4 The Machine Age Gears Up 1796 A COLUMN OF black smoke splits the millennium. People who lived before the Industrial Revolution could not have imagined what the world would someday look like, just as those living in its wake can scarcely envision a time without its conveniences and ills.
A mathematical instrument maker at Glasgow University triggered the change by tinkering with a model of the Newcomen steam engine, built in 1712 to pump water out of mines. James Watt patented a version in 1769 that saved 75 percent in fuel costs. Soon his superior engines powered coal mines and textile mills, plus the railroads and ships that carried the new technologies to the Continent and the New World. Before, Britons had been agrarian; by 1870, 70 percent of them had moved to cities, living mostly in slums, where overcrowding, poor sanitation and outbreaks of typhus, cholera and dysentery were common. Factories producing iron belched smoke. Mines and quarries scarred the earth.
The landscape of the postrevolution family also changed. Women and children as young as six were exploited by factory bosses. For the upper classes, the result was an elevated quality of life. Rapidly expanding prosperity, combined with the new cost-efficiency of machines, gave bankers, entrepreneurs and merchants wealth on an unprecedented scale. A middle class of managers grew more educated, enjoying better health, more leisure time and greater mobility. Even the lower class could afford better, cheaper products. Despite Luddite attacks on machinery, the revolution kept gathering steam.