World History 2 90 - 6.3.2 Mechanization

In the late 1700s, western European nations began to adopt mechanization, the use of machines to replace the labor of animals and humans. Mechanization set the stage for the Industrial Revolution, a transition away from societies focused on agriculture and handicraft production to socioeconomic systems dominated by the manufacture of goods, primarily with machines.

People in many places, including China, Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome, had made limited use of machinery in the ancient past; however, most goods were produced by skilled artisans for local consumption. Beginning in the mid-1600s, the British enjoyed an agricultural revolution that allowed smaller numbers of farmers employing fewer farm laborers to produce a surplus of food, and that in turn led to a population increase.

In the 1700s, entrepreneurs in England found a way to make use of unemployed or underemployed farm laborers and their families. These entrepreneurs provided farm families with raw materials and asked them to produce finished goods in their cottages, a system that became known as cottage labor. Rural women spun wool or flax into thread, and men then wove it into woolen cloth or linen. Some farm families made bonnets from straw. Other people made nails, knit hosiery, or made lace. The entrepreneur collected their finished products, paid them for their labor, and sold the finished goods in towns and cities. Because the farm laborers were not skilled artisans, they could not command high wages, and the entrepreneurs reaped great profits.

In time, entrepreneurs began to gather laborers together in one location, a factory. This decision gave them greater control over production because they could hire managers to supervise the workers’ labor. It was also easier to install machines in factories than in laborers’ cottages (although laborers might be provided with or rent relatively small machines, such as knitting frames, for their cottages). Factories came to be concentrated in towns and cities. As work moved to urban areas, so too did men and women who could not find work on farms. By the late 1700s, British business owners, supported by government policies inspired by Adam Smith, were setting up factories and hiring many of these migrant workers.

During the Industrial Revolution, factories increasingly relied on machine power, most importantly the steam engine. A steam engine uses heat to transform water into steam, which expands and drives a piston to perform work. Hero of Alexandria, in Egypt, produced the first steam engine when he created the aeolipile, a simple turbine that powered toys, around the year 70 CE. Steam engines remained little more than curiosities until 1698 when the English inventor Thomas Savery used the world’s first commercial steam engine to pump water out of mines and to supply water for industrial water wheels. By 1776, British factories were powering some of their operations with improved steam engines designed by the Scottish engineer James Watt.

Locomotives and boats powered by steam engines soon delivered raw materials to the factories and transported finished goods to consumers. In 1807, American inventor Robert Fulton began operation of the first successful commercial steamboats. In 1812, Matthew Murray, an English industrialist, opened the world’s first successful steam locomotive line. Several inventors produced steam-powered vehicles that could travel on roads, but the heavy weight of steam engines and the poor conditions of most roads doomed them to failure and kept steam engines in the factories, waterways, and railroads.

Industrialization, motivated and enabled by capitalism, created tremendous wealth for business owners and middle-class professionals, but their profits often came at a high cost to workers. The production of goods shifted from the handiwork of highly skilled middle-class artisans to mechanized production done by low-paid unskilled laborers. Workers did enjoy access to new consumer goods made cheaper by industrialization, but to afford those goods they had to work long hours, in difficult and often dangerous conditions. Perhaps most importantly, workers lost control over their working conditions. Farmers and artisans, particularly those who owned their land or shops, were free to decide how and when they worked, whereas factory owners carefully regulated every aspect of their workers’ professional and even personal lives. For example, the 1848 employee handbook for the Hamilton Manufacturing Company stated that “the company will not employ any one who is habitually absent from public worship on the Sabbath, or known to be guilty of immorality.”

Some workers rebelled against industrialization, which threatened their status as skilled laborers. Beginning in 1811, a secretive group of British textile workers calling themselves Luddites began destroying textile machinery, rioting, and setting fires in response to the industrialization of their workplaces (Figure 6.19). They took their name from the mythical Ned Ludd, a worker who supposedly destroyed a mechanized loom rather than submit to industrialization. As the Luddite movement grew, so did the legend of Ned Ludd, until some workers claimed that King Ludd lived in Sherwood Forest and fought corrupt industrialists, much as Robin Hood had opposed corrupt authorities during the Middle Ages. The Luddites did not argue in favor of a specific ideology or a grander purpose. They were simply angry that industrialization was destroying their traditional way of life, and they fought back with every tool at their disposal.

A drawing shows a large machine with semi-circular pieces running along the middle toward the far back. The tops of the circular pieces are connected to bars that run horizontally across the ceiling of the inside of the building. Large posts line the machine on both sides. Patterned cloth is coming out of the machine at the front. A man in dark knickers, shoes, and vest over a white shirt on the left is holding a mallet over his head in front of the machine. The man on the right is dressed in a white shirt and dark pants and shoes and it striking the side of the machine with his mallet.
Figure 6.19 Luddites were workers who opposed mechanization, primarily in the British cloth-making industry. This image depicting two Luddites breaking an industrial fabric-making frame was made in 1812. (credit: “Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

British leaders reacted quickly to the Luddites, with some calling them a mob worthy of execution. In 1812, the poet and peer Lord Byron responded by pointing out that these same people worked the fields, produced the goods, and served in the armed forces of the British Empire. Byron argued that the mob “often speaks the sentiments of the people” and warned “it is the mob” that “enabled you to defy all the world and can also defy you when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair.” He urged the British government to respond to the protesting workers with “conciliation and firmness” rather than violence. Most British business and political leaders disagreed with Byron and worked to suppress the rebellion. Parliament made industrial sabotage a capital offense. British authorities hanged many Luddites and exiled more to prison colonies. By 1816, the industrialists had defeated the Luddites. Today, “Luddite” is often used as a generic description of anyone opposed to technological change.

Dueling Voices

The Luddites

The Luddites were British factory workers who engaged in the destruction of machines, rioting, and vandalism to resist industrialization. Following are excerpts from two primary sources on the Luddites, describing separate incidents and written from different perspectives.

West Riding of Yorkshire

The complaint of John Sykes of Linthwaite . . . taken upon oath this 6th day of March 1812 before me Joseph Radcliffe Esquire one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace in and for the said Riding -

Who saith that between one and two o clock this Morning a number of people came to the door of his said Master’s dwelling house and knocked violently at it, and demanded admittance or otherwise they would break the door open—to prevent which this Examinnant opened the door and 30 or more people with their faces blacked or disguised came in and asked

if there were any amunition guns or pistols in the house and where the Master was, on being told he was not at home they secured or guarded every person of the family and then a number of them took a pound of candles and began to break the tools and did break 10 pairs of shears and one brushing machine the property of his said Master, that one of them who seemed to have the command said that if they came again and found any machinery set up, they would blow up the premises, soon after which they all went away—

Sworn before me — Joseph Radcliffe

[The mark of John Sykes]

—An account of machine-breaking at Linthwaite, Yorkshire, March 1812


We mentioned some frames to be removed today from 10 miles off. They came totally unmolested. The soldiers did not go near the village, and the constables had no interruption whatever.

We have been concerned to see these instances of removing frames because it must leave some of the country people without the means of work, but it will at the same time open their eyes to the consequence of their own proceedings. For some time before these troubles broke out, in many places a fifth of the frame workers were out of employ, and this naturally induced some hosiers (not perhaps of the first reputation) to give them particular kinds of work at reduced prices; and the hosiers who were giving the higher prices found themselves undersold in certain articles at the London Market.

This again brought about new arrangements, which soured the whole body of workmen . . . resentment against those hosiers who paid the under price has been the leading feature up to the present day. They have seldom made free with other property altho’ opportunities at all times have presented themselves, and in one instance lately at Clifton, some cloths that one of the frame breakers brought away, were carefully sent back again the following day.

—A letter sent to London from a magistrate describing the situation in Nottingham, February 1812

  • What are the key similarities and differences between the two accounts?
  • Why do you think they provide such different views of the Luddites?
  • Was the Luddite rebellion a reasonable response to the challenges posed by industrialization? Why or why not?

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax