By Neal Wellons
In the 21st century, the water wheel is little more than a relic of preindustrial technology. In many examples of art and literature, there is a romanticized notion of the water wheel representing calm, pastoral life along the river before mass production and fossil fuels dominated the world of manufacturing. The image I selected to represent water wheels also portrays this sentimentality of water wheels through the undeveloped forest, wildflowers and rustic wooden construction of the wheel and the mill that it serves. Water wheels at their peak were the frontrunners for industrial power. River mills could be used to power factories and textile mills. The widespread appearance of water wheels in art, literature, and poetry suggest that water wheels had a significant impact on humanity even though the technology was surpassed by coal and steam engines in the Industrial Revolution. Water wheels represent an important milestone in the process of industrialization between human or animal labor and the development of the steam engine, thus illustrating that changes in the Anthropocene happen slowly over time, as proposed by the theory of gradualism.
In their 1997 article, Starobinksy and Pevear argue that the water wheel’s most significant contribution to humanity is as a literary and cultural motif rather than a technological innovation. They cite that in many paintings of the romantic period, water wheels are a feature of idyllic landscapes. The photo I chose to represent the water wheel evokes a similar idea of the water wheel as a form of industry that is much more naturalistic than steam engines and coal power. Although the water wheel has left a legacy as a symbol of romantic pastoral scenes, at the time of its use it was a technological innovation that helped many people increase productivity. This makes it a historical stepping stone in industrialization. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, water wheels were the primary source of mechanical power in Japan. This makes preindustrial Japan perfect for examining the role of the water wheel before the Industrial Revolution and during the transition to steam engines and coal power. According to Minami’s 1982 article about water wheel use in Japan, water wheels were especially useful because Japan needed flowing water for tasks such as irrigation, rice cleaning, and industrial manufacturing. Water wheels also played an important role in processing wheat flour. For this task, other types of engines did not outnumber water wheels until 1909. Japan had so much success with the water wheel that in 1873 in a government report on the International Exhibition in Vienna stated the government’s preference for waterpower to be used instead of steam power. The widespread use and preference for water wheels in Japanese industry shows that water wheels were a necessity for production and industry before steam engines and coal energy took over in the late 19th century in order to keep up with Japan’s growing economy.
Eighteenth century art and literature used the water wheel symbolically. In the era of idyllic landscapes and romanticized nature, water wheels were the perfect intersection of humanity, industry and nature. In his poem, John Greenleaf Whittier gives an image of a mill no longer in use. He writes, “Man trespassed here; but Nature lost No right of her domain; She waited, and She brought the old Wild beauty back again.” The poem has a powerful theme of a human attempt to master nature, but once humanity’s next innovation moves away from the water wheel, nature resumes control over the river. Whittier also asks retrospectively, “What nameless horror of the past Broods here forevermore? What ghost his unforgiven sin Is grinding o’er and o’er?” The last few stanzas, including this one, reveal that the mills operated by water wheels also required grueling hard work and human suffering. And so “Birchbrook’s haunted mill” becomes a symbol of industrialization taken back by nature. Another interesting aspect of Whittier’s poem is that it opposes the romanticized depiction of water wheels by associating the mill with sin, ghosts and darkness. Conditions in factories powered by coal in the time of the Industrial Revolution are associated with horrible conditions for workers and so it is easy to assume that a slower rate of production in preindustrial mills would equate to better, safer conditions for workers. Whittier avoids comparing the conditions of pre-industrial and post-industrial factories, but the solemn depiction of the mill opposes many of the idyllic notions of water powered mills as “decor of rustic scenes.” In Whittier’s poem, the water wheel is old technology compared to the all the advances in industrialization that would have been emerging in the late 19th century when the poem was written. His perspective in the poem illustrates the transition of the water wheel from everyday technology to an overrun relic of pre-industrialization.
The transition from pre-industrial technology to Industrial Revolution era technology also represents an important transition from localized production to mass production. In the northeast United States, water powered mills were an important feature for most small towns and counties. It was common to see at least one or two in every rural river community. Localized manufacturing is a feature of the preindustrial period that we rarely see in today’s global economy. Most things we buy come from overseas. Less than 200 years ago, most production was happening locally. In 1840 the US census took record of how many country mills were functioning in the country and they found over 28,000 gristmills and 32,000 sawmills. Widespread use of water powered mills provided the opportunity for manufacturing techniques to improve on a small scale so that once the steam engine introduced a far more powerful and efficient energy source, industrialization was able to implement the same technology in massive factories.
In The Red and the Black, a novel published in 1830 by French author Stendhal, a small French town is entering the age of industrialization by way of manufacturing nails in a factory powered by the town’s river. In Stendhal’s novel, the town is “deafened by the din of a noisy and terrible-looking machine.” Just like in Whitttier’s poem about the Birchbrook Mill, Stendhal’s portrayal of the water wheel and it’s attached factory is more similar to the kind of description most people are used to hearing of coal and steam engine powered factories after the Industrial Revolution. Stendhal describes the mill by saying, “twenty heavy hammers, which drop with a noise that makes the pavement tremble, are raised by a wheel moved by the torrent’s water.” This illustration of the water mill captures the power of the factories. Stendhal’s factory powered by the water wheel along the river is an important insight into how people perceived water mills at the time. Stendhal’s description reveals that at the time, water wheels were an industrial innovation with mechanical power unlike anything else at the time. It is also interesting to note that according to Stendhal’s novel, many people saw the operating mills as noisy and dangerous rather than an idyllic and calm symbol of pastoral life, which raises an interesting idea that water wheels only became a pastoral symbol once they were outdated. Stendhal presents them as an important technological achievement in industrial manufacturing just like steam engines and coal power.
In conclusion, water wheels are representative of how manufacturing technology has evolved over time, and this evolution reveals an important characteristic of how the Anthropocene can be analyzed through the theory of gradualism, meaning change happens in small increments over long periods of time. In order to understand why the Industrial Revolution was so successful in the late 19th and 20th century, we can analyze technology that preceded steam engines and huge textile mills. In many cases, hydropower and water wheels were innovative in the way they harnessed the power of rivers to run factories and textiles but steam engines and coal power were able to outpace the efficiency of water wheels and so eventually the factories on the river became nearly obsolete aside from their value as idyllic and charming relics of the past. Historically the water wheel has a much more significant role in industrialization and the way we analyze the progression of the Anthropocene.
Eves, Jamie H. “Preindustrial Mills in New England and New York.” Windham Textile & History Museum. Accessed April 18, 2016. http://www.millmuseum.org/history/swift-waters-the-industrial-environment/preindustrial-mills/
Minami, Ryoshin. “Water Wheels in the Preindustrial Economy of Japan.” Hitotsubashi Journal of Economics 22, no. 2 (1982): 1-15.
Starobinski, Jean, Richard Pevear. “Water-Wheels: The Factory on the River.” The Hudson Review 49, no. 4 (1997): 553-568.
Stendhal. The Red and the Black. (France: A. Levasseur 1830).
Whittier, John Greenleaf. Birchbrook Mill. Boston and New York: Houghton, 1888-1889.