Understanding the Industrial Revolution through Cotton

Understanding the Industrial Revolution through Cotton



Understanding the Industrial Revolution through Cotton

Bottlenecks and Greed: Understanding the Industrial Revolution through Cotton

The key to understanding the Industrial Revolution is the simple, now common fabric you are probably wearing right now: cotton. Cotton is cool in summer, warm if layered in winter, and easy to clean and maintain. People in Europe throughout the Middle Ages preferred cotton clothing to wool clothing, which was itchy, hard to clean and maintain, warm in the summer and not very warm when wet. But cotton was hard to come by and expensive. A cotton shirt around 1700 would cost you about a week’s wages. Today it would probably take you less than an hour to earn the money needed to buy a simple cotton shirt. If you can understand how cotton got so cheap you will understand the Industrial Revolution.

For centuries cotton was hard to come by in Great Britain because it doesn’t grow there (cotton only grows in warm climates). Importing cotton was expensive. Beginning in the early 1700’s, large scale cotton plantations in North America based on slave labor began producing large amounts of cotton for export to Britain.

That raw cotton coming into Britain was turned into cloth as a cottage industry. This meant everything was done by hand in people’s homes. Cotton agents, called factors, brought the raw cotton (from North America) around to farmhouses. Farmer’s wives would first remove the seeds and comb (or “card”) the raw cotton by hand. They then spun the cotton into thread on spinning wheels. Only then could the thread be hand woven into cloth on large looms that required two people to operate. The factors (merchants) would then return to pick up the woven cloth. These factors, who wanted to maximize profit, saw that the slow, two person looms were slowing everything down. The slow looms were the first bottleneck in the production of cotton cloth.

Solution: In 1733 John Kay invented the Flying Shuttle. The Flying Shuttle was a lighter, quicker loom that could be worked by just one person.  This doubled the amount of cotton cloth that could be produced (woven). Now, instead of the weavers not being able to keep up with the thread spinners, now it was the other way around: spinners couldn’t supply weavers with thread fast enough.  Now the slow spinners were the (second) bottleneck holding up the whole process.

Solution: In 1763, James Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny, a multiple spinning wheel which allowed one person to spin as much thread as eight or ten people could previously. Now, with both the faster spinner to make thread (Spinning Jenny) and the faster loom to make cloth (Flying Shuttle), cotton cloth could be made much more quickly and cheaply than ever before. Now the thing that was limiting cotton production (and third bottleneck) was that the thread in the Flying Shuttles would sometimes break and grind things to a halt.

Solution: In 1769 Richard Arkwright invents the Water Frame. The Water Frame twisted and tightened the thread so that it didn’t break when woven on the Flying Shuttles. Now cotton could be spun into thread and woven into cloth so quickly that the (fourth) bottleneck now was that the cotton growers could not supply the raw cotton to the spinners fast enough because the removal of seeds was still being done by hand.

Solution: In 1793 Eli Whitney (or his wife, some historians believe) invented the Cotton Gin, a machine which separated the seeds from the raw cotton by pulling the raw cotton through a comb with teeth too small for the seeds to pass through. Now immense supplies of cotton were flowing into England. Now the only limit to how fast cotton could be produced was how fast a human being could turn a Spinning Jenny to spin thread and a Flying Shuttle to weave it. The (fifth) bottleneck was now: energy.

Solution: Water Wheels. Beginning around 1760, water wheels were used to power large assemblies of Spinning Jennies, Water Frames, and Flying Shuttles connected together in what came to be known as “factories”. These first factories were now producing masses of cotton cloth. But remember, no matter how fast a system works, there is always a weakest or slowest point in that chain of production. The weak link now (and sixth bottleneck) was that water power was not reliable. Production would slow down when rivers dried up in the summer or froze in the winter.

Solution: Steam. In 1776 James Watt invented a steam engine that was small and could produce circular motion, perfect for the new textile factories. Now the factories did not have to be built near rivers. They could be built near to raw materials, labor, and markets. Production increased again. But there is always a weakest point. Now the only thing that limited how many machines you could run on steam power (bottleneck seven) was how much pressure you could create in the boilers. That was a problem. The steam boilers often exploded because they could not contain the high pressure.

Solution: Stronger Metals. Here two inventors were important: In 1783 Henry Cort invented “puddling and rolling”, a process of making stronger iron that could be formed into virtually any shape required; and in 1856 Henry Bessemer, invented “Bessemer Process” which was a way to make high grade steel, much stronger and more flexible than iron. These new metals allowed for more powerful steam engines and machines to be used in factories. Now the weak link in the chain (and final, eighth bottleneck) was transportation.

Solution: Railroads. In 1829 George Stephenson built a locomotive (called The Rocket because it went 24 mph!) which revolutionized life in Britain and around the world. Now cotton could not only be mass produced (a term from the Industrial Revolution), it could also be quickly and cheaply delivered to markets. Cotton was now affordable to everyone. But at what cost? We will look into the human costs of the Industrial Revolution next time.

Source: http://www.aghseagles.org/ourpages/users/mkamin/wh10_files//



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Understanding the Industrial Revolution through Cotton


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Understanding the Industrial Revolution through Cotton



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Understanding the Industrial Revolution through Cotton