The Story of the UK Industrial Revolution

Halifax Fan grew from humble roots serving the textile industries of Yorkshire over 50 years ago, but the story of the centrifugal fan reaches right back to the UK Industrial Revolution between the mid. 18th century to the mid and late 19th century.

This inefficient engine was used mainly for pumping but it sparked numerous improvements until in 1763 James Watt invented a much more efficient steam engine with a separate condenser. Watt and partner Matthew Boulton continued the development of the steam engine within a successful company that was a hotbed of innovation and powered the industrial revolution by enabling factories to be sited away from water power. In towns like Halifax for example, which became a major textiles manufacturing centre.


One of the major factors in the enabling of the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine. Steam had been seen as having work potential for centuries but it wasn’t until around 1712 when Thomas Newcomen invented the ‘atmospheric engine’ which could transmit continuous power, that steam made its mark.

This inefficient engine was used mainly for pumping but it sparked numerous improvements until in 1763 James Watt invented a much more efficient steam engine with a separate condenser. Watt and partner Matthew Boulton continued the development of the steam engine within a successful company that was a hotbed of innovation and powered the industrial revolution by enabling factories to be sited away from water power. In towns like Halifax for example, which became a major textiles manufacturing centre.


Up until 1733, weaving was very much a laborious, one man, one loom operation, taking place in the weavers’ domestic premises. The width of the cloth was limited by the spread of the weaver’s arms as this was the limit to which the shuttle of thread could be passed across the loom unless two weavers were employed, one at each side of the loom.

John Kay revolutionised all that with his invention of the Flying Shuttle which enabled a single weaver to weave much wider fabrics, much faster. This in turn lent itself to power operation in factories with many looms and fewer weavers and much faster production of bolts of cloth, in Halifax as well as many of the towns in the north of England.


Until the invention of the Spinning Jenny by James Hargreaves in 1764, cotton or wool thread was created one spool at a time, by hand, using a spinning wheel before it could then be woven into cloth. Hargreaves’ invention initially enabled thread to be spun by 8 spools simultaneously, rising to 120 spools, as it was developed, matching the rising demand for thread brought about by the invention of the flying shuttle thirty years previously.

The thread lacked strength but this was corrected by the invention of Arkwright’s Water Frame in 1769. However, it was Samuel Compton’s Spinning Mule that combined the two inventions in 1779, leading to high speed, multi-spool spinning of quality thread that really fuelled industrialization and the first factories, initially water powered but subsequently steam powered.


The power loom, which partially automated textile weaving, was one of the most important inventions of the Industrial Revolution, initially water driven but subsequently steam driven with the coming of the steam engine and distributed shaft power throughout the mill. Its invention is attributed to Edmund Cartwright in 1784, but it was the many refinements by others over the next 50 years that finally resulted in a design by Kenworthy and Bulloch that made power weaving completely automatic.

By 1850 there were over 260,000 power looms in operation in England, most of them in Lancashire. Mills were built along the canal system giving the mills ready access to the ports and overseas markets. Development of power looms continues globally to this day, with the needs of more specialised and synthetic fibres needing different handling.


One of the greatest innovators and inventors of the Industrial Revolution was Sir Humphrey Davy, the inventor of the Davy Safety Lamp for use in coal mines. Davy’s lamp worked on the basis of using iron gauze to enclose a lamp's flame, and so prevent the methane burning inside the lamp from passing out to the general atmosphere. The presence of methane gas external to the lamp would cause the flame to brighten, warning the miners of danger.

ODavy also worked extensively with electricity, still in its infancy, and available then only from batteries. In the first decade of the 1800s, Davy used a 2,000 cell battery to create an electric arc across two carbon sticks, producing an intense and constant light. This arc-light was the first ever practical electric light and remained the only source of electric lighting until the invention of the filament or incandescent light almost a century later.


The invention of the steam locomotive came early in the 19th century and must be credited to Cornishman Richard Trevithick. He took his inspiration from the steam engines used in the Cornish tin mining industry and built the world’s first high-pressure steam engine. In 1802 he built the world’s first steam-powered railway locomotive for use in a Welsh ironworks.

However, the first commercially successful steam locomotive was Locomotion No1, built by Robert Stevenson & co. in 1825. This was the first steam engine to haul passengers on a public railway; the Stockton and Darlington Railway. In 1829, Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ was the first steam locomotive to bring together several innovations to produce the most advanced locomotive of its day. This led to an explosion in rail transport during the second half of the 19th century and subsequently to the virtual death of the canal system.


There’s nothing new in the need to move air. The Chinese used water power to drive primitive air conditioning fans and the rotary fan became even more popular during the Song Dynasty in the 1stC. In the 17thC the basic principles of vacuum and airflow were established by Robert Boyle and others. In 1772 fan systems were demonstrated to draw the stagnant air out of coal mines. Water power remained the status quo until the advent of steam power and in 1837 William Fourness installed the first steam-driven fan in Leeds.

The invention and development of the electric motor accelerated the adoption of fans for industrial and air-conditioning use. Companies like Halifax Fan continue the development of industrial fans, improving their efficiency and reliability for the widest possible range of sizes and applications. Truly engineering masterpieces, built by Halifax FAN:gineers.


While the steam engine was being rapidly adopted for factory and railway use, the marine industry was not being neglected. In 1802, William Symington built the first practical steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas. In 1807, American Robert Fulton adopted the Improved Watt engine to build the commercially viable North River Steamboat. Suitable only for short journeys on rivers and canals, it was 1819 before the Savannah crossed the Atlantic from Savannah Georgia to Liverpool.

Regular Atlantic crossings however didn’t take place until 1839 when Brunel’s side-paddle SS Great Western started regular transatlantic service. As the 19th century progressed, marine steam engines and steamship technology developed alongside each other. Paddles gradually gave way to propellers, and the introduction of metal hulls allowed ships to grow ever larger, necessitating steam power plants that were increasingly complex and powerful.


The availability of steel and the need for the large components that could be made from it drove the need for a powered device to forge those parts. Necessity is the mother of invention and it was Watt, the inventor of the steam engine who first designed the concept in 1784. It was not until 1839 however that Scottish engineer James Nasmyth reinvented the steam hammer to facilitate the forging of shafts and cranks for marine steam engines.

The first steam hammer in the world was built to Nasmyth’s design in the Le Creusot works of Schneider & Cie. in France. Steam hammers proved to be invaluable in many industrial processes. Subsequent technical improvements in steam power gave greater control over the force delivered, greater longevity, greater efficiency and greater power.


The bicycle came a bit late to play much of a part in the Industrial Revolution but many of the innovations of the industrial revolution played a part in the development of the bicycle. The first steerable two wheeled ‘bikes’ were called velocipedes and the rider sat astride on a saddle and pushed the contraption with his feet. Allegedly, the first ‘improved velocipede’ was invented by a Scottish blacksmith. In 1839, Kirkpatrick Macmillan completed construction of a pedal driven bicycle of wood with iron rimmed wheels, steerable front wheel and a rear wheel connected to the pedals via a connecting rod.

Today it is the cheapest, most efficient mode of personal transport and by the start of the 21stC there were more than 1 billion in existence. Several components that eventually played a key role in the development of the automobile were initially invented for use in the bicycle, including ball bearings, pneumatic tires, chain-driven sprockets and tension-spoked wheels.

Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving. — Albert Einstein.


The British canal system played a vital role in enabling the Industrial Revolution at a time when packhorses were the only means of "mass" transit by road. The new factories demanded a faster, more efficient means of getting their supplies in and their finished goods out. The biggest growth was in the so-called "narrow" canals which extended water transport to the emerging industrial areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire, as well as a network of canals joining the Staffordshire potteries and Birmingham, which has more miles of canal than Venice.

TLocks, an ancient technique needed for getting barges up and down-hill, are an inescapable part of the undulating British canal system and lock design and water management developed rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. The UK was the first country to develop a nationwide canal network.


Processes to remove impurities from raw iron, or decarburization, had been known for centuries, particularly in East Asia. It was Henry Bessemer who in 1856 invented a more economic process whereby air is blown through the molten pig iron. The resulting oxidisation also raises the temperature of the iron mass and keeps it molten.

Bessemer identified the need for steel to replace iron in the burgeoning industries and their machines but particularly for canons, following a discussion with Napoleon III.

Initially the method produced poor quality steel owing to the difficulty of judging the point at which the right quantities of impurities were burned off. The solution came from Robert Mushet who burned off all the impurities as far as possible then reintroduced carbon and manganese in the correct proportions. The first commercial production of steel began in Sheffield in 1858 by Bessemer in partnership with others.

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In the early 1700s, world populations were focused mainly on agriculture and the only sources of power were water, men and horses. Wind-power drove the ships that sailed the seas and the major centres of population were all ports. In the UK, the majority of the population lived in small villages and Halifax was merely a tiny Yorkshire village focused on rearing sheep. The main source of heat for all purposes was wood and charcoal.

The Industrial Revolution changed everything dramatically. The invention of powerful steam engines superseded water driven machinery and the textile industries turned villages into towns and cities. At the back of all of this was the high energy fuel coal but it was below the ground and this required miners to go deep in the earth.

This is where the Centrifugal Fan found its birth, initially driven by water power, venting the mines and providing air to the miners.

Fan technology grew with the industrial revolution and early fans were used to blow air into the boilers of the early steamships, transporting the textiles made in the British factories right across the globe, fuelling the industrial revolution. Fans, belt driven now from steam boilers, vented the dust laden atmospheres of the cotton and linen mills. The discovery of electricity led to power stations also with large boilers and a need for even larger fans to fuel them. Other industrial processes needed fans and so bigger and better fans were designed to meet their needs.

Now, a company that started in what was once a small village is now a renowned global manufacturer of industrial fans serving the needs of industries from factories on three continents. Our expertise on ATEX fans resulted in Halifax Fan’s appointment to the EU committee formulating the rules for fans in explosive environments. Today, the needs of climate change has driven us to a prominent position in meeting the need for fans for the filtration of waste gas emissions and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) across the industrial spectrum, helping to bring some blue to the skies around the world.

From sheep to fans looks like a big step, but for Halifax Fan and its dedicated FAN:gineers, their journey started with but a single step 55 years ago – the design of their first fan.