The Industrial Revolutionaries

As familiar as the outlines of the Industrial Revolution are, no one will be surprised to learn that every steam-powered invention has a murky history of rivalries, precedents, and counterclaims. However unsurprising it may be, it is still fun to learn that a century before Edison had his Tesla, Watt had his Trevithick. The more gripping tale that Gavin Weightman has to tell in Industrial Revolutionaries, though, is of the commercial cold war waged especially by England and France through and over iron and steam, with many sidewise glances toward America. Gentlemen cross the Channel again and again to sniff out the secrets of new engines and recruit defectors — a British artisan might face prison if he tried to return home after working in France — while Robert Fulton tries to sell torpedoes to Napoleon before offering them to Nelson. The most fascinating and unfamiliar tale is that of the “Chosun Five.” At a time when the shipwrecked Japanese fishermen rescued by American whalers might be looked on by the Shoguns as traitors infected by the West and even be executed, in 1854 five Samurai risked everything to secretly travel to Britain and bring knowledge of 19th-century technology back to Japan. Ten years later British vessels were shelling the Japanese coast, trying to force Japan to accept all at once the revolution that European industrialists had staged so fitfully over the previous century.