Technology in the 18th Century

By Tim Lambert

In the 18th century, there was an agricultural revolution in England. It began with a man named Jethro Tull. In the 17th century, the seed was sown by hand. The sower simply scattered seeds on the ground. However, in 1701 Tull (1674-1741) invented the seed drill. This machine dropped seeds at a controllable rate in straight lines. A harrow at the back of the machine covered the seeds to prevent birds from eating them. Tull also invented a horse-drawn hoe that killed weeds between rows of seeds.

Furthermore, new forms of crop rotation were introduced. Under the old system, land was divided into 3 fields and each year one was left fallow. This was, obviously, wasteful, as one-third of the land was not used each year. In the 17th century, the Dutch began to use new forms of crop rotation with clover and root crops such as turnips and swedes instead of letting the land grow fallow. (Root crops restored fertility to the soil). In the 18th century, these new methods became common in England. A man named Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend (1674-1738) did much to popularize growing turnips.

Turnips had another advantage. They provided winter feed for cattle. Previously most cattle were slaughtered at the beginning of winter because there was not enough food to keep them through the season.

Moreover, in the early 18th century farmers began to improve their livestock by selective breeding. One of the most famous pioneers of selective breeding was Robert Bakewell (1725-1795).

There were other minor improvements. On light soil, farmers used marl (clay with lime content). Other farmers drained their fields with stone-lined trenches. Manure has always been used as fertilizer but in the mid-18th century, farmers began to build underground tanks to protect manure from the weather.

In the late 18th century everyday life in Britain was transformed by the industrial revolution. Towns, industry, and trade had been growing for centuries but by about 1780 economic growth took off.

Several technological advances made the revolution possible. In 1709 Abraham Darby (1677-1717), who owned an ironworks, began using coke instead of charcoal to melt iron ore. (It was a much more efficient fuel). Darby and his family kept the new fuel secret for a time but in the late 18th century the practice spread.

From 1712 Thomas Newcomen made steam engines to pump water from mines. Then, in 1769, James Watt patented a more efficient steam engine, and in the 1780s it was adapted to power machinery.

The first industry to become mechanized was the textile industry. In 1771 Richard Arkwright opened a cotton-spinning mill with a machine called a water frame, which was powered by a water mill. Then, in 1779, Samuel Crompton invented a new cotton-spinning machine called a spinning mule. Finally, in 1785 Edmund Cartwright invented a loom that could be powered by a steam engine. As a result of these new inventions, cotton production boomed.

Iron production also grew rapidly. In 1784 a man named Henry Cort (1740-1800) invented a much better way of making wrought iron. Until then men had to beat red hot iron with hammers to remove impurities. In 1784 Cort invented the puddling process. The iron was melted in an extremely hot furnace and stirred of ‘puddled’ to remove impurities. The result was a vast increase in iron production.

In 1777 a man named Samuel Miller patented a machine. His patent mentions a circular saw. However, it is not certain if Miller invented the circular saw. It may have existed before.

Gaslight was invented in 1792 by William Murdoch. Meanwhile, in 1783 the Montgolfier brothers invented the hot air balloon. In 1793 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.

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