Iron, Steam & Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution, By Roger Osborne

An inspirational history of the Industrial Revolution and its vanishing legacy.

Peter Forbes
Friday 21 June 2013 17:34 BST

Danny Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony reminded the nation not only of the power and money that stemmed from the Industrial Revolution but also of its great cultural impact. It is quite possible that many watching had forgotten we ever had such a thing because most of its traces have been erased from the land, bar a few museums. But for a historian there can hardly be a more fascinating subject.

Reading Iron, Steam and Money, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are living in an antipode of those times. Then, Britain was blessed with a dazzling array of serendipitous boons that an inventive people was able to exploit: a good food supply from improved agriculture in a temperate climate and hence a growing population; a relatively tolerant and liberal culture (the Anglican-Nonconformist divide and the restrictive practices of craft guilds were brakes to be circumvented); abundant natural resources from tin, copper, zinc and lead in Cornwall to iron and coal in many locations; above all, the Atlantic position which fostered the cotton trade, with raw cotton from America, processed in Lancashire and sold to India.

There are many heroes in the Industrial Revolution – men and materials – and the book could just as well have been called Kings Cotton and Coal. Osborne relishes the larger-than-life inventors and entrepreneurs such as Arkwright, Crompton, Watt and Trevithick and, in particular, the technical innovations that led to mechanised textile production.

Now, each of Britain's advantages has been cancelled out. Take coal, which seemed so abundant (in 1913, 292 million tons were mined). In February this year, Daw Mill in Warwickshire, the largest of Britain's few remaining deep mines, suffered a catastrophic fire and subsequent closure. This has brought UK Coal to the brink of bankruptcy. Britain is now poor in energy resources.

A good deal of the decline was inevitable but it is still astonishing how British industry surrendered without a whimper. Sir Alex Ferguson once justified his caginess with the media by saying: "Do ICI send an email to another biochemicals company telling them their new discoveries in drugs?" The chemical industry grew up in Lancashire and Cheshire on the back of the textile industry and ICI was once Britain's largest industrial company. Now, Lancashire's greatest remaining industry would seem to be Manchester United. When Sir Alex retired he was given a right-royal send-off; when ICI disappeared in 2008 you had to scour the media for a mention.

Osborne's take on the long decline is that the self-made, Nonconformist, often working-class pioneers succumbed to the aristocratic embrace, sending their children to good schools where they "studied Ovid and Seneca instead of Faraday and Carnot" (the theorist of energy).

This boom-to-bust story has occasioned much historical chauvinism. Back in January, a BBC2 programme goaded a French academic into admitting to France's backwardness at the time when Britain was becoming the workshop of the world.

Given that France has the TGV network, 80 per cent decarbonised electricity generation, jet fighters that regularly outsell ours (not even really ours: Eurofighter is a pan-European collaboration), there's no profit in trying to score points off the French for things we got right 200 years ago and are getting badly wrong now. Which is not to discourage anyone from enjoying and profiting from the inspiring stories in Osborne's meaty and satisfying book.

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