Weaving a fresh narrative around technological change
An EU-funded project retold the story of the mechanisation of British textile production, by placing industrialisation into a wider context. The results provide fresh insights into technological change that are still relevant today.
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Most accounts of the British Industrial Revolution have framed the story in broad economic terms. In contrast, the EU-funded RETHINKTEX projects approach focused on the history of technology to study the mechanisation of textile production in Britain between 1700 and 1900, revealing its profound cultural, societal and human components.
The project was a collaboration between Regina Lee Blaszczyk at the University of Leeds, UK and Barbara Hahn of Texas Tech University in the US. Hahn was funded through the EUs Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme.
My research addressed the persistent belief that British entrepreneurship and superiority was responsible for industrialisation, by placing industrialisation into a wider context, says Hahn.
For instance, she argues that the laws and restrictions on textile imports passed by the British parliament, in response to competition from India, favoured the countrys existing textile industry and paved the way for the mechanisation of production and the Industrial Revolution.
Overall, RETHINKTEX has led to a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the British textile industry. This has enlightening historians, the wider academic community, and the general public alike.
The project enriches the story of the Industrial Revolution, with greater detail about particular people, technologies and products, and places the period in an exciting new context. This reveals the history of British industrialisation to be part of a global phenomenon, shaped by cultural, social, and material variables, with remarkable parallels to the Digital Age.
The project involved new research into mechanical innovation, design, artefacts, products, and people in several British regions. It used established methods, but applied them for the first time to the mechanisation of textile production.
I employed methods and approaches from the history of technology, including systems analysis, the social construction of technological systems, and actor-network theory, explains Hahn. Taken together, these three approaches help us understand the complicated interrelationship among social, economic, and technological change. One factor does not simply cause the rest; technology does not simply cause social change, it also results from social change.
Engaging the public
A distinctive feature of RETHINKTEX was its outreach events, which focussed on extending academic research to non-academic audiences. Building on Blaszczyks extensive experience in museums, and in collaboration with the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, the project team prepared material for the textile machinery hall and for a new exhibition about the city called Cottonopolis.
Other collaborations included participation in the Yorkshire Year of the Textile seminars and exhibits, and a pamphlet for the West Yorkshire Heritage Trail.
In addition, the project funded two conferences on textile history that brought academics and the public together. The project team contributed to workshops, produced scholarly articles, and gave public lectures.
A key project outcome is two forthcoming books on textiles, technological advances and the Industrial Revolution. Hahns book, in which she presents her arguments for a contextual understanding of industrialisation, will be published by Cambridge University Press.
From looms to smartphones
In addition to telling a fresh, dynamic history of the British textile industry, the project can also help us rethink how technology continues to change.
Hahn believes that although every case of technological change is particular, the Industrial Revolution supplies a model for the way technology, society, and economic and business structures are interacting today.
For example, smart phones certainly change the way people interact, but their relationship with technology was already changing through pagers, emails, and the telephone, and these changes paved the way for smartphone adoption, she adds.