Thursday, October 04, 2007

Rural horsepower - Industrial revolution

Although the Industrial Revolution had already begun, Britain in 1800 had changed little in centuries. It was a rural country, dominated by agriculture. For most, the world was restricted to their village - where their family had probably lived for generations - and the nearest market town, not surprising when the fastest thing on earth was a galloping horse, covering 100 miles a day at best. If you lived in Somerset, London was almost foreign, much as it had been in 1600.

Horizons were limited and life was slow. It was horsepower or nothing, and daylight and the seasons ruled the countryside. But all that was about to change. Although the steam engine was first invented in 1769 by James Watt, for decades his monopoly had prevented significant development and kept prices high. It was only in the nineteenth century that the real impact of steam would be fully felt.

At a time of massive population expansion in Britain (from 9 million in 1801 to 36 million in 1911), cities were expanding even faster. The spread of railways stimulated communication, and Rowland Hill's standardisation of postal charges in 1839 saw a boom in mail services. But this was nothing compared to the revolution of the telegraph.

If you think the internet is big (and given you're reading this online the chances are you do) then just imagine how much bigger it would seem if you had never before seen a computer or telephone. That's what the telegraph was to the Victorians. If rail travel shrank the country, the telegraph crushed it.

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