Reflections on the Industrial Revolution Seminar and a classroom Activity



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Reflections on the Industrial Revolution Seminar and A Classroom Activity

Peter Wilson

St. Paul’s Episcopal High School

Mobile, AL

2012 NEH Seminar for School Teachers
Historical Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain

Having taught the Industrial Revolution for nearly fifteen years, I have come to believe that, aside from the widespread adoption of systematic farming around 8,000 BC, the Industrial Revolution was the most transformative event in human history. The Industrial Revolution established the context in which nineteenth-century nation building and social reordering happened. It led to the rise of labor unions, the sanitation movement, and new ideologies like democratic capitalism and different strands of socialism. Industrialization and its effects provoked intellectual and cultural responses in the visual arts, literature, philosophy, and social science. It also set the stage for the new imperialism and the savagery of modern war.

Equally significant is the question of how the Industrial Revolution started and why it began in England. Our seminar focused mostly on these questions, and also industrialization’s effects on England up to about 1850. My goal in this seminar was to find ways to enhance my teaching of industrialization’s origins in my World History and AP European History classes. Specifically, I wanted to find ways to present the Industrial Revolution as more than just one invention after another. One of the reasons I applied for the seminar was because of my interest in the site visits. When I read the prospectus, I realized that we would have an opportunity to visit Arkwright’s mill, iron forges and steel furnaces, coal and lead mines, the site of the first passenger railway station in Manchester, and more. I believed that visiting the sites where industrialization happened would help me understand this event more fully since, as part of my teaching, I had already read about these places in books and primary documents.

Another reason I applied for the seminar was because of my interest in historiography. Textbooks typically omit reference to historiographical debates and interpretations because their purpose is to convey information clearly and concisely to a wide audience. However, history teachers know that behind this thin veil of consensus much argument and debate continues as new evidence or fresh perspectives come to light. One of my goals as a teacher at the secondary level is to introduce high school students to the discipline of historical thinking. This means, among other things, introducing them to the fundamentals of historiography, namely understanding of the role of evidence and interpretation in creating history. This paper, then, is mostly my reflection on the seminar and how I will use the experience to enhance my classroom teaching of the Industrial Revolution.



I. Reflections on the Seminar

If I were to condense to one sentence my understanding of the Industrial Revolution after participating in this seminar, it would be this: the Industrial Revolution was primarily a technological event driven by economics, which caused fundamental and lasting social, economic, and political changes. That statement may seem embarrassingly obvious. Why would one need to participate in a five-week seminar in England to arrive at such a self-evident conclusion? There are two reasons. First, the site visits helped me cultivate a better understanding of the Industrial Revolution as a technological event. I learned how the machines actually worked because, in some cases, they were still operational. For example, I saw first-hand at Quarry Bank Mill how a water wheel powered a complex network of gears, belts, and rods that in turn powered a room full of spinning machines. The site visits also helped me develop a fuller understanding of the chronological development of power sources, machinery, and factories. Though for logistical reasons we were unable to make the site visits in perfect chronological order, we began our site visits at textile mills in Cromford and Styal and only later in the seminar did we visit the iron and steel forges. Second, the seminar books and discussions helped place these technological developments within a wider economic context. There would have been no industrialization without technological gadgets, and there would have been no technological gadgets without the economic motives that created a demand for new inventions. The seminar readings, discussions, and site visits crystallized this understanding by giving me four specific ideas or “take-aways.”

The first take-away is the concept of “industrious revolution” formulated by historian Jan de Vries and others. One of the essential questions driving industrial revolution historiography is, “why did it start in Britain?” Textbooks usually provide a litany of reasons: the agricultural revolution’s effects, the stability of Britain’s legal and political systems, Britain’s natural resources, Britain’s mostly free and relatively tolerant intellectual climate, the British empirical approach to science, and more. And all of these were factors. However, none of these factors adequately address what I think is the salient point: economic incentives. If we understand incentive to mean a motivation to do something, then how would any of the above factors working either in isolation or in concert create an incentive, for instance, to find ways to spin more thread faster? This gets to the heart of what I mean when I say that the Industrial Revolution was “primarily a technological event driven by economics.”

De Vries’s concept of “industrious revolution” established a framework for rethinking the essential question in economic terms, particularly from the market’s demand side. Historians working in this tradition argue that in the pre-industrial period of early modern European history, roughly the 1600 to 1800s, demand for consumer goods exceeded supply. These goods were mostly imported from overseas, primarily from Asia, and gave rise to what historians call the “consumer revolution” of the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. This consumer revolution, an outgrowth of European exploration and colonization, led to higher demand for imported goods and ultimately for domestically-produced goods (including “knock-offs”). Higher consumer demand led to new household saving and spending patterns, an “industrious revolution,” with which domestic producers had to keep pace if they wanted to stay in business. To keep pace, that is to satisfy growing consumer demand, producers needed to find ways to supply more goods at lower costs. Thus, we have established the economic incentive for technological change. This insight has helped me understand that the Industrial Revolution was a result of long-term economic trends that stretched back to the early modern period, and perhaps even further to the late Medieval period, when European and global trade networks first developed.

The second “take-away” was a more complete understanding of the link between economics and technological innovation from the market’s supply side. The desire to make more goods cheaply, which was fueled by growing consumer demand, led to quests for new power sources, more efficient machinery, and larger factories. This became most apparent to me in our visit to the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet in Sheffield. Here we saw how workers manufactured scythes and other farm tools in a process that seemed like an eighteenth-century version of what later became known as vertical integration. We saw that blacksmithing, forging, and manufacturing all took place on the same site. We also observed how the factory used a large water wheel to power the bellows in one of the furnaces, and also how workers used a massive tilt hammer to pound heated crucible steel rods into curved farm tools. Last, we examined the workshop where workers sharpened the tools and prepared them for sale. Bringing all of these tasks together in one site helped lower transportation and production costs. Using special forging techniques and also new machinery like the water wheel and tilt hammer produced quality products faster and, one would expect, at lower prices.

The third “take-away” was a more solid understanding of the relationship between England’s domestic and foreign markets, between trade and technology, and between industry and empire. This helped me place industrialization within the much wider context of an emerging global economy with England at the center. Textbooks teach students that England had a number of political, social, and resource advantages, all of which are true. What is often minimized is the emerging global economy that began to take shape in the late Medieval period as trade revived in Europe, establishing economic networks particularly in northern Europe between England, the northern German states, and Flanders. This was followed shortly by the Age of Discovery in which the Portuguese and Spanish, followed soon after by the Dutch, English, and French, set out on Atlantic and Indian Ocean voyages looking for faster access to exotic goods from Asia and, in the process, discovering new lands in Africa and the Americas.

As Europeans, and particularly the English, colonized these new lands, goods and capital flowed back to the home country, turning cities like London into major commercial and financial centers. We saw evidence of this in our walking tour of the City of London early in the seminar as we explored the docks and quays and noted their location relative to major financial and commercial centers like the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, and the coffeehouse that birthed Lloyd’s of London. Touring the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and learning particularly about the Longitude Prize, a contest in early eighteenth-century Britain in which Parliament offered cash prizes to whoever could devise a practical method for determining a ship’s longitude, helped me generate two thoughts. One, the British government played an active role facilitating overseas trade and colonization, a role it would later reprise with the rise of manufacturing. Though laissez faire became a cornerstone of economic thought in the nineteenth century, proponents often ignored the many ways that government supported commerce and manufacturing. Two, navigation was essential to colonization, and colonization in turn was essential to industrialization. So from now on I will emphasize in my teaching England’s leading role in the emerging global economy as a significant reason why the Industrial Revolution began there.

The fourth “take away” has to do with the importance of the site visits in developing my understanding of industrialization. I have alluded to some of that already, so what follows is more of a general reflection on the importance of travel for the history teacher. Haydon Luke, our seminar consultant and coordinator of the study visits, and I talked one afternoon at the Blists Hill museum about the value of the site visits. I remarked that for me, the site visits have significant value because they in some way validate that this event called the Industrial Revolution occurred. In other words, the sites provide documentary evidence that at a certain time and in certain places, new methods of manufacturing developed, and that this event historians call “the Industrial Revolution” actually happened.

I have often remarked to my students over the years that I wish I could take them on field trips to some of the places that we study because seeing the actual evidence for oneself helps put things in perspective in a way that just reading or hearing about them does not. For example, seeing at Blists Hill how people designed and built an inclined plane to move coal from a canal at the top of the hill to the river below helped me see quite clearly the relationship between coal, iron, transportation, location, industrialization, and economics. Seeing the world’s first cast iron bridge and its proximity to the Coalbrookdale and the Bedlam furnaces helped me make the same connections. Observing that the bridge was constructed using techniques borrowed from woodworking, such as the use of mortice and tenons to join large pieces of cast iron, also taught me something about historical change. It often comes about gradually as one-foot steps into the new reality, in this case making a bridge out of cast iron, while the other foot stays planted in the old, like using traditional woodworking techniques. So the term “revolution” as in “Industrial Revolution” often has more to do with the event’s transformative power over time than the speed with which it happened. These insights, which came from visual inspection and paying close attention to detail, are harder to develop without first-hand experience. Such experience is best achieved through travel and, where possible, study visits with knowledgeable persons.

II. Impact on Teaching

How will participating in the seminar affect my teaching? Already I have discussed how the seminar changed my perspective on the role of global economics in creating the domestic and international markets that fueled the economic incentives to develop new technologies of mass production. Additionally, I have described how seeing the physical evidence of this event and the landscape in which it occurred first-hand has helped me develop a more complete picture of what happened and how. Finally, I picked up a few odds-and-ends like how Watts’ steam engine actually worked and why the separate condenser was so important. I also got some ideas about how to incorporate art, such as Loutherbourg’s Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) or Derby’s The Iron Forge (1772), into my lessons. All of this will help me communicate information more accurately and perhaps it will spark some interest among students.

I also want students to develop an understanding of historical thinking, namely the process by which historians interpret the past based on evidence, which was the framework for our seminar discussions. In a time when the attention of policymakers, corporate and educational leaders, and the general public increasingly appears to be focused on the so-called STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering, and math – often to the exclusion of other disciplines, particularly the arts and humanities, for reasons of national and economic competitiveness, it is important for history educators to develop and implement best practices within our discipline so that we can maintain intellectual rigor and hopefully avoid being sidelined by competing interests. Being able to think historically helps students develop a broader perspective on the world, which should in turn enrich their understanding of how their lives are shaped by the past. Thinking historically can also serve as a guide to the future since patterns, debates, and trends are likely to reoccur, though in new times, places, and contexts. The skills involved in historical thinking should help students develop an appreciation for evidence, how to seek it and how to use it to develop an accurate understanding. In turn, this should give students the tools to be more careful and critical consumers of information, a skill that has wide application in our democratic, capitalist, and multi-media society. Additionally, historical thinking increases the potential for transfer across disciplines in areas like reading comprehension, application and analysis, and persuasive writing. To that end, I have developed a classroom activity on the Industrial Revolution centered on the Factory Act of 1833.

First, let me make a few points about the Factory Act of 1833. It was neither the first nor the last of the nineteenth-century factory acts in Britain. All of the factory acts, including the Act of 1833, reflected a new role for the British government, namely its power to regulate working conditions in the industrial age. The Factory Act of 1833 stated that no children under age nine could work in textile mills. Additionally, it abolished night work for children under the age of eighteen. The act required that children ages nine to thirteen to receive some schooling each day. Perhaps most importantly, the act was the first to establish a system of government inspections to enforce compliance. None of this is to say that factory owners always complied with the act or that the inspection regime succeeded in enforcing the act in all places at all times. As always, there were flaws, evasions, and failures. But the 1833 Factory Act signified a changing perspective on government’s role in society, namely as the protector of its citizens’ economic and social wellbeing, a role that is still being debated in democratic societies today.

Debates over the Factory Act of 1833 and its effects provide opportunities for middle or high school students to practice historical thinking and inquiry using primary sources. First, I will start the activity with a question, “Was the Factory Act of 1833 necessary?” I plan to adapt a classroom activity from Documents-Based Assessment Activities for Global History Classes by Theresa Noonan.1 First, I will divide the class into groups of four, and then subdivide each group of four into pairs. Each pair will receive three or four primary source excerpts. One pair will receive excerpts that support the factory act, and the other pair will receive excerpts that oppose the factory act. Examples of documents favorable to the act include excerpts from the Sadler Committee testimony or from Engels’s The Conditions of the Working Class in England which, though published over a decade after the passing of the 1833 Factory Act, gives evidence of living and working conditions that would have been common prior to the 1833 law. Examples of documents opposed to the act include excerpts from Nassau Senior’s analysis of the act’s impact on profits and Andrew Ure’s Philosophy of the Factory System.

Depending on how much work I have done with primary document analysis prior to this activity, I may or may not at this point lead students through the process of reading and interpreting a primary document. The National Archives offers exceptional document analysis worksheets that are easily adaptable for middle or high school classrooms. The Stanford History Education Group offers an excellent model for teaching primary source analysis based on sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, and close reading skills. A similar model is available at Bringing History Home, a project of the University of Iowa. Working in pairs, students will use one of these models to analyze and interpret each of the four documents they have been given. They will use a primary document analysis sheet to record their thoughts. The point of this part of the activity is to invite students to an understanding of how individuals can reach the same conclusions but for different reasons shaped by different points-of-view. Hopefully, the members of each pair will assist each other with interpretation and analysis by asking and answering questions as they strive together to understand each document. Students may use outside resources like the textbook and the Internet to build background knowledge.

Next, the activity moves to a “structured academic controversy.” The idea for this can be found here at teachinghistory.org, an outstanding resource for history teachers at all levels.2 As the name implies, a “structured academic controversy” is a discussion or debate that follows carefully prescribed rules of evidence, procedure, and civility. The point is to simulate the kind of academic dialogue in which historians engage as part of the process of doing history. Working together as a group of four, each pair will present their findings to the opposite pair. Recall that one pair has a set of documents supporting the act and another pair has a set opposing it. Depending on my students’ needs, I may craft carefully structured rules for the discussion. For example, if I think my students need more practice listening to one another, I might require one person from one pair to present a document, and then another person from the opposite pair to share their understanding. The students should repeat this process until the first presenter is satisfied that he or she has been understood. By the end of the process, all four students should have a more complicated picture of the debate surrounding the 1833 Factory Act. Those who worked on the documents supporting the act were unaware that there were people in history who opposed the act, and vice versa. Through the structured academic controversy, I have introduced cognitive dissonance, which is usually a strong motivator for learning. Adolescents are typically uncomfortable with grey areas and they like for dissonance to be resolved.

As a concluding activity, students will respond to the question, “Was the Factory Act of 1833 necessary?” They must use primary source evidence from the activity to defend their claims. One way to make this part of the activity especially interesting is to require students to use at least one piece of evidence that represents the opposing view in their paper. They can do this in a variety of ways: they can introduce a piece of opposing evidence and then refute it; they can introduce a piece of opposing evidence to show both sides of the debate; or they can use it to support a thesis that might take a middle position on the question. Additionally, students will be required to account for each document’s historical context and point-of-view in their paper. That is, they must explain how the time period the document was written and by whom affects what the document says. This teaches students to go beyond the literal words of the text and to consider the importance of context as both give the document its full meaning.

The purpose, then, of the activity is this: to engage students in the process of historical thinking by requiring them to analyze and interpret primary sources, by inviting them to reconcile conflicting sources into a more nuanced understanding, and by asking them to marshal evidence to support a thesis. All levels of historical thinking are engaged: chronological reasoning, historical comprehension, historical analysis and interpretation, historical research capabilities, and historical issue-analysis and decision-making.3 Teachers who follow the Common Core standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies can cover several of the standards with this activity, including key ideas and details, craft and structure, and integration of knowledge and ideas.4 The activity, which mirrors the kind of thinking modeled in the NEH seminar, is the kind of engaging, rigorous history education to which all students can and should be exposed.

In summary, the 2012 NEH Summer Seminar on Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain was for me an exceptional experience of professional development. The site visits, the readings, and the seminar discussions helped me develop a fuller picture of industrialization’s causes and effects in Britain, one that will have positive and lasting effects on my teaching.



1 Theresa C. Noonan, Documents-Based Assessment Activities for Global History Classes. (Portland, Maine: J

Weston Walch Publishing, 2007) 76-81.



2Teachinghistory.org. “Structured Academic Controversy (SAC).” Web. 28 August 2012.

3 National Center for History in the Schools. “Historical Thinking Standards.” University of California, Los Angeles.

Web. 28 August 2012.



4 Common Core State Standards Initiative. “Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies.” Web. 28 August 2012.




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