11 Jul Birmingham: leading the way through four Industrial Revolutions
The River Rea doesn’t look like much, but the founders of Birmingham were onto something when they first settled along this unassuming stream over 1,000 years ago.
There must be something special in the water flowing down from the Wasely Hills Country Park. What else could be responsible for the ingenuity, resilience and spirit of enterprise that’s put Birmingham at the forefront of global innovation for the last millennium?
From the Bullring to ‘the first manufacturing town in the world’ to the rise of ‘MidTech’ and beyond, let’s take a look at how Birmingham has led the way through three industrial revolutions and is set to do the same with the fourth.
First Industrial Revolution – the engine room of the UK
Long before the first steam engine, Birmingham was a city on a mission. The establishment of the Bull Ring market in the 1100s drew all manner of artisans and merchants, and the town became a prosperous centre of commerce. Then, in the 1500s, the town broke away from the traditional authorities of religious and feudal rule. It gained a degree of social and economic freedom unseen anywhere else in the country.
This allowed a plethora of industries to flourish, with thousands of workshops springing up as the town grew. Chief among those industries was metalworking, with everything from swords and guns to buttons and jewellery being produced in abundance. Birmingham craftsmen reached such a level of mastery that unique and exquisite trinkets known as ‘Birmingham Toys’ became coveted across the world.
Then came the ‘Midlands Enlightenment’ in the 1700s. Leading figures came together to discuss the scientific and philosophical advances that were brewing around Europe. The most prominent group was The Lunar Society of Birmingham, including industrialists such as Matthew Boulton and James Watt, who were among the first to take these new ideas and apply them to the real world.
Birmingham’s unique blend of prosperity, relative freedom, learning and ambition laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution. Over the course of the 1700s, Birmingham played host to many major innovations that had a profound impact on a range of industries. In 1738, James Wyatt and Lewis Paul invented the cotton-spinning machine that was the basis of the huge mechanised machines used in the textile mills of the 1800s. And in 1766, Matthew Boulton opened the Soho Manufactory, the world’s first factory to mass-produce goods on an assembly line.
But perhaps the innovation that propelled the Industrial Revolution more than any other was the Watt steam engine, developed by Birmingham’s James Watt and Matthew Boulton and first used in 1778. Its improved performance and efficiency drastically increased the scale at which factories could produce goods. Its subsequent use in factories across Britain supports Birmingham’s claim as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
Second Industrial Revolution – city of a thousand trades
Around 100 years after the first Industrial Revolution began, a wave of rapid technological advances heralded the second.
The early 1800s saw scientists begin to understand and harness electricity. By the end of the century, life had been completely changed by a host of electrical applications. And Birmingham industries were perfectly placed to take full advantage.
In 1865, Webster and Horsfall of Birmingham made part of the first successful Transatlantic telegraph cable. And in 1896, Major John Hall-Edwards also transformed the medical world from Birmingham, using x-ray technology to assist in surgery for the first time. Birmingham industries also stayed ahead of the game by embracing new technologies such as the lightbulb and telephone early on.
During the second Industrial Revolution, huge advances in transportation meant the world shrank for many people – and Birmingham was once again in the driving seat. In 1891, John Boyd Dunlop founded the Fort Dunlop tyre factory, which would go on to become the largest factory in the world.
In 1895, Frederick Lanchester built Britain’s first four-wheeled petrol car in his Birmingham workshop. Ten years later, Herbert Austin began building cars at Longbridge. The Austin Motor Company would be one of Britain’s biggest car manufacturers for decades and influence the vehicles of global brands such as BMW and Nissan. Hundreds more local companies thrived as they produced various parts for the automobile and aeroplane supply chain.
Birmingham’s position at the centre of Britain’s burgeoning railroad network meant the finest tradespeople and innovators from across the country, and indeed the Commonwealth, had no trouble relocating here to seek their fortune. This constant influx of people made Birmingham a social and cultural melting pot, and the diversity of its economy earned it the moniker ‘city of a thousand trades’.
Third Industrial Revolution – times a-changing
Following the two World Wars, in which Birmingham played a crucial role in the manufacture of vehicles, arms and other equipment, the world entered the third Industrial Revolution – the Digital Revolution.
Birmingham aided in the development of the world’s first commercially-available electronic computer, the Ferranti Mark 1. Birmingham scientist Conway Berners-Lee and his wife, Mary Lee Woods, both worked on the development team. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because he was the father of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.
Birmingham innovations entered pop culture as the Mellotron keyboard, made by Bradmatics, was used by several iconic artists of the 60s, including The Beatles, Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin. And if your head hurts after too much rock’n’roll, you have a Birmingham chemist to thank for the remedy – John Robert Vane studied chemistry at the University of Birmingham before helping to develop aspirin.
Following a decline in Birmingham’s manufacturing sector around the 1980s, the council began planning for the transformation of the city’s economy. One outcome of this was a focus on new technologies, and many science parks were established in collaboration with the city’s several universities. The council also launched initiatives to upskill the population.
The Digital Revolution has seen many regional ‘tech hubs’ spring up around the UK, of which the West Midlands is the fastest-growing. A combination of Birmingham’s tradition of innovation, high levels of civic investment and support, strong infrastructure and a glut of educational institutions has led to this trend – known as ‘Midtech’. Birmingham’s tech scene is booming, and B13 Technology is perfectly placed as we head into the fourth Industrial Revolution.
Fourth Industrial Revolution – rise of the machines
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”
The words of John F. Kennedy are especially pertinent as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
While change has been the only constant throughout Birmingham’s history, the difference now is that the future is so much closer. Profound leaps in technology once took decades – now they take years or even months. The beat of change has been dialled right up.
Technology that was once the stuff of sci-fi movies is now part of everyday life. What’s cutting-edge today could be obsolete in five years’ time. Techs such as AI, machine learning, robotic process automation, and virtual and augmented reality are already transforming the way companies and consumers operate.
And Birmingham, as ever, is a hotbed of innovation, central to the revolution. No doubt change will happen faster here than in most other places, and those who ply their trade in the ‘city of a thousand trades’ must keep pace.
It’s our role at B13 to help Birmingham businesses do just that.
Our 12 years in business here have seen us constantly adapting to thrive in a rapidly changing landscape. We know what it takes to build for success now and in the future. We take the time to understand your business and your current tech situation.
As your tech partner, we offer the expertise, flexibility and efficiency to develop the tech solutions that help you achieve your goals, whether it’s enhancing your legacy systems or building from scratch.
Get in touch today for an honest and open chat about how your business can thrive in these exciting yet challenging times for Birmingham’s businesses.