Monday 12 October 2009

Power to the people

By Richard Morley.Powerhouse of the old weaving factory, Atocha.

One of the questions that cropped up recently on the search engines which send internauts towards this blog was, “What did Spain do in the Industrial Revolution?” And the answer to this, at least to an Englishman who was brought up to regard the likes of Watt, Stephenson, Arkwright, Trevithick, Boulton, and McAdam as national heroes just as much as Drake, Nelson, and Churchill, is Not A Lot. Such a great leap forward in technology requires a spirit of entrepreneurial endeavour and public acceptance that was either lacking or discouraged in Spain at that time.

Much of Spanish manufacturing was rigidly controlled. Usually by the royal household who had a monopoly on many of the processes and balked at the very idea of competition.

This is not to say that Spain had no industry. Far from it; such a sizable and important country with possessions and colonies abroad had need of a diverse and powerful infrastructure. What it lacked was innovation.

While researching the question, at least as far as Madrid went, I was struck by the great lack of records available. In fact, what I have found have been bureaucratic accounts relating to the tariffs and taxes imposed on traders, importers and manufacturers rather than records of inventions or scientific development. In fact it seems much of Spain’s industrial advances used imported technology as opposed to any home grown know-how.

The first thing you notice when visiting the railway museum in the Paseo de las Delicias is a British built locomotive and in the lobby of the Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros Industriales stands one of Watt’s steam engines.

However, before I get comments about how Spanish ingenuity invented the submarine and the mop and probably many other things, compared to Britain at that time most of mainline Europe depended more on an agrarian economy than an industrialised one.

According to industrial historians the one thing that points towards industrialisation is the use of fossil fuels: Coal and oil. While the coal mines of Britain were supplying the powerhouses of increasingly large factories, the industries of Madrid were still fuelling their fires with charcoal and firewood.

How do I know this? Through the official records of the time! All fuel entering Madrid was taxed and one thing the funcionarios of Madrid were good at was keeping records. So I know that in the mid 1800s Madrid imported approximately 36,000 tons of charcoal a year, which worked out at less than half a kilogram of fuel per resident per day, a figure that basically hadn’t changed for a hundred years. Also 16,000 tons of firewood was entering the city at that time. There is no mention of any coal. When Enrique Dolfus established his cotton factory in San Fernando de Henares the steam engine that supplied the power to the looms was fuelled by 29,000 arrobas of firewood a year. An Arroba is 25 pounds or about 12 Kg. (San Fernando de Henares is outside of the city and so this does not figure in the records.)

There was no heavy industry at this time. Large scale metalwork was produced out of the city, but Madrid did have many blacksmiths, tinsmiths, gold and silversmiths who needed fuel for their furnaces. And of course, there were the bakers, the tripe makers, pottery, glass, tile and brick makers who had to heat their ovens and kilns.

The documents show that charcoal was the main fuel used for domestic use. But it seems that there are different forms of charcoal and different industries demanded very specific fuels. As an example, charcoal made from heather was used almost exclusively by the metal industries as, being a very hard wood, produced the greatest heat. Seven hundred and eighty cartloads and smaller quantities carried by mules and donkeys entered Madrid in 1848.

One of the most intriguing types of charcoal was called “Errax” and was made from olive stones. It was only used for use in domestic heating in the houses of the wealthy and never really caught on.

But charcoal was much more expensive than untreated firewood and that was used by many. A special type of firewood, known as “Hornija”, was ideal for bread baking. However, its heat output was not as high as charcoal and when the pottery in Alcorcón began to use it in the kilns it was found that the wood of the broom they were using did not give sufficient heat to vitrify the lead glaze. This had fatal consequences when the pottery came into contact with vinegar and other foodstuffs.

The saltpetre factory in Embajadores used firewood from grape vines and the tanneries would use oak. The earthenware factory in Valledemorillo only wanted pine.

But there was one fuel that was cheaper than all the others. Known as Madrid Peat, “Turba de Madrid”, this was actually animal manure that was mixed with straw and allowed to dry in dung heaps. It was calculated from the forage / manure conversion tables (and I amazed that there are such a things!), which determine how much mierda is produced by how much food, the 230,000 fanegas* of barley and nearly two million arrobas of straw would produce nearly eight thousand tons of manure. Apparently this represented 14% of all the fuel used in Madrid. While much of this was used in the kilns of the brick makers, it was a very cheap fuel for the bakers. Noting that baker’s ovens usually put both fuel and product in the same cavity, as the cooks of cordero (milk fed lamb) do today, I do wonder what the bread tasted of.

*A “Fanega” is a dry measure equivalent to about one and a half bushels or 50Kg. It is also the name of my favourite restaurant in Madrid. Find it at C / General Oráa, 29.

“Madrid Peat” was obviously in very plentiful supply, but its accumulation was discouraged due to fire risk. This did not prevent a large fire breaking out in Santa Domingo Plaza.

Genuine peat, gathered from marshy areas outside the city, was used by the lime makers and also by the confectioners. By law only tanners were allowed to use horn to feed their fires, but this was a readily available commodity from the meat markets in the Rastro and tripe makers would use it to start their fires.

This use of wood had a devastating effect on the surrounding forests. In a defence of “uncooked soap”, (apparently there are two ways of making the stuff – one needs heat, the other, considered inferior, didn’t,) Francisco Cabarrús, a French businessman whose Spanish father-in-law owned a soap factory in Carabanchel, claimed that the traditional method was responsible for the “great shortage of firewood at the Court and throughout the kingdom: it would not be exaggerated to say that the boilers in the villages around Madrid use around 400,000 arrobas of firewood per year, and if the “uncooked soap” is prohibited the scarcity will increase and the time may come when the forests are completely destroyed”.

You don't have to go too far out of Madrid, particularly if you head towards Segovia through the summer trekking and winter skiing resort of Puerto de Navacerrada and over the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains before you see great swathes of forestry, so perhaps Cabarrús overstated the case, but we are very aware these days about deforestation so perhaps, even for motives of self-interest, he could be regarded as one of the first conservationists.

It was not really until the beginning of the railway in Spain that coal was really required. This is strange as Spain has huge reserves of the stuff, although it is difficult and expensive to mine. Much of the coal used in power stations in Spain is imported.

But why was Spain left behind in the Industrial revolution? According to Leandro Prados de la Escosura, in a paper on Growth and Poverty in Spain, the indicative movement of the population from agriculture and villages to industry and towns did not really begin in Spain until the beginning of the twentieth century.

In his book, “An Economic History of Modern Spain”, Joseph Harrison suggests that the problem with Spanish industry in the 1800s was one of money supply. He states that, “…Spain’s inability to build a sound industrial base must be placed with successive governments who pursued a variety of mistaken and counter-productive policies which proved highly detrimental to the private sector”.

Quite true. It seemed the state could raise money from the banks, which they owned, for any number of schemes, but business entrepreneurs went begging. From 1852 to 1873 the bank of Spain lent twenty million pesetas to private companies, but eighty-two million stagnated in government loans.

While London and Amsterdam were seen as trading cities, Madrid was the model for the political city. Like Imperial Rome, Madrid was described as an economic parasite, consuming the wealth of the nation and its empire without contributing to that wealth. From Madrid ran a political and administrative network that controlled, taxed and shaped commercial activity, but its location, well inland and away from the trading ports, kept it from developing commerce of its own.

When you consider the centre of worldwide trade that Madrid has become today, this history seems very strange, but, with the exceptions of industries under royal patronage, the tobacco and weaving companies, private enterprise was almost discouraged by the government of the day.

But not all the blame can be laid on the government. A report in the London Standard of March 14, 1885, tells how cigar rollers in Madrid revolted over the introduction of machinery into the factories. It seems the populace, like the Luddites of Britain’s own Industrial Revolution, did not welcome the age of mechanisation.

So the answer to what Spain did during the Industrial Revolution is indeed, Not A Lot. However, if someone in a hundred years time asks what Spain did during the Technological Revolution that is happening now, then the answer will be very different.

Spanish companies are at the forefront of technology today. Telefónica takes its expertise all around the world. The Madrid Metro is an example to public transport systems the world over, holding patents that earn huge revenues and just about everyone I know works in the computer of engineering sectors.

The question should not be, “What did Spain do in the Industrial Revolution?” but, What is Spain doing now?
The question of which source of power should drive our world is important today. Should it be wind, water, sun, coal or uranium fired? Or should we return to animal waste? Leave a comment below.


  1. Thanks Richard. Informative as ever. You clearly have a lot of free time!

    As for fuel of the future; I recently watched a documentary on TV recently called 'Making a Sun on Earth'which was about using the same nuclear fusion process used by the sun to produce energy. However, this process would break the fundamental rule of physics, namely that energy cannot be created or destroyed only converted. The fusion process would apparently create more energy than it used and would solve the world energy crisis. Whilst we have prototype machines at present we are still around 40 or 50 years off going mainstream. May be too long into the future for you and it looks promising for the future.

  2. I understand that Spain is a leader in the solar thermal energy field - rather than using photovoltaic cells to generate electricity (only during the daytime), they use the solar energy to heat things such as molten salt, and then using the stored heat to create steam and generate 24 hours per day. I believe that Abengoa Solar from Spain is the prime contractor for such a plant outside of Phoenix, Arizona, USA.

  3. @ Surburban_homeboy: Where ever do you get the idea I have lots of free time? I wish that were the case. As you say, anything that proclaims to generate more energy than it consumes flies in the face of physics, but I am sure that in time we will produce power more efficiently - and waste it less - thaan we do now.
    @ Tom: Iberdrola certainly has shown it commitment to solar power. I had not heard of the molten salt process. More homework for me!!

  4. Really,a picture is showing the power of the people by creating such huge tower.