The Birthplace of the Modern World
Plain Truth Magazine
April 1984
Volume: Vol 49, No.4
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The Birthplace of the Modern World

INTERNATIONAL DESK — Ironbridge, England

   IF THERE is one place where it could be said that the modern world began, it is this little town, which takes its name from the old bridge that spans the river Severn.
   Before the bridge was opened on New Year's Day, 1781, nobody had ever seen an iron bridge. Bridges were made out of wood or stone — not iron. Iron was too heavy, too brittle, too expensive and too hard to work with.
   So when it was proposed to build an iron bridge over the Severn, people mocked. It couldn't be done — and even if it could, it would certainly fall down, or be swept away in the first flood! They were wrong — it's still there — as much a symbol of its age as the space shuttle is of ours.
   It's a quaint old thing. No bolts or screws were used in its construction — the various pieces were joined together by cast dovetail, tenon and other joints more reminiscent of woodworking than metal. In the late 1700s engineers were still experimenting and did not fully understand the potential of iron as a building material. Nobody had ever tried to make a bridge out of iron before.
   Men had been using iron for thousands of years, of course, but not for building. There was not enough of it. The problem was not the raw material, for Britain had ample reserves of iron ore. But extracting the metal from the ore needed vast quantities of charcoal — up to 10 tons for every ton of metal.
   By the end of the 17th century, for various reasons England's forests had become severely depleted, and the remaining reserves of hardwood suitable for making charcoal were far off the beaten track. Iron smelting in the early 1700s was thus virtually a cottage industry and iron almost a semiprecious metal.
   Then about 1710, Abraham Darby, working in his little foundry at Coal brookdale, just up the road from Ironbridge, showed that iron could be smelted by heating the ore with coke (baked coal). Britain had plenty of coal, but hitherto all attempts to use it in iron making had failed. Sulphur and other impurities in the coal combined with the ore in the furnace, and the resulting iron was of very poor quality.
   When he learned the art of using coke, Darby solved the essence of the problem. By the late 1700s the iron makers of Coal brookdale had mastered the techniques of producing good quality iron in large quantities and had provided the key to the industrial age. And so toward the end of the 18th century, England, like America and France, was convulsed by revolution.
   This revolution was not fought with the same patriotic fervor as the American Revolution, nor was it as bloody as the French. No territories were seized, nor kings or queens executed. It was a revolution in the way people worked and made things, and it altered the lives of nearly everyone on earth. We call it the Industrial Revolution.
   As soon as engineers had an abundant supply of iron, they used it to turn once — rural Britain into the world's first industrial society — and thus, the most powerful nation of its day. Work once performed by hand could now be done on machines; powered by massive steam engines. For the first time they freed the manufacturers from depending on the waterwheel or the windmill for their source of energy.
   In 1800, 80 percent of the people in the British Isles had lived and worked on the land. Fifty years later, more than half the population was to be found in the new towns that had sprung up around the industrial centers. Britain's mines, factories and foundries began to produce more than any country had ever done.
   During the 1820s British engineers solved the problems of making the steam engine mobile and the railroad age began. By 1850, there were 5,000 miles of track laid in Britain. No longer was man restricted to the speed of a galloping horse, while his goods trailed behind at the rate of a plodding ox. Now man and goods could race across country, at 30, then 60 and soon 100 miles an hour.
   The engineers learned fast, and there seemed to be no limit to their wonders. When John Wilkinson launched a little iron boat on the river near the iron bridge in 1787, a skeptical crowd lined the bank to watch it sink. But it didn't; it showed the way for British shipyards to build great iron steamships that revolutionized oceangoing trade and commerce. By the end of the 19th century, five out of every six merchant ships were British — built.
   Other European nations jumped on the industrial bandwagon — Belgium first, followed by France. But none could catch Britain. She flooded the world's markets with manufactured goods of every kind, and British civil engineers were at work on every continent supervising the construction of roads, railways, bridges and tunnels. Brimming with confidence, no mountain was too high, no river too wide for them.
   This dramatic progress was achieved at some cost in human happiness. The condition of the new working class was pitiful. They lived crowded together in miserable slums. Men and women worked 12 hours or more a day in wretched conditions. Child labor was common as pragmatic industrialists rationalized that even the children's contribution was needed to keep the factories and mines producing.
   However, reformers were at work, and during the 19th century the lot of the working man slowly improved. He was, in fact, better off than his country cousin. Forget for a moment the idyllic scenes of the English countryside painted by Turner and Constable. The truth was that the circumstances of the average rural worker in Britain were pitiful. He lived in a squalid, damp, dirt-floored hovel, earning a pittance and condemned to poverty and illiteracy. His life expectancy was about 40 years. To make matters worse, he was being systematically pushed off the land.
   In an effort to increase production, the landowning gentry began to reorganize their estates. The poor were driven from their pathetic little holdings, and soon even the common pastures where they had grazed their animals and the woods where they had hunted game to supplement their meager diet became inaccessible. Many emigrated to colonies of Britain's vast overseas Empire. But hundreds of thousands made a shorter migration, joining the labor force in the new industrial towns. Conditions there were not ideal, but it was better than starving in the countryside. Whatever its evils, industrialization offered some hope.
   In 1851 the Great Exhibition was held in London's Hyde Park. A huge building of iron and glass was designed. It was nicknamed the "Crystal Palace," and beneath its soaring roof merchants and manufacturers of the world were invited to show their wares. The superstars were the British, of course — at least half the wonderful array of merchandise, machines, gadgets and inventions were designed, built and manufactured by British workers in British factories.
   Queen Victoria described the opening day as the "happiest and proudest day of my life." Her husband, Prince Albert, who had worked tirelessly as the patron Of the Great Exhibition, saw it as the turning point of man's history, when trade would take the place of war, and the wonders of science and industry would improve the lot of every man on earth.
   Yes, it did seem in 1851 that British industry and British engineers, had blazed a trail into a new world. The unprecedented advances being made in nearly every field would surely soon abolish poverty, ignorance and misery and usher in a new age of wisdom and understanding.
   How wrong they were! Within a century of the Great Exhibition, Britain had been toppled from the number one position. Iron intended for plowshares and pruning hooks had to be hastily beaten into swords and spears — or rather tanks and battleships. The days of spears and swords had gone forever — an industrialized world could make more effective weapons. Twice in a generation, the industrial powers went for each other's throat in "wars to end all wars." Britain emerged on the winning side both times, but never really recovered her strength.
   Today, her days of supremacy are a memory. The once great nation is a shadow of its former self — tired, struggling to keep its economic head above water. But Britain is not the only one. Most other industrial nations are in trouble as well. Unemployment, stagnation, inflation, frustration and disenchantment dog their steps. The advanced nations — also called the developed world — lead the rest in divorce, crime and suicide. They abolished child labor and invented kiddie porn. They conquered the plague and hunger — but replaced it with cancer, heart disease and a growing famine of the Spirit. It is not a coincidence that the theory of evolution took hold in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Man, it seemed, could do anything, so why did he need a God to create him?
   Newer industrial societies like Japan, Korea and Taiwan are still on the upswing. Prosperity is increasing — but thoughtful people are beginning to ask, "Is it worth it?" They have noticed that development (they call it Westernization) brings with it a collapse of traditional values and the erosion of national culture.
   Most of the Third World is still trying to catch up. (The Fourth World — the utterly poor nations — are having to abandon the pursuit.) The Third World is desperately struggling to industrialize, often neglecting agriculture — a mistake that will cost them dearly.
   What went wrong? Was industrialization, the discovery of knowledge and technique, not the way to go? Was it perhaps of itself inherently the wrong thing to do and doomed inexorably to failure? Would the world have been better off without the technological breakthroughs of the last 200 years?
   Not necessarily. The Victorian engineers greatly benefited mankind in many ways. The industrial age paved the way to better physical living conditions and a richer, more educated life for millions.
   Victorian engineers built not only bridges and railroads. They built water mains and sewage systems. The quality of life increased and epidemics were controlled. As machines made obsolete the laborious hand-powered manufacturing techniques, people could be better housed and dressed, and books, newspapers and educational materials became cheap and plentiful.
   When the labor laws took children out of the factory and into the schoolroom, illiteracy became the exception rather than the rule. The average person in the industrialized world today lives more comfortably, earns more, eats better and can expect to live several decades longer than most of the richest elite 200 years ago. These things were there to be discovered, and they should have been. Humans needed these advances.
   But they were not all that humans needed. There was a missing ingredient that still prevented mortals from building Utopia.
   Unlike animals guided by instinct, we are able to wonder, experiment and build. Sooner or later scientists were bound to stumble across the secrets and advantages of technology. Why, then, has it become such a mixed blessing?
   You need to understand that the modern world did not really begin in Ironbridge. The die was cast long before Abraham Darby fired up his little coke furnace. The foundations of our present society lie in the decisions made nearly 6,000 years ago in the garden of Eden. That may sound like ridiculous superstition, and most historians and sociologists would dismiss it as nonsense. It is nevertheless true.
   Even though humans were given by the Creator minds that could think, plan, learn and discover, there were limitations. Mankind could learn about physical things, but not all knowledge is physical. For example, mankind needed the knowledge of how to live successfully with fellow beings, without greed, covetousness, anger and selfishness. Without this knowledge there could never be lasting peace or happiness, whatever else was discovered. But no scientist or engineer could uncover this knowledge. It is outside the realm of physical experimentation. It is spiritual knowledge and it has to be revealed by God.
   Most people have heard the story of the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden — but they don't really understand it. It is not a quaint old legend — it is the true foundation of our society today. The story explains, — for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, why we can't find a way to peace — and why, in this age of matchless advances, we are still as miserable, frustrated and unhappy as ever. And why on the one hand we have been able to nearly double our own life span, and at the same time threaten with nuclear weapons all the generations to come.
   The first two humans, when they rejected God's commandments and took the forbidden fruit, also rejected revealed knowledge. They chose instead to decide for themselves what was good and what was evil. But they were not equipped to do this, and neither are their descendants. Whatever else we discover, we will never by ourselves find the spiritual causes of world peace, justice and happiness without God's help.
   The Industrial Revolution did not really change the course of human history — but it did hasten things along to their inevitable conclusion. Without guidance from God, progress backfired, since man could not learn to use properly the things he was discovering. Whether it is iron, or airplanes, the printing press, or the secrets of the atom — eventually they are used to threaten, hurt and destroy. What could be a blessing becomes a curse. It will be this way until the human race learns that it cannot, through its own resources, find a way of life that leads to peace.
   One day we will learn. The prophecies of the Bible show that we will do it in the most dramatic way — using technological breakthroughs and scientific discoveries to render our planet nearly uninhabitable and life almost extinct. At that point in history, only God can save us — and he will. Then there will be another revolution and another civilization. With God in authority, humans will learn how progress should be made. That may sound unrealistic and farfetched. But" then, so did an iron bridge a little more than 200 years ago.

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Plain Truth MagazineApril 1984Vol 49, No.4