Recently I visited Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire in the North of England. The estate is owned now by the National Trust but was the home of Samuel Greg who established a Cotton Mill there in 1784. My interest apart from the obvious history relating to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution are the important lessons to be captured relating to the now present Third Industrial Revolution or Digital Revolution.
In 1784 the global cotton industry was booming and there sat an opportunity for Samuel. He searched for a mill site and founded Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire which he powered with water from the River Bollin. The mill became a key resource and an important part of the Industrial Revolution in the North West and the establishment of Samuel’s cotton empire.
As often happened at this time, Samuel inherited his wealth and his business acumen from family members. This gave him the capital and business skill resources to make the opportunity into reality. He needed another resource, however, to make the mill a success, people. Hannah his wife made it her mission to input into the workforce. Housing was provided for workers other than the apprentice workers who were housed altogether. A chapel, school and shop were also provided on the estate for their welfare.
As time passed and the Industrial Revolution progressed, so to did the technology. Steam-powered machinery was introduced over-time but never fully replaced the water wheels. As technology, improved demands for cotton continued to increase, and working hours remained excruciatingly high. Efficiency drove demand both in the marketplace and workplace.
The noise of the machinery was almost intolerable when we visited and they only had a few machines working. I cannot fathom how the workers in the mill coped with the noise and monotony of the work for their 10-12 hour shifts. We were told that many workers went deaf and suffered illness relating to the processing of the cotton.
Despite the beautiful countryside and the obvious welfare steps taken by the Greg family, I cannot help but think that really did not make up for the working conditions of the time. The technological advancements came at a price for some.
There was then and perhaps still is, a perception of the ‘idealised machine’ that automates and solves many workplace issues, true enough, but on the flip side, we have also to be mindful of the ‘machine at work’ reality that brings with it its own set of issues. This is an argument discussed by Keith Grint & Steve Woolgar in their book (The Machine at Work, Technology, Work & Organisation 1997).
On entering the Third Industrial Revolution, we have witnessed not only a continuation in the progress of technology but a rapid increase in the pace of change, which shows no signs of slowing up and why would we want it to? Perhaps, one of the challenges we must address in our pursuit of technology that improves and automates our workplaces yet further, is to remind ourselves of the lessons from our history and previous industrial revolutions and ensure that we take people and machines forward in a way that benefits everyone.