The Outline of History by H.G. Wells

The Nineteenth Century

In an Outline of History such as this it is impossible to trace the network of complex mental processes that led to the incessant extension of knowledge and power; all we can do here is to call the readers attention to the most salient turning-points that finally led the toboggan of human affairs into its present swift ice-run of progress. We have told of the first release of human curiosity and of the be beginnings of systematic inquiry and experiment. We have told of the escape of investigation from ideas of secrecy and personal advantage to the idea of publication and a brotherhood of knowledge, and we have noted the foundation of the British Royal Society, the Florentine Society, and their like as a consequence of this socializing of thought. These things were the roots of the mechanical revolution, and so long as the root of pure scientific inquiry lives, that revolution will progress.

The mechanical revolution itself began, we may say, with the exhaustion of the wood supply for the ironworks of England. This led to the use of coal. The coal mine led to the simple pumping engine. The development of the pumping engine by Watt moved into a machine-driving engine that led on to the locomotive and the steamship. This was the first phase of a great expansion in the use of steam. A second phase in the mechanical revolution began with the application of electrical science to practical problems and the development of electric lighting, power transmission, and traction.


There is a tendency in many histories to confuse together what we have here called the mechanical revolution, arising out of the development of organized science, with something else, something for which there was already a historical precedent, the social and financial development which is called the industrial revolution. The two processes were going on together. They were constantly reacting upon each other, but they were in root and essence different.

There would have been an industrial revolution of sorts even if there had been no coal, no steam, no machinery; but in that case it would probably have followed far more closely upon the lines of the social and financial developments of the later years of the Roman republic. It would have repeated the story of dispossessed free cultivators, gang labour, great estates, great financial fortunes, and a socially destructive financial process.

Even the factory method came before power and machinery. Factories were the product not of machinery, but of the “division of labour.” There were factories in Rome in the days of Augustus. New books, for instance, were dictated to rows of copyists in the factories of the book-sellers. The attentive student of Defoe and of the political pamphlets of Fielding will realize that the idea of herding poor people into establishments to work collectively for their living was already current in Britain before the close of the seventeenth century. There are intimations of it even as early as More’s Utopia (1516). [The Industrial Revolution] was a social and not a mechanical development.

Up to and past the middle of the eighteenth century, the social and economic history of western Europe was, in fact, [following] the path along which the Roman State had gone in the three last centuries B.C. America was in many ways a new Spain, and India and China, a new Egypt. But the political disunions of Europe, the political convulsions against monarchy, the recalcitrance of the common folk, and perhaps, also, the greater accessibility of the western European intelligence to mechanical ideas and inventions, turned the process into quite novel directions.

Ideas of human solidarity, thanks to Christianity, were far more widely diffused in this newer European world. Political power was not so concentrated, and the man of energy anxious to get rich turned his mind, therefore, very willingly from the ideas of the slave and of gang labour to the idea of mechanical power and the machine.

The mechanical revolution was a new thing in human experience. It went on regardless of the social, political, economic, and industrial consequences it might produce. The industrial revolution, on the other hand, like most other human affairs, was and is more and more profoundly changed and deflected by the constant variation in human conditions caused by the mechanical revolution.

And the essential difierence between the amassing of riches, the extinction of small farmers and small business men, and the phase of big finance in the latter centuries of the Roman Republic, on the one hand, and the very similar concentration of capital in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the other, lies in the profound difference in the character of labour that the mechanical revolution was bringing about.

The power of the old world was human power; everything depended ultimately upon the driving power of human muscle, the muscle of ignorant and subjugated men. A little animal muscle, supplied by draft oxen, horse traction, and the like, contributed. Where a weight had to be lifted, men lifted it; where a rock had to be quarried, men chipped it out; where a field had to be ploughed, men and oxen ploughed it; the Roman equivalent of the steamship was the galley with its banks of sweating rowers.

A vast proportion of mankind in the early civilizations was employed in purely mechanical drudgery. At its onset, power-driven machinery did not seem to promise any release from such unintelligent toil. Great gangs of men were employed in excavating canals, in making railway cuttings and embankments, and the like. The number of miners increased enormously. But the extension of facilities and the output of commodities increased much more.

And as the nineteenth century went on, the plain logic of the new situation asserted itself more clearly: Human beings were no longer wanted as a source of mere indiscriminated power. What could be done mechanically by a human being could be done faster and better by a machine.

The human being was needed now only where choice and intelligence had to be exercised. Human beings were wanted only as human beings. The drudge, on whom all the previous civilizations had rested, the creature of mere obedience, the man whose brains were superfluous, had become unnecessary to the welfare of mankind. This was as true of such ancient industries as agriculture and mining as it was of the newest metallurgical processes. For ploughing, sowing, and harvesting, swift machines came forward to do the work of scores of men.1 The Roman civilization was built upon cheap and degraded human beings; modern civilization is being rebuilt upon cheap mechanical power. For a hundred years power has been getting cheaper and labour dearer. If for a generation or so machinery has had to wait its turn in the mine, it is simply because for a time men were cheaper than machinery.

Now here was a changeover of quite primary importance in human aflairs. The chief solicitude of the rich and of the ruler in the old civilization had been to keep up a supply of drudges. As the nineteenth century went on, it became more and more plain to the intelligent directive people that the common man had now to be something better than a drudge. He had to be educated—if only to secure “industrial efficiency.” He had to understand what he was about. From the days of the first Christian evagalization, popular education had been smouldering in Europe, just as it has smouldered in Asia wherever Islam has set its foot, because of the necessity of making the believer understand a little of the belief by which he is saved, and of enabling him to read a little in the sacred books by which his belief is conveyed.

Christian controversies, with their competition for adherents, ploughed the ground for the harvest of popular education. In England, for instance, by the thirties and forties of the nineteenth century, the disputes of the sects and, the necessity to catching adherents young, had produced an abundance of night schools, Sunday schools, and a series of competing educational organizations for children, the dissenting British schools, the church National Schools, and even Roman Catholic elementary schools. The earlier, less enlightened manufacturers, unable to take a broad view of their own interests, hated and opposed these schools. But here again needy Germany led her richer neighbours.

The religious teacher in Britain found the profit-seeker at his side, unexpectedly eager to get the [modest conservative circles,] if not educated, at least “trained” to a higher level of economic efficiency.

The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of rapid advance in popular education throughout all the Westernized world. There was no parallel advance in the education of the upper classes, some advance no doubt, but nothing to correspond, and so the great gulf that had divided that world hitherto into the readers and the non-reading mass became little more than a slightly perceptible difference in educational attainment.

At the back of this process was the mechanical revolution, apparently regardless of social conditions, but really insisting inexorably upon the complete abolition of a totally illiterate class throughout the world.

The economic revolution of the Roman republic had never been clearly apprehended by the common people of Rome. The ordinary Roman citizen never saw the changes through which he lived, clearly and comprehensively as we see them. But the industrial revolution, as it went on towards the end of the nineteenth century, was more and more distinctly seen as one whole process by the common people it was affecting, because presently they could read and discuss and communicate, and because they went about and saw things as no distinguished commonalty had ever done before.

In this Outline of History we have been careful to indicate the gradual appearance of the 'ordinary people' as a class with a will and ideas in common. We have cited the enthusiasm of the distinquished gentry for the First Crusade as marking a new phase in social history. But before the nineteenth century, even these massive movements were comparatively restricted. The equalitarian insurrections of the peasantry, from the Wycliffe period onward, were confined to the peasant communities of definite localities, they spread only slowly into districts affected by similar forces. The town artisan rioted indeed, but only locally. The chateau-burning of the French revolution was not the act of a peasantry who had overthrown a government. It was the act of a peasantry released by the overthrow of a government. The Commune of Paris was the first effective appearance of the town artisan as a political power, and the Parisian crowd of the First Revolution was a very mixed, primitive thinking, and savage crowd compared with any Western European crowd after 1830. ...

But the mechanical revolution was not only pressing education upon the whole population, it was leading to a big-capitalism and to a large—scale reorganization of industry that sought to produce a new and distinctive system of ideas among the common people in the place of the mere uncomfortable recalcitrance and elemental rebellions of an illiterate gentry. We have already noted how the industrial revolution had split the manufacturing class, which had hitherto been a middling and variously sorted 'class', into two sections, the employers, who became rich enough to mingle with the financial, merchandizing, and land-owning fractions, and the employees, who drifted to a status closer and closer to that of mere gang of agricultural labour.

As the manufacturing employee sank, the agricultural labourer, by the introduction of agricultural machinery and the increase in his individual productivity, rose. ... By the middle of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx (1818—83), a German Jew of great scholarly-attainments, who did much of his work in the British Museum library in London, was pointing out that the organization of the working classes by the steadily concentrating group of capitalist owners, was developing a new social classification to replace the more complex class systems of the past.

Property, so far as it was power, was being gathered together into relatively few hands: the hands of the big rich men, the capitalist class; while there was a great mingling of workers with little or no property, whom he called the “expropriated,” or “proletariat” — a misuse of this word — who were bound to develop a common “class-consciousness” of the conflict of their interests with those of the rich men.

Differences of education and tradition between the various older social elements which were in process of being fused up into the new class of the expropriated, seemed for a time to contradict this sweeping generalization; the traditions of the professions, the small employers, the farmer, peasant, and the like were all different from one another and from the various craftsman traditions of the workers; but with the spread of education and the cheapening of literature, this “Marxian” generalization becomes now more and more acceptable. These classes, who were linked at first, by nothing but a common impoverishment, were and are being reduced or raised to the same standard of life, forced to read the same books and share the same inconveniences. A sense of solidarity between all sorts of poor and propertyless men, as against the profit amassing and wealth-concentrating class, is growing more and more evident in our world.

Old differences fade away, the difference between craftsman and open-air worker, between a black coat and overall, between poor clergyman and elementary-school master, between policeman and bus-driver. They must all buy the same cheap furnishings and live in similar cheap houses; their sons and daughters will all mingle and marry; success at the upper levels becomes more and more hopeless for the rank and file. Marx, who did not so much advocate the class-war, the war of the expropriated mass against the appropriating few, as foretell it, is being more and more justified by events.2

  1. Here America led the old world.

  2. 'It sometimes argued against Marx that the proportion of people who have savings invested has increased in many modern communities. These savings are technically “capital” and their owners “capitalists” to that extent, and this supposed to contradict the statement of Marx that property concentrates into few and fewer hands. Marx used many of his terms carelessly and chose them ill, and his ideas were better than his words. When he wrote property he meant “property so far as it is power.”

The Outline of history Wells, H. G. (Herbert George), 1866-1946. New York, Collier, 1922.