The Industrial Revolution (1712 to 1850)

Newcomen Steam Engine

Newcomen Steam Engine

In 1712, to little acclaim, Thomas Newcomen invented the world’s first steam engine. Although, technically, the machine should be referred to as an atmospheric engine, as its piston is powered by pressure differential between a voided steam chamber and inrushing atmosphere, the machine served as the first device able to derive mechanical energy from coal.

The depth to which coal miners could dig suddenly appeared limitless. One of Newcomen’s machines could pump water from deeper than ever before, powered only by one man feeding the engine with the very resource it was being used to extract. Newcomen engines became ever more popular in mines throughout the early and middle 18th century. By the year 1760, hundreds of the machines were in operation throughout the mines of Britain. Some of the largest mines employed engines of fantastic dimensions, with cylinders over six feet in diameter and 10 feet in length.[1]

The Newcomen engine, though, never expanded past the coal industry due to its extreme appetite for coal only able to be met by location at the mouth of a mine. The steam engine would not be used otherwise until after 1776 when James Watt invented the modern steam engine, marking the true beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

The modern steam engine allowed for the rapid expansion of British industry. An incredible example of this growth is 19th-century Manchester. Originally a small town on the River Thames, Manchester transformed into a coal-mining powerhouse during the preceding centuries. During the 1700s, the city’s textile industry grew as factories sprung up on the riverbanks, using the river’s flow to power their water wheels and drive their machinery. With the inception of the Watt steam engine, paired with the expanding supply of slave-picked cotton from America overseas, Manchester’s factories boomed. By the 1830s, the city hosted seven factories with over one thousand employees each, and twenty-six factories with employees numbering in the hundreds.[2]


Manchester Skyline 1800s 

These citizens of Manchester lived in a world where coal was ubiquitous. Coal stoves heated their homes and cooked their meals. The factories where they worked were powered by coal. Many worked night shifts in the plants now able to run 24 hours a day lit by coal gas lamps, invented in 1805. Others worked in the mines extracting the coal. The enormous amounts of coal burned tremendously polluted the air such that the city’s residents breathed its fumes as its soot stained their clothes and surroundings.

Painting of London Fog from 1870

Painting of London Fog from 1870

Manchester was not the only city suffering beneath clouds of coal exhaust. London’s air quality continued to decline as its population increased to 1 million people by the year 1800. Though on most days London’s air remained cleaner than Manchester’s, cold still air would occasionally create deadly fog that would hang over the city. While these events occurred often throughout the 1800s, one of the best-recorded fogs of the century in London, frequently called “pea-soupers” because of their thick consistency, is the fog of 1873. The fog began on a Wednesday and did not subside until the following Saturday. Visibility is reported to have been only a few meters. Though, at the time, the London Times reported the deaths caused by the fog to have only been two, studies show that the number actually fell between 270 and 700.[3]

While coal killed British above the surface, so too did it endanger those extracting it from beneath. With dangers still comparable to previous centuries, the mining industry began to employ more and more children to work in the tunnels. One mine operator in 1842 reported that the “peculiar race of pitmen… can only be kept up by breeding. It could never be recruited from an adult population”[4]. Too often, children started their coal mining careers as young as 6 years old, increasing their susceptibility to any host of coal-related injury and sickness greatly.

Two jobs in particular were designed for children in the mines. The first, for the youngest and smallest employees, was to operate the traps. In order to allow ventilation in the tunnels, a system of doors kept air moving fast enough to keep deadly gasses from accumulating. A child would sit for hours at a time, in complete darkness, opening and closing the trap-doors for miners moving through the mine.

Other children were worse off. As some mines began to follow narrower seams of coal, too small for adults to access, children were used to haul coal. A parliamentary commission in the 1840s described the conditions of these ill-fated children as being “chained, belted, harnessed like dogs… black, saturated with wet, and more than half naked – crawling upon their hands and feet, and dragging their heavy loads behind them – they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural”.[5]


[1] Freese, Barbara. “Launching a Revolution.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

[2] Freese, Barbara. “Full Steam Ahead.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

[3] Freese, Barbara. “Launching a Revolution.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

[4] Hatcher, John. 1700-1830. Vol 2 of The History of the British Coal Industry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

[5] Freese, Barbara. “Full Steam Ahead.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

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