The common consensus is that the Industrial Revolution began when steam power suddenly began to replace manual labor at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century. However, in Reynolds’ article titled Medieval Roots of the Industrial Revolution, he argues that water power was significantly replacing manual labor as far back as the 8th century.
There are two general types of water mills: horizontal water mills and vertical water mills. Horizontal water mills were simpler and much cheaper, but they didn’t produce as much power as a horse or donkey could have. Because of this, the only major application of horizontal water mills was the milling of grain. Since these types of mills really only performed one role, Reynolds states that their role in the evolution of European industry is insignificant.
Vertical water wheels also come in two varieties: undershot and overshot. Undershot wheels were developed earlier than overshot wheels and could be placed in any stream or river with a strong enough current. These water wheels produced two to three horsepower, making them three to five times as powerful as horizontal water wheels.
The overshot wheel was the most complicated of the three types, but it was also the most powerful. The overshot wheel required water to fall onto it from above, which limited where they could be placed. They were also more expensive than the prior two designs, but his high price gave great results. Overshot wheels could produce up to 40 horsepower, but the average overshot wheel typically only produced five to seven.
Ancient engineers, including Vitruvius from Rome, knew of water wheel technology but did not utilize it. The areas in which classical civilizations developed did not have nearly as many powerful streams as central Europe, and there weren’t many uses for them at the time other than milling grain. Additionally, the Greeks and Romans had a surplus of labor from their immense working class, and this provided no incentive to develop labor-reducing technologies.
In medieval Europe, there were three main groups which propagated the development of the water wheel: monks, feudal nobles, and merchants. It may seem unlikely that monks would be one of the largest developers of the water wheel, but there are two key principles of monasteries which demonstrate why this was the case. First, monks lived on very rigid schedules of work, study, and prayer. Because of these strict schedules, monks developed labor-saving technologies like the water wheel to allow them to work on other things in their tightly-managed time. Secondly, monasteries had to be self-sufficient, so the use of water wheels allowed more work to be done without requiring the assistance from outsiders.
Feudal nobles and merchants both developed water wheels in order to make profit. Nobles would often establish grain milling monopolies by requiring all grain to be ground in their singular grain mill while also charging their serfs to use the mill. The merchants would develop the mill to ease the processes of making marketable goods, and this will be addressed in depth later.
Water mills became widely used throughout Europe relatively quickly. By the eleventh century, a survey of England under Norman rule showed that there was one mill for about every fifty houses. Even areas which were technologically behind, such as Russia and Poland, had a multitude of water mills.
The uses of water mills expanded immensely over time. Ancient water mills were only used for two purposes: milling grain and raising water. However, Europeans began using mills in differing ways as they developed water wheel technology. By manipulating gears and axles, these Europeans were able to speed up the rotational power of mills to allow them to be used to grind and polish metals. Then mills became useful for a variety of things, allowing them to be used as lathes, pipe borers, rollers and cutters of metal sheets, fans for mine ventilation shafts, hoists, pumps, silk spinners, and grain threshers. Then, Europeans learned how to translate rotational speed into linear speed by using cams and cranks. This opened up a variety of new uses for mills, transforming them into machines which could grind malt for beer, grind ore into powder, crush oil out of olives, crush oak bark for the tannin extraction process in leatherworking, crush sugarcane, crush mustard and poppy seeds, crush dyes, crush components fro glassmaking, and prepare snuff, cement, potter’s clay, and gunpowder.
Th newfound uses of the water mill heavily influenced the metalworking industry. Mills were used to hammer metals and run bellows, allowing for hotter, more efficient forges. Sawmills were also improved by water mills. In fact, sawmills which utilized water wheels were so efficient that they were determined to be the cause of deforestation in parts of France.
The effect that water mills had on European industry is massive, and the water mill revolutionized industry hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps the reason we attribute steam power with the beginning of industrialization is the nonstop technological advancement that it sparked. Regardless, the water wheel had a major, overlooked effect on the History of Technology and the industrialization of Europe.
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-Kyle M. Foster