BSTP: Industrial Revolution

The topic of today is industrial revolution. Summed up in a phrase the transformation from ” muscle to machine”. Any transformation requires work/energy. Before the industrial revolution people relied on biological matter for work. The rate of energy conversion many orders of magnitude lower than in machines. This limitation extended to human growth potential.

Engines increased the conversation rate by 3 orders of magnitude and more or single machines could perform the task of thousands of man. The first such engine was the steam engine. The British inventors of the 18th century converted the simple principle of energy conversion into an engine. Water is pressurized and heated. When the space is increased the steam performs work which can be used. It was mainly used to pump out water out of coal mines. The Newcomen engine (1720) was such an engine that was commercially available. Northern Britain was the “Silicon Valley” of its time. The large coal reserves in conjunction with the expanding British empire produced the political support to gain an technological edge. The Watt engine (1770) was the next generation and it main improvement was to separate the condenser from the steam generation. This increased the consumption by 75% compared to the Newcomen. The other big innovation was that the Watt engine could be operated continuously.

Mass production

The power generated allowed for specialized factory and massive production. However, it came at the cost of large environmental pollution.

Printing, cotton manufacturing, iron manufacturing and chemical industry where the primary users of those mass production facilities.

These development caused multi-national corporations, the concentration of capital, urbanisation and labour specialization. Incidentally, it created the working class and took people from irregular farm work to weekly labour.


Volta invented the first wet-cell battery in 1800 which was used in research and industry until the 1860s. For instance telegraph (Wheatstone & Cooke, 1830) was enabled by this and the Morse code followed in 1837 and the first Transatlantic cable by 1857.

The first light bulb was patented in 1810, Edison did not invent it. However, Edison was the first to make it usable on a large scale. It took Edison nearly half a century to transform the simple toy light bulbs into a system that could be installed in buildings to provide light at night.

In 1867 Siemens invented the dynamo which allowed to generate electrical currents by rotation. Together with the Watt engine we could generate continuously electrical power.

In the 1880 public transport based on electric trams was first created.

In the 1890 electricity transformed the industry yet again. Electrically driven processes like welding and aluminium smelting emerged and allowed lighter machines. Electrically driven motors replaced steam engines in  factories and thereby to create far-away power plants.

Tesla and Westinghouse created an alternating current power system. In constant current switches would be damaged by turning them. This impeded power plants to be far away. Alternating current on the other hand passes through zero voltage and therefore can easily be turned off. It enabled to built power plants even further away.

Long-distance communication got another boost in 1876 with the telephone and the radio in 1899. It only took 9 years from the invention of a dynamo to the phone and only two more decades two wirelessly transmit information via radio. This accelerated distribution of knowledge and fast-forwarded globalisation.

Internal Combustion Engines

So far engines were limited to remain at a location. The first mobile vehicles where battery driven, but they only lasted a few minutes. Then steam-powered cars came along, but they burned coal, which sometimes exploded and they stank. In 1859 Lenoir  produced a gas-driven ICE, but it was not efficient enough.

In 1876 Otto developed the firs four stroke ICE, which in 1886 Benz used to start manufacturing a small batch of “horseless carriages”. In 1892 Diesel develops a self-igniting ICE that allowed for heavy-duty applications.

Those new engines allowed for individual transport of goods and people.

Materials and tool

Steel production is a major driver of industrialisation. It is present everywhere, so any country could create a steel industry. In 1870 there where 500’000 tons of steel use which rose to 60 million tons in 1915.  Steel ships could be built and railroads could be constructed and steel-frame buildings allowed for the first skyscrapers.

Machine tooling was another new field that exponentially increased the use of steel. High-precision production of metal parts mostly for warfare followed.

Industrial Food Production and Processing

The increase in agricultural output followed the use of fertilizer which constitute active management. Canning was development in the early 1800s, Pasteurization in 1864 (killing bacteria) and refrigeration (slowing of bacterial growth) enters households in 1910. The population increased dramatically as a consequence.

Military Technology

Military development was and is at the forefront of technological development. In the 1850 rifles replaced muskets. Aerodynamically shaped bullets and helical grooves in the barrel caused the bullet to spin which increased the precision of a shot. Automatic guns followed in 1870 in the form of the Gatling gun. Innovations from understanding went directly into the military.

In 1867 Nobel invents the dynamite. Explosives before that where very volatile and where of little military use. Dynamite was stable and therefore could be used tactically.

Military readily applies new technologies to overpower enemies. Industrialisation of warfare lead to massive death counts in the two world wars.


Agricultural technologies lead to population growth in the late 1700. Food preservation technologies improve nutrition, further accelerating the population growth. Steam engines enable mass production of goods and machinery.  Mass production and urbanisation give rise to the working class. Development in electricity accelerate long-range communication, enhance industrial productivity and provide people’s standard of living. Internal combustion engines enable individual transportation.

The invention of the engine is a turning point in human history, enabling and accelerating developments in all scientific fields.

Side note:

A healthy human at the prime of his age produces around 60 to 70 Watt (or 0.1 Horse Power). A modern gas engine half the size of a horse produces 20’000 Watt. A modern air plane runs engine in the range of 100’000 Watt.

ETH Zürich was founded in 1855 right at the height of industrialisation around the time when electricity came about.



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