machine tools were made. James Nasmyth (1808-1890) created the steam hammer. This powerful device enabled very large pieces of metal to be forged. Joseph Clement (1779-1844) invented a machine that could accurately plane metal. The ability to manufacture large, accurately planned pieces of metal helped give the industrial nations almost unlimited manufacturing and military power.


As has been the case throughout history, the effects of these machines were both positive and negative. Most of the important political, social, and economic reforms of the nineteenth century were the result of the new industrial environment created by these new tools. The refinements in the steam engine created the need for vast amounts of iron and coal. Iron was the material of the early Industrial Revolution. Initially, it was the only substance strong enough to contain the extreme pressure of the steam engine. Iron and coal are both found in nature in plentiful supply, but they are not easily extracted from it. The mining of these two substances created great hardship for the people involved, and the mines of the early Industrial Revolution were the most dangerous work environments. Water and bad air were major threats to the health of the miners. For instance, black lung disease was an illness that affected the majority of the miners. Dirt and dust from both coal and iron were common in the poorly ventilated shafts. Through the normal course of working, the miners ingested large quantities of iron and coal particles. Coal mines were especially dangerous because over time volatile coal gas built up and explosions were common. Children seemed to suffer the most because their bodies were still developing; the polluted air attacked their lungs more vigorously than those of adults. In many circumstances women and children were also used as draft animals. Belts and chains were placed around their bodies and attached to carts of ore. They were expected to pull these carts along mine shafts, sometimes getting down on all fours in order to complete the task. One of the first pieces of reform legislation was the result of hearings by the Ashley Mines Commission (1842), which found the conditions of miners intolerable.

The mass production model created by the use of machine tools also affected the quality of life of the common laborer. One of the reasons mass production was so profitable was that it greatly reduced production costs, and lower wages were a primary example of this. The precision work of these machine tools reduced the need for skilled labor. The tools became the most skilled part of the manufacturing process. A device that could cut screws and punch out gears to within one millionth of an inch was deemed far more valuable to the employer than the unskilled labor that tended the machine. These tools were in many ways perceived as more reliable than the worker. The machines never became tired or sick, and most problems could be alleviated by the simple replacement of a part. This was not the case for the unskilled laborer, whose work and home environment, poor diet, and long hours made him highly susceptible to disease.

The philosophy of socialism was an attempt to counteract this problem. Most early socialist theory focused on the new work and living environment in which the worker found himself. The squalor of the industrial city was attacked through utopian models that called for ideal communities. This new type of living space had a cleaner, more natural environment but also demanded a radical change in the basic structure and values of the capitalistic framework. Some called for the abolition of both the traditional structure of the family and accepted sexual practices. This was driven by the concept that the patriarchal, monogamous model of the family was just part of the greater oppressive paradigm of capitalism. This was especially aimed at the theory of private property, upon which the capitalist system rested.

This criticism did not entail a total rejection of the technological reality that was emerging in the late eighteenth century. The success of the new precision instruments was very appealing to many of the early socialists. They believed a society that could produce lathes and drills of a highly accurate nature could also solve the problems of industrial life. Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) believed in the rational management of society. He wanted to create a technocratic state controlled by a board of directors who would, through the wise management of this new wealth, eradicate poverty. This governing body would consist of the most successful scientific and technological minds of the day. The very men who had created highly accurate productive machines would also establish a social system based upon the precise management of social resources.

Robert Owen (1771-1858) attempted to put this new theory into operation when he created the industrial community New Lanark in England. In opposition to the accepted economic theory of the classical economists, he paid his workers high wages and constructed quality housing. He also allowed his workers to take part in management decisions and instituted a model in which they were allowed to share in the profits. Owen was too far ahead of his time, and even though New Lanark was successful, other entrepreneurs never followed his example.

There were also many industrial motives for imperialism. Initially, it was the need for raw materials and new markets that drove the Europeans to expand around the globe. It was the West's advanced military technology that allowed Europe to dominate the world. Machine tools also played a major role in this enterprise. Alfred Krupp (1812-1887) was a leader in the manufacture of new weapons technology. The evolution of Nasmyth's steam hammer had a major impact on the development of both heavy and light artillery. Since the power of the hammer could be regulated, it allowed arms manufacturers to forge barrels to very precise standards, increasing the power and accuracy of the weapons. Artillery pieces were used mainly to support the infantry. Battles were won and lost when the infantry drove the opposing forces off the desired piece of territory. Because of the technological superiority of their weapons, the most important of which was the infantry's rifle, European armies were able to conquer and hold large tracts of land. Once again, interchangeable parts played a significant role. Eli Whitney (1765-1825) was the first to apply this concept to the manufacturing of rifles. His very limited success set the stage for a revolution in the area of light weapons. Eventually, the techniques of precision boring would lead to the development of rifled barrels. These advancements enabled the industrial nations to send relatively small numbers of men into battlefields around the world and continually dominate the tactical situation because of the reliability and accuracy of these mass-produced weapons. On another front, the impact of advancements made by Joseph Clement (1779-1844) in the planing of metal helped create a new generation of warships. Larger sheets of metal forged by steam hammers could now be cut to precise measurements by planing machines, which resulted in the construction of modern ships made from metal. These new tools also allowed for the construction of new and more powerful steam engines. Eventually, the navies of the industrial nations would control the sea-lanes of the world.

Finally, the evolution of machine tool technology would also have an impact on the health and living environment of the West. Precision tools that could drill, cut, grind, and polish accelerated the production of quality scientific instruments. These in turn were used to make a series of very important discoveries about the origin and transmission of disease. In 1714 Daniel Fahrenheit (1686-1736) created the mercury thermometer, which, along with the temperature scale that bears his name, allowed scientists and physicians to record detailed changes in body temperature. This was especially helpful in fighting disease. Doctors could now have a more accurate record of the impact of a particular dose of medicine by measuring how it reduced the fever of infection. Much of the knowledge concerning infection and germ theory was the result of the discovery and study of microorganisms. These advancements were made because of the development of the microscope. The renowned English naturalist Henry Baker (1698-1774) wrote a series of essays detailing the accuracy of this new scientific instrument. These were widely read by the scientific and medical community, which used the data the microscope provided to investigate the impact of microorganisms on the human environment.

From the earliest days of the human adventure, tools have played an important role in our development. Most importantly, the Industrial Revolution combined increased accuracy and power to reduce the cost of manufacturing and increase the material wealth of the human community.


Further Reading

Ackerknect, Erwin H. A Short History of Medicine. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Burke, James and Robert Ornstein. The Axemakers' Gift. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1995.

McClellan, James E. III and Harold Dorn. Science and Technology in World History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Pacey, Arnold. Technology in World History. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.

Smil, Vaclav. Energy in World History. Oxford: Westview Press, 1994.

About this article

New Machine Tools Are a Catalyst for the Industrial Revolution

Updated About content Print Article


New Machine Tools Are a Catalyst for the Industrial Revolution