By Reyburn, Ross
History Today , Vol. 59, No. 7
Ironically, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution occupies one of the finest scenic views in England. Opened on New Year's Day in 1781, the striking arched Iron Bridge that spans the Severn Gorge is today overlooked by the town that takes its name from the famous construction, serene focal point for the UNESCO Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site.
'The Iron Bridge is unbelievably beautiful,' says David de Haan, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust's Director of Learning. 'The location was just a wharf where there was a ferry and the town didn't exist when it was built. The bridge was a fantastic exercise by Abraham Darby III to promote the use of iron.'
A mile from the bridge into the valley at Coalbrookdale lie the remains of the Old Furnace where the first Abraham Darby (1678-1717) succeeded in smelting iron using coke instead of charcoal 300 years ago in 1709.
'He was aware this area was rich in raw materials with the River Severn, the motorway of its day, for transport,' points out de Haan. 'So he took a lease on a derelict brick furnace in Coalbrookdale and experimented making cast iron. In doing so he solved a fuel crisis. Charcoal is made from coppicing trees and the forests were being depleted for building houses and ships.'
But Darby's cast iron was not suitable for conversion to the stronger wrought iron. A solution was found in the 1750s by his son Abraham Darby II (1711-63). Coal-brookdale was now spearheading the Industrial Revolution, producing the iron for the steam engines that transformed manufacturing.
Abraham Darby III (1750-1791) completed a trio of major family achievements by building the Iron Bridge using 373 tons of iron from the extended Old Furnace.
This year marks another anniversary of the Industrial Revolution. On August 17th, 1809, the great Birmingham industrialist Matthew Boulton died. In 1775 Boulton, along with James Watt, had marketed the steam engine perfected by the Scottish engineer, which opened a new age of mass production.
Boulton's staggering versatility marks him as among the greatest of all British industrialists. At his celebrated Soho Manufactory in Birmingham he produced everything from jewellery, toys and Sheffield plate to sterling silver tableware, medals and modern coinage. In 1802 the Manufactory was lit by gaslights invented by his gifted employee, another Scottish engineer, William Murdoch (1754-1839).
Awestruck visitors to Soho, with its vast array of machines and 700 workers, included Samuel Johnson's biographer James Boswell in 1776, who recalled Boulton's battle cry: 'I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have--POWER. …