This would probably have worked better as a school programme than on prime time TV. There was a definite sense of Bill & Ted (well, a much more intelligent version of Bill & Ted, given that the two presenters were former University Challenge contestants) and a lot of dressing up (Lucy Worsley would approve). But it was genuinely entertaining, there was a lot of driving through the beautiful British countryside (which I can’t wait to do again), and it was great to hear people being so positive about British history in general and the Industrial Revolution in particular. I couldn’t believe that the cotton industry was only the second item on the agenda though. Who talks about the Industrial Revolution and doesn’t start with the cotton industry?! Cotton was King. Everyone knows that 🙂 .
Eric Monkman and Bobby Seagull were rival contestants on University Challenge, and have somehow become TV presenters. They got to go on a road trip to lots of interesting places, whilst Simon Callow explained what was going on – which would have been a lot better had he not kept going about the “Industrial Revolyution”. There is no “y” in the word “revolution”. It really was irritating. Meanwhile, Eric and Bobby got to play around in pedal boats and picnic on mountains, although, disappointingly, they weren’t able to go up in a hot air balloon because it was too windy. You’d think that the BBC could have let them go back another day!
The first episode concentrated on the period from around 1750 to 1800, and they started with marine chronometers. Not nearly as exciting as flying shuttles, spinning jennies, water frames and mules, obviously, but, fair enough, it was pretty useful for people on ships to know where they were going. Shipwrecks are always presented in books as being quite exciting, with people being stranded on desert islands or dramatically rescued, or Wreckers helping themselves to stuff which has washed up on beaches in Cornwall (why is it always Cornwall?!), but the loss of life, and also of cargo, was horrific. This was a major breakthrough.
Then we did move on to the cotton industry – hooray!! – with a visit to lovely Cromford, in the Peak District, where Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water frame, operated his mills. I’ll be here all day if I start waxing lyrical about the importance of the cotton industry, but, as we all know 🙂 , Cotton was King. And it became King because of all those crucial inventions in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The points about the development of the factory system and the decline of the domestic system seemed quite ironic given that lockdown means that many of us have had to switch from working in a workplace to working at home. Are we now seeing the rebirth of the domestic system? It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out.
From there, on to Watt’s steam engine. I’m a historian, not a scientist, and the workings of steam engines don’t interest me that much, but the huge effect of the steam engine does, very much. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the developments of this period – and, later, we moved on to Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive. Stephenson’s Rocket‘s coming next week!
Next up came weighing the planet. I couldn’t get excited over the development of weighing technology, but I accept that it was important. And it meant that we got some lovely views of Scottish mountains. There was a lot of talk about the significance of the Scottish Enlightenment at this time. People usually go on about Adam Smith and “The Wealth of Nations” when discussing the Scottish Enlightenment, and, of course, Smith was important, but equally so were other people and what they did. The Encyclopaedia Britannica! When I was a kid, we got a set of the 1985 edition. I loved it! I was so upset when it was decided to discontinue the printed version.
We also got Joseph Priestley’s work in “discovering” oxygen. Priestley was a fascinating figure. This programme just talked about his work in terms of oxygen, but he was involved in so many other things that you could make a programme, or even a series, just about him.
And then, before the steam engine, we heard a lot about hot air balloons. I’m not sure that hot air balloons were all that important in world history, but, fair enough, people were rather obsessed with them in the late 18th century. We were informed that balloon pioneers in France considered sending prisoners from the Bastille up in balloons, because no-one would be bothered if it all went wrong and the prisoners met a sticky end (charming!), but decided not to, because anyone who made a successful balloon flight would become a celeb and they didn’t want that to be a prisoner!
It was all a bit flippant, and, as I said, might have worked better as a school programme, but it was such a joy to hear these young men being so enthusiastic about the Industrial Revolution. No flat earthers going on about how industrial processes have destroyed the planet. No Guardian readers shrieking in horror about the great work of British inventors being praised, and the crucial role that British inventions played in world history being emphasised. Just praise and enthusiasm for the Industrial Revolution. Love it. Absolutely love it!