Synthetic Dye

As the Industrial Revolution gained steam (OK – bad pun), England’s population became denser. Eventually, the resulting pools of water bred mosquitos that eventually became a malaria epidemic.

Perkin, a 15-year-old student, ran crude experiments to create lower-cost quinine, a malaria medicine. One of his processes accidentally produced a strong purple liquid. Useless as a medicine, Perkin suspected it might work as a fabric dye.

Expensive and difficult to produce fabric dyes, that produced dull colors which faded fast, dominated before Perkin. Purple was especially difficult to produce, so expensive only royalty and the extremely wealthy wore purple clothing. Perkins innovation lowered the cost and increased the quality of eyes.

However, Perkin’s inexpensive dye not only created a strong purple color but it also withstood sun and repeat washing. He abandoned his studies, patented his dye at the age of 18, and opened a dye factory. Bright colors for the inexpensive cotton fabric, produced by the machines of the Industrial Revolution, became commonplace.

Perkin eventually created more artificial dyes and, later, perfumes. His dye factory was a commercial success. The Perkin Medal, named after him, remains a prestigious award for industrial chemists.

Hydraulic Press

Before the press, shaping metal was a slow, difficult, expensive, and laborious process. The hydraulic press allows metal to be easily and inexpensively shaped. Today, the same hydraulics power a lot of modern industrial equipment.

Bramah, a farmer’s son, was an innovator who specialized in locks. He created and patented many types of locks. He also, as a digression to his primary work, invented the hydraulic press and receiving a patent in 1795.

Despite the importance of the innovation, Bramah appeared to earn his living from the lock business, not the press. 

Bramah also innovated screw-propelled ships.

Henry Maudslay worked for Bramah and was central to core innovations, including building a system that could contain the pressures of the press. However, Maudslay left after Bramah refused him a raise to open his own shop.

Maudslay perfected and commercialized Bramah’s press and also created the screw cutting lathe. Both are key innovations of the Industrial Revolution.

Gas Extraction from Coal & Gas Powered Lantern

Combining gas extracted from coal into a lantern, then into lights, allowed for non-candle bright lights. This literally lit up the industrial era. Factories could function at night and people could stay awake longer. Gas lighting vastly increased productivity.

In 1667, Thomas Shirley published a report describing flammable gas naturally seeping from coal. In 1684, John Clayton produced coal gas by distilling coal and stored it in bladders. He published his findings with the Royal Society but there is no record he saw any utility value.

In 1792,  Murdoch, the lead engineer for Boulton & Watt, realized the extracted coal gas could be used for lighting. He created a coal-gas fired lantern, walking around at night with to show off his magical light.

After learning to extract gas from coal and creating his lantern, Murdoch lit up his house with gas lighting, the first of its kind, attracting gawkers from all over. He went on to light the exterior of Boulton & Watt headquarters. Finally, Boulton & Watt commissioned Murdoch to light up a factory so that it might more efficiently run at night. Despite his success, Watt then closed the lighting business.

Some historians suggest Murdoch worked as a quiet renegade, collaborating with Richard Trevithick (they lived close together) on the high-pressure steam engines that Watt despised. Professional jealousy or distrust could explain why Watt shut down the Boulton & Watt gas extraction and lighting business despite that it was a natural extension. Lighting, like steam engines, used coal and added utility to many of the same customers.

Condensing Steam Engine

The Watt condensing steam engine is widely viewed as the primary machine responsible for the Industrial Revolution. It enabled the use of engines anywhere, not only next to coal mines. Whereas factories before the Watt engines needed to be near high-volume streams, to derive power for water wheels, the Watt engine operated at a low enough cost that it could be placed anywhere, enabling the creation of factories.


Watt worked at the University of Glasgow as a mathematical instrument maker making rulers, slide-rules, etc.

In 1763, Watt asked to repair a Newcomen engine the University owned. He realized the Newcomen engine lost enormous energy by expelling its steam every cycle. That is, the boiler would create enough steam to make the engine stroke then simply expel the steam into the atmosphere rather than recycle the hot water. This required the boiler to constantly boil cold water.

Watt’s technological innovation was to add a condenser that captures the steam, transforming it back into hot water, and returning it to the kettle where it can be boiled again. This keeps the overall water temperature much hotter by requiring vastly less coal than the Newcomen engine. Watt filed his first steam engine patent Jan. 5, 1769 though the device did not entirely function.

He worked to produce an engine, eventually selling part of the rights to industrialist John Roebuck for investment funds. Watt spent years trying to produce a working condenser, but blacksmiths of the time – more accustomed to making horseshoes and canons than condensers – did not have the skill. For about ten years, Watt worked odd jobs – at the University, as a land surveyor … whatever paid the bills – as he worked to commercialize his engine.

Roebuck eventually went bankrupt due to a financial crisis and sold his patent interest to Matthew Boulton, who worked with high-end blacksmith shops. They renamed the company Boulton & Watt.

Boulton & Watt

Boulton’s involvement made an enormous difference. He secured Watt’s patent in 1775 and found better tradesmen who perfected the condenser. The first working Watt engines were installed in 1776 but due to the Revolutionary War, they were banned for export to the US.

Boulton & Watt had a unique business plan. The firm charged one-third the cost of coal saved by using a Watt engine over a Newcomen engine. That is, they charged a percentage of the value the technology created. Whereas the Newcomen engine was only profitable at coal mines – where scrap coal was effectively free – the Watt engine was useful everywhere. Factories and mills that had relied on waterwheels, and were subject to weather conditions, could suddenly be placed anywhere and run in any weather.

The Industrial Revolution

Watt’s engines kicked off the first industrial revolution. Combined with Arkwright’s model for unskilled labor there was a sudden need for concentrated labor in urban areas.

Watt went on to create other improvements and patents; he was a prolific innovator. Obvious innovations included modifying the steam engine so it produced power on both the up and down stroke and less obvious ones included the sun and planet gear that eventually allowed gears in engines.

Watt failed to recognize two major innovations created at his company. One was the adoption of coal gas for lighting. Senior Boulton & Watt engineer William Murdoch harnessed coal gas to create coal lighting. Watt allowed the experiments to continue but, despite that coal-derived gas lighting in factories was a natural extension to coal-powered steam engines, forbid Murdoch from moving forward on a full-fledged commercialization project. The second was his aversion to high-pressure steam engines, that would eventually drive everything from locomotives to industrial sawmills.

Watt retired in 1800 and died in 1819 an extremely wealthy man. One overlooked coincidence is that while Watt was at the University of Glasgow developing the steam engine, that would usher in the industrial age and modern capitalism, Adam Smith was simultaneously at the same University writing Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations, the seminal book describing capitalism.

Spinning Jenny

Spinning Jenny’s are significantly more efficient spinning wheels, allowing wool to be produced at a much lower price.

Each Jenny did the work of multiple spinners.

The Jenny (slang for Engine in British English) was unwelcome in Hargreaves’ village because it caused yarn prices to decline. Chased by angry tradesmen, he fled from the spinning community of Blackburn to Nottingham.

Hargreaves patented the Jenny July 12, 1770, but still struggled with knockoffs, losing a major court case. He profited not from the machine but, rather, by running a mill in Hockley.

He died in 1778 and his wife was paid £400 for use of the patent.

The Jenny is one of the seminal innovations of the Industrial Revolution and spurred the Luddites.

Steam Engine (Newcomen)

The Newcomen steam engine removed water from mines. It worked but was extremely inefficient. Steam was not recycled (re-condensed) so the Newcomen engine required an enormous amount of coal to continually boil water. When used at a coal mine, where scrap coal was essentially free, this cost less than having workers remove water by the bucketful or mules walk in a circle turning a pump.

There were prior steam engines to the Newcomen engine, but none functioned well. Hero, of Alexandria, invented a device in the first century that heats water in the base of a closed device and, once boiling, steam propels the device in a circular motion. The device is little mentioned outside history and it appears too inefficient for any practical use. A commercial pump prior to Newcomen’s was Thomas Savery’s “Miners Friend,” patented 1698. Despite the name, the pump performed poorly and frequently exploded, injuring or killing miners. The Newcomen engine was stable, reliably and safely pumped water.

Newcomen was a Baptist pastor, not an engineer, and historians suggest his purpose in creating the pump was purely financial; he needed funds to maintain his church that struggled in Protestant England. Newcomen named his business Proprietors of the Invention for Raising Water by Fire.

Coke Fueled Blast Furnace / Pig Iron


Abraham Darby used Coke instead of coal to fire blast furnaces, making the production of iron from pig iron (a weak iron), much more economical. Coke burns significantly hotter than coal which, combined with his new design to concentrate the heat, his factory was significantly more efficient than prior methods. He created the Bristol Brass Company to commercialize his method.

Interestingly, Darby initially struggled due to a relatively low demand for iron. However, Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the Newcomen steam engine vastly increased the demand for iron. Along with Newcomen then Watt’s steam engines later, Darby’s furnace is a significant contributor to the first Industrial Revolution.

Working at his plants was terrible. Child labor was common. Workers were often injured or died from burns. Carbon monoxide poisoning was also a common cause of death. It was filthy, hot, dangerous work; few workers lived to 40.

Darby himself died at 38 with his affairs a mess. Creditors took the business. However, his brother eventually regained control and his sons would go on to take over the business.

Over time, Henry Cort improved the efficiency of Darby’s process, using rolling and puddling to more efficiently purify the iron. Before Cort, workers would have to hammer the hot metal with a hammer which was both inefficient, dangerous, and hot work. Cort’s method involved rolling the molten metals which was also dangerous but about 15 times faster. Since less time was required, costs were lower and fewer workers were injured.

Finally, in 1828, James Neilson modified the Darby furnace recycling exhaust heat to preheat incoming air. This required substantially less coke, lowering costs.

The lower-cost iron opened creative uses for the metals. Early uses included tableware. Eventually, iron became vital for steam engines. Finally, the iron was being used to construct bridges. Of course, iron remained useful for making weapons just as it had since ancient times.

Stocking Frame (Mechanical Knitter)

The first automated knitting machine; one of the key pieces of equipment that kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

The Stocking Frame copies the hand movements of a tradesperson, knitting far faster than a person could. The machine worked with both wool, which tended to produce coarse but inexpensive fabric, and also silk. When cotton became more common, the Frame knitted inexpensive cotton stockings.

The stocking frame caused a certain amount of social upheaval, leading to the creation of the anti-automation Luddites. This was a group of people who strongly opposed automation, led by the likely mythical Ned Ludd. Luddites play a recurring role through innovations over time, especially innovations related to automation.

Like many inventors, Lee made little money from his innovation and — despite that it would go down in history as a bedrock of the future — he died with little money.