I sell here gentlemen, what all the world desires: power. Matthew Boulton, once boasted, speaking of his steam engine factory. James Watt, Boulton s business partner significantly improved an inadequate form of the steam engine and marketed his new, more fuel-efficient invention (Ashton 25). Better engines were produced, and more uses were found for steam-power. Steam power fueled the Industrial Revolution by cutting manufacturing costs of goods significantly and quickening production (Ashton 26). The world was no longer dependent on manpower and horsepower. The steam engine forced the creation of railroads and improved transportation while causing a noticeable change in the economy. These changes clearly affected the way that people lived and thought about industry. This vital ingredient of the Industrial Revolution is still recognized as one of the greatest inventions of the time (Steele 47). The cost-effective and portable steam-engine powered the Industrial Revolution, and consequently led to a significant change in Western commerce.
The steam engine transformed the manufacturing world by making work significantly cheaper and more accessible. Prior to using steam power only animals, humans, wind, or moving water could be used to create power. However, animals and humans can not be harnessed together in large numbers to effectively create enough power. Wind and moving water both were usually found in the deep countryside, therefore once the goods reached the cities the cost was extremely high (Gordon 144). One steam engine was able to do the work of hundreds of horses (Siegel 18). On account of the steam engine, it was the first time in history that power was virtually limitless. This source of power was not only mighty, but inexpensive. William Blake, an economist during the rise of the steam engine wrote, Even a fit person can produce only a horsepower-hour of work per day; today, a laborer s daily wage can buy 1,000 horsepower-hours of steam-generated electricity (Watkins 105). This realization by factory owners led to the quick placement of the steam engine in numerous different industries. Mines, cotton-spinning mills, flour mills, malt mills, flint mills, sugar cane mills, and the iron industry all benefited from this invention. Industry boomed, yet the shipment of freight was still dependent solely on costly horsepower (Siegel 21). Inventors finally realized that the steam-power which created this economic expansion needed to be applied to transportation.
The steam engine not only sparked a need for new forms of transportation, but it also was the new form of transportation. In the words of the English historian, Thomas Macaulay, Those projects which abridge distance have done most for the civilization and happiness of our species (Gordon 145). After several experiments with combining steam-power and transportation, the steam engine and railroad prevailed. The impact the railroad and steam engine had on society was tremendous. The railroad system altered the attitude and values of Western society. It flaunted its power and speed to create an impressive experience to its riders. As a French economist once said after a ride on a new railroad, There are certain impressions that one cannot put into words (Guardia 23). The steam engine also significantly cut the cost of shipping freight on the land. As transportation costs were reduced, markets became noticeably larger and were no longer seen on the local scale. Economist Arthur Hadley reinforced the problems with older forms of transportation in 1886, when he wrote, The expense of cartage was such that wheat had to be consumed within 200 miles of where it was grown (Stephens) Not only did this new form of transportation and production make goods cheaper and more accessible, but it created an economic change as well.
The new system of power led to a reshuffling of the wealth and political authority. The steam engine caused a growth in the expansion of the new class of urban workers. The construction of the railroads and steam-powered factory work created a healthy demand for labor. Many peasants and farm laborers went into the railroad construction business for a temporary job, but stayed in the town or city because life was considerably more interesting. However, some people felt threatened by the new form of power. They believed that their jobs would be replaced by steam-power, but this was far from the truth. The power created wealth, which eventually almost everyone benefited from. In 1800 approximately 85% of the British population was at or approaching the poverty line. A century later, less than one-third of the British population was in poverty (Gordon 144). Thomas Malthus wrote about how the increase the middle class changed politics, Money, of course, is easily translated into political power, and by 1832 this new class had become powerful enough to force a massive redistribution of the seats in the British Parliament. (Gordon 144).
Indeed, what all the world did desire was power. This power transformed the way that virtually everyone lived and worked. By significantly altering the way people lived, it also changed the way people thought. The steam engine made manufacturing cheap, and made goods available to a wider range of people. The steam engine sparked the creation of the railroad, and consequently made transportation accessible to more people. By being a main player in the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine helped rearrange the wealth and power in the favor of a new middle class. The steam revolution revealed that the possibilities of inventions were limitless. In the words of Robert H. Thurston, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, In the days of the steam engine, change moved more slowly than it does today, but still, within a lifetime, steam power transformed the world (Stephens).