Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Classroom Activity)

Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Classroom Activity)

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At the end of the 17th century, British roads were in a terrible state. A law passed in 1555 instructed local people to maintain the roads in their area. Every parish through which a road passed was legally bound to maintain it by six days a year of unpaid labour. In many area, this law was ignored. Even in those parishes where repairs were carried out, as there was no outside supervision, it was usually just a case of people putting stones and gravel in the worst potholes. Little, if any, attention was given to drainage, and so during the winter these roads often became a sea of mud.

The rapid increase in industrial production between 1700 and 1750 resulted in the need for an improved transport system. Whenever possible, factory owners used Britain's network of rivers to transport their goods. However, their customers did not always live by rivers and they therefore had to make use of Britain's roads. This was a major problem for mine-owners as transport costs were crucial. If they could not get their coal to market at a competitive price, they were out of business.

The appalling state of Britain's roads created serious problems for factory owners. Bad weather often made roads impassable. When fresh supplies of raw materials failed to arrive, factory production came to a halt. Flooded roads also meant that factory owners had difficulty transporting the finished goods to their customers. Merchants and factory owners appealed to Parliament for help.

After much discussion it was decided that this problem would only be solved if road building could be made profitable. Groups of businessmen were therefore encouraged to form companies called Turnpike Trusts. These companies were granted permission by Parliament to build and maintain roads. So that they could make a profit from this venture, companies were allowed to charge people to use these roads. Between 1700 and 1750 Parliament established over 400 of these Turnpike companies.

The quality of the roads built by these companies varied enormously. Some companies tried to increase their profits by spending very little money on repairing their roads. Other companies made every effort to provide a good service. In 1765, Harrogate Turnpike Trust employed John Metcalf to build a three-mile stretch of road in Yorkshire. Although blind since the age of six, Metcalfe was able to make an extremely good road. Metcalfe was aware of the importance of efficient drainage, and his decision to dig ditches along the sides of his convex roads considerably reduced the possibility of flooding.

This road was so successful he was commissioned to build a series of roads that were able to carry heavy wagons and withstand wet weather. According to Roger Osborne, the author of Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution (2013) "Metcalf used rafts to build roads across bogs and was an astute surveyor, able to calculate materials and costs accurately. He went on building roads across the north of England, giving manufacturers and commercial travellers easier access to markets and canal and ports."

Another important road builder was Thomas Telford. This talented engineer adapted ideas first used by the Romans. On top of foundations made from large stone blocks, Telford spread layers of large and small stones. Telford's method was based on the idea that vehicles could assist rather than destroy roads. He pointed out that by using small stones on the surface of the road, the more traffic that used the road, the more tightly compacted the stones would become. Telford's roads were very impressive, but they were also expensive and the Turnpike companies found it difficult to make profits from this method of road building.

Eventually another Scottish engineer, John Macadam, came up with a cheaper method of making good roads. In 1816, Macadam was employed by the Bristol Turnpike Trust. Macadam developed the view that roads did not need stone foundations. His method was to spread a series of thin layers of small angular stones over a subsoil base. After each layer was laid, it was left for a while so that the weight of vehicles using the road could compact the stones together. These 'macadamized' roads enabled horses to pull three times the load they could on other road surfaces. Wagons and coaches could also travel much faster on this surface.

In Sweden the road is higher than the land around, but here exactly the opposite is the case... In this country very large wagons are used with many horses... Through many years' driving, the wagons seem to have eaten down into the ground... to a depth of two, four, or six feet.

I have generally made roads three inches higher in the centre than I have at the sides... if the road be smooth and well made, the water will run easily on such a slope... I always make my surveyors carry a pair of scales and a six ounce weight in their pocket and when they come to a heap of stones, they weigh one or two of the largest.

However, incredible it may appear, this coach will actually (barring accidents) arrive in London four days and a half after leaving Manchester.

Light, well-sprung vans were able to travel faster than the old cumbersome wagons. Pickford's started using these vans in 1814-15, the journey from Manchester to London taking thirty-six hours.

As gravel is not in general plentiful, except on the coast, the roads in Yorkshire are usually made of stone, which abounds in almost every part of the county. It is brought in large pieces from the quarry, and thrown from the carts on the road side, at convenient distances, where repair is necessary. Men are employed afterwards to break it, and spread it... In times however like these, when machinery is applied with profit and advantage to almost every purpose of agriculture and trade, it must be a matter of surprise that no machines have yet been invented and used for breaking stone for the road ; they would not only improve the roads, but be a great saving of time, trouble, and expense.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Why were British roads in such an appalling state at the beginning of the 18th century?

Question 2: Explain the problems of having roads Iike those described in source 1. How did John Macadam (source 3) try to solve this problem?

Question 3: How did the roads built by John Macadam differ from those built by Thomas Telford?

Question 4: Did all British roads improve between 1750 and 1800? Explain your answer in as much detail as possible.

Question 5: Comment on the value of these sources in helping us understand the increase in the speed of road transport between 1750 and 1830.

Question 6: Make a list of reasons why British roads improved between 1750 and 1800. Explain which one of these reasons was the most important.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution completely changed the way people traveled and how goods were transported. Before the Industrial Revolution, transportation relied on animals (like horses pulling a cart) and boats. Travel was slow and difficult. It could take months to travel across the United States in the early 1800s.

by William M. Donaldson

Steamboats and Rivers

One of the best ways to travel and ship goods before the Industrial Revolution was the river. Boats could travel downstream quite easily using the current. Traveling upstream was much more difficult, however.

The problem of traveling upstream was solved during the Industrial Revolution by the steam engine. In 1807, Robert Fulton built the first commercial steamboat. It used steam power to travel upstream. Steamboats were soon used to transport people and goods along rivers throughout the country.

In order to make better use of water transportation, canals were built to connect rivers, lakes, and oceans. The most important canal built in the United States was the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal ran 363 miles and connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean. It was completed in 1825 and became a source of commerce and travel from the western states to New York.

The invention of the railroad and the steam powered locomotive opened up a whole new world in transportation. Now trains could travel wherever tracks could be built. Transportation was no longer limited to rivers and canals. Starting around 1830, railroads began to be constructed in the eastern part of the United States. Soon they stretched across the country with the First Transcontinental Railroad completed in 1869.

Railroads changed the culture of the United States and made the country seam much smaller. Before railroads, it could take months to travel across the United States. California seemed like a different world from east coast cities like New York and Boston. By the 1870s, a person could travel from New York to California in just a few days. Letters, goods, and packages could also be transported much faster.

Macadam Road Construction
by Carl Rakeman (1823)

Even with steamboats and railroads, people still needed a better way to travel between rivers and train stations. Before the Industrial Revolution, roads were often poorly maintained dirt roads. During the Industrial Revolution, the government became more involved in building and maintaining good roads. A new process called the "macadam" process was used to create smooth gravel roads.

Unit 2: The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transport, and technology had a profound effect on the socioeconomic and cultural conditions starting in the United Kingdom, then subsequently spreading throughout Europe, North America, and eventually the world.

The Industrial Revolution marks a major turning point in human history almost every aspect of daily life was eventually influenced in some way. Most notably, average income and population began to expand exponentially. In the two centuries following 1800, the world’s average income increased over 10-fold, while the world’s population increased over 6-fold.

Starting in the later part of the 18th century (1700’s), there began a transition in parts of Great Britain’s previously manual labor and animal based economy towards machine-based manufacturing. It started with the mechanization of the textile industries, the development of improved iron manufacturing and the increased use of refined coal.Trade expansion was enabled by the introduction of canals, improved roads and railways.

The introduction of steam power fueled primarily by coal, wider use of water wheels and powered machinery helped drive the industrial revolution. These effects spread throughout Western Europe and North America during the 19th century, eventually affecting most of the world, a process that continues as industrialization. The impact of this change on society was enormous.

The first Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century, merged into the Second Industrial Revolution around 1850, when technological and economic progress gained momentum with the development of steam-powered ships, railways, and later in the 19th century with the internal combustion engine and electrical power generation.

Industrial Revolution and Technology

Whether it was mechanical inventions or new ways of doing old things, innovations powered the Industrial Revolution.

Social Studies, World History

Steam Engine Queens Mill

The use of steam-powered machines in cotton production pushed Britain's economic development from 1750 to 1850. Built more than 100 years ago, this steam engine still powers the Queens Mill textile factory in Burnley, England, United Kingdom.

Photograph by Ashley Cooper

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It has been said that the Industrial Revolution was the most profound revolution in human history, because of its sweeping impact on people&rsquos daily lives. The term &ldquoindustrial revolution&rdquo is a succinct catchphrase to describe a historical period, starting in 18 th -century Great Britain, where the pace of change appeared to speed up. This acceleration in the processes of technical innovation brought about an array of new tools and machines. It also involved more subtle practical improvements in various fields affecting labor, production, and resource use. The word &ldquotechnology&rdquo (which derives from the Greek word techne, meaning art or craft) encompasses both of these dimensions of innovation.

The technological revolution, and that sense of ever-quickening change, began much earlier than the 18 th century and has continued all the way to the present day. Perhaps what was most unique about the Industrial Revolution was its merger of technology with industry. Key inventions and innovations served to shape virtually every existing sector of human activity along industrial lines, while also creating many new industries. The following are some key examples of the forces driving change.

Western European farming methods had been improving gradually over the centuries. Several factors came together in 18 th -century Britain to bring about a substantial increase in agricultural productivity. These included new types of equipment, such as the seed drill developed by Jethro Tull around 1701. Progress was also made in crop rotation and land use, soil health, development of new crop varieties, and animal husbandry. The result was a sustained increase in yields, capable of feeding a rapidly growing population with improved nutrition. The combination of factors also brought about a shift toward large-scale commercial farming, a trend that continued into the 19 th century and later. Poorer peasants had a harder time making ends meet through traditional subsistence farming. The enclosure movement, which converted common-use pasture land into private property, contributed to this trend toward market-oriented agriculture. A great many rural workers and families were forced by circumstance to migrate to the cities to become industrial laborers.

Deforestation in England had led to a shortage of wood for lumber and fuel starting in the 16 th century. The country&rsquos transition to coal as a principal energy source was more or less complete by the end of the 17 th century. The mining and distribution of coal set in motion some of the dynamics that led to Britain&rsquos industrialization. The coal-fired steam engine was in many respects the decisive technology of the Industrial Revolution.

Steam power was first applied to pump water out of coal mines. For centuries, windmills had been employed in the Netherlands for the roughly similar operation of draining low-lying flood plains. Wind was, and is, a readily available and renewable energy source, but its irregularity was considered a drawback. Water power was a more popular energy source for grinding grain and other types of mill work in most of preindustrial Europe. By the last quarter of the 18 th century, however, thanks to the work of the Scottish engineer James Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton, steam engines achieved a high level of efficiency and versatility in their design. They swiftly became the standard power supply for British, and, later, European industry. The steam engine turned the wheels of mechanized factory production. Its emergence freed manufacturers from the need to locate their factories on or near sources of water power. Large enterprises began to concentrate in rapidly growing industrial cities.

In this time-honored craft, Britain&rsquos wood shortage necessitated a switch from wood charcoal to coke, a coal product, in the smelting process. The substitute fuel eventually proved highly beneficial for iron production. Experimentation led to some other advances in metallurgical methods during the 18 th century. For example, a certain type of furnace that separated the coal and kept it from contaminating the metal, and a process of &ldquopuddling&rdquo or stirring the molten iron, both made it possible to produce larger amounts of wrought iron. Wrought iron is more malleable than cast iron and therefore more suitable for fabricating machinery and other heavy industrial applications.

The production of fabrics, especially cotton, was fundamental to Britain&rsquos economic development between 1750 and 1850. Those are the years historians commonly use to bracket the Industrial Revolution. In this period, the organization of cotton production shifted from a small-scale cottage industry, in which rural families performed spinning and weaving tasks in their homes, to a large, mechanized, factory-based industry. The boom in productivity began with a few technical devices, including the spinning jenny, spinning mule, and power loom. First human, then water, and finally steam power were applied to operate power looms, carding machines, and other specialized equipment. Another well-known innovation was the cotton gin, invented in the United States in 1793. This device spurred an increase in cotton cultivation and export from U.S. slave states, a key British supplier.

This industry arose partly in response to the demand for improved bleaching solutions for cotton and other manufactured textiles. Other chemical research was motivated by the quest for artificial dyes, explosives, solvents, fertilizers, and medicines, including pharmaceuticals. In the second half of the 19 th century, Germany became the world&rsquos leader in industrial chemistry.

Concurrent with the increased output of agricultural produce and manufactured goods arose the need for more efficient means of delivering these products to market. The first efforts toward this end in Europe involved constructing improved overland roads. Canals were dug in both Europe and North America to create maritime corridors between existing waterways. Steam engines were recognized as useful in locomotion, resulting in the emergence of the steamboat in the early 19 th century. High-pressure steam engines also powered railroad locomotives, which operated in Britain after 1825. Railways spread rapidly across Europe and North America, extending to Asia in the latter half of the 19 th century. Railroads became one of the world&rsquos leading industries as they expanded the frontiers of industrial society.

What Happened During the American Industrial Revolution?

As Charles R. Morris states in his book The Dawn of Innovation: “The story of American development can be charted as an evolution from local to regional and finally to national networks.”

In the early 1800s, the Northeast started to develop strong regional economies.

By the 1820s, rural New England and the Middle Atlantic became heavily industrialized with clocks, textiles, shoes and cast-iron stoves becoming the predominant industries there.

As factories produced more goods, transporting these goods became important. In the 1820s and 30s, manufacturers began trying to find new ways to reach consumers in the West since transportation to this region at the time was virtually nonexistent.

To help reach these Western consumers, the Erie Canal, which cut across the state of New York and created a water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, was completed in 1825. Shipping goods through the canal cut shipping costs to a fraction of what it used to be via ground transportation.

Erie Canal at Little Falls, NY, circa 1880-1897

After the western steamboat was developed, around 1814, by Henry Shreve and Daniel French, it finally allowed for large cargo loads to be transported upstream even in shallow water, which helped spur industrialization in the West, according to Morris:

“Within a decade the region’s great grain, lumber, and meat animal enterprises were centralizing in Cincinnati, as a tight-knit riverine economy took shape within the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi valleys. Cincinnati invented the meatpacking ‘disassembly’ line later made famous by Chicago, and Cincinnati brothers-in-law Proctor and Gamble were innovators in America’s first chemical industry.”

In 1837, the Federal government completed a 620-mile national road from Maryland to Illinois in an effort to help manufacturers transport goods westward.

Then in the 1840s, 50s and 60s, newly established widespread railroad systems finally linked the Northeast and Midwest into an “intergrated commercial and industrial unit.” (Morris xii)

Celebration of the meeting of the Transcontinental railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah, May 1869

As a result, midwestern industries of coal, iron, food processing, lumber, furniture and glass increased sharply while Northeaster industries like clocks, textiles, and shoes grew to a global scale.

Due to all of this Northern and Midwestern industrialization, the South became a supplier of the raw materials necessary for industrialization, instead of developing its own industries, according to Morris:

“The South, in the meantime, slipped into the position of an internal colony, exploiting its slaves and being exploited in turn by the Northeast and Midwest. Boston and New York controlled much of the shipping, insurance, and brokerage earnings from the cotton trade, while the earnings left over went for midwestern food, tools, and engines, shipped down the Mississippi and its branches.”

In 1850, the second industrial revolution, which saw the rise in electricity, petroleum and steel, began in the United States and then spread to Europe and the rest of the world.

Industrialization increased greatly in the late 19th century and early 20th century due to technological advances, according to Jonathan Rees in his article, Industrialization and Urbanization in the United States, 1880-1929, on the Oxford Research Encyclopedias website:

“Before 1880, industrialization depended upon a prescribed division of labor—breaking most jobs up into smaller tasks, and assigning the same people to repeat one task indefinitely. After 1880, industrialization depended much more on mechanization—the replacement of people with machines—to increase production and maximize profits. The development of the modern electrical grid, starting in the early 1880s, facilitated such technological advances. Henry Ford’s assembly line and the rise of mass production after the turn of the 20th century only strengthened this effect. As a result, the total manufacturing output of the United States was twenty-eight times greater in 1929 than it was 1859.”

By the 1890s, the United States surpassed Britain for first place in manufacturing output and by the beginning of the 20th century, per capita incomes in the United States were double that of Germany and France, and 50% higher than Britain. The United States is now the largest economy in the world.

Industrial Revolution

In the latter 1700s, inventions in the textile industry in Great Britain were the first signs of major changes in a revolution in production that greatly altered many aspects of society. Steam-powered machines began to do what animals or people had formerly done by hand. Textile mills could produce high quality cloth cheaply and in huge quantities. Factories sprang up, creating new jobs for factory workers but driving individual weavers who usually worked at home out of business and leading to the growth of cities. Industrialization spread to the iron industry, creating greater demands for mining of ore and coal. Soon the factory system spread to the rest of Europe and the United States. For their owners, factories could create great wealth. Workers, however, often toiled for long hours for low pay under harsh working conditions.

Industrialization of Agriculture

A tremendous growth of machine-power transformed agriculture in the 19th Century. Using factory-produced machinery like the steel plow, the reaper, mowers and threshing machines powered by horses, farmers were able to expand the size of their operations and produce far more than they could when farming was done by hand. The invention of the cotton gin to separate seeds from the cotton fiber made cotton-growing profitable and increased the demand for slaves in Southern states.

Over the long term, it greatly reduced the number of people required to produce the nation’s food and fiber. Around 1800, nearly 90 percent of Americans were farm families. Today, the number is under two percent. The growth of cities was a direct outcome of the Industrial Revolution as families left the farms to find work elsewhere.

Transportation, Electricity and More

By the mid-1800s, changes in transportation were making a big difference. Steam powered ships could travel much faster than those depending on the winds. Railroads were able to haul freight, mail and passengers long distances with greater convenience and reliability than horse-drawn vehicles. The invention of Morse code enabled rapid communication across great distances and helped draw the nation closer together. Telephones followed giving individuals the power to converse whenever they wanted regardless of whether they were together or not.

In the late 1800s, electricity began its revolution of the home and office. Light bulbs replaced smoky kerosene lamps, refrigerators replaced home deliveries of ice and electric washing machines and irons relieved some of the heavy drudgery of housework. At first, electricity was available only in towns because of the expense of stringing long lines through the countryside, but in 1936, Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act that helped to finance the creation of rural co-operatives to supply farm families with this advantage.

Beginning in the early 20th Century, gasoline-powered engines led to the development of automobiles and tractors that further reduced our dependence on horses. Henry Ford built a factory that broke down the manufacture of an automobile into many small steps and allowed him to mass produce the Model-T that had a major impact on American life. Now a reliable automobile was available to the average family, providing a mobility undreamed of only a few generations earlier. Families were no longer bound to travel from town to town by rail but could drive where they wanted on short trips or even long family vacations. Farm children could attend high schools and other activities in town.

The invention of the computer, internet, and the entire digital industry is yet another stage of the Industrial Revolution, and one whose impact we are still experiencing. Who knows what another 20 years will bring?

Impact of the Industrial Revolution

With all the advantages of the Industrial Revolution that provides us with goods, services and opportunities unavailable to even our grandparents' generation, there are downsides, too. There is a much greater inequality in wealth, with some super-rich people while others live below the poverty level. Factories and industrialization make great demands on the environment for raw materials and often pollute the air by burning coal or the rivers with toxic dumps of toxic chemicals. Because Americans no longer produce (or even know how to produce) many of the items upon which they depend on, people are vulnerable to forces over which they have little control.

For the past 300 years, civilization has changed more than it had for thousands of years, and those changes are accelerating. What impact will those changes have on the environment and how will it affect the ability to cohabitate the globe with the natural world and other nations? The answers remain to be seen.

Industrialization and the Environment

During the Industrial Revolution, environmental pollution increased with the use of new sources of fuel, the development of large factories, and the rise of unsanitary urban centers.

Learning Objectives

Describe the toll that industrialization took on public health and the environment

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Anthracite coal, discovered at the turn of the nineteenth century, became an important source of fuel in the United States during the Industrial Revolution, with lasting consequences for the environment.
  • Sanitation was a major public health concern in cities such as New York and Philadelphia, which lacked sewage systems and clean drinking water. Untreated sewage was not properly disposed of and thus frequently contaminated the local water supply.
  • Regulations to ensure cleaner air and cleaner water were not put in place until the second half of the nineteenth century.
  • Though environmentalism did not enter American discourse prior to the twentieth century, the transcendentalist movement of the 1830s and 1840s presented a critique of industrialization that elevated the natural world.
  • Transcendentalists, including Henry David Thoreau, fostered a romantic image of the natural world as a response to industrialization and urbanization.

Key Terms

  • cholera: Any of several acute infectious diseases of humans and domestic animals, caused by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium through ingestion of contaminated water or food, usually marked by severe gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and dehydration.
  • transcendentalism: A movement of writers and philosophers in New England in the nineteenth century who were loosely bound together by an adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the belief in the essential supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths.
  • Anthracite coal: A form of carbonized ancient plants the hardest and cleanest-burning of all similar material.

The Industrial Revolution brought enormous advances in productivity, but with steep environmental costs. During the Industrial Revolution, environmental pollution in the United States increased with the emergence of new sources of fuel, large factories, and sprawling urban centers.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels powered the Industrial Revolution. In 1790, anthracite coal was first discovered in what is now known as the Coal Region of Pennsylvania. A harder and high-quality form of coal, anthracite soon became the primary source of fuel in the United States for domestic and industrial use. It fueled factory furnaces, steam-powered boats, and machinery. The consumption of immense quantities of coal and other fossil fuels eventually gave rise to unprecedented air pollution. In 1881, Chicago and Cincinnati were the first two American cities to enact laws to promote cleaner air.

Anthracite coal breaker and power house buildings, New Mexico, ca. 1935: Coal tends to release large quantities of carbon as it is burned to make electricity.

Modern Cities and Sanitation

The environmental effects of industrialization were especially concentrated in cities. Unsanitary conditions and overcrowding afflicted many American cities, where outbreaks of disease, including cholera and typhoid, were common. Untreated human waste was a major environmental hazard as rapidly growing cities lacked sewer systems and relied on contaminated wells within city confines for drinking water supplies. In the mid-nineteenth century, after the link between contaminated water and disease was established, many cities built centralized water-supply systems. However, waste water continued to be discharged without treatment, due to public health officials’ confidence in the self-purifying capacity of rivers, lakes, and the sea.

Hand bill from the New York City Board of Health, 1832: The cholera outbreak of 1832 was related to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that attended the Industrial Revolution.

Early Environmentalism

In the early nineteenth century, policymakers and the public had little awareness of the extent of industry’s impact on the environment. Some effects were self-evident to attentive observers, however, and the rise of industrialization and urbanization did inspire a new appreciation for the natural world among some. Transcendentalism, an intellectual movement of the 1830s and 1840s, elevated nature in popular poems, stories, and essays of the time. Transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau is best known for his work Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. Thoreau also wrote on the subjects of natural history and philosophy and anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism.

Henry David Thoreau, 1856: Thoreau’s writings celebrated nature and a simple life and provided a critique of urban and industrial values.


Starting in the late 1820s, steam locomotives began to compete with horse-drawn locomotives. The railroads with steam locomotives offered a new mode of transportation that fascinated citizens, buoying their optimistic view of the possibilities of technological progress. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad was the first to begin service with a steam locomotive. Its inaugural train ran in 1831 on a track outside Albany and covered twelve miles in twenty-five minutes. Soon it was traveling regularly between Albany and Schenectady.

Toward the middle of the century, railroad construction kicked into high gear, and eager investors quickly formed a number of railroad companies. As a railroad grid began to take shape, it stimulated a greater demand for coal, iron, and steel. Soon, both railroads and canals crisscrossed the states, providing a transportation infrastructure that fueled the growth of American commerce. Indeed, the transportation revolution led to development in the coal, iron, and steel industries, providing many Americans with new job opportunities.

This 1853 map of the “Empire State” shows the extent of New York’s canal and railroad networks. The entire country’s transportation infrastructure grew dramatically during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Industrial Revolution Research

The growth of the Industrial Revolution depended on the ability to transport raw materials and finished goods over long distances. There were three main types of transportation that increased during the Industrial Revolution: waterways, roads, and railroads. Transportation was important because people were starting to live in the West. During this time period, transportation via water was the cheapest way to move heavy products (such as coal and iron). As a result, canals were widened and deepened to allow more boats to pass. Robert Fulton made the first steam-powered engine to power a steamboat, and in 1807 he demonstrated its use by going from New York City to Albany via the Hudson River. His steamboat was able to carry raw materials across the Atlantic Ocean by the mid 1800's. The roads also improved immensely during this time period. Previously, people traveled using animals or by foot, but there were many problems with the conditions of the roads. In 1751, turnpikes were created for easier transportation, especially for the horse-drawn wagons. John Loudon McAdam made "macadam" road surfaces which consisted of crushed rock in thin layers. Thomas Telford made new foundations in roads with large flat stones. Soon after, roads across America were improved based on these techniques. The closest to trains were horses, commonly used to pull freight cars along rails. In 1801, Richard Trevithick made the first steam locomotive. These improvements on waterways, roads, and railroads all made traveling safer, and it allowed goods to be moved more efficiently.

In 1769, James Watt produced the first efficient steam engine. It was only a matter of time until his invention was put to use as a power source for transporting goods. River boats in the 1800s used steam power however it was the steam locomotive that truly revolutionized transportation.

Up until now, railroad tracks were rarely used to travel long distances. Canals and rivers were usually used to transport heavy goods. Unfortunately, rivers didn't always flow past the areas where goods were needed, and canals were expensive to dig. They were also useless in the winter when the water froze. The advent of railroads made goods transportable anywhere for a price that was more affordable.

In 1928, John Stephenson made the first effective steam locomotive called the "Rocket."" Upon his success, the railroad boom erupted across Europe and the United States. This was especially important in the United States because it spanned a large distance (geographically). By 1840, the United States had over 3,000 miles of railroad tracks. The use of railroads created an unprecedented demand for coal and fuel for the locomotives, and iron to make the tracks. Engineers were needed to build bridges, dig tunnels, and plan routes.

There were many companies that built and operated the railways. Some were profitable, but most endured a financial struggle. To start, companies simply operated a single railway line between two locations. However as time passed, large railway lines bought out smaller ones, and huge railway companies grew in the process.

Early American railway building was concentrated only in the northeast and midwest. People felt it would be best if there was a way to connect east and west coasts. Many companies set proposals, and the different routes were discussed at length (and argued upon). Finally in 1864, construction began: the Central Pacific line built east (from Sacramento, California) while the Union Pacific line was built west (from Omaha, Nebraska). In 1869 all lines met and the United States had a coast-to-coast railway service.

The cities that were near the railroads prospered economically whereas the further cities struggled to survive. Railroads became important for transporting commuters who worked in the city. Factories benefitted as raw materials were brought in at reduced prices, and the finished products were daily shipped to their destinations.

Eventually longer-lasting steel rails replaced those made of iron or wood. Locomotives became more efficient over time especially when electric and diesel ones replace the steam ones. In addition, more railroads were built, making its usage even more valuable.

Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Classroom Activity) - History

The Agricultural Revolution Index

The Industrial Revolution Index

Chronology of the Iron and Steel Industry
1709 - 1879

Abraham Darby used coke to make pig iron at Coalbrookdale to make pig iron

Benjamin Huntsman "rediscovered" steel.

The first iron rolling mill (to make wrought iron) was opened at Foreham, Hampshire.

Darby laid an iron plateway

Matthew Boulton established an ironworks, using coke as the fuel, in Birmingham.

The iron industry was centred around Merthyr, in the heart of the Welsh coalfields.

Iron had replaced wood as the material for making industrial machines.

Wilkinson bored cylinders for Watt's engine

Abraham Darby III built the first iron bridge at Coalbrookdale.

Henry Cort invented a new and improved method to produce wrought iron. He also developed a new way of making wrought iron railings.

James Beaumont Neilson improved the blast furnace construction.

Henry Bessemer developed the "basic oxygen converter" to make steel.

Britain was producing 60 times as much pig iron as in 1800.

Percy Gilchrist and S.G. Thomas adapted Bessemer's process to suit phosphoric ores.

20th Century Iron and Steel Production

Iron is the fourth most common metal in the earth's crust. It makes up 5% of its weight. Iron occurs naturally in a variety of ores in sedimentary rocks:

iron pyrites (or fool's gold)

limonite or goetite ("bog ore")

hydrated iron oxide (same composition as rust)

iron II oxide and iron III oxide

Iron pyrites, or fool's gold, cannot be used to make iron because of its high sulphur content which makes the iron too brittle.

Although the early iron industry used "bog ore" to obtain iron, ironstone is the most common iron ore and it is extracted from open cast (surface) sites in England, from the River Humber to the River Severn.

To obtain iron from ironstone the ore is first roasted with coal. This process is called sintering. Sintering drives off impurities, such as water, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and arsenic compounds. It leaves a sinter which is mainly granules of magnetite (an oxide of iron).

The magnetite is then reduced in the blast furnace. The sinter is mixed with high grade coke and limestone (calcium carbonate). Hot air at 2 atmospheres pressure, is blasted into the furnace, creating temperatures of up to 1900°C. The iron ore reacts with carbon monoxide in a reduction reaction producing iron and carbon dioxide. Any impurities fuse with the limestone to form a sludge which sinks to the bottom of the furnace. The molten iron, known as pig iron, lies on top of the sludge and can be run off. If the pig iron is re-melted and poured into moulds, it sets as cast iron.

Cast iron is brittle which makes it impractical for some uses. However, it does have a high compression strength and can be heated with air and hammered to produce wrought iron. Hammering cast iron into wrought iron was a long process.

To be converted into steel, the pig iron has to be melted in the presence of oxygen to remove any remaining impurities. Then an alloy of iron, manganese and carbon, is added. The result is a tremendous display of explosive sparks which shoot out of the converter. The carbon converts the iron into steel. High carbon steels are extremely strong and durable.

Production of pig iron in Britain during the 18th century.

After 1770, iron (and later, steel), replaced wood as the material for making industrial machines and tools. In 1806, the annual production of pig iron had reached 272000 tons, which was a 200% increase over 18 years.


The Industrial Revolution

Iron and Steel Manufacture

The development of the railway stimulated the economy in two important ways. First, the advent of cheap and efficient transport lowered the carriage cost of goods. This meant that goods were cheaper in the shops and this increased the demand. The increase in demand led to the expansion of factories which required more energy. The prime energy source at the time was coal. As the Industrial Revolution began to speed up, the need for coal grew because it provided power for the factory engines, steam powered ships and steam locomotives. Second, the demand for iron increased. Iron was needed to make the railway tracks, steam locomotives and the giant Watt steam engines that pumped the mines and provided energy to run factory machinery. At a later stage, iron was needed to construct the steamships.

The developers of the early steam engines and steam railways would never have been so successful without parallel developments taking place in the iron industry. Without the ironmasters' expertise in creating new methods of iron casting and working iron, it would have been impossible to have produced steam power in the first place. All of these developments which drove the Industrial Revolution were dependent on each other for their success. New inventions in one field led to advancements in another. These, in turn, stimulated further research and development.

John Wilkinson played an important role in the development of James Watt's rotary steam engine. In 1774, he patented a precision cannon borer which he manufactured at his father's Beisham factory at Denbigh in Wales. This boring machine was essential for the manufacture of Watt's engines since it allowed for the detailed measurements needed in the steam engine's design. Wilkinson was then able to use Watt's steam engines to power the bellows at his own wrought iron furnace at Broseley in Shropshire.

Ironbridge © Shirley Burchill

Wilkinson was called the "Great Staffordshire Ironmaster". He started his career as an industrialist in 1748 when he built his first iron furnace at Bilston in Staffordshire. One of his most famous achievements was the world's first iron bridge, which he built with the help of Abraham Darby III, and which was opened to traffic in 1781. This bridge was 100 feet (about 30 meters) in length and weighed a total of 378 tons. It was built one mile downstream from Coalbrookdale, and it spanned the River Severn at Broseley. The bridge was also notable because it used joints, pegs and keys in place of nuts, bolts and screws.

Detail of part of the Ironbridge © Shirley Burchill

Wilkinson also built the world's first iron barge in 1787. He was also responsible for passing his cannon boring technique and expertise across the channel to France, and his factory cast all of the iron work needed for the Paris waterworks. Not surprisingly, Wilkinson was buried in a cast iron coffin which he designed himself!

The iron industry began in forested areas since trees were necessary to make the fuel, charcoal. It was cheaper to move iron to the iron works than to move the vast amounts of charcoal needed. When ironworking and shipbuilding caused the forests to shrink rapidly, it became necessary to search for an alternative fuel. Iron was made by smelting iron ore or heating the ore up to melting point. The liquid iron was then cast into ingots, called pigs. The pig iron could then either be reheated until it was molten and cast into moulds, or heated and hammered into bars of wrought iron. Of the two, wrought iron was more malleable and less brittle. Attempts had been made to use coal in the smelting process, but the sulphur in the coal produced an iron which was too brittle for use.

In 1709, an ironmaster in Coalbrookdale, Abraham Darby I, succeeded in producing cast iron using coal. He discovered a process whereby coal was first turned into coke. When coal is turned into coke most of the sulphur is lost as sulphurous gases. The coke could then be used in the smelting process to produce iron. Darby kept his discovery a secret and passed it on only to the next generation of Darbys. His son, Abraham Darby II, and his grandson, Abraham Darby III, eventually perfected his method.

Because they kept the secret, the idea of smelting iron using coke did not become widespread until the second half of the 18th century. The Darby's method of producing iron could only be used for cast iron. The search was still on for a better and cheaper method of producing both wrought iron and steel. Until that time, steel had been very expensive to produce and its uses were limited.

It was Henry Cort who, in 1783, discovered an economic method of producing wrought iron. His 'puddling furnace' produced molten iron that could be rolled straight away, while it was still soft, into rails for railways, pipes, or even sheet iron for shipbuilding.

The History of Iron and Steel Manufacture

Iron was first extracted from its ores over 5000 years ago. Until the 18th century, charcoal was used as the reducing agent. By the early 18th century, charcoal was in short supply and had become expensive. It took 200 acres of forest to supply one iron works for one year, and iron was in demand.

Abraham Darby I owned an iron works at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. His iron works made everything from domestic pots to the huge iron cylinders needed for Newcomen's steam engine. In 1709, when he was 31 years old, Darby developed a new process for smelting iron. This new process made pig iron, and it used coke instead of charcoal. The demand for coke increased, as did the demand for Newcomen's steam engines since they were used to pump water out of coal mines. Although coke was the cheaper option, it took another 50 years before it completely replaced charcoal.

Benjamin Huntsman, a 36 year old clockmaker, made steel, in small quantities, as early as 1740. He did not "discover" steel, however. In 334 B.C., Aristotle had described Damascus steel which had been used to make swords. Huntsman made steel by putting molten iron into earthenware crucibles and then heating it, while excluding air at the same time.

In 1762, Matthew Boulton set up the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham. His factory made iron which was transformed into useful articles, such as buckles and bolts. What made Boulton's factory so special was that it was large and situated near the Midlands' coalfields. Most of the other iron works at that time were small affairs and built close to forests, since they still depended on charcoal.

Henry Cort was from Lancaster in Lancashire. His work for the Navy took him to Plymouth. In 1775, after ten years in the west country, he retired from his naval job and bought a small ironworks just outside the city. His innovations in the iron industry earned him the name "Father of the Iron Trade". Cort invented a new process to make wrought iron. His method was called the "puddling process". He also developed a rolling mill to produce wrought iron bars. He patented his inventions in 1783. In Cort's process, the melted pig iron was heated with air and iron ore. The resulting pasty metal was then hammered to remove some of the impurities (or slag). To make iron bars, the molten metal was passed through grooved rollers. As a result of Cort's method, wrought iron production increased by 400% over the next twenty years. Unfortunately, Cort lost his patent when his business partner was discovered to have financed the project using stolen money. Cort went bankrupt and lived the rest of his life on a small pension.

Henry Bessemer was a self-educated man who came from Hertfordshire in England. In 1856, he developed a "basic oxygen converter" to change pig iron into steel. In 1879, Bessemer received a knighthood and a fellowship in the Royal Society for his contribution to the iron and steel industries. Bessemer's process was only suitable for British iron ore, since the ore did not contain much phosphorous. It was not until 1879, that the more advanced Percy Gilchrist and S.G.Thomas method, which was suitable for phosphoric ores as found in Europe, was adopted by the continental steel makers, such as Alfred Krupp in Germany.

The Open Door Team 2020
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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2020

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.

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