Lecture 20 - Passing the Torch

For today’s class...

1) What are the differences between the societies of Great Britain and North America?

2) What are the origins of those differences?

3) What are the main factors that contributed to the shift from British to American industrial dominance?

Click here for steam engine schematics:
Newcomen's Atmospheric Engine
Trevethick's Steam Engine

Although they did not know it, by the mid-1800’s, the British industrial and technological supremacy, which it had maintained since the early 1700’s, had peaked and her former colonies in the United States were poised to take the lead. How and why did this transition occur?

English Social Values: While the initial developments (such as Darby’s coke or Newcomen’s engine) had been borne out of extreme necessity (energy crisis), the social values of the English class-system lead to the nation’s technological stagnation. The notion in Britain was that "only poor people worked". You would never find a member of the elite, the aristocracy, operating a steam engine! Thus, the stigma associated with working with your hands or doing anything productive followed those successful business people who were trying to emulate the aristocracy. If you were to be taken seriously in British Society, you received money from your property, not your business dealings. Thus, it was not how much money you had, but rather, how you came across it that mattered. If you inherited money because you were a member of an aristocratic family, you "deserved" the privileges that you received. If you earned your money from the factory you founded and managed, then you were only a "pretender"; a commoner in rich clothes. This prejudice is shown by the fact that it was not until 1886 that one of these wealthy businessmen was admitted to the House of Lords. By then, the aristocracy was in decline due to declining wealth. Thus, because social pressures put more emphasis on family-connections than productivity, there was little of the initiative that was needed to continue the progress in industry.

Pax Britannia (Peace): Although the book doesn’t mention this, there is a strong correlation between Britain’s industrial development and her wars: throughout the 1700’s and early 1800’s (until Napoleon was defeated in 1815 at Waterloo), Britain was at war. Thus, there was strong motivation for development and innovation, especially if you are an island nation with limited resources. It would be another 99 years before the British Isles, themselves, were threatened by a foreign power.

Loss of Resources: This decline in industrial development was further affected by declining output from the mines, and particularly, by the loss of the American colonies, by far the richest of all the lands in the British Empire.

Rise of American Industry:

American Social Values: Think about the origins of the initial Anglo-American population in North America (which still dominates our culture, today): for the most part, they were either 1.) fanatical religious out-casts (the Puritans were persona non grata with the end of the English civil war...chopping off the king’s head can do that! "The Puritan Weight-loss Plan...lose 20 pounds and 10 inches with only one chop!"), or 2.) members of the scorned (in Britain) middle-class who cam to set up shop; in most cases, they were both (The Quakers who came to Pennsylvania were both religious outcasts and merchants). The end result was an influx of skilled, educated, individualistic, and hard-working settlers (the phrase "Protestant Work Ethic" should come to mind) who set right to work. On the other hand, very few of the aristocracy made the journey to America. Thus, the colonists (especially in view of their prior behavior towards the king *chop*thud*king-gets-buried-in-elevator-shoes*) did not emulate the "Idle-rich" of the British aristocracy, but rather, established a tradition for striving to be "Working-rich".

Empty ‘Land-of-Plenty’: Although America was extremely rich in natural resources, there were chronic shortages of skilled (or any kind) of labor. Thus, American industrialists and engineers were always looking for ways to increase the productivity of workers through the use of technology. This is demonstrated by the adoption of techniques for mass-production in the early 1800’s (muskets produced with inter-changeable parts invented by Eli Whitney) and the American fascination with "Labor-saving Devices", such as the cotton gin, combine-harvester, and sewing machine. In contrast, in Britain and Europe, machine-made goods were seen as inferior. Thus, while technology was still used to increase productivity, it was only applied to assisting, rather than replacing, skilled craftsmen. This also contributed to the rise of American industrial dominance. Sadly, this effect was only felt in the industrialized Northern states. In the South, where the economy was still based on agricultural production, this technology enhanced, rather than replaced, the work of African slaves: slaves were more important than ever after the introduction of the cotton gin to the Southern cotton industry. After the American Civil War, this manual labor was replaced, as it was in the North, by mechanical energy derived from resources of chemical energy (burning things).

Key Terms…



Eli Whitney



Pax Britannia

American Civil War

Major Wars involving Great Britain since 1700
French and Indian War
1760 - 1765
American Revolution
1775 - 1783
Napoleonic Wars
1796 - 1815
 War of 1812 (w/America)  1812 - 1815
Pax Britannia
"British Peace"
1815 - 1914
World War I
1914 - 1918
World War II
1939 - 1945
 Factors that Contributed to the Shift from
British to American Industrial Dominance
Britain America
Social Values
Class Differences
Pax Britannia
from 1815-1914
American Civil War
from 1861-1865
Natural Resources
Limited since 1500’s
Virtually Unlimited
Labor Resources
Lots of Highly-skilled Craftmen
Very Few Craftsmen
Demand for Goods Old established population did not need to buy new household or farming goods. Rapidly-growing number of immigrant households demanded entire new sets of household and farming implements.
Resulting Use of Machines
Helps many craftsmen to make a few expensive, high-status goods.
Adapted to mass-produce inexpensive goods using a small number of unskilled workers.