From Water to Steam: The transition from renewable energy to coal during Scotland's Industrial Revolution

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Geographical & Earth Sciences


1. GIS documentation of the distribution of water mills across Scotland as mapped on the mid-19th-century OS First Edition, to enable rigorous (quantitative) assessment of topographic/ geomorphological control of mill location; and
2. using a number of these mills as case studies to investigate industry's switch from water to steam.
In 'The origins of fossil capital', Malm questions the common explanation for the 19th-century shift from water power to steam during the Industrial Revolution. Malm argues that this explanation - that "water wheels and other traditional prime movers ... could not deliver [industry's] requisite quantities of energy" (2013, 23) - is limited and that water power had many advantages over steam, including lower cost and greater reliability. Malm's chronology means that, if applicable to Scotland, the switch to steam should have been essentially complete by the mid-19th-century OS mapping.
The primary questions the student will examine are:
- to what extent do Malm's conclusions (largely based on the English Midlands) relate to Scotland (i) where the geomorphology and hydrology are different from the Midlands, and several large Scottish population centres, such as Glasgow, Perth and Paisley, had water-powered industry throughout the 19th century, and (ii) where, in some situations, such as New Lanark, Deanston, Stanley and Catrine, Scottish industrialists actually moved the population to the geomorphology and hydrology and established factory complexes in locations optimal for water power?
- does the geomorphological setting of Scottish water mills differ from southern English mill settings? This PhD will use the geo-referenced mid-19th-century OS First Edition mapping and high resolution digital elevation models to assess whether or not Scottish mills are preferentially located adjacent to the glacially-steepened river reaches best suited to water wheel efficiency. This georeferenced historical mapping has only recently become available, and the geolocation of mills within a GIS will allow quantitative assessment of mill location in relation to river gradient, geomorphology, and proximity to urban centres. The student will pay particular attention to water mills in urban centres, to assess whether steeper river reaches were the preferred locations of water mills in such centres. Earlier urban maps will enable assessment of whether these urban mill locations reflect inertial continuation of earlier 'pre-industrial' locations or were positive choices.
- did water-powered industry persist longer in large urban centres in Scotland and does the timing of the shift to steam in these centres differ from that proposed by Malm? The student will examine several industries of their choice, such as the cotton industry and grain-milling, the latter having a persistent history of water power in Glasgow. The urban centres will be particularly interesting because they are located in the estuaries of coastal rivers that would have experienced Scotland's post-glacial uplift, a major effect of which in coastal rivers has been the development of steep reaches, well-suited to water power (Bishop et al., 2005). Cities like Glasgow will also act as excellent case-study sites because of their central role in the development of steam power.
- how do themes pursued in this proposed project allow engagement and furthering of debates in environmental history and historical geography regarding the relative contribution of geographical endowments to development paths? How far does the history of Scottish water mills inform wider debates in cultural and economic history regarding the role of technology in the development of a 'culture of growth' during the 18th and 19th centuries (Mokyr 2016)? The student will more broadly assess the extent to which the shift to steam was part of the emerging Enlightenment belief in the usefulness of progress, despite evidence that older technologies were in some ways superior.


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