I have spent the last six weeks in western Scotland, just outside of Glasgow. This area has many virtues: a glorious landscape and a vibrant cultural life. Lacking the Georgian elegance of much of Edinburgh, Glasgow and its environs are grittier, more industrial, although the farms are still hard up against many of the towns. The grit is not surprising, since the Clyde River valley is the birthplace of much of what we think of as the Industrial Revolution. It’s a dream spot for the engineer with even a small bent for history. When we invoke that cliché about engineers changing the world, here, writ large, is where the proof lies.
A gift of geography, Glasgow’s location on the River Clyde, just up river from the Firth of Clyde, made it one of the ship-building capitals of the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The rugged hills over which the River Clyde spills to reach the Firth and the Irish Sea make for a fast-flowing stream with powerful falls, perfect for powering the waterwheels that drove the cotton mills that changed the face of work. It was here that the idea of “factory” was born when weaving and spinning moved out of individual cottages into the much more efficient large factory that could take better advantage of the power of the river.
Just downstream in Greenock, James Watt was born, and it was in the Clyde valley he did his work on the steam engine. Lord Kelvin of thermodynamics and telegraphy fame taught for years at the University of Glasgow and did some of his most important work there. The presence of men like these, plus the burgeoning economic opportunities of the area, brought many other engineers and inventors to the area.
It also attracted visionaries. While not an engineer himself, Robert Owen was a businessman, entrepreneur and manufacturer with revolutionary ideas about the way people should live and work. In his cotton mills on the banks of the Clyde he founded what he thought was the ideal company town of New Lanark, (now a World Heritage site) where his revolutionary ideas, such as refusing to let children younger than 10 work in his factories, the 10-hour day, daycare and schooling for young children and educational opportunities for adults in the evenings, were put into play. As happens with most “ideal” community experiments, New Lanark in the end did not end up as perfect a place as Owen had hoped, but it was a prosperous milling area well into the 20th century, and many of his ideas seem commonplace today.