Chapter 2 – The Industrial Revolution and the Role of Science and Technology in the Development of Technical Education.

This entry is part 2 of 20 in the series A Short History of Technical Education


The Industrial Revolution and the Role of Science and Technology in the Development of Technical Education.

“The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was invention of the method of invention” A.N. Whitehead.  Lowell Lectures. 1925.

This chapter will attempt to continue to set the context and background of this history of technical education by providing more detail about the influences and driving forces associated with the Industrial Revolution and the impact arising from the growth of science and the advances in technology on the development of technical education. After all it was the Industrial Revolution that highlighted the essential need to develop a national system for elementary/secondary education and equally important a technical education system. The Industrial Revolution inevitably acted as a catalyst/trigger for the development of a national technical education system although as this history will show the development was both faltering and haphazard throughout the 19th and early 20th century. One of the interesting issues during this development period was the heated debates about the relationship between science and technology especially in regard to how these subjects were taught and  their relative importance and place in a national education system.

Background to the Industrial Revolution.

The term Industrial Revolution was first used by Louis – Auguste Blanqui in 1837 and it was then widely adopted following a series of lectures entitled ‘Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century in England’ by Arnold Toynbee delivered in 1882. The First Industrial Revolution as it is more commonly called spanned the period between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Many historians cite the period between 1780 and 1830 as the time when Britain witnessed the most rapid industrialisation activity although other historians define other periods. In addition a number of historians have argued that industrialisation occurred much earlier than 1780 and strictly was not a revolution but rather an example of gradual evolution. A number of studies using econometric techniques showed that the slow production rates coupled with low national incomes would indicate that industrial evolution rather than industrial revolution was a more appropriate term to describe the process. Other writers identified that there was a piecemeal development in processes associated with industrial innovation and in organisational structures. Clear evidence now exists that industrialisation was not the exclusive domain/province of Britain but included developments both in Asia and Europe.

There was a great deal of migration of European artisans and professional people into Britain during the 15th/16th/17th centuries bringing their superior skills and technological methods.  There was evidence of exchange and transfer of ideas, skills and technologies between Britain and Europe for many centuries before the first industrial revolution. For example the Dutch made significant contributions to the technologies associated with the drainage system in the Fens in the mid 17th century and later made significant improvements to water mills. Dutch and Flemish refugees played a significant role in creating the foundations of the development of the cotton, silk and other textile trades in England. France also made major contributions to blast furnace technology as did the Germans in improving the smelting and refining of non-ferrous ores. The French were the leaders in science during the 18th century and again made many contributions to the new industries associated with chemicals e.g. dying and bleaching. The exchange was certainly not just one way e.g. Britain helped Belgium and France to modernise much of their industry but most of the transfer of technology and effort from Britain was aimed at the USA. It is interesting to note that a number of Parliamentary Acts during the 19th century prohibited the emigration of workers into mainland Europe as well as placing restrictions on the export of machinery, spare parts, design plans and expertise. These Acts most certainly limited and constrained the exchange of technology and technical knowhow between Britain and the Continent. This aspect again reflects and reinforces the secretive and protectionist nature and practices of British companies, a point that will be picked up and developed later in this chapter.

During the first industrial revolution Britain witnessed a massive set of transformations in such areas as agriculture, demographic trends, manufacturing and transportation.  These and other changes had a profound effect on the cultural, economic and social climate of the country. For example Figure 1 below shows the dramatic growth in population between 1760 and 1901.

Figure 1
Year Population England and Wales Population Scotland Total population Britain
1760 6,736,000 (estimated) 8,000,000 (estimated)
1801 8,892,000 (1st census) 1,608,420 10,500,000
1851 17,927,609 2,888,742 21,000,000
1901 32,527,843 4,472,103 37,000,000

Another important transition occurred from around 1760 when the basis of the labour economy changed from one based on manual/physical labour to one increasingly based on machines. In addition the tradesperson replaced the craftsperson and the applied scientist replaced the amateur inventor. One consequence of the industrial revolution was that for the operation of the new machines largely unskilled labour were used. Skilled workers found themselves lowered in status and in less demand and companies increasingly employed women and children to keep costs down.  Coal was king as its production rose from 2.5 million tons in 1700 to 10 million tons in 1800. Three important technologies can be identified that formed the foundations of the first industrial revolution namely: iron production, steam engine and textiles.

The steam engine had been discovered before the industrial revolution and was subsequently improved by Watt and others after 1778. The steam engine was initially adapted and used to provide power for a whole series of machines and as a result was in many ways the most important ‘enabling technology’ of the time and as a result made the major contribution to the first industrial revolution. Steam driven machines were gradually improved, adapted for wider uses such as in the production of textiles and the mining of iron and tin  and this evolution continued to  enable the operation of more complex machinery e.g. machine tools, lathes, farm machinery.  The development and refinement of machine tools by such individuals as Henry Maudslay and Joseph Whitworth played a key and crucial part in the later phase of the first Industrial Revolution as machine tool technology enabled standardised manufacturing machines to be fabricated. A portrait of Joseph Whitworth is shown below.

Joseph Whitworth 1803 - 1887

The movement of manufactured goods and services was also greatly assisted and facilitated by improvements to the national transport system that included better roads and the development of an extensive network of canals, (from about 1773), and railways (from 1825). To illustrate the rapid growth of inland navigation systems i.e. canals and rivers in 1750 there were around 1,000 miles of inland navigation and by 1850 this had increased to 4,250 miles excluding a significant mileage that existed in Ireland.

As the national economy increased and technological advances accelerated and gained momentum the first industrial revolution converged around 1850 into the second period of industrial revolution/evolution.  After 1850 the rapid development of steam driven transport systems e.g. shipping and railways opened up new markets both in Britain and across the world. Later in the 19th century the newer technologies associated with electrical generation, the internal combustion engine and the industrial processes related to chemicals etc further accelerated and spread the growth of industrial and international trade.

By 1850 Britain was the acknowledged workshop and the leading industrial power of the world producing over half the world’s coal, cotton and iron. Imported food and essential raw materials for the manufacturing processes were paid for by the export of manufactured products as well as the export of a developing service sector including financial, insurance and shipping services. The country possessed the world’s most powerful navy and mercantile fleet and this not only helped to maintain the empire but provided the means to export its manufactured commodities. Sadly the transportation of slaves to the new world until the trade was abolished in 1807 also contributed to Britain’s wealth particularly to the city ports of Bristol and Liverpool.

Structure and the organisation of industry in the late 18th and 19th centuries It is appropriate to consider other factors, that have been raised by some writers, which they,  argued undermined this country’s manufacturing performance and ultimately contributed to Britain’s economic and industrial decline. Many of these factors again highlight the lack of an effective and comprehensive technical and commercial education system as well as the continuing negative attitude towards  competitiveness, entrepreneurialism, practical and technical activities. A list of some of these factors is given below:

  • The sizes of companies were relatively small and in the majority of cases family owned.
  • Management and organisational structures dogged by amateurism, complacency and indifference.
  • Employers often engaged in fierce and destructive competition with rival companies.
  • Incompetent and ineffective sales and marketing especially overseas. An unwillingness to develop marketing and sales strategies and tactics to match and satisfy customer needs.
  • The inability of company staff particularly the marketing team, if they existed, to learn and converse in foreign languages.
  • The widespread use of indirect selling and marketing overseas by agencies and agents.
  • The relatively late adoption, (after 1851), of a distinctive or ‘brand’ or product kite mark when compared with other competitors. Exceptions were in the china/pottery industries e.g. Spode and Wedgewood.
  • Reluctance to develop rigorous patenting techniques, when compared with USA, Belgium and Germany. This again highlights the tendency for English, (family run), businesses to be protectionist and secretative.
  • ‘The gentrification’, (Wiener’s expression), of the first and subsequent generations of successful business people who quickly adopted the mores of the upper classes.
  • The reluctance to adopt and invest in new manufacturing techniques and technologies and hence develop new products.
  • The reluctance to replace obsolete equipment and invest in new plant.
  • Basic hostility towards technical education especially outside the traditional apprenticeship schemes even though these were fast disappearing.
  • The relatively few scientists and technologists employed in industry. There were also shortages of qualified foremen, supervisors and technicians. This factor highlights two recurring issues and links with the inadequacy of technical education.
  • Low wages and status amongst workers as a result of no regulation or effective legislation that forced wages and conditions of work down. Employers were also hostile to the creation and membership  of unions.
Wedgewood Factory at Etruria

A view of the Wedgewood Pottery factory at Etruria is shown opposite.

Many manufacturing companies were family businesses and relatively small when compared with similar business enterprises overseas. In particular industries involved in the production of cotton, linen, silk were dominated by families. Small and larger manufacturing enterprises including engineering were also family owned and operated in such diverse industries as brewing, cutlery, pottery alongside thousands of workshops producing specialised products and artefacts particularly around Birmingham and Manchester. The culture of the family was apt to be very protective and secretive towards their manufacturing techniques and they were generally reluctant to cooperate and form associations with other similar based manufactures and this again was in stark contrast with companies in Europe. This secretive attitude was also evident in the way companies would avoid or be reluctant to register and patent their products for fear of plagiarism. This attitude impeded further development of a company’s products and restricted its product range and as a result this constrained the future growth of the company so maintaining the overall profile of small companies in Britain. Many businesses on the continent and the US took the opposite approach and many became very large with world wide brands and product differentiation which ultimately gave them a competitive edge over England towards the end of the 19th century. In fact this reluctance and propensity for secrecy about their industrial processes eventually became counterproductive as continental countries began to develop and manage technology in a more systematic way compared with England.

The relatively small size of the companies also had a negative impact on marketing and sales activities especially abroad. The home market was very buoyant and effective sales and marketing were relatively easy and this contributed to the culture of complacency and indifference but the overseas sales were very different and soon declining sales highlighted weaknesses in the sale techniques adopted by England companies. Because companies were relatively small they were inevitably reluctant to invest in dedicated sales teams based overseas instead preferring to use agents and agencies who also worked on behalf of other companies so no real loyalty and commitment existed with these agents and often there were issues of conflict of interests. As competition increased from continental countries and the USA the weaknesses inherent in the way sales and marketing of British products operated began very apparent. The USA and Germany developed networks of sales organisations dispensing with agencies and agents. The inability and resistance to learn and speak the languages of overseas customers, the reluctance to carry out market research to assess customer needs and the continued use of sales/marketing agents all contributed to the loss of market share from the mid 19th century.

Another factor that reflected weak management was the poor relationships that existed between workers and managers coupled with the opposition to unions and union membership that were strongly discouraged. Commercial, business and management education was virtually non-existent during most of the 19th century and was even less developed than technical education. I will consider the development of business and management education in later chapters.

Cottonopolis1                                                                   Glasgow. Industrial Revolution

Two typical views of an industrial site during the Industrial Revolution are shown above the one on the right is in Glasgow – note the high level of smoke pollution. One fascinating factor that reflects the basic hostility towards industry and technical education is explored by Wiener (1) and others namely the influence of class and social stratification. In Britain there had always been reluctance among the gentry and upper classes to send their sons into industry preferring them to enter banking or merchants’ offices. What is particularly interesting is the manner in which the first generation of successful industrialists behaved towards the education of their children. They invested their fortunes in massive country estates and did all possible to be recognised, accepted and assimilated into the upper echelons of English society. This most certainly included sending their sons to Eton or other public schools and Oxbridge and upon graduating they entered the family business ill – prepared to be part of the business lacking the necessary experiences, knowledge, skills and the techniques associated with the industrial processes, technological and scientific concepts and management of the business. Even more interesting is that many did not return to the business but went into the perceived more cultured and dignified environments of law, politics, religion and the other learned professions. The same negative view of technical/practical activities gradually permeated to the middle classes who readily adopted the mores of the upper classes and developed a distinct set of prejudices towards practical and technical pursuits, science, mathematics and technology. These negative attitudes still exists today. One only has to see the current problems with recruiting people in these subjects into colleges and universities. These deeply held attitudes and prejudices most certainly demonstrate the destructive effect of class attitudes and negative perceptions that persist even to day in some quarters of society.

Most company managers were reluctant to adapt and innovate and invested little in new plant and equipment. Having been the first industrial nation was ultimately a contributing factor in England’s decline, fuelled by degrees of complacency and arrogance. This created a culture of resistance to move with the times and overall industry failed to invest in new plant and equipment, develop new products and processes based on advancing scientific and technological ideas and reluctance to recruit scientifically and technologically qualified people. In the majority of cases companies refused to recruit highly qualified people  even though very few existed and many would often argue that a ‘practical’ person was preferred over a so-called ‘theoretical one’  Companies also invested little in research and development. This reluctance to embrace new industrial and managerial practices continued well into the 20th century. One classic case was the indifference indeed hostility towards the introduction of scientific management techniques. This approach was developed with great success in the USA but employers in this country resisted its introduction arguing strongly that workers were human beings and not machines and that there was no place for scientific routines or procedures in industrial and commercial businesses.

The role and interrelationship between Science and Technology and its impact on technical education.

Just as advances in technology significantly influenced the Industrial Revolution the development of scientific ideas in turn influenced technology and made major contributions to the first and second industrial revolutions. Indeed until the advent of the scientific era, technological advances were almost exclusively based on craft and trade skills and experience, personified by the apprentice model where the skills were handed on very much on a personal and individualistic level. The secrets of the craft or trade were jealously guarded and often shrouded in mystery. Chapter 3 will describe more fully the apprenticeship model before and after the Industrial Revolution.

However the most significant technical advances during the second industrial revolution (>1850s) were driven by science as well as by the demands made on technology itself.

One of the more intriguing aspects in writing this history is the identification of a number of perplexing and paradoxical issues, none more so than the interaction between science and technology and the role and teaching of these disciplines in the emerging education systems. This paradox has been highlighted by a number of influential writers e.g. Levine (2). The belief which sadly continues today is that science is seen as being a more superior body of knowledge than technology as well as the subsequent application of scientific knowledge and ideas. This perception of precedence comprised two directly related aspects, firstly that science always precedes technology because the application could only happen after the scientific discovery was made and secondly the view that science education was superior to technical education. Although the first assertion is valid in most cases it is not universally true. The application of existing technology can itself bring about the need for further and new scientific research and discovery. As existing technologies and machines are operated in different working situations the demands and limitations of the machinery and the underlying technologies often precipitate the need for more original scientific research. Therefore the belief that science is always ahead of technology and therefore is superior is a false one as it is clearly a two way iterative process i.e. science ≪=≫ technology. A classic example of how technology precedes and interacts with science can be seen in the development of the steam engine. As the use of the engine was diversified and applied in different situations fundamental design and operating limitations were identified that required further basic scientific research and this in turn challenged and questioned the existing scientific theories and hypothesises. In this case of the steam engine the discipline of thermodynamics was greatly enhanced and refined. A good example at present is the use of bio-fuels in cars that traditionally use petrol or diesel as the array of O rings and gaskets cannot operate in the new operating environment created by the bio-fuels. Therefore a whole new area of material science has had to be established in order to deal with the challenges of the existing technology. Other examples show that science and technology possess a synergistic relationship to one another and clearly feed off each other and that no one discipline is superior to the other.

However it was the aspect of this false belief that has been so damaging to the development of technical and applied education namely that scientific education should take precedence over technical education. This assertion most certainly had a negative and retarding impact on the image and development of technical education during the 19th century – one can also see these elements in play even today as the history will show later. The acceptance of this belief by politicians and decision makers meant that education policy at the time required the instruction of science to take precedence over the instruction of technical, applied and practical subjects. For example Alexander Williamson (3) an influential figure in education and a professor of chemistry at King’s College reflected this belief in his evidence to the Devonshire Commission when he objected to the creation of technical schools rather than scientific institutions saying “this does not give due priority to pure science”. This highly questionable belief and attitude was even held and articulated by some of the greatest advocates of technical education including Lyon Playfair and Thomas Huxley (4) who both voiced similar views as Williamson. The debate continues even today as evidenced in early 2009 when an enlightened government minister stressed the need to commit a greater proportion of the research funding for science to enhance the economic and technological base of the country. The vast majority of the scientific community, mostly university based, expressed their total disagreement with this suggestion arguing it subverted academic freedom and independence.

What cannot be denied is that the period from 1750 to 1850+ particularly during the Victorian period witnessed an exciting and productive time of intense research/innovation in practically every field of scientific exploration namely biological, chemical, mathematical, physical and technological. The Victorian period was particularly productive in adopting, expanding and transforming technologies in such areas as electricity,  industrial control engineering, lighting, photography, railways, steamships, telegraphy and telephony. Many of  these individuals behind these great achievemnets never received formal education by attending university or secondary schools instead they were self taught and/or possessed amazing creative abilities. This was the period of the first Industrial Revolution driven by steam. The second Indutrial Revolution from the mid-18th century was driven by the chemical, communications and electrical technologies which Britain did not fully capitalise on – Germany and America did!


The development of technical education during most of the 19th century had to overcome many prejudices and problems in order for it to gain recognition and credibility. Reading the literature shows conclusively that those resisting forces and movements came from all levels of society, the State and individuals. This resistance manifested itself as shown in this and the previous chapter through a whole host of factors and these were coupled with:

  • inadequate funding and support from the State up until possibly the 1860s
  • negative attitudes and behaviour from managers towards technical education fearing the loss of process and trade secrets if the workers understood the industrial technologies and techniques.

The next chapter will consider the importance of the Craft Guilds-Livery Companies, the Gilds and the apprenticeship schemes before the first industrial revolution and their gradual decline as the first industrial revolution evolved. Also the impact on traditional crafts and trades skills as the factory systems developed throughout the 19th century  contributing to the demise of the traditional apprenticeships will be explored. These transitions inevitably identified and highlighted the growing need to establish different educational structures to satisfy the demands of the emerging industries. One such development represents one of the most exciting and important educational movements in English educational history namely the Mechanics’ Institutions. Some of the key figures in the movement will be considered including John Anderson, George Birkbeck and Anthony Ure and other farsighted individuals who realised the importance of a well informed and trained workforce which led to the creation of the institutes. This will be seen as a period that promised much but sadly became a time of false dawns and missed opportunities arising from many of the factors identified in the first two chapters.

Picture of Anthony Ure shown opposite

Dr Ure

References for chapter 2

  1. Weiner. M. ‘English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit.’ CUP. 1981.
  2. Levine. A.L. ‘Industrial Retardation in Britain 1880 – 1914.’ Basic Books. 1967.
  3. Alexander. W. Evidence to the Devonshire Commission.
  4. Huxley. T. ‘Science and Education- Essays.’ Macmillan. 1905.

A comprehensive book list, chronology and glossary of terms is provided in separate posts on this site.




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