MATERIAL progress between Roman times and the eighteenth century had consisted merely in the accumulation of materials and the improvement of designs. Printing and explosives, indeed, had marked new departures. At the beginning of the eighteenth century Newcomen and others made a slow, feeble steam engine which was employed with moderate success to pump water out of mines.
In 1768 a clever Scots instrument-maker, James Watt, set to mend a model of Newcomen's engine, produced a new design of engine which originated the separate condenser and the use of expansive force, Newcomen's having been worked by atmospheric pressure against a partial vacuum. The engine was improved by Trevithick and Hornblower, and in details by many later inventors. Meanwhile transport had been improved by the construction of small canals, and textile industry by the invention of machinery for processes formerly carried out by hand; both the iron industry and coal mining were revolutionised when a means of using coal instead of charcoal in furnaces was introduced.
The social and political consequences of these changes were to be profound, but it is necessary to emphasise first the fact of their slowness. Two generations slipped by watermills and then steam mills slowly took the manufacture of cotton from the domestic hand-loom workers; canals spread across the plains and lower hills of England; macadamised roads and iron bridges accelerated horse transport; and the iron industry migrated from Sussex, where iron was mined near forests, to the north of England, where it was mined near coal. The changes influenced each other-materials, transport, power, and manufacturing process, each as it was improved, helped in the improvement of the others. But not until 1825 did the first steam engine ply for hire. Electricity was still little more than an interesting toy.
Canals had been known in Europe for centuries before an English mine-owner decided in 1759 to build one for his coal transport; their development was fatally cramped by short vision. The first railways aroused great opposition because of their anticipated effect on the nerves of dairy cattle. The objections to change were sometimes economic, as when hand-loom weavers broke labour-saving machinery, but in general they arose from the plain man's distrust of anything that stirred the emotions which had formerly been aroused by fears of witchcraft. There were, moreover, special difficulties in organising the first steps towards industrialism. Trials and errors had to be made, and the early machines did not work when first set up, but had each to be coaxed into activity, a process which took weeks. There was a remarkable absence of precision in design and manufacture, materials wore quickly and unevenly-there was a good deal of wood in the early textile machinery, parts were not standardised or replaceable-and there were few skilled fitters and engineers. Some of these circumstances reappeared in Russia during the first Five Year Plan.