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What The Industrial Revolution Did For Us - Programme 1 - Material World

Updated Thursday 1st December 2005

Find out more about the Material World programme, part of the BBC/OU's 'What the Industrial Revolution Did for Us' TV series.

Dan Cruickshank at sea Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

In 1766 a young Londoner called John Spilsbury came up with a curious idea. He took the world - and carved it up. Spilsbury’s dissectible map was the world’s first jigsaw. It shows the world more or less as we know it today. By the middle of the eighteenth century the world had, give or take a few missing pieces like Australia, been discovered.

Having discovered the world, it was time for us, like Spilsbury, to carve it up, in order to fuel our growing appetite for the good things in life - from tea to manufactured goods. Time to look beneath the surface of our land and overseas in search of new materials and new markets.

Today we can buy what we want when we want, go where we want how we want. Few of us know where the things we buy come from - cars from China, fruit from Africa, fish from the Pacific, computers from America. We live in a global economy. And, as is often said, it's a small world.

We can do all of this thanks to a remarkable series of discoveries that, in the course of just one hundred years, created the modern global economy and much of the world in which we live. The origins of this era of transformation lie not in the dark satanic mills we usually associate with the Industrial Revolution, but in the tea rooms and shops of Georgian England.

From the high seas to the deepest mines, Dan explores the origins of the Industrial Revolution.

Aboard Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour, Dan demonstrates how John Harrison solved the problem of longitude, opened up trade routes and helped to invent the toaster!

Clutching Captain Cook’s tea cup, Dan reveals how the humble 'cuppa' helped to fuel a revolution! In a Georgian tea room, Dan indulges himself. He reveals Georgian appetite for the new and the exotic - from sprung cork rumps for ladies and mouse-hair eyebrows for men, to fine porcelain from China and sweet drinks from South America.

Dan tells the story of the Royal Society of Arts. He discovers how our forebears rose to the challenge of the consumer revolution, devising ingenious ways to imitate expensive exotic imports, such as Chintz - an Indian textile.

Meanwhile at Kew Gardens Dan introduces us to Sir Joseph Banks, the brilliant botanist who set sail on the Endeavour and became the first unofficial director of the Royal Botanic Gardens. He explains how Banks shaped Kew, not as a delightful diversion for the growing urban classes but as a kind of factory, in which plants from one part of the world, such as rubber or tea, were processed before being sent out for replanting on the other side of the world.

But discoveries were being made right under our feet: crouching in a 300 million year-old swampy bog, Dan tells the story of coal - the power beneath this green and pleasant land. At Coalbrookdale he discovers coal, iron ore and water in close proximity - three fundamental raw materials which together fuelled the Industrial Revolution.

Dan casts iron at Coalbrookdale, and indulges in ‘iron mania’. He finds iron bridges, churches, even the first skyscraper - a derelict mill in Shropshire, and encounters characters such as John ‘iron mad’ Wilkinson, an industrialist who, among other things, built the first iron boat and was buried in an iron coffin.

On the North Yorkshire coast Dan undertakes a geological survey and visits the museum built by William ‘strata’ Smith. He demonstrates how Smith - a surveyor of the newly-invented canals - produced the first ever geological map, which unlocked the mineral wealth of the world.

Armed with his geological map, Dan visits Cornwall. Here, he explains how a chemist called William Cookworthy solved the porcelain problem. He creates China clay and fires a tea cup. Now, instead of importing our china from China, we could make our own. An idea soon picked up by perhaps the most ingenious industrialist of them all… Josiah Wedgwood.

Finally, the fineries of the few were in reach of the many. Demand had been democratised. Thanks to our mineral wealth, inventive industrialists and insatiable appetites, Britain was well on the way to earning its titles of "workshop of the world" and "nation of shopkeepers". But it was the consumers - people like you and me - who started it all.

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