Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution

Emma Griffin on an account that stresses the role of technology and invention in its chronicling of the industrial revolution

Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution
Author: Roger Osborne
Publisher: Bodley Head
Reviewed by: Emma Griffin
Price (RRP): £30

The evocative scenes of begrimed industrial workers in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics last summer served as a reminder of the centrality of the industrial revolution to the making and understanding of modern Britain. The story of inventors and entrepreneurs, who through a combination of insight and dogged perseverance dragged Britain out of its agricultural past and turned her into the workshop of the world, is hardly one that has failed to attract scholarly attention. So how successfully does this, Roger Osborne’s new work, provide a fresh account of a well-worn topic?

Histories of the industrial revolution must inevitably address the problem of defining what exactly the industrial revolution was. It is a problem that has animated generations of historians. Agricultural revolutions, technological change, the switch to coal, new forms of finance, changes in working patterns – these and other developments have all been given explanatory weight in various interpretations. Osborne has chosen to tell the tale through the perspective of technology: as he puts it, “innovation and technology lie at the heart of the Industrial Revolution”. This emphasis was heavily favoured by an earlier generation of historians, yet generally finds less favour today.

Through this prism Osborne talks his readers through the technological milestones of the period. Key figures – including Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, Richard Trevithick, Abraham Darby and Richard Arkwright – are all discussed at some length, as are their inventions: steam engines, locomotive engines, spinning machines and blast furnaces. Osborne provides extensive and often colourful accounts of these and other inventors, covering both the sources of their inspiration and the struggles that they encountered in turning ideas into reality. He also takes care in describing the science that lay beneath their inventions. For anyone interested in the history of machines and technology, this will be very welcome detail indeed.

But let’s be clear. Osborne has not been busy in the archives searching for new evidence about the men and machines that made the industrial revolution happen. Nor is he rethinking the categories through which we can understand this monumental event in Britain’s history. This is largely a synthetic account – and therein lies both its appeal and its drawbacks. The book has a light touch and is highly readable. Complex ideas are rendered comprehensible and there is little in the way of indigestible detail.

At the same time, though, the book may leave some readers wanting more. Privileging technology as the key to understanding the period produces a traditional narrative of great men and great events. For my money I would have liked to learn more about the ways in which this event changed the lives of the ordinary men, women and children, covered in two brief chapters at the back of the book. At the very least, with such a well-worked topic, I would have hoped for the book to offer some new perspectives, to encourage me to rethink ideas that I take for granted.

This, perhaps, is to ask for a different work altogether. Osborne’s account has little to offer more informed readers, but for those seeking a top-down survey of the process of British industrialisation, this book is sure to please. Iron, Steam and Money is an engaging and enjoyable read, and Osborne’s clear prose and simple explanations provide shape and meaning to a concept that in many people’s minds remains a muddled memory from school days.

 

Emma Griffin is professor in history at the University of East Anglia and the author of Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution (Yale, 2013)

The Conquest of the Ocean: The Illustrated History of Seafaring
previous book review Article
The Anglo-Saxon World
next book review Article
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here