Category:Mill Engines

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The Mill Engine revolutionised cotton manufacturing in England in the 1780s. Although we nowadays tend to think of "milling" as being a grinding process (such as the conversion of wheat to produce flour), the more general usage of the word "mill" meant some machinery or plant to takes in a raw material and put out a processed version. While many mill engines were used to produce four, others were used to power factory machinery for other processes, such as to process raw cotton fibre: to use a succession of machines to tease the cotton fibres, turn them into thread, and then use the thread to make cloth.

Introduction of the Mill Engine

Before 1780, industrial cotton-producing equipment had needed to be powered by water wheels, which meant that the factories typically had to be built in out-of-the-way locations by rivers that generated a decent head of water pressure.

Although steam engines had been used industrially since the 1710s for water pumping, cotton mills had more exacting requirements, as any slight variation in speed of a weaving machine could cause a variation in thread spacing that would be easily visible to the eye in the finished cloth. Mill engines needed massive flywheels and reliable speed-regulation mechanisms to produce uniform cloth, and this didn't happen until the arrival of the Boulton-Watt engine.

Cotton and Manchester

After the first mill engine was installed in Arkwright's Haarlem Mill in Derbyshire and proved the concept viable, the production of mill engines allowed the creation of massive factories with huge workforces to mass-produce cotton at lower cost, displacing home workers. With raw cotton arriving by ship from plantations in America and being offloaded in nearby Liverpool, Manchester quickly changed from having no obvious cotton-making industry to becoming the largest cotton-producing region in the world, nicknamed Cottonopolis.

William Blake

Mill engines encouraged the Industrial Revolution's trend away from small independent businesses towards massive factories, often with appalling working conditions.

William Blake's (circa ~1804-~1808) poem that was later put to music to become the song "Jerusalem" refers to "dark satanic mills". The popular interpretation is that Blake was referring to factories, and may have been inspired by the blackened burned-out derelict shell of Albion Mills (1786-1791) on the river Thames, which Blake would have passed every time he walked from "lovely Lambeth" to the City of London. Albion Mills had been a flour mill powered by a Boulton and Watt engine, and by running continuously day and night had threatened the local flour millers with financial ruin, until it had burned down ... to the widespread joy of other local millers, some of whom reputedly danced on Lambeth Bridge in the light of the flames.

Although there are other less literal interpretations of the poem, the fact that the word "Albion" meant "The British Isles" potentially made Albion Mills a powerful metaphor for the descent of England from a state of supposed rural heavenly idyll into a hellish state where people worked day and night to feed giant machines in the light of furnace flames and flickering gaslight.

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