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The dark side of the Industrial Revolution

The last 250 years have seen an unprecedented rise in industry and innovation. Britain has benefited particularly from it as a result of natural resources of coal and minerals, combined with a cultural and political climate that allowed innovation, entrepreneurship, and expansion of the numerous industries. There is therefore very considerable pride in recognizing the leading role of Britain in so many industrial processes, ideas, and products.

However, the adage ‘No gain without pain’ seems apt. The advances in the potteries, iron and steel production, energy from gas and electricity, and manufactured goods such as textiles have driven a demand for power, primarily, in the early stages, from coal. Hence there was a surge in the mining industry, especially for coal and iron. In parallel with industrial development, there were a mass movement of people from the countryside to tightly packed housing to operate the mills and centralized industries.

The predictable downside of all this technological progress (with wealth generation for those in charge, and worldwide expansion of Britain’s influence) was an exploitation of not only the people in Britain, but also in the colonies, together with devastation and pollution of natural resources across the world.

Pollution was obvious: it was captured in pictures and writing; the industrial heartland was symbolically and literally called the Black Country, and poetically ‘the dark satanic mills’. Progress was bought at a high price as the soot, fumes, and toxic gases from burning coal polluted the air in cities and countryside, shortening the lives of everyone, not just those who were mining or working directly in large factories. The tangible evidence of blackened and chemically corroded buildings, as well as vast spoil heaps from the mining and the waste products, has still not totally been covered up.

The pollution in the atmosphere was not limited to the mills and the cities, but was measurable in the woodlands. This produced some instructive side effects. Some species of moth exist in different shades from light to dark. With black-polluted trees, the light-coloured ones were visible, and then eaten by birds, whereas the dark ones survived. It is an obvious demonstration of natural selection as the dark moths had dark progeny. With far less industrial activity producing soot, the air has become cleaner, and light-coloured moths now have a chance of survival. Unfortunately, this is bad news for the tasty dark moths.

Whilst industry flourished, so did the very obvious pollution with slag heaps, acidic rivers, and all the readily visible signs of industrial waste. In parallel, the living conditions in overcrowded cities deteriorated. There were many epidemics and a very high infant mortality rate. Far less obvious, both then and now, was the fact that (as with cooking) the entire living world is sensitive to very small traces of background chemicals that influence our ability to breed and survive as healthy individuals. So by this century, the major chimneys and blackened skies may have vanished in this country, but the more subtle after-effects of past and current contaminants have not.

Pollution was blatant: in London—even without mills, potteries, or ironworks—the Thames was effectively an open sewer. The stench was appalling; cholera and other epidemics were commonplace.

A truly major dark side of industrial progress was the exploitation of humans and other creatures. Many of the industries treated the workers as just another expendable resource. Slavery had been the basis of the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, and it was still highly profitable in many British colonies. Not surprisingly, the attitude to the working conditions of those in the Britain was not greatly different. Only in name were they free citizens and paid a wage; the majority were trapped into finding employment where it existed, which often meant the mills or the mines. Mining has always been a hazardous occupation, and in Victorian times, many thousands of miners died as a result of underground accidents or lung disease. The situation was accepted as the norm both by employers and workers.

Financial profit took priority, and compensation for industrial accidents was minimal. This was a period when health and safety legislation was seen as a hindrance to progress; industrial accidents were therefore frequent. Even when compensation for accidents was made, the sums involved were small. For example, near Brighton there is well for water that was started in 1858. It is claimed to be the deepest hand-dug well in the world; a sign says a worker was killed whilst digging it. His Victorian widow received 12 shillings and 6 pence (or 62.5 modern pence, less than a US dollar) in compensation. This would have been equivalent to about one week’s wages.

More familiar examples of hazardous working conditions are cited throughout all the front-line activities that were driving the Industrial Revolution. Not all of them were reported at the time, in part because hazardous jobs included fatalities, and so they were not newsworthy. One such example was the construction of the original Forth Bridge, 1883—90, when some 57 workers died. A century later a commemorative plaque was planned, but there was no documented list of the names of the workmen, since they were not considered to be important. Bridge construction is still dangerous: in the 1960s’ rebuild, there were seven fatalities.

The death rates in mining, mill work, construction, and agriculture were extremely high, and even higher in terms of diseases and disabilities such as deafness or loss of limbs. Britain was not unique in its insensitivity to the care of workers; even in the modern world, the situation has not improved greatly in all countries. Changes in attitudes are probably unlikely as this dark side of technological advance is firmly tied to industrial profits.

The positive aspects are that Britain recognized and responded to these challenges of housing, sewage, living conditions, and safety. In the modern UK, there has been a proliferation of health and safety legislation. This is matched with better compensation rates for industrial injuries. Consequently, both workers and products are considerably safer than a century ago. Whether we have reached the correct balance is less clear, as the growth of the safety industry requires that safety officials generate ever more detailed and restrictive inspections, testing, and certification. So the pendulum of legislation carries a momentum beyond the sensible and necessary. It can then result in excessive restrictions. In many cases, these rules are a distinct hindrance or major expense for careful and competent workers.

Excessive legislation offers an unexpected example of the downside of progress. Additionally, there is the prospect of litigation if a product is unsafe, even during development. This inhibition of exploration and innovation was once summarized by a legal expert who pointed out that ‘airplanes, air conditioning, antibiotics, automobiles, chlorine, the measles vaccine, open heart surgery, refrigeration, the smallpox vaccine and X-rays’ would all have been totally blocked with current legislation.

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