Chapter 22: Industry on the Post-Napoleonic Continent

First came the French, led by Napoleon, ending feudal economic traditions across Europe. Then came the British, bringing their knowledge of new, industrial production methods and business practices. And as a result, the first Industrial Revolution spread to pockets of France, the Low Countries, Germany, and Eastern Europe.

Characters in this episode include:

  • John Holker, a former Jacobite who spied on the British for French industry

  • Jacques-Constantin and Auguste Charles Perier, who built steam engines and water pumps

  • Claude Perier, who built a textile-printing empire and became an investment banker

  • Adolphe and Eugene Schneider, who built a metallurgical empire in Le Creusot

  • Louis Motte-Bossut, who built massive textile factories but couldn’t get his parents’ approval

  • Lieven Bauwens, who built Belgium’s first mechanized spinning mill

  • William and John Cockerill, Anglo-Belgians who made industrialization happen across Europe

  • Alfred Krupp, who created a steel empire in Germany and provided generous benefits for his workers

  • Ernest Knoop, who spread industrialization to Russia

  • The Silesian weavers, who rose up against the local capitalists and the Prussian authorities

Sources for this episode Include:

“Alfred Krupp: German Industrialist.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last updated: July 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Krupp

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Vintage. 2014.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 1962.

“Industrial Revolution.” Facts about the Czech Republic: History. Accessed via http://www.czech.cz/en/66243-industrial-revolution

Kisch, Herbert. “The Textile Industries in Silesia and the Rhineland: A Comparative Study in Industrialization.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 19, no. 4, 1959, pp. 541–564.

“Krupp AG: German Company.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last updated: March 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Krupp-AG

Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. 4th Edition. Westview Press. 2013.

“Weavers’ Revolt.” St. James Encyclopedia of Labor History Worldwide: Major Events in Labor History and Their Impact. The Gale Group, Inc. 2004.

Weightman, Gavin. The Industrial Revolutionaries. Grove Press. 2007.

Full Transcript

In 1746, an English Catholic by the name of John Holker arrived in Paris. According to the stories he told his French friends, his emigration had been the result of a prison break.

Holker had participated in the final Jacobite uprising of 1745, but he was caught and thrown in London’s Newgate prison to await trial. According to his telling, one of his comrades in the prison bribed a guard to acquire some tools, and together, they drilled a hole in the prison wall. Then they climbed down a rope they made of knotted sheets to a roof and then dramatically leaped over an ally to a merchant’s house across from the prison. Holker missed the jump and landed in a barrel of water, but he survived and escaped the country.

By 1751, he had settled in the textile town of Rouen, a hub of cottage industry. In 1754, he accepted a job at a new textile factory there and then convinced the head of the French Bureau of Commerce – Daniel Charles Trudaine – to send him on a spy mission to England.

As I’ve mentioned before, Great Britain tried safeguarding the secrets of its new, industrial technologies – going so far as to criminalize the export of the machines that kickstarted the Industrial Revolution.

Trudaine commissioned the secret expedition and Holker returned to his home country, enlisted his mother in the effort, and snooped around across Lancashire for samples of cloth and for textile workers. After three months of frantic work, Holker left Britain for France – this time, taking a team of twenty English workers with him. In Rouen, they helped re-develop the machinery for modern textile manufacturing.

Holker was among the first known spies of the Industrial Revolution, but he would be far, far from the last. Over the next hundred years, many others snuck out workers and devices like the Spinning Jenny. And slowly, but surely, industrialization began to develop on the Continent.

But the progress made on the Continent – particularly in France, Germany, and the Low Countries – was decimated by the French Revolution and Napoleon. After Waterloo, the economic recovery was slow and full of setbacks. Governments were forced to deflate their currencies. Impoverished rural populations swelled under post-feudal agrarian reforms. And Continental industries were inundated by heavy British competition.

By the end of the first Industrial Revolution, the only truly industrialized country in the world was Great Britain. To a lesser extent, the United States had industrialized too. In the non-English speaking world, the transformation had been modest.

But it was happening. There were definite bright spots and forward-thinking entrepreneurs who shouldn’t go unmentioned. And after the fall of Napoleon – and especially after 1830 – the revolution spread across Western and Central Europe.


This is the Industrial Revolutions

Chapter 22: Industry on the Post-Napoleonic Continent


A few administrative notes before we get into it today.

First of all, in last week’s episode I made a little mistake. I said that, by ending the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon had broken apart the German people for decades to come. Well, that wasn’t strictly true. There was something called the “German Confederation” which lasted from 1815 to 1866. It was essentially created to take the place of the Holy Roman Empire, but it was super-ineffective and basically stopped functioning altogether after the uprisings of 1848.

Second, I’ve been adjusting the outline for the remainder of the first Industrial Revolution, and I want to give you a sense of it.

So far, I have been mostly focused on the early years of the Industrial Revolution. In most of Europe, that meant the 1830s and 1840s. But in Great Britain, it meant the 1700s. So, what I’m going to do after this episode is rewind and spend a few episodes wrapping up the 18th Century.

From there we’ll focus on the first Industrial Revolution during the 19th Century. I’ll tell you about developments in finance and economics, the introduction of the locomotive and railroads, finish up on my global overview of the first Industrial Revolution, and then go back to the trunk of the tree – the inventions. And, man, the second half of the first Industrial Revolution – that’s the half that’s in the 19th Century – is full of all kinds of big inventions.

After two to three months of those episodes on new technologies, we’ll go back to talking about the impact they had on politics, on workers and their families, on culture, and more.

Then we’ll finally wrap up the first Industrial Revolution, about 12 months from now, and I will regroup.

If you have any suggestions for episodes, please let me know. For example, listener Patrick commented on a photo a while back that Ada Lovelace would be a great subject for an episode. I couldn’t agree more. And even though it was two industrial revolutions ahead of its time, I will be doing an episode about the Analytical Engine and her work on it.

You can share your ideas with me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. The handle for all three is @IndRevPod. That’s @ I-N-D – R-E-V – P-O-D. Thank you.

Okay, so last week, we left with Europe reeling from the Napoleonic Wars, which brought with them a lot of political, religious, and economic shake-ups. Among them was the Napoleonic legal code, which not only eliminated the last vestiges of feudalism, but also stressed legally-guaranteed freedom of contract, recognition of bills of exchange and other commercial papers, and the role of joint-stock corporations.

In the years following Napoleon, it wasn’t the French spreading across Europe – it was the British. Well, it was British workers to be precise. European businesses hired British workers for much higher wages than those Brits were getting at home, to bring their industrial knowledge to the Continent. The French and Dutch governments went back to the old ways of smuggling out British workers in rowboats – and in some cases, literally kidnapping them – to achieve these ends.

By 1830, there were at least 15,000 British workers in France, where they by-and-large served in skilled technical positions in textile mills and metalworks. And a few British entrepreneurs re-located to Belgium and Germany to start giant industrial enterprises there.

Helping the process along was the spread of canals and steamboats. Before long, shipping tonnage doubled, and shipping speeds quadrupled. Then the railroads came and added to the transport quantities and speeds even further. Railroads weren’t just effective as a means of transport, but also a visible symbol of technological modernity and material development wherever they were built.

The Factory System expanded in the 1830s and 40s as well. Continental workshops grew from employing five to ten people, to dozens or even hundreds. This was especially true in coal mines, iron foundries, and most especially, textile mills.

One reason industrial-scale development was limited until the 1830s was the guild system of apprentices, journeymen, and masters. Thanks to Napoleon, the laws requiring craftspeople to be guild members were removed. But even then, local protections of the guilds remained. Starting in the 1830s, however, those protections started going away, especially in Germany. As guilds weakened, more and more workers entered the factory system.

As the British had experienced in decades prior, class segregation in cities became a phenomenon across Europe, as the bourgeoisie settled a “good” side of town to escape a “poor” side of town.

To say industrialization swept across Continental Europe would be a criminal oversimplification. Really, it happened in small pockets of certain countries. In fact, in Italy, Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, and Ireland, industrialization was virtually non-existent during the first Industrial Revolution.

Today, we’re going to focus on four places where it did happen: France, the Low Countries, Germany, and Eastern Europe. Let’s get started.


Okay, so back in Chapter 12 – the episode about the steamboat – I mentioned that one of the collaborators/rivals of the Marque de Jouffroy d’Abbans was a guy by the name of Jacques-Constantine Périer, who (with his brother, Auguste Charles) owned a shop in Paris where they made steam engines.

I also mentioned that there was another set of Perier brothers I’d be telling you about (and that would be today), but that I wasn’t sure if they were related. Well, I can now tell you they were not related. But just to make things confusing, the two families did have business ties together. And they were both very interesting in their own right. So, I’ll tell you about the “Steam Périers” first.

The sons of Joseph-Constantin Périer, Jacques-Constantin and Auguste Charles were born in the mid-18th Century. They were engineers who worked first-and-foremost on water pumps and steam power. Among other things, they invented the centrifugal pump, brought the Watt steam engine to France and (with Watt’s blessing) manufactured it for the French market, worked for a time on steamboats and got Jouffroy d’Abbans working on them, and founded the Paris Water Company – a joint-stock corporation that sought to pump water from the Seine throughout Paris.

And as you may remember from Chapter 6, the iron pipes for this water-pumping system came from our old friend, John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson. If you haven’t noticed by know, the first Industrial Revolution was a really small world.

The Steam Périers also invested in some French coal mines, where their pumps were used, and in iron foundries in Nantes and Paris. And that Paris foundry was financed by that other Perier family I’m going to tell you about – the “Bank Periers.”

Born the same year as Jacques-Constantin was Claude Perier. His father was a cloth merchant who had moved from the tiny hamlet of Perier to the big city of Grenoble. The family business was quite successful, and Claude expanded it into a massive textile-printing operation, employing hundreds (perhaps thousands). Then they expanded into investment banking. They invested in sugar imports and some modern industrial enterprises.

When the French Revolution came, Claude steered the family through it. He bought up lands that the state had confiscated from the Catholic Church, bought into the Anzin Coal Company, and helped convince Napoleon to transform a bank he was part of into the central Bank of France.

Claude’s sons – Casimir Pierre and Andre-Jean-Joseph – became bankers as well. The Steam Periers were among their clients, as was the Anzin Coal Company. Casimir Pierre went on to become the Prime Minister of France after the July Revolution of 1830, which replaced the Bourbons with the House of Orleans. And his Grandson, Jean-Casimir, was very briefly the President of France during the Third Republic.

But the Bank Periers were one of the few families who could successfully navigate the tumultuous environment of late-18th and 19th Century France. Most couldn’t. And it wouldn’t be until after the July Revolution that economic and industrial development started to pick back up.

Among the success stories at that point were the brothers Adolphe and Eugène Schneider, bankers who bought up the ironworks at Le Creusot and turned it into a metallurgical empire, producing nearly all the locomotives used in France. In time, their company went on to make railways, iron ships and modern weapons such as machine guns and tanks. After Adlophe died, Eugène went into politics, supporting the regime of Prince President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte.

Then there was Louis Motte-Bossut, who came from a cottage industry family of textile weavers. Louis was determined to scale-up. During a trip to England, he stole some blueprints for state-of-the-art factory equipment and brought them back to France. With them, he grew a massive textile business in the early 1840s near the Belgian border.

With over 40,000 spindles, his factory dominated the landscape. But his parents – who had always prided themselves on their commitment to quality – disapproved of this system of mass production. They refused to set foot in the factory, deeming it to be genuinely immoral.

In a way, it seems, there was no country in the world where industrialization should have happened more than in France. Its people were perhaps the most inventive, its financial systems were among the most innovative, and its cities were the most densely populated for manufacturing labor growth.

But upon closer examination, we see a number of challenges that also plagued France’s efforts to industrialize. There was a natural resource deficiency. Unlike Great Britain, Germany, and the United States, France did not have large coal reserves. They had to import much of the coal that powered their steam engines and foundries, leading to higher production costs, particularly in metal works.

Also unlike Britain and Germany, France was able to absorb the impact of the Agricultural Revolution without much difficulty. As a result, population growth was much lower, and fewer desperate workers were flooding into cities for manufacturing jobs.

But most importantly, France was politically unstable. There was the French Revolution, Napoleon, the July Revolution of 1830, the June Rebellion of 1832 (and of Les Mis fame), the 1848 revolution, the other Napoleon, and the Paris Commune.

The French people had little hesitation to declare revolutions, and that made the financial sector nervous. I mean, “Who knows if that factory will even be standing the day after it’s completed? The people working in it might leave to fight, or the revolutionaries might nationalize it, or they might declare it a symbol of tyranny and tear it down!” So, the sophisticated French bankers made their money by investing outside France. And they found a particularly good place to invest, up in the low countries.


The Low Countries – the modern-day Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg – had been a strong region for manufacturing and commerce for centuries leading up to the first Industrial Revolution.  And Belgium, in particular, become a major focal point of the first Industrial Revolution on the Continent, starting with the textiles entrepreneur Lieven Bauwens.

As a boy, Bauwens had gone to Britain to work in the brand-new cotton mills of the time. He worked with a Crompton Mule and copied the design to bring back to Belgium. He then built Belgium’s first mechanized spinning mill at Twente in 1792.

As Belgium was gobbled up by the French Empire, Bauwens managed to expand the business, opening textile plants in Paris and Ghent. He was even recognized by Napoleon in 1810, who inducted Bauwens into the Legion of Honor.

Then there was William Cockerill, a British-born industrialist who emigrated to Liège in 1799, after getting kicked out of both Russia and Sweden for failing with his civil engineering schemes. But, as it turned out, he was pretty good at mechanical engineering, and built new wool spinning and carding machines.

Cockerill kept his head down as Belgium was taken over by France, and Napoleon awarded him with the Legion of Honor too. He then imported a Watt steam engine before trade with Britain was cut off. Then, when the embargo went into effect, he made a fortune selling textiles to a Continent cut off from British textile mills.

He passed the fortune and the business onto his son, John, who expanded into metalworks, mining, shipbuilding, railroad construction, and machine engineering – not only in Belgium, but Germany too. One Belgian commentator said the Cockerills were on “a mission to extend manufacturers everywhere and to fill the whole world with machinery.”

Belgian textile manufacturing flourished with the British ideas imported by Bauwens and Cockerill. In Ghent alone, the number of cotton spinners jumped from 227 to more than 2,000 between 1802 and 1808. By 1812, Cockerill’s plant at Liège employed 2,000 workers.

Belgium also benefited from another Napoleonic idea: The Joint Stock Corporation. With it, investors pooled their resources to open new coal mines and greatly increased the country’s coal output, just in time for the strong steam engines to arrive from Britain.

During the 1830s, the number of steam engines in Belgium doubled and their horsepower tripled. And then, in the 1840s, the number of steam engines more than tripled again (up to 2,300) and horsepower doubled. Belgian textile production skyrocketed with the automation steam power created.

Belgium saw a rapid transformation of its economy. And even though it was the epicenter of industrialization in the low countries, it wasn’t alone. After 1830, Dutch textile manufacturing took off as a handful of British ex-pats settled in the Netherlands.

But nowhere did industrialization shake things up more than in Germany.


Recently I’ve been watching the German TV show “Dark” on Netflix. And if you haven’t seen it, I need to tell you a small spoiler that you’d figure out by the third of forth episode anyway. It’s about time travel.

Specifically, the characters can travel back in time in 33-year chunks. So, from 2019, they can go back to 1986, or 1953, etc. And since they’re trying to figure out what’s going on when they accidentally travel back in time, some of them end up staying put in the past. And as I was watching this, it occurred to me that, if you have to go back in time in 33-year chunks in Germany, you really don’t want to go any further back than 1953.

If you go back to 1920, you’re going to live through the rise of the Nazis. If you go back to 1887, you’ll live through the defeat of the Kaiser. Further back from that and it will either be a really autocratic or really tumultuous time – all the way back to the start of the first Industrial Revolution.

There are few countries where industrialization had a more transformative impact – not always for the better – than Germany.

Because it wasn’t just transformative, it was also disruptive and divisive. And the people of Germany were more keenly aware of it than those of other countries.

As Hobsbawm puts it, “the 1840s Germans, though perhaps no one else, already pointed to the rapid industrial advance of their countrymen.”

Such industrial advance was limited though, almost entirely to the North Rhine region – the area between Cologne and Essen – where hundreds of water mills were mass-producing textiles, lumber, and iron by the 1820s. Advanced metallurgy and coal production soon followed.

You see, from the beginning, the German authorities were very worried about industrialization. In the 1770s, Swiss financiers had begun investing in small factories throughout the Wiesental Valley, including textile weaving and bleaching workshops. Then, in 1794, they introduced Germany’s first mechanized textile spinning mill. Afraid that this automation would lead to unemployment and social unrest, government agents quickly shut the mill down.

Germany continued to shun industrialization, even after Napoleon swept through, ending the traditional feudal order and weakening the old guilds of the now-defunct Holy Roman Empire. The guilds lobbied hard for protectionist policies and the German Confederation failed to gut the old internal customs barriers. The many states of Germany would remain dependent on foreign technologies, right up until German unification in 1870. As one 1830s manufacturer complained, you just couldn’t find a German who knew how to make a screw.

But the resistance to change wouldn’t last forever. In the 1830s, a new customs union called the Zollverein was finally established and individual German states gradually joined it. This way, you wouldn’t be charged an exorbitant tax every time you moved a product over one of the countless borders inside the confederation. By the 1840s, policy makers started ignoring the local guilds and freed up labor mobility too.

And a few entrepreneurs were determined to create the enterprises of mass production. As early as 1783, a putting-out merchant named Johann Gottfried Brügelmann invested 25,000 reichsthaler and hired about 80 workers to build a textile spinning factory in Düsseldorf. In 1798, Christian Friedrich Kreissig bought 25 Spinning Jennies and built his own factory in the Saxon city of Chemnitz. He was soon followed by Karl Friedrich Bernhard and Conrad Wöhler.

But no German entrepreneurs of the first Industrial Revolution stand out more than the Krupps.

The Krupps had been a successful bourgeois family in Essen going back to the 16th Century. They were guild members who served in local politics and invested in landholdings and arms manufacturing. As the “Industrious Revolution” picked up in the first half of the 18th Century, they also invested in coal mines, man-powered textile mills, and even an ironworks.

Then in 1810, after his parents died, the entire empire fell into the hands of the 23-year-old Friedrich Krupp. Friedrich had not exactly been a promising heir, having previously run the ironworks into the ground. But with his fortune, Friedrich decided to invest in a new product that would lead into the Second Industrial Revolution – steel.

Now, if you have a truly great memory, you’ll remember from Chapter 6 that an Englishman named Benjamin Huntsman had figured out how to make crucible steel seven decades earlier. So, it could be done – although only the British knew how. When Napoleon embargoed Britain, he offered a cash prize to anyone who could replicate the British process for making crucible steel.

So, in 1811, Friedrich founded the Krupp Cast Steel Works and got experimenting. By the time he figured out how to make it, Napoleon had been defeated, the Krupp empire was in bad shape, and the process for making it was still costly and inefficient.

But then he died at just 39-years-old. And so, his 14-year-old son, Alfred, dropped out of school and took over the business.

Alfred Krupp is one of those characters who really deserves our attention. He had the obsessive inventiveness of guys like James Watt and John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson, the business acumen of guys like Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgwood, and the HR approach of Samuel and Hannah Greg.

Krupp was able to increase the productivity of casting crucible steel by manufacturing steel rolls. Then they installed a steam engine in 1835 to speed up production further. This came as the railroads were expanding across Europe, and so they made steel axles and springs. He expanded the metalworks into products like cutlery too.

And arms. Alfred Krupp become one of the world’s top arms manufacturers, supplying some of the worst despots of the 19th Century, including the Russians and Belgians. Later, during, the Franco-German War, his firm became the official weapons manufacturer to the new German nation. It became known as the “Arsenal of the Reich”, and he personally was known as “the Canon King.”

At first, the 14-year-old was working alongside seven workers – all of whom were older than him, and tough, muscular guys who worked with hot steel. By the time Krupp died, he employed more than 21,000 people. The experience building a business empire like that, alongside his workers, must have had a profound influence on how he viewed his relationship with them. Because he was one of those industrialists who was quite concerned about how the Industrial Revolution was developing.

As early as 1836 – when he was 24 years old – he started to create a comprehensive welfare scheme for his workers. It included a sickness and burial fund, a pension fund for retirees and those who got hurt on the job. He built his workers housing, hospitals, schools, and even churches. And in the process, his workers became fanatically loyal to him.

At the same time, Krupp was fiercely anti-liberal, anti-socialist, and anti-Semitic – and his views may have influenced Adolph Hitler.

The business stayed in the Krupp family for generations after Alfred’s death. By the turn of the 20th Century, it was the largest company in all of Europe. It was a key supplier to the German military in both world wars, and was generally a major supporter of the Third Reich. The company had a hard look at itself after the end of the war and rebuilt. It’s still around today as part of ThyssenKrupp AG.

Now, the Germany of the 19th Century wasn’t the Germany of today. And when Alfred Krupp took over the family business, it included many lands in our final region: Eastern Europe.


In the typical narrative of Russian history, leading up to the revolutions of 1917, the Russian Empire was agrarian, feudal, backward. It was nothing like what Karl Marx had in mind for his revolution – with an urban, industrial Proletariat overthrowing a capital-rich bourgeoisie.

And while that narrative is broadly accurate, it does sometimes give off the impression that Russia had seen little-to-no industrialization over the previous hundred years. And that’s just not true. In fact, Russia saw earlier industrial developments than many western European countries.

It began not with any factories or systems of mass production, but with transportation. In such a giant country, the ability to move across it quickly was critical to development. Russia saw its first steamship dock in 1815 and, by 1820, it had a regular steamboat service up and down the Volga River. The first public railroad opened in 1837, joining St. Petersburg to the imperial residence out in the suburbs – and by 1851, there was a line linking St. Petersburg to Moscow.

Russia also benefited from some manufacturing pilot programs. Ernest Knoop, a German immigrant in Manchester, England, had clerked in a cotton factory and learned the ins and outs of the textile trade. By 1843, he became an export agent to Russia and started sponsoring British workers to travel there and install machines for local entrepreneurs.

Even in the small urban market there, these proto-capitalist Russians could make substantial profits while undercutting the prices of traditional weavers. And still other factories were established by British capitalists experimenting with Foreign Direct Investment.

But Russia did remain a primarily feudal economy for years to come, in part because the state feared industrial growth would lead to liberalism. And while many 18th Century Czars were quite reform-minded, they got much more conservative following the failed Decemberist Uprising of 1825.

Industrialization was more realized in the Austrian-controlled region of Bohemia – what is today the Czech Republic. With the feudal system abolished and agrarian reforms underway, the population there grew about 40% between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the end of the first Industrial Revolution. This also came in the headwinds of the Czech National Revival, a period in which the local Slavic population worked to restore the Czech national identity, language, and culture.

The process began with – no surprise – textile mills. British specialists imported their technologies, skills, and business practices, starting around 1800. In the 1830s, industrialization picked up with sugar production and other food processing plants. In 1836, the first coke-fired furnace for iron production was installed at Vítkovice. In 1837, a modern glassworks was built in Sázava. In 1839, the first locomotives were running in Bohemia, transporting coal to Austria. And in 1842, the country’s first modern brewery was founded in Pilsen – a brewery that evolved into the Pilsner Urquell brand.

And then there’s Silesia, in the eastern Czech Republic and modern-day Poland. It was a region that traditionally had a strong linen trade, but which declined in the 18th Century as it faced foreign competition from cheap British imports and political takeover by the Prussian Empire. It was a “rapid and tragic decline” as Hobsbawm describes it.

Nevertheless, there was an estimated 50,000 linen workers there as late as 1790. So, when the time came to industrialize the post-Napoleonic Continent, Silesia was a good place to do it. By the 1830s, the linen proto-industry had been supplanted by a cotton industry. The linen weavers – feeling the pressures of the changing agrarian system – left their cottage industry settings to find work in the cotton mills.

But conditions in the mills were hard. They were expected to weave at a pace much faster and for shifts much longer than they were used to. Things were even worse outside the textile industry, where the majority Polish population felt denigrated by their mostly German landlords and bosses. Those who worked in the fields and coal mines felt constantly abused.

And the pay was terrible, even in the mills. Between the higher costs of doing business in Prussia than in Britain and the decline of wages in the broader labor market, thanks to agrarian reforms, hard-working weavers were earning subsistence-level wages. And then, new machines threatened to reduce the demand for labor and worsen their conditions even more.

In 1844, the pot boiled over. That summer, riots broke out across the region. Mobs of weavers attacked homes and warehouses, destroyed machinery, and demanded money from the local merchants. The Prussian army was called in to restore order. 11 people died as soldiers fired into the crowds, and the leaders of the revolts were arrested and beaten.

The incident became notorious in German labor history. Marx pointed to it in his writings and his ideas seem to be heavily influenced by the way in which the crisis broke out. The poet Heinrich Heine wrote about the riots later that summer in “The Silesian Weavers.”

The shuttle flies
The loom crashes
"Germany, we weave your shroud,
In it we weave the Triple Curse
We're weaving, we're weaving"

The triple curse? God, the King, and the Fatherland. And each verse ends with “Wir weben, wir weben!” – “We’re weaving, we’re weaving!”

Industrial labor riots – driven by the introduction of new technology – was still something rather new on the Continent. But in Great Britain, there had been more than 50 years of such incidents. And when James Watt introduced his steam engine, the rioting it sparked would inspire its own epic poetry – next week on the Industrial Revolutions.


Don’t forget to hit “Subscribe” or “Follow” to hear new episodes as they come out. And for other updates, please subscribe to the email newsletter at www.IndustrialRevolutionsPod.com. Thank you.

Dave Broker