Theater of Cruelty

The power of water

The wheel of history and the power of water
Forfatter: Terje Tvedt
Forlag: Dreyer, (Norge)
HISTORY / Terje Tvedt breaks some research norms by seeing the water wheel to a greater degree than the steam engine as the real driving force behind the industrial revolution. It's about water, not cultural superiority.


We live in a time where new technology is in the process of radically reshaping relationships between people. It creates new ways of organizing work and society, and with good reason many are talking about the fourth industrial revolution happening right now.

That is why it is also particularly relevant to look back and try to understand what happened during the first industrial revolution, which broke through completely surprisingly in the decades around 1800. There is no doubt that England is absolutely central to this development – and that big questions are still how it can be that a foggy island in the North Sea could run with this honor, while obvious growth areas in Southeast Asia apparently lost the race. And this becomes particularly interesting in light of the fact that China in particular has recently made a resounding comeback and is in many ways establishing itself in a global leadership role.


Norwegian Terje Tvedt has taken on this great challenge, and it has now become a unique new book, in which he comes up with a new and highly original interpretation of what actually happened. He does this by breaking with a research tradition where Western values ​​and traditions are made the natural yardstick of history. It is of course of no use to have a different geographical center of gravity in the interpretation either – it creates another form of distortion. Therefore, Tvedt has made a journey between 11 different locations, and in order to make the enormous material comparable, he focuses on three different economic sectors.

Den første er transportation. The ability to move heavy cargo over long distances is an important prerequisite for the expansion of trade and markets. Add to this textile production, which at the time was quite central in all 11 countries, and it was in the cotton industry that the modern working class arose. Finally, the iron industry stands as the third factor, because it created the basis for technological breakthroughs and opened up the possibility of manufacturing precise tools – everything from steam engines and water wheels to weapons.

Here we should lift the veil a little by saying that Tvedt breaks some research norms by looking the water wheel to a greater extent than steam engineone as the actual driving force behind the industrial revolution, and the comparison is therefore about how countries and empires understood how to function in coexistence with the existing water landscape.

The decline of the Ottomans

A good example in this context is Det Ottoman Realm. Around 1800, it was a huge superpower that ruled over huge areas of land, but it was also right there that the long decline began to pick up speed. A common explanation is that the kingdom was stuck in religion and tradition for far too long. Islam has been viewed as rigid conservatism, and the kingdom's leaders even chose an Islamic course incompatible with modernity and change. That the enormous power center towards the end of the 19th century had crumbled to such a serious degree that it was described as the 'sick man' of the continent was, according to the normal model of explanation, more or less self-inflicted.

However, the threat came from outside, and it happened initially in the textile industry. Especially handwoven blankets had for centuries been the Ottomans' biggest export, and it had brought great prosperity. But the majority of production took place in thousands of smaller companies, which were scattered around the kingdom. It was produced in a larger format, but almost exclusively in the few places where there was a year-round stream. Here it was possible to drive production with power that large water wheels could deliver.

The threat from England in particular came as a clear demonstration of I sellone's power. Ottoman production had been so heavily based on small enterprises because there were relatively few and often remote places in the empire where water-based large-scale production was possible, and with the industrial revolution England saw the decisive lead, because the new advances could be built massively on the development of another of the three sectors Tvedt operates with in his analysis. It was the transport sector that made the quantum leap. Where caravans were a sign of wealth and power in the Ottoman Empire, the Industrial Revolution revolutionized transport routes. Ships and barges could transport much larger quantities of goods, efficiently and cheaply, and with one came the camel as an archaic form of transport. England was fluvialized, as it is called.

Cultural arrogance

It would be too extensive to cover all the parts of the world that Tvedt has investigated in connection with this extensive analysis. We therefore leave the Ottoman Empire as a golden example, while it should be mentioned that a consistent theme throughout is water and transport.

Little by little, the traditional explanatory models are being killed off.

The core of all this is that, through the book, he gradually kills the traditional models of explanation. They are based on the fact that the industrial revolution was primarily based on European values, and this has permeated historiography with cultural arrogance.

The story of the industrial revolution thus becomes the story of what it is that we in the Western world are doing wrong in modern times. Whether it is South Sudan, China, Afghanistan or Libya, this book is a demonstration of how we are still governed by our ingrained belief in our cultural, moral and material superiority, and this leads us all too often to underestimate those who do not share these mindsets or values.

In other words, if we haven't learned it yet, it pays to read Terje Tvedt's thorough analysis to learn where we went wrong about it , industrial revolution#.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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