Metals: The Money Factory
One of the first industries to be heavily automated and mechanized was metal production. This was by necessity.
Markets called forth more demand for silver, which called for more production, which called for more production of coins, in a kind of feedback loop.
In South America mines were often high up in the mountains where the air was thinner. That meant that traditional smelting techniques would not work. The Incas, however, has a device known as a guayra, or wind oven. At one point, fifteen thousand of these, produced by Incan craftsmen, were in use by the Spaniards.
To deal with the labor shortage here, the Spanish viceroy adopted the Incan mita system, or corvée labor. Villages were forced to supply labor to the Spanish in place of the Inca rulers. And unlike the Inca, that labor was not involved in things like building, it was used in mining silver ore.
To extract the ore, a new technique was discovered in Mexico. This was the application of mercury to crushed rock in order to more efficiently extract the ore. This required the crushing of massive amounts of rock. To accomplish this on an industrial scale, the Spanish turned to water power:
In order to crush the massive amounts of rock extracted from the giant mountain, the workers used Eurasian technology to build hydraulic wheels and install them at the base of the mountain. Within the first century of mining in Potosí, the workers built 132 such ore-crushing wheels.
To supply energy to turn these wheels in the virtual desert conditions of the high plateau, the Spanish forced thousands of Indians to excavate a series of thirty artificial lakes in the surrounding mountains to capture the small amounts of rain in the area as well as snow that melted and ran off from the higher elevations in the summer. Canals carried the water, which then cascaded down a series of sluices to turn the wheels.
The churning wheels crushed the rock into a fine gravel, and the energy from the waterwheels also powered a series of giant hammers that pounded the gravel into a fine sand the consistency of flour. The “flour” became pasta when the Indians walked on it and mixed it with mercury. IG p. 50
Mechanization did not stop there. The silver was then transported to the Case de Moneda, or house of money. In the past, coins had been struck by using manual dyes and hammer blows by skilled craftsmen on blank slugs of metal. But the massive amounts of silver meant that this hand-production of coins by skilled labor would not suffice. Instead, just like the ore production, waterwheels were pressed into service to automate the striking of vast amounts of silver coins. However, these wheels often ended up being powered by human and animal labor due to the shortage of water:
The innovators of Potosí adapted an indoor version of the waterwheel to supply extra power. Because of the lack of water, men and animals propelled the wheel by trudging in an eternal circle. This closely resembled the threshing mills used in many Old World areas that lacked running water.
The wheels in the mint, however, turned a series of wooden gears up to eight feet in diameter as well as much smaller wheels. When all of the wheels moved in concert, they produced a whopping blow of a hammer much like the hammer used at the base of the mountain to pulverize the ore. Because of the scarcity of wood, craftsmen substituted the more abundant metals for machine parts wherever and whenever practical. IG, p. 51
When the silver was shipped back to Europe, they needed ways to secure the money from pirates, as well as from the people shipping it. To do this, locksmiths devised all sort of new techniques to secure the money in the form of safes and locks.
From extracting the ore and pulverizing it on to minting coins and transporting them, the traditional Old World technology that had sufficed since the days of the ancient Phoenician mines or the mines of Solomon failed to meet the new situation.
The Spanish learned little about metallurgy from the Indians, although in many regards Indian technology was equal to and in some ways superior to European technologies. But the great new magnitude of the mining enterprise in America demanded new techniques in order to produce silver at a rate that the Indians had never before attained.
So much new information about mining developed in these years that in 1640 Barba published his Art of Metals, summarizing this new knowledge and thereby building the foundation for a modern metallurgy that became increasingly important wit the development of industrialization. IG, p. 52
And so, metal provided an example of mechanized mass production. These mechanical techniques using waterwheels will come to play an essential role in the first factories which arrive in other parts of Europe, including the village of Kahl. The Spanish back in Europe tended to not expand this mechanization of industry, because with the silver they could buy whatever they wanted from the rest of Europe. In addition, commerce was seen as unfitting for a noble to engage in, unlike in England. This is why the industrial revolution never took off in Spain. However, the Spanish silver provided a commercial stimulus to the rest of Europe.
Sugar: The First Factories
Sugar cane was not a New World product–it originated in Southeast Asia. It was cultivated widely in India and entered Europe through trading with the Arab world. Sugar is, in fact, an Arabic loan word—sukkar—from the Persian shakar (via the Sanskrit sharkara). Sugar had been introduced into Europe probably during the Crusades. Back then, instead of causing diseases and tooth decay, sugar was considered medicinal. But it very, very rare.
Rather than trade for sugar through the Arab world, it would be useful for Europe to produce its own sugar. But sugar is a tropical plant; like cotton, it does not grow in European soil or temperature conditions.
Before they colonized the New Wold, Europeans occupied and took over the neighboring islands in the Atlantic in a sort of dress rehearsal for the full-scale colonization that was to follow. While England used Ireland for this purpose, the Portuguese settled on the island of Madeira and the Azores and grew sugar there, along with island of São Tomé off the coast of Africa. The Spanish colonized the Canary Islands and planted sugar on Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
When Columbus landed in the Caribbean, he found the ideal spot for growing sugar cane. In fact, sugar was introduced into the Caribbean by Columbus himself from São Tomé on his second voyage (his father-in-law owned a plantation). Before long, the Caribbean became Europe’s sugar daddy:
We all know the appeal of sugar in our candies, cookies, cakes, and coffees, but we’ve lost an appreciation of the critical role it played in the European diet. Sugar did more than furnish calories and sweetness; it make possible storing fruits and vegetables throughout the year.
There were only three ways to keep food before artificial refrigeration: salting it, preserving it, or drying it. Sugar was the essential ingredient for preserves. Before a nineteenth-century German chemist showed how to extract sugar from beets, people had to import it from those tropical areas where sugarcane flourished. Its desirability and rarity did for the islands of the West Indies what oil later did for the Middle East: it gave them a monopoly of a commodity whose demand continued to climb for two centuries.
The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, p. 63
There a few characteristics about sugar, however, that make it quite different from standard agricultural crops such as wheat, rice, corn or tobacco. For one, the sugar has to be harvested right away, because the sucrose in the cane immediately starts to decay after it is cut. Also, as a tropical plant, it does not grow annually the way cereals do. It takes a year and half from planting to harvesting the crop. That meant that the traditional seasonal timing of agricultural labor disappeared; instead sugar became a year-round crop. Labor on a sugar plantation became divorced from the rhythm of the seasons which had dictated the schedules in agrarian societies, including in Europe.
Also, sugar has to be heavily processed in labor-intensive ways to extract the raw material for granulated sugar—pounding, boiling, etc. The only way all this could work is to centralize everything in a massive operation where everything took place immediately in a sort of assembly line process: harvesting, collecting, boiling, pounding, processing, and shipping.
The only way to really deal with all this is via plantations; no “yeoman farmers” here. Eric Wolf describes the plantation model, while also noting its similarity to military organization:
A plantation can be defined formally as a capital-using unit employing a large labor force under close managerial supervision to produce a crop for sale. The labor force usually works in labor gangs that carry out the repetitive and physically demanding tasks under the watchful eye of foremen who enforce the required sequence and synchronization of tasks.
Plantations tend to be large in size, achieving economies of scale by devoting as much of their resources as possible to the cultivation of a single crop. Large-scale production requires large-scale processing. The bulk product must be moved from the fields to a processing center: the processed crop must be stored until it can be taken to market.
It aim is to produce one or two crops for the markets. That specialization is a source at once of its strength and of its weakness. The organization can respond to increases in market demand; but it is highly vulnerable to economic downturns.
Plantation agriculture therefore takes on something of the order and drill of an army, which led Edgar T. Thompson to characterize it as “military” agriculture.
The combined functions of organizational control, processing and storage create the plantation center, which becomes a post of command, walled off from the surrounding fields and workers’ barracks.
Once again, the labor shortage came to bite. Unlike in Potosí, there was no mita system, and the native Taino population had a nasty habit (from the Spanish standpoint) of either running off, or, more likely, dying from imported European diseases. Where would the labor come from to plant, harvest and manufacture the sugar crop, especially since demand for it seemed to be insatiable?
Slavery, obviously, combined with large amounts of European bonded labor. If you fell into debt in Europe during this period, you might very well find yourself on a sugar plantation somewhere in the Caribbean.
And it was here in the Caribbean where the first factories were born:
Sugar cane, Saccharum officinarum, has the peculiarly problematic characteristic that its sucrose starts to decay immediately after the cane is harvested. This required the farmers to press the sweet juice from the cane as soon as possible after cutting the cane. Shipping the cane for processing to a nearby urban area, let alone all the way to Europe, was was done with cotton, would destroy the product. Each plantation needed its own sugar mill to grind the cane and to boil the residue down to a crystalline brown sugar.
The plantation functioned more like what we today think of as a factory than like a traditional European farm or manor. . . Since the sugar cane took one and a half years to mature, the plantation operators had to break the traditional cycle of seasons characteristic of European agriculture. Because of the need to process the cane immediately after harvesting, the harvesting had to be staggered so that too much cane came ripe at the same moment. This made sugar cane culture even for field workers a continuous rather than a seasonal or sporadic activity.
Stanley Mintz describes the sugar plantations as a “synthesis of field and factory” in a form that was “quite unlike anything known in mainland Europe at the time.” The cane had to be crushed, and then go through the stages of reduction, clarification, molding, and crystallization in a carefully synchronized and very exact procedure involving mills, giant furnaces, and boiling cauldrons. This highly skilled part of the work required about 10 percent of the total workers of a plantation. Mintz describes this as “the closest thing to industry that was typical of the seventeenth century.” Even though the final refining of sugar into a white substance was completed in England, the plantations of the Caribbean were essentially sugar factories…
The close connection of sugar-cane plantations to factories is seen even in the nomenclature. In Portuguese, sugar mills are called eghenos de assucar, which means “engines of sugar.” Even in English the term sugar mill emphasizes the industrial rather than the agricultural aspect of the enterprise. IG pp. 52-53
And nothing would go to waste: the mills often had a distillery on hand to make rum and molasses. Sugar, syrup, molasses, and rum all came out of the mills from a single agricultural input—sugar cane. One is reminded of later oil refineries, which produced all sorts of distillates from petroleum. Gasoline, which came to predominate, was originally a waste product from the production of kerosene for lamps. In fact, modern sugar processing facilities do look like oil refineries.
The idea that sugar production was the first rollout of the factory system is also echoed by Kenneth Pomeranz. In the book The World That Trade Created, he titles one of his chapters, Sweet Industry: The First Factory:
Already in the seventeenth century, sugar plantations involved perhaps two hundred slaves and freemen, with a mill, boiling house, curing house, distillery for rum, and storehouse. This involved not only some of the most sophisticated technology of the era, and a large workforce, but also investment of several thousand pounds.
True, nine-tenths of the workforce were field hands engaged in brute labor. But the 10 percent in the crushing, boiling, and distilling plants were very much specialized labor. More importantly, the scale, complexity, and social organization of the sugar mills made them into the first factories.
Time was a ruthless master in the sugar production process. Once harvested, cane had to be rushed to the mill to prevent the loss of sugar content. In the mills, especially the larger ones, close care of temperature was necessary. The boilers’ fires had to be constantly stoked; the liquid sugar had to be moved from kettle to kettle without permitting unwanted crystallization, while running off the sediment at the right time. Then the sugar had to be quickly brought to the curing house where the molasses was run off. Sugarcane produced various qualities of sugar, as well as molasses and rum. The closer to attention to production, the better the final product and the greater the returns…
This led to sugar mills becoming the first factories ruled by the discipline of industrial time. The specialized work gangs had to coordinate their efforts: cane had to be quickly cut when mature; carters had to carry it to the mill; the hungry crushers were constantly fed cane; the leftover cane, the bagasse, was carried to the boiling room to stoke the fire.
The time exigencies of the production process meant that slaves had to work together as so many part of a well-oiled machine. Efficiency and slavery, labor saving and labor intensification were combined…
Sugar, which we think of as a leisure and pleasure product, an import from the balmy Caribbean lands of mañana, was actually the first industrial product and a cruel master to the hundreds of thousands of slaves who labored to turn out sweet delights. Marx observed that “the veiled slavery of the wage-workers of Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the New World.” He could have added that the factories of the Caribbean were holding a mirror in which Europe could see its industrial future.
The World That Trade Created, pp. 227-228
It was regularized product produced for the market, made by a series of steps in a sort of assembly line fashion, involving large amounts both skilled and unskilled labor under strict supervision, who were slaves to the clock. And it required large amount of upfront expenses to get going. Yep, sounds like a factory to me.
Because it was so very labor-intensive and involved so much upfront investment in equipment and technology, sugar was at first very expensive. So why did it become so popular, then? Well, it turns out it’s addictive. Very addictive.
People often jokingly compare it to another white powder that did originate in the New World-cocaine. The thing is, it’s no joke. Studies have shown that sugar is nearly as biologically addictive as cocaine. Sugar activates the mesolimbic dopamine system, causing a similar dopamine hit as various addictive drugs. Quitting sugar can cause cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
With the industrialization of the food supply in the twentieth century, food companies used this fact to add sweeteners to all their products, ushering in an epidemic of diabetes, obesity, and dental caries.
This leads back to a point I’ve emphasized before: it tends to be the use and procurement of psychoactive and addictive substances that drives social change throughout human history, going all the way back to alcohol.
When sugar first arrived on the tables of the European upper class, it was used as a sculptural medium. As Braudel reports, “On 18 October 1513, the king of Portugal offered the Pope a lifesize sugar effigy of himself, surrounded by twelve cardinals and three hundred candles, one and a half metres high – all made by a long-suffering confectioner” (p. 191).
The Factory System comes to Europe
It may have begun with slaves and bonded labor on the islands of the Caribbean, but it didn’t stay there.
Fernand Braudel introduced a four-fold classification of European manufacturing developed by historian Hubert Bourgin in 1924 (pp. 298-302):
Category A: Tiny family workshops, countless in number and grouped in ‘clusters’, each with a mater tradesman, two or three journeymen and one or two apprentices, a family in itself.
Category B: Workshops which were scattered, but connected to each other–‘dispersed factories’.
Category C: Concentrated manufacture.
Category D: Factories equipped with machinery, using the additional energy sources of running water and steam.
So there are the four categories, four types of production in roughly chronological order, although ‘while they followed one upon the other, these different structures did not immediately replace each other’…There certainly was no natural and logical transition from the manufactory to the factory. p. 302
England had been a major center for wool since the Middle Ages. Tudor kings increasingly pursued what we would today call an “industrial policy” in an attempt to make England a producer of the finished product rather than just raw materials for the continent. The investments in cloth production came just in time to be increasingly used for the production of cotton instead of wool, as cotton began pouring in from the New World. Sea Island cotton was particularly desirable.
The techniques first developed on the island plantations of the Caribbean increasingly were imported back into Europe. Instead of sugar, it was first put to use as a way to weave the huge amounts of cotton that were arriving from the Americas into cotton cloth. Since cloth production became the major factory industry back in the Old World, it was cloth production that became mechanized first and fastest, despite deep resistance from labor. The mechanization of cloth production is well-known by now: the power loom, the spinning Jenny, etc.
Eric Wolf discusses the inherent limitations of cottage industry (Braudel’s Category B above), and why it increasingly led to the expanding use of factories (categories C and D):
The advent of the factory was a consequence of the limitations of the putting out system.
That system, in which a merchant entrepreneur furnished raw materials to have them processed in many small household establishments, encountered serious difficulties in sustaining and expanding the scale and scope of operations. It therefore set limits on the accumulation of capital.
There were limits to the intensity and duration of labor where producers worked in scattered and unsupervisable economic units. This was especially true as long as industrial operations supplanted agricultural tasks, such that work in the fields could take precedence over work on spinning wheel and loom. Similarly, religious activities, kinship events, and recreation could, and did, interfere with work intensity and procedures.
Furthermore, the merchant had little defense against pilfering and embezzlement of raw materials by the dispersed workers and little control over quality of output–both problems that grew increasingly serious in the course of the eighteenth century.
The lack of synchronization among the different steps in the sequence of production added to the cost of transportation: when spinning was slow, the merchant-coordinator had to go in search of spinners to feed the looms; when spinning had improved through innovations, merchants had to go in search of hand-loom weavers. There were delays in processing and deliveries, which slowed the turnover time of capital and left customers dissatisfied.
Ever-rising large-scale trade thus encountered the limitations of a productive system divided into innumerable small-scale workshop units, “unsupervised and unsupervisable”. The answer to this contradiction was the establishment of the capitalist factory. Wolf, pp. 274-275
The factory had no such limitations. All of the operations were now located “under one roof” and could be supervised accordingly. Now workers could labor practically non-stop to supply products to the expanding market. The similarities between slavery and wage slavery were not accidental—quite the contrary:
Just as the plantations consisted of a small nucleus of slave barracks clustered around central warehouses and the production area, the European factory clustered workers’ houses around a centralized manufacturing site. This new spatial arrangement replaced the traditional organization of manufacturing in Europe in which individual craftsmen worked in individual workshops or homes.
The new European factory modeled itself on the American plantation. The centralization of workers obviated the need for costly transportation to distribute raw materials to scattered households and workshops and to pick up finished goods. Centralization also helped the owners impose uniformity of work and production on industrial laborers much as the plantation owners had already done with the African and Indian slaves. IG pp. 54-55
Categories C and D increasingly became increasingly prominent. But these manufacturing techniques did not develop out of what had come before. Rather, they were competitors to it, and soon came to supplant the other types of fabrication:
Some people erroneously assume that the European factory grew naturally out of the traditional European craft system as some sort of inevitable cultural evolution. As Peter Kropotkin pointed out quite decisively, the factory system competed with the craft system and did not derive from it. He showed how the Swiss watchmakers doggedly resisted the sale of machine-made watches and how the Lyon silk workers fought adamantly against manufactured silks.
The technology of mass production of goods completely contradicted the principles of the craft tradition, which relied on the apprentice working first toward journeyman and then craftsman status. Kropotkin pointed out that that in contrast to that tradition, the factory system depended on unskilled labor that even a child could and often did perform.
In the end he realized that the crafts would continue only as a source of goods for the aristocracy while factory goods would be for working-class people. Kropotkin decried the unnecessary centralization and urbanization of industrialization and strongly advocated a highly industrialized but decentralized mode of production instead. This he felt would be much more in keeping with both the agricultural and craft heritage of European manufacturing history. Kropotkin did not explain the origins of this alien mode of production—the alien factory which bore so little resemblance to anything else then existent in European society. IG p. 55
Since plantations had been staffed and run by slaves, would the new factories use slave labor as well? This was actually tried in parts of the the New World when the factory system was expanded to other industries besides sugar. But in the end it failed because it turns out that it is cheaper to rent your slaves instead of buying them:
The slave factory system failed in past because the owners could not compete with the much cheaper goods manufactured in New England and Europe. The capitalist system relied on paid laborers to run the factories, and these proved much cheaper than slave laborers. Factory owners had to pay only the one person, often a child, in the family who worked, and had to pay for only as many years as the worker actually produced. Slavery proved too expensive a system to operate in a factory. IG p. 56
Seen from this standpoint, it was the development of an alternative—and more efficient—means of worker control and labor exploitation that led to the demise of slavery, and not noble humanitarian sentiment as is often claimed, i.e. “the better angels of our nature.”
The workers themselves were forced into the factories by the Enclosure Movement. As fields became enclosed and agricultural techniques improved, yeoman farming became less and less of a viable way of life, and the deracinated farmers and agricultural workers poured into metastasizing cities and became the grist for the first Industrial Revolution. Just like the Indians of the New world, however, the destruction of what had been a stable, convivial way of life led to grief, culture shock, and very often, mass deaths, something subsequent history has deliberately swept under the rug in its efforts to validate and normalize capitalism as a “natural” way of life.
Wage labor, while it had always existed to some extent, now became a way of life for most lower-class people as workers became dependent upon factory wages to buy their food and clothing instead of producing it themselves. Those unable to earn money were originally given outdoor relief, but that was soon replaced by workhouses, creating a mass market for labor for the first time in the early 1800s.
As Polanyi noted, the mechanization of production was a necessary catalyst for the creation of Market Society, where custom, sociability and morals were swept aside in favor of theoretically self-regulating forces of supply and demand. This emerging system was defended by intellectuals who never had to set foot in a factory (and still is today).
But the change was traumatic. Agricultural workers were used to working in time with the seasons, having copious time off, and social drinking. They were not used to having every move they made watched, being slaves to a clock, and harsh worker “discipline.” Factory owners themselves acknowledged that they were fighting a war against basic human nature—a war they subsequently won. Eric Wolf writes:
The early British textile factories were faced, however, with a general unwillingness on the part of the potential laboring class to enter into factory employment. Above all, they resisted the unrelenting labor and discipline of the factories, so much at odds with earlier habits and with older customs of sociability and of autonomous labor.
Many early factories were modeled on penal workhouses and prisons, and indeed were manned by involuntary pauper apprentices. The identification of the factory with forced penal labor also meant that former artisans or laborers in cottage industry felt a loss in social status in moving from the relative self-determination of the cottage producer to the servitude of the industrial worker. Indeed, “as long as there was some measure of freedom of choice between cottage and factory the workmen preferred the cottage.” p. 276
The role of state power in establishing the factory system has been covered up by the inherent libertarian biases of the “science” of economics. In economics curricula, history has been eliminated in favor of abstract theorizing and mathematization of idealized utopian markets.
Return to Kahl
To round out the chapter, Weatherford returns to his exemplar village of Kahl in Bavaria. European mills were often located on waterways. This not only facilitated the transport of grain, but also allowed mills to take advantage of water power, as was the case in Kahl.
As long as Europe depended primarily on wool for clothing, peasants could spin it and weave it with simple home technology. The bottleneck in cloth manufacture was the amount of wool that the land was capable for producing, not the ability of the weavers to make cloth. Since the number of sheep determined the amount of wool for weaving, peasants lacked incentives to develop machines or more efficient ways to make clothing.
This situation changed with the massive influx of cotton from America. Suddenly, the peasants and the weavers had more fiber than they could weave. They lacked the labor to process so much fiber. Europe desperately needed more energy than it had in human and animal power, and the most readily available source for creating new energy lay in the waterwheels already in place throughout the continent. Thus were born the first textile factories. IG p. 43
As Weatherford documents, the mills were utilized less and less as the peasant diet increasingly switched from cereals to potatoes, which, unlike grain, did not require milling. The mills—powered by water—were then put to other uses. As the factory system expanded and machines became utilized more and more, it made sense to locate factories in what had previously been grain processing mills. Water power now drove the machines of weaving such as the spinning mule.
The citizens of Kahl increasingly abandoned their farms and fields and went to work in the factories producing goods for distant markets:
Early in the nineteenth century, after Kahl recovered from the disasters of the Napoleonic conquests, imaginative entrepreneurs discovered new uses for the mills of Kahl. The mills offered a great source of energy, and this energy could be applied to other purposes than the mere grinding of grains or pressing of oils; the energy could be harnessed to power looms to make cloth.
Gradually the mills throughout the area were converted into small factories producing textiles, matches, electrical fuses, and felt, and eventually they were renovated to produce electricity, felt-making machines, and more complex electrical equipment… IG p. 42
Of course, if the peasants abandoned their fields, they would nevertheless still have to eat. Where would the food come from?
Increasingly, food was imported from the vast breadbaskets of North America and the Russian plains. This freed up the agricultural workers to become factory workers. In fact, the agricultural revolution was a prerequisite to the industrial revolution, something a lot of historians miss completely.
Of course, with plentiful supplies of grain flooding into Europe from abroad, the price of grain dropped. Large landholders advocated for price supports to keep the price high enough so that they could earn a living; industrialists, on the other hand, wanted it cheap so they could pay their workers less. In England, this took the form of debates over the Corn Laws. This was fundamentally a power conflict between the old landowning aristocracy and the rising industrialist class.
There’s a fascinating story in how the Industrial Revolution was also made possible by a food revolution. That included foodstuffs from the New World and the expansion of arable lands that conquest and colonialism engendered. It also featured improved agricultural techniques in Europe as well. But that’s a story for another time.
In the end, the industrialists won out. The price of grain dropped too low for small European farmers to make a living, so they threw in the towel and moved to the city. This led to mass poverty and overcrowding. These individuals and families became the proletariat of the first Industrial Revolution, a time of wrenching social change, similar to today, where the average worker was thrown under the bus with little to no resources to fall back on and told to fend for him or herself. Like today, living standards went down and the death rate went up.
With the invention of an efficient steam engine in the late 1700s by James Watt, heat engines could then be harnessed to factories which were located far away from wind and water power. Thus out of the factory system and mechanization of labor is born the industrial revolution based around fossil fuels that we are familiar with:
Soon the manufacturing in Kahl surpassed the capacity of the waterwheels to supply power, and the villagers began excavating local deposits of low-quality brown coal to produce electricity and thus increase the power available to them. After they exhausted the coal veins, the village switched to nuclear power to generate electricity. Throughout this process the emergent industries stimulated the development of collateral businesses such as construction and thus heightened the demand for lumber, stone, brick, sand, gravel, cement and other raw materials.
The industrialization of Kahl illustrated in miniature the process that occurred throughout England, Germany, and the other European nations. America supplied the raw materials for the revolution, and the sugar-cane plantations of the Caribbean and mines and mints of Mexico and the Andes supplied the prototypes for the first factories.
This initiated the industrial revolution in Europe; later in the nineteenth century a new stage based on coal and its derivatives replaced the first stage. This in time was superseded by the oil revolution when petroleum products became not only major sources of fuel but the source of may new raw materials, such as dyes, plastics, synthetic fibers, and a side array of chemicals. p. 57
Finally, there was a nuclear power plant, financed by the Versuchsatomkraftwerk Kahl GmbH. In a little more than a century the wooden water wheel had been replaced by the nuclear reactor. All this began with the adoption of the potato, but obviously the process involved many more factors than the mere potato, since the Peruvians have had potatoes for thousands of years but still do not have atomic energy. p. 42
But it all began with the need of European colonizers the New World to deal with a chronic labor shortage and to create products for export that were labor intensive to produce. So it was the New World that pioneered the factory system. Kenneth Pomeranz sums it up:
When we think of the first factories, we usually think of Europe, particularly England. After all, factories were the definition of “modern: and Europe was the leader in modernization. We assume that they were first built in Europe, where capital, machines, and labor combined to create ever-more efficient and productive methods. European ingenuity and entrepreneurship together with previously accumulated capital and budding markets led to the industrialization that was the secret of Europe’s centuries long domination of the world economy.
According to this story, the globe was divided between industrial Europe, and later the United States, and the agrarian exporting rest of the world. With this international specialization of labor, the agricultural countries only belatedly industrialized.
In fact, there is good reason to turn this version on its head: the first factories arose in the colonial, export-oriented world. p. 226
So to answer the original question of why the industrial revolution happened when and where it did, the reason is because it was Western European powers who established colonies in far-flung locations including the Caribbean, Brazil (the center of sugar production), and the American South. It was Europe that has an insatiable appetite for exotic products like sugar and cotton. Thus it was the Europeans who developed the mechanization processes and brutal worker coercion to produce those products to cope with the shortage of labor in the New World, as well of the lack of competing social arrangements as was the case in Europe. It was the development of this harsh system, and its importation back into Western Europe–especially in the area of cloth production–that were the necessary prerequisites for everything that followed–mechanization, marketization and fossil fuel power. This unique series of circumstances was only present in Western Europe thanks to its invasion and colonization of the tropics after 1500.
Those techniques of worker control never went away. The means of controlling workers developed linearly into the conditions almost all of us labor under to this very day. We’ll take a look at that next time, after a brief detour though industrialization’s effect on urban life.
(Braudel quotes are from The Wheels of Commerce, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century Volume 2) Eric Wolf quotes are from Europe and the People Without History.