The Industrial Revolution – Steam Power
I am poorly qualified to write about this – a development in human history that happened long before I was born. However, I am not without my qualifications. I was born in a railroad town – Ft. Madison, Iowa (in 1936) where the Santa Fe Railroad had a large maintenance depot for its steam locomotives. The Midwest was then the Industrial heartland of America – where the best products in the world were manufactured in large quantities – and sold all over the world.
It is now referred to as the Rust Belt.
Back then, the railroads had jobs – and my Father’s family, who had been impoverished migrant farmers – went to work for the Santa Fe instead. My grandfather became an union man, and remained so for the rest of his life. The conflict between union men and company men became violent, with people killed on both sides.
My Father disowned his working-class family and forgot this conflict ever existed – but that is another story I won’t go into now. I started to write about the Steam Engine.
I am overlooking another development of this time period – the canals that were important to industrial development in Europe. In America we had the Erie Canal, and it was important – but much less important then the Railroads. But here again I am getting ahead of my story.
Steam power evolved in England and resulted in the Dark Satanic Mills, which manufactured cloth – and despoiled the English countryside. These were powered by Coal – the dirtiest fuel that ever existed – which England had plenty of.
The history of this development is one of the saddest in human history. Independent farmers and craftsmen were displaced and turned into impoverished factory workers and miners. But this also made a few people very rich.
America in the 18th Century (the century of the Revolution and the Constitution) was largely unaffected by Industrialization. The Founding Fathers were men of the Enlightenment. They had ideals they could state clearly – and which they believed in and fought for.
The men of the Industrial Revolution were of a far lessor stature – typified by Andrew Jackson. They did not think – they acted impulsively – with one thing on their minds – the acquisition of power – and thereby wealth.
Early in the 19th Century, refugees from European Industrialization came to America in great numbers and became frontiersmen. These people only wanted to make money – largely by land speculation. But, strangely enough, they were subject to religious passions also. The marriage between business and religion (a secular religion) was to become fundamental to American culture in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
And behind this was the Steam Engine, chugging away.
I have neglected the technical development of the Steam Engine, mainly because I know so little about it. This has been covered adequately by others, and I will only repeat what they have said. This development was by not done by educated people, but by practical people with dirty hands, who experimented endlessly. Who were interested, at first, with the problems of pumping water.
I once visited a Steam Museum in England, where one of these Steam engines is still in operation. It is a huge thing (two stories high) that has to be seen to be believed. For many years, it was part of the London water supply.
Eventually, these were made small enough fit on iron rails (another a new invention made possible by coal) and we were off!
The railroads were the passion of late 19th and early 20th Centuries. (Abraham Lincoln was a successful Railroad lawyer.) The corruption involved was legendary. But they also provided a lot of employment for a lot of poor people. (Such as my Father’s family.)
And also some highly skilled jobs – such as boilermakers. The Baldwin Locomotive Works, for example, built the built the steam locomotives used by Costa Rica’s railroads – when they were still working.
This was dangerous work (all Industrial work was dangerous). The Railroads had their own hospitals, and kept them busy.
The adaption of Steam Power to boats (the Steam Boat) was very successful in America. which had many large rivers. And before long it revolutionized ocean travel also.
No one noticed that we were burning fossil fuels – which could not last forever. There was so much of them at the time, no one could imagine running out of them. We just burned them up as fast at we could.
And enjoyed prosperity.