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The mythic and etymological origins of “The Industrial Revolution” by Kate A. Katigbak

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“Snatched the lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants”:
The mythic and etymological origins of “The Industrial Revolution”
Kate A. Katigbak, Five College Consortium
While the term “Industrial Revolution” has remained prevalent in history books and in common parlance for the last century, its accuracy as an encompassing descriptor for the technological, socio-economic development of the western world has been hotly debated. Rondo Cameron, for example, has gone so far as to say that the name “Industrial Revolution” is “grossly misleading,” citing, among other reasons, the slow and continuous innovation of machinery across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which would appear to negate the validity of its being a “revolution” of any sort.@ Pat Hudson and Maxine Berg, by contrast, have argued against his and other recent scholars’ tendency to underplay the speed and scale of industrialization, calling for a reassessment of the “elements of radical change and historical discontinuity” noted by earlier historians that have been “increasingly ignored.”@ Outside the academy, however, the name “Industrial Revolution” continues to unequivocally represent a powerful and significant event in western, and particularly British, history. This paper seeks to understand this persistence of nomenclature by exploring the term’s origin. While Arnold Toynbee is widely recognized as having established the name in the English language in the 1880s, it has far older etymological origins; therefore, this paper will reflect how the term carries a proportionate mass of cultural baggage from its multiple centuries of gestation. I will argue that the name is not a semantically sound descriptor, but is a manifestation of an important cultural myth, bound up in linguistic, scientific, and social change, which has permeated our histories and our literature. In doing so, I hope to illustrate how the term remains useful due to the ways in which it reflects the growing effect of the working class upon the discourse of history.
Cameron’s criticism implies that the most contentious part of the Industrial Revolution’s nomenclature is the definition of “revolution,” meaning sudden and drastic change. This gives us our first entryway into examining the etymology of “Industrial Revolution.” During the eighteenth century, the word “revolution” was undergoing semantic shift in such a way as to bind its meaning to technological and social change. Previous to the eighteenth century, it had been used to describe government overthrow, and was specifically derived from the French révolution, used to describe the expulsion of the Stuarts under James II. This would become the precedent for its use in the American and French Revolutions, which I will address shortly. I. Bernard Cohen has described how overturn became a part of the scientific use of the term as well:
Revolution means to return again, to go through a cyclical succession, as in the seasons of the year, or to ebb and flow, as in the motion of the tides...The expression “scientific revolution” or “revolution in science,” however, conveys no such sense of continuity and permanence; …It suggests that there has been a profound conceptual change in our analysis of human and social action and in our image of the scientist and scientific activity.@
In breaking down these various associations and definitions, Cohen touches on several important issues that arise when addressing the Industrial Revolution by its given title. The shift from cyclical to forward movement, and specifically to progress, is a massive departure in meaning that we can more broadly tie to major features of the Enlightenment: “profound conceptual change” is enacted wherein scientific study focused on discovery with the confidence that mankind was capable of not only co-existing with its environment but shaping it, altering it permanently for the better.
Examined historically, moreover, we begin to see that this idea of “revolution” was not isolated to the sciences, but extended to technological change as well. Cohen briefly notes that, “In 1789, the events in France gave currency to the concept and name of revolution in its present most common usage, and before long there were many references in France to ‘revolutions’ in technology and the Industrial Revolution,” in particular citing the words of Arthur Young, who in 1788 said that “a revolution is in the making” in regards to the industrialization of woolens manufacture.@ Then in 1827, far before the generally accepted coinage by Arnold Toynbee in 1888, the “Grande Révolution Industrielle was used to describe technological change in France, particularly in relation to local industry as a headline in Le Moniteur Universel.@
This is one component of how, etymologically, the Industrial Revolution might have initially been coined, but it does not altogether explain its staying power, or indeed, the iconic status it enjoys in British history. It is a cornerstone of British culture, on display through museums and plaques throughout the Midlands and the North, at tourist destinations if you seek out the Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale, or wander around Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and observe the many monuments dedicated to industrialist and inventor, Lord Armstrong. I argue at this point that some of the staying power which the Industrial Revolution possesses, as an event and as a name, is due to how loaded a term it is, not just with literal meaning, but with mythic status.
When I say myth, in this context, I partially employ Percy Cohen’s definition, which states that a myth is,
…a narrative of events; the narrative has a sacred quality; the sacred communication is made in symbolic form; at least some of the events and objects which occur in the myth neither occur nor exist in the world other than that of myth itself; and the narrative refers in dramatic form to origins or transformations.@
As narrative and symbol, myth takes the form of a truth that is timely and timeless, historical and useful. Northrop Frye has enhanced this definition by adding that it heightens, historically, the importance of one particular event over another, and moreover preserves it as a present entity: “It is only as a myth that it has the power to confront us in the present tense, and tell us that what was done then is what we are doing now.”@ Across both definitions, myth becomes a path to immediacy, bridging the past and the present in such a way as to make the past vital and relevant to us.
I argue that the Industrial Revolution fits this definition of myth because when taken in its historical context, it is a loaded term and a loaded narrative. First, this is in part because it has been tied to the French Revolution, another nation-defining event that has become mythologized. Secondly, it is because it has been narrated by its contemporaries using the language of an earlier, more abstract myth: Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. Thirdly, it is because its focus upon the working class marks a shift in historical perspective that remains immediate and important to modern western historical awareness.
To begin to break down these reasons, let us first turn to Promethean myth, whose importance to the cultural landscape of the western world was beginning to increase at the same time that “revolution” was undergoing its semantic shift. The first English translation of Aeschylus’s drama, Prometheus Bound, was published in 1773 by the librettist Thomas Morell, and quickly became an important cultural reference point for both social and technological issues of the day. Aeschylus’s Prometheus struck a chord with eighteenth-century audiences because of a key change he made to Prometheus’s character in contrast to his presence in Hesiod’s earlier telling. Instead of presenting him as a trickster as Hesiod did, Aeschylus credits Prometheus with giving mankind all of the arts, including handicrafts and architecture, and with martyring himself for the freedom of mankind:
Such cruel bonds hath this new kind
Of heav’n, inflicted in his wrath.

But such my lot, I know not how to speak,
Nor yet be silent; when the only crime,
That subjects me to this forlorn distress,
Is liberality; in that I stole
The master-spring of every gainful art,
Ev’n sacred fire, and in a hollow cane,
Convey’d the precious benefit to man.

behold a wretched god;
A god in chains; abhorr’d by Jove,
And all the court of heaven, for gifts
Vouchsaf’d, in bounteous love, to man.—@
By changing the character of Prometheus from trickster to creative force, Aeschylus reframed the giving of fire to mankind as a noble sacrifice for liberty. This shift in regard to Prometheus is particularly illustrated by the visual arts. For example, the predominant image of Prometheus captured by painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as earlier, was of Prometheus bound, the eagle descending upon him as a lesson to those who would defy the gods:
Fig. 1: Theodoor Rombouts, Prometheus, 1625, oil on canvas, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.
In the early nineteenth century, however, the portrayals changed to far more heroic and sacrificial compositions:
Fig. 2: Heinrich Füger, Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, 1817, oil on canvas, 221 cm x 156 cm, Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna; Fig. 3: Jean Louis Cesar Lair, The Torture of Prometheus, 1819, oil on canvas, 290 x 228 cm, Museum Crozatier, Auvergne.
Moreover, Prometheus’s “liberality” was tied directly to the dissemination of knowledge and craft, which could easily find a contemporary cultural foothold within the context of emerging scientific and technological knowledge during this period. The knowledge obtained for the sake of civilization was no longer presented as part of a downward trajectory reflected in the progression from Golden Age to Iron that Hesiod implies in his Theogony; during the Enlightenment, it was the reaffirmation of the upward progression of human society through science and technology.
Prometheus re-entered the Western European vernacular, therefore, as a symbol of sacrifice, liberty, and innovation. Moreover, he entered as a symbol of justified rebellion, of the rejection of the inherent superiority of the landed gentry, which was on its own being questioned as a result of the rising of the merchant and industrial middle classes. The most iconic example of the integration of the myth with the narration of revolutionary history is the epigram for Benjamin Franklin written by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, a French economist and historian: “He snatched the lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.”@ What could be implicitly interpreted in the popularity of the Prometheus myth during this time of social and technological upheaval becomes explicit in the direct parallel made between Franklin’s role as an inventor and revolutionary. Enforcing this evidence is the support for Franklin and the American Revolution by men of science like Erasmus Darwin and others from the Lunar Society, whose language particularly displays how political and scientific overturn were tied together. In the years leading up to the French Revolution, for example, Erasmus Darwin remarked to James Watt that, “I feel myself becoming all French both in chemistry & politics [sic],” expressing the associated linkage between scientific and social revolutions in France.@
In this way, Prometheus came to symbolize liberty in both political and scientific discourse, and became a popular subject among English Romantic writers, particularly when the French Revolution followed the American one. The most obvious example of this is Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, in which Prometheus is presented, as Mary Shelley astutely wrote, “as the regenerator, who, unable to bring mankind back to primitive innocence, used knowledge as a weapon to defeat evil, by leading mankind beyond the state wherein they are sinless through ignorance, so that in which they are virtuous through wisdom.”@ Change without return manifests, in Shelley’s vision, as democratic and spiritual revolution:
And behold, thrones were kingless, and men walked
One with the other even as spirits do,
None famed, none trampled; hate, disdain, or fear,
Self-love or self-contempt, on human brows
No more inscribed, as o’er the gate of hell
“All hope abandon, ye who enter here”;...@
Byron, even while deeply disenchanted by the failures of the French Revolution, also embraced Prometheus as a symbol of the age, finding in him continued defiance even in the face of disillusionment and suffering:
All that the Thunderer wrung from thee
Was but the menace which flung back
On him the torments of thy rack;
Thou art a symbol and a sign
To Mortals of their fate and force.@
These transformations of meaning are more complex than simply science and politics being united under a single terminological banner—they signify a reconstitution of Prometheus as a symbol of resistance in a specifically socially and technologically transforming world.
This connection between the French Revolution and Prometheus has been fairly well-studied, particularly from the point of view of Romanticists, but the persistence of the Promethean narrative as a way of framing the industrial narrative has not been so thoroughly addressed, particularly in regard to the labor issues and working class unrest of the nineteenth century. Promethean myth during the mid-nineteenth century manifested less visibly, yet with comparable significance through key thinkers who have since shaped our vision of the time period. For the purposes of contrast and brevity, I will particularly address here the works of Thomas Carlyle, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels.
Thomas Carlyle’s diagnosis of the age, embodied in his essay “Signs of the Times” (1829), addressed the epochal change that industry wrought: “It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; …our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside.”@ In this description of overturning, Carlyle makes use of the Ages of Man to reference and engage with classical structures of history; but he has not done so in order to portray an entirely negative picture of the industrialized world. He prophesies (and demands) the entrance of a pantheon of modern heroes, the Captains of Industry, whom he envisions acting as Promethean liberators of labor. Such liberators would harness their “fate and force” for the larger social good: “In the obscure closets of the Roger Bacons, Keplers, Newtons; in the workshops of the Fausts and the Watts,” he wrote in Past and Present. “Wherever, and in what guise soever Nature, from the first times downwards, had sent a gifted spirit upon the earth.”@ His invocation of Faust, in particular, is notable, because it gestures towards his debt to Goethe, who had not only written his own Prometheus poem in the late eighteenth century, but created a very Promethean version of Faust when he adapted it for his magnum opus.@ Moreover, Carlyle is blending real and imagined figures such that myth is deliberately comingled with history. He demands that “Labor must become a seeing rational giant, with a soul in the body of him, and take his place on the throne of things.”@ In this way, he positioned himself as a Promethean guide for the masses, and saw them rising to the occasion, in the manner of Shelley’s unbounded vision.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, yet with equal (or perhaps greater) impact on our present imaginings of British industrialization, Marx and Engels were also using the Promethean myth in their rhetoric. Marx’s early interest in Prometheus can be traced back to his doctoral thesis, in which he used Prometheus directly to describe how the concept of “god” is actually a projection of human nature which must be reconciled and re-incorporated into man’s conception of himself: “The proclamation of Prometheus: ‘In one word—I hate all gods’ is her own profession, her own slogan against all gods of heaven and earth who do not recognize man’s self-consciousness as the highest divinity.”@ This conception of man-as-god becomes the starting point for constructing the foundation of Marx’s assertion that the proletariat would be able to complete an uprising and bring the next epochal change to modern society.
In his mature work, in which his attention shifted from the metaphysical theory to physical application, Marx’s use of Prometheus persisted. In “The Manifesto of the Communist Party,” he and Engels addressed industry by stating, “Machinery is put to a wrong use, with the object of transforming the workman, from his very childhood, into a part of a detail-machine.”@ As in Carlyle’s analysis, modern industry is the focus of Marx’s critique because he has placed it at the centre of modern social existence, wherein, “The history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and of its rule.”@ The Promethean narrative embodies both the cause of distress—the original stealing of fire used “wrongly”—and its solution: the revolution of the oppressed. As a result, the economic and material detail of Marx’s analysis is elevated into mythic status.
Engels took a more practical approach to his mythologizing, but he also drew upon the narrative of Prometheus, and the continued connection between the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution to illustrate his thesis in The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Much like Carlyle’s Age-of-Machinery diagnosis in “The Signs of the Times,” Conditions functions as an exercise in reading the state of the poor both with accuracy and with an attempt to understand and explain the sources of poverty through the revolutionary character of industrialization. In his introductory chapters, he states:
The industrial revolution is of the same importance for England as the political revolution is for France, and the philosophical revolution for Germany; and the difference between England in 1760 and in 1844 is at least as great as that between France, under the ancien régime and during the revolution of July. But the mightiest result of this industrial transformation is the English proletariat.@
In this passage, first Engels explores the French and industrial revolutions that have exerted so much impact in defining industrialization as “revolutionary.” Within this context, the accumulation of revolutionary activity that Engels identifies appears as a series of symptoms of epochal change, of radical shifts in thinking and physical conditions that are gaining momentum. Shelley’s influence is also readily apparent: by framing the proletariat as a rebellious, unified group, imprisoned and oppressed and thus “forc[ed] to think,” Engels’ treatment of the awakening and mobilizing of the British working class definitively invokes a Promethean spirit in defining his age.@
There is evidence to suggest that Marx and Engels’s audience responded to their mythologizing, and clearly knew the source of their narrative constructions. Just as it was at the turn of the nineteenth century through the shift in portrayals of Prometheus, this recognition was manifested visually. When his radicalism began to reach a larger audience, Marx was himself recognized as Promethean: in reaction to the censorship of Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Marx’s vision of himself and his cause became united under the Promethean banner not by his own doing, but by an anonymous submission to the newspaper, in protest of censorship:
Fig. 4: Wilhelm Kleinenbroich (unverified), “Der neue Prometheus,” 1842, lithograph. Museum Karl-Marx-Haus, Trier
Having now considered these interrelated explorations and analyses of industrialization in Britain, we may revisit Percy Cohen’s definition of myth: “a narrative of events,” with “a sacred quality…made in symbolic form,” wherein, “the narrative refers in dramatic form to origins or transformations.”@ The Industrial Revolution, as it has most recently been portrayed in scholarship, is a name for an assemblage of slow-moving, uneven, not entirely accessible events, occasionally punctuated by traumatic change, that ultimately took more than a century to come to pass. Even now, there are few convincing arguments for setting firm dates of a beginning and ending. Yet when the socialist historians J. L. and Barbara Hammond observed in 1917, more than a century after “revolution” came to be associated with both scientific inquiry and political upheaval but only decades after Arnold Toynbee’s lectures, that “the Industrial Revolution separated England from her past as completely as the political Revolution separated France from her past,” they were not simply making a comparison for the sake of drama, but rather reflecting the accumulation of meaning that in turn affected how the past was portrayed in their writing.@ Indeed, as we continue to examine the history of industrialization in Britain and beyond, the framework of our examination continues to rest on an institutionalized cultural myth. “Revolution” within the name “Industrial Revolution” therefore is not so much a description, but an evaluation of the history of industry in England. It is a myth that embodies a shifting historiography of Britain, in which labor became a visible character on the national stage, and as such perhaps lives up to its own semantic promise of overturning.
Works Cited
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