Saturday, 27 June 2015

"A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles" (Shakespeare: "The Winter's Tale")

When we lived in the Lake District we had a friend who was most ingenious at finding uses for things which other people would have discarded. On one particular occasion, however, this landed Chris (as I shall call him) with an awkward dilemma. He was driving home up the M6 motorway at dead of night when he noticed at the roadside a small sack which must have fallen off a lorry, and had split open. He went to investigate. It was too dark to make out the contents, but putting his hand inside the sack he felt something cold and slimy. "Putty!" he thought, "I could use half a hundredweight of putty!" So he loaded the sack into the back of his Land-Rover and drove home.
     In the morning he went to investigate his new find. Imagine his surprise when he discovered the sack contained not putty, but sausage meat! Now Chris and his wife were both rigid vegetarians. What on earth were they to do with a sack of sausage meat? They couldn't give it to anyone, and it would be difficult to put it out for the dustmen to collect. So he decided to spread the meat on his lawn for the birds. Within an hour or so every seagull in the Lake District must have descended on his garden, and the whole lot had been snaffle. We imagined seagulls staggering down the road towards Lake Ullswater, too heavily laden to take off. 
    I don't think this misadventure cured Chris of his habit.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Idea of Progress

       “Progress” originally just meant a journey. In the modern sense it means the notion of improvement: that the human race is getting better, not just in terms of economic and technological improvement and rising living standards, but also in terms of greater knowledge, more representative and less oppressive government, and even moral improvement. There is also the expectation that the future will be better than the present, just as the present is better than the past. Some of these ideas are unquestionably true; other have been questioned.
     It is often difficult to realize that this is a purely modern outlook. It was first voiced by Condorcet, a French philosopher at the end of the 18th century, following the time of the Enlightenment, when religious belief came to be questioned and Reason was elevated in its place. (At the same time, Conservatism took on its modern meaning, to describe those who resisted such a change)
   Prior to this, the most widely held view was Degeneration: that people in the past knew more than us, and past civilizations were superior to others; wiser and more moral; even their art and literature being better. This is seen in the writings of conservative intellectuals like Dr Johnson and Edward Gibbon. It is also the core principle of most religious belief: the Garden of Eden lay in the past and we have fallen since then: religious leaders in the past were closer to God than we are now, and so we should accept their teachings as gospel truth. (By contrast, the notion of Progress hopes for the coming of a golden age at some time in the future) 
   The Victorian age was the time when a belief in Progress really took off: when people realized they were living through a time of unprecedented change. It was the central theme in the philosophy of both John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx; the latter drawing on Hegel’s philosophy. Mill based his whole system round “man as a progressive being”, and Marx was certain the golden age was just around the corner, following the revolution.

Types of Progress, and evidence for it
        The most obvious evidence for progress is in the fields of science and technology, including medicine. The mid-Victorians knew that their world had been transformed into something entirely different from what had gone before, and invented the term “Industrial Revolution” for it. The most obvious example was railways. Neither the Romans nor any earlier civilization had built railways, and as a result people were able to travel much faster, and to carry heavy goods far cheaper, than had ever been done before. The population of Britain was massively greater than ever before. Thanks to science, more was known about the world than people in the past had ever known. The nature of disease was beginning to be understood, and thanks to the invention of anaesthetics and antiseptic surgery, lives were being saved, and made less painful. There was also, for the first time in human history, plentiful supplies of clean water, perhaps the biggest advance of all.
          Coupled with this was what is known as the “Whig interpretation of history”. This is the notion that British history especially is the story of steady progress towards individual liberty and democratic, constitutional government: citing such landmarks as Magna Carta, the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 which spawned the Bill of Rights, the 1832 reform of Parliament, and so forth. Britain, it was felt, was particularly privileged here, and in fact led the world towards these goals. (The “Whig interpretation” has been unfashionable amongst historians for some time now!)
The Victorians could also cite moral progress: the fact that deliberate cruelty was no longer acceptable; that prisons had been reformed and punishments less barbaric; that factory conditions had been improved and child labour banned; education provided by the state, and even the rights of animals protected by law. Even in religion, toleration had become general, and the doctrine of hellfire and eternal damnation downplayed. Once again, Britain seemed to be leading the way.
   Having said this, you can see why Darwinism was so exciting to progressive thinkers. Darwin’s theory of evolution appeared to show how the competition for survival led to progress by eliminating species which were unable to cope and thus leaving room for the more efficient. Darwin did not actually say that mammals were in any sense “better” than dinosaurs, but that is how his ideas were widely interpreted. This “social Darwinism” was seized on by racists and imperialists, and also by free marketeers, who argued that free competition, by eliminating waste and inefficiency, was the only route to economic progress. (Note how the term “dinosaur” is still used in a pejorative sense: “trades union dinosaurs” etc)
    The Victorians had little doubt that all this progress would be continued in the future. Underlying it all was the idea of the ultimate perfectibility of mankind and the hopes for a coming Golden Age in the future. The liberals and Marxists were at one here; they only differed about how the Golden Age would be achieved.

     Unquestionably this Victorian optimism suffered severe setbacks in the first half of the 20th century. The two World Wars suggested that technological progress had merely provided more efficient ways of mass killing. Nazism and other violent revolutionary movements showed that men were still capable of savage cruelty on a massive scale. More recently, religious extremists have rejected the entire western outlook of toleration in favour of a return to doctrinal fundamentalism and the persecution of unbelievers.
       Thomas Malthus, writing at the end of the 18th century, famously argued that mankind would inevitably starve, because food production could not keep pace with rising population. Although we can nowadays feed a population more than ten times what it was in his day, we still find outlooks similar to his pessimism amongst those alarmed at the prospect of climate change. 
     Conservatives have, by definition, always doubted the concept of progress, and can be detected by their habit of talking about “so-called progress”. (I don’t mean here the leadership of our conservative party, who are free-market liberals, seeking to achieve economic growth and higher production). Most religions deny reject the notion of human perfectibility, maintaining that man can only be saved from sin by divine grace. By contrast with modern conservatives, J. R. R. Tolkien was a genuinely conservative Roman Catholic, who believed in respect for authority, mourned the disappearance of the English countryside and in his later years did not even possess a car.  His ideas thus had quite an overlap with those of the Green lobby; which in turn can be said to have a definitely conservative tinge.  

Thus brings us to Rousseau, the source of so many green-conservative and anti-progress ideas. He first came to prominence with a prize-winning essay on the subject of “How the arts and sciences have benefitted mankind”. Rousseau’s ringing answer was, “They haven’t! Civilization is all wrong! We were happier when we lived in the trees!” He greatly admired the stone age Red Indian tribes of North America (whom he knew, of course, only from travellers’ tales), saying they were “very well governed”. He believed international trade had disastrous consequences, making people dependent on foreign luxuries. He asked, as many of his followers do today, whether civilization had made people any happier, or any more moral? If not, what was the point? And for improved medicine, if people were more content with a simple lifestyle and didn’t crave unnecessary luxuries like sugar, they wouldn’t become ill! We still come across many such arguments today.

       A conservative philosopher, Anthony O’Hear, once asked in a lecture I attended whether there had been any progress in the arts. Could we possibly argue, for instance, that Rothko was a better painter than Raphael, or that any modern playwrights are superior to Shakespeare? It was only afterwards that I realized that, while this question could not be answered, there could be no doubt that access to the arts had improved vastly. For the first time in our history, anyone can now access good music, art or literature (however we choose to define “good”) at very little cost, and this surely has to be progress.
     By contrast, a great British liberal historian, Jack Plumb, argued strongly that the fact of progress is irrefutable. Medicine has so far advanced that life expectation is far longer than before, infant death is now uncommon, and there is no reason to suffer pain. (The best argument for living in the present time is dentistry!) Literacy is near-universal. We have become much more shocked by violence and cruelty; we no longer practice executions, mutilation or judicial torture, and rightly regard those countries which do as backward and primitive. We expect government to be tolerant of dissident opinion, and not to persecute those who do not conform.
      When David Cameron talks of “British values”, he in fact means those of the 18th century or later. If we believed in the “British values” of Tudor times we would still be torturing suspects, hunting out witches and burning heretics at the stake! This must surely be counted as progress!
   But what if Malthus was right after all? The world population surely cannot keep on increasing indefinitely at the present rate. Fossil fuels will not last forever, and the alternatives to them are expensive. Will progress, in the form of ever-higher living standards, soon have to stop?

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Darbys of Coalbrookdale

(This follows on from my previous essay on the early history of iron production)

The blast furnace had been invented in the 15th century, but mass production of iron was held back by two factors. Enormous quantities of timber had to be felled to provide the charcoal for fuel, and strongly flowing water was required to power the bellows for the blast. These problems were to be solved in Shropshire in the 18th century.  

Abraham Darby was born in 1678, in a Quaker family near Dudley. The Quakers (otherwise known as the Society of Friends) were a close community, often intermarried. Until the Toleration Act of 1689 they had been fiercely persecuted. That now ended, but they were still very much “second-class citizens”; forbidden to enter Parliament or the ancient universities. They had originally been radical extremists, founded by the charismatic preacher George Fox, but within a couple of generations many had become respectable businessmen. Because they were often related to each other, were noted for their financial integrity and famously spent nothing on luxuries or outward display, they accumulated money, lent it to each other on generous terms and went into partnership together; all very important in the days before proper banks or limited companies. The Quaker community came to include the bankers Barclay, Lloyd and Gurney, and the chocolate manufacturers Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry. 
Abraham Darby 1 (as he is always called, to distinguish him from his descendants of the same name) was apprenticed in Birmingham before moving to Bristol, where in 1702 he and three partners set up the Bristol Brass Company, using coal in his furnaces. In 1706 he set up an iron foundry, and in 1707 was given a patent for casting bellied pots in sand.
Abraham Darby I is of course remembered for one famous development. In 1708 he leased a derelict blast furnace in Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, and began to operate it using coke. It seems that he learnt how to make coke (by burning coal slowly, under heaps of ashes; similarly to the making of charcoal from wood) back in Bristol, where it was used in the brewing industry. He was fortunate that the local Shropshire clod coal was low in sulphur and other harmful elements.
This is the Darby furnace at Coalbrookdale

and this is a view of the inside. Both pictures show the "tap hole" where the liquid iron would run out. They were taken many years ago: sadly, you can't get that close nowadays!

This area of the Severn valley, between Shrewsbury and Bridgnorth, was rich in coal, ironstone and limestone, with lead from the Stiperstones. The clay around Brosely was found to be particularly suitable for making clay pipes! As early as the mid-13th century the monasteries at Wenlock and Buildwas had leased out the right to mine coal, and their example was followed after the Dissolution of the monasteries by local landowners. There was also the great advantage of the river Severn, linking down to Bristol. The roads were in such a poor state that water was the only way of moving heavy bulk goods over a distance. (Though boats coming upriver often had to be hauled by gangs of boatmen on the banks!) By the late 17th century there was ironworking at Coalbrookdale, Willey, Madeley, Lightmore and Leighton, with other industrial centres at Broseley (where there was a railway as early as 1605!), Benthall, Jackfield and other places. This stretch of the Severn flows through a range a range of hills, and Coalbrookdale itself has a fast-flowing stream, a tributary of the Severn, suitable for powering a water-wheel. 
(Pots at the Coalbrookdale museum. They were used to boil down the blubber on whaling ships - and in old, very unpolitically-correct cartoons, to boil missionaries!)

     At first, Darby concentrated on manufacturing cast-iron goods,but he always hoped to produce pig iron to be converted into wrought iron. In 1715 he opened a second furnace at Coalbrookdale. But many considered his pig-iron to be of too poor quality for conversion; probably because it contained phosphorus and other harmful trace elements. It was left to his successors to sort this out (See my previous blog entry for an explanation of the conversion process)

Abraham Darby I died in 1717, aged just 39. His eldest son, Abraham Darby II, was only 6 years old, so Coalbrookdale was run by a relative, Richard Ford, for the next few years. Abraham Darby II became a salaried assistant to Ford in 1732 and took over when Ford died in 1745.
     Here we should note that the works were actually a company owned by 4 shareholders. They were valued at £4,200 at A. Darby I’s death (at a time when the vast majority of families were earning less than £40 a year!) and it was all done on borrowed money – mostly borrowed from fellow-Quakers, but even so, there were often fierce financial disputes!

(This simplified family tree of the Darbys is taken from "The Darbys of Coalbrookdale", by Barrie Trinder)

Abraham Darby II vastly expanded the works. He opened new furnaces at Horsehay (financed by raising £1,000) so that he was now producing 22 tons of iron a week. He experimented to produce better-quality pig iron, suitable for working in forges as wrought iron. The first iron wheels for railways were cast in Coalbrookdale, followed by the first iron rail track in 1755:-
This type of track is technically known as a "plateway"

In 1742 Darby installed a Newcomen steam engine to pump water upstream to the furnace pools, thus solving the problem of insufficient water in dry summers. He cast parts for Newcomen engines, including accurately-bored cylinders.

He sought to have complete control of all iron-working processes. His Quaker pacifist principles did not prevent him from casting cannon when war broke out in 1739! He was a rich man when he died, aged 51, in 1763.

There were other ironmasters in the district; most notably John Wilkinson: “Iron-mad Wilkinson” (1728-1808),
 who in 1757 took over a furnace at Broseley and built others at Willey, on the other side of the Severn. He was more innovative than the Darbys, installing the new improved rotative steam engine patented by James Watt (1781) to supply the blast, rather than having to rely on water power.

(A James Watt engine in the Science Museum. Note the ingenious "sun and planet" gearing on the right, to convert up-and-down motion to rotary motion) 

 Wilkinson patented a new machine for boring cylinders, and amongst other things he built the first iron boat, launched on the Severn in 1787, an iron pulpit for a new church at Bilston and an iron coffin for himself – which he couldn’t be buried in because he was too fat! In contrast with the innocuous Darbys, he was a controversial figure: a radical who sympathized with the French Revolution. He was said to be malevolent and unscrupulous in his business dealings and immoral in his personal life; but became something of a folk-hero in the district, with songs sung about him by his workforce.

There was another interregnum after the death of Abraham Darby II, during which time the works were run by Richard Reynolds, who had married ADII’s daughter Hannah. Their son, William Reynolds, was perhaps the most innovative ironmaster of all, and things would have been quite different but for his early death, aged just 45, in 1803.

Abraham Darby III (1750-1789) is always remembered for the building of the Iron Bridge over the Severn near Coalbrookdale. A bridge had long been contemplated, because none existed between Buildwas and Bridgnorth, so in 1775, various interested parties met, and a Shrewsbury architect, Thomas Pritchard, was commissioned to design it. It has been disputed whether Pritchard contemplated an iron bridge or a traditional stone one, but when he died in 1777 it was decided to build a bridge of cast iron: the first of its kind in the world. A private Act of Parliament had to be passed to permit the project to go ahead.

It was a massive project, since the Severn at this point flowed swiftly through a deep gorge, and the bridge had to be high enough to allow ships to pass underneath with their masts raised. The estimated cost was £3200, but it is not surprising that the eventual cost was almost double that!  The bridge was erected in summer 1779, with 30 men employed, plus temporary local labourers. The bridge itself  was completed in late October, with 9 guineas being spent on ale to celebrate! But much work was needed on the approaches before it could be opened to traffic on January 1st 1781. It was an immediate sensation, and is still a major tourist attraction. 

In fact, it followed closely the design for a wooden bridge, but using cast iron. 400 tons of iron were used in castings for the bridge; constituting perhaps 3 or 4 months’ total output of the Coalbrookdale furnaces.
    Nobody was certain exactly how the bridge was erected. A few years ago, using a contemporary artist's painting as a guide, a party of Royal Engineers succeeded in erecting a half-scale model of the bridge, though with some difficulty! 

In 1781 a huge new Watt engine installed at Coalbrookdale, replacing the old Newcomen one. But Abraham Darby now seriously overstretched, with debts of £60,000. He sold out to Richard and William Reynolds, father and son, who developed the Blists Hill site, and died of scarlet fever in 1789, aged 39. Much of the Coalbrookdale complex was sold off.

1796, Richard Trevithick came to Coalbrookdale and built the first railway locomotive
(This is a recreation of it, seen at Blists Hill)

But the great days of the site were now over, especially after the premature death of William Reynolds in 1803, aged 45. The iron industry was now freed from its dependence on water power and charcoal from the forests; but Shropshire was unable to take advantage of this. It was too remote from other centres of industry, which became apparent when the development of canals and then of railways reduced the importance of the Severn as a means of transport. The iron industry moved to the coalfields: to the Black Country, south Yorkshire, south Wales and Clydeside. 
   In 1818 iron smelting ended at Coalbrookdale, though new prosperity came in the 19th century with castings from other firms’ pig iron, including 800 tons of iron plates for SS “Great Britain”. Art castings from the site were much admired at 1851 Great Exhibition. But Shropshire was fast becoming an economic backwater, and was to remain so. Coalbrookdale and Blists Hill were no more than industrial museums.

In the first half of the 19th century, cast iron still had relatively few uses. Most pig iron was converted into wrought iron by burning off the carbon content: a cumbersome process. In 1784 Henry Cort invented a Puddling Furnace to do this using coke. Cort's furnace was like a blast furnace lying on its side. The system was improved by Joseph Hall of Tipton, who added bits of slag, scrap-iron and furnace tinder. He found the mixture boiled violently, but produced good quality iron with little wastage. Cort also invented a rolling mill, which could produce accurate sheets of wrought iron. 
    The mid-19th century was the golden age of wrought iron. The problem yet to be solved was how to produce steel on a large scale. Various techniques had been discovered in the 18th century, including Blister Steel or Crucible Steel (where bars of wrought iron + charcoal were packed in closed clay vessels called coffins & placed in furnace for several days: found to be covered in blisters. In Sheffield, Benjamin Huntsman broke up the result into small pieces and melted in crucible. Slag formed on surface; skimmed off to leave good quality steel. But it was only after the invention of Henry Bessemer's Converter and G.W. Siemens's Open-Hearth furnace in the latter part of the 19th century that the steel age really began.

Economic historians used to say that there were really just four great developments in human history. The first was the discovery of the use of fire, which above all distinguishes humans from all other animals. The second was farming, which began in Iraq and other places after the end of the last Ice Age. The third was the use of metals, especially iron, which I mentioned in my previous blog entry. And the fourth was the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century with the mass production of iron, and which by 1900 had transformed the entire world. Because the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, it promoted Britain into a great world power, and because of the Industrial Revolution, the Europeans took over the world, as indeed Karl Marx in 1848 had prophesied they would. And the Industrial Revolution began right here in Shropshire, with the work of the Darbys, Wilkinson and their fellow-workers.

For more information on this, I can recommend Barrie Trinder's books: "The Darbys of Coalbrookdale" and "The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire"; and also "Coalbrookdale and the Darbys" by Thomas, and "The British Iron and Steel Industry" by W. Gale.