Today, let's visit Merthyr Tydfil. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
You and I look at the wake
of the Industrial Revolution with justifiable
revulsion. We think of mill workers enslaved by
heartless companies in squalid factories. We
remember Charles Dickens's pictures of England in
the 1840s -- images of a life barely better than
the slavery still going on in America.
Let's go back and watch one of those towns growing
up. Let's go to Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. A
quick check of the Internet yields home pages of
the Merthyr Tydfil
sailing club and their internationally known
men's chorus. The town also happens to be where the
TV series Dr. Who was produced.
One web site shows a bucolic gem of a hotel, once a
lodge owned by the Morgan family. For centuries,
the Morgans owned everything in this region.
Historian Bruce Thomas tells how an enterprising
cleric named Thomas Lewis negotiated a lease for
2000 acres of Morgan's hunting lands in 1759. He
knew there was coal here, and he wanted to set up
That same year young James Watt went to the
University of Glasgow as an instrument maker.
Modern steam engines would soon be in the picture.
Industrialization would create the new town of
Merthyr Tydfil here. In a few years it'd become a
showplace powered by a huge iron water wheel, fifty
feet in diameter.
Local peasants left their primitive medieval lives
in the isolated outback. They came to work the
forges. They built small stone row-houses. Their
standard of living advanced by a light year. Now
they had minimal medical care and schooling. They
bathed daily. (They had to in their filthy work,
but that set them far apart from the rest of
England.) They whitewashed their new houses and
outhouses. Bookstores appeared in the new town.
But the forges came and generated filth. Soot
covered everything. Visitors who'd been impressed
were now appalled. Thomas
Carlyle called Merthyr "a vision of Hell
[that'll] never leave me."
Towns like this were raising the standard of living
and raising expectations. The first dwellers in
Merthyr Tydfil had left an unimaginably primitive
life. The second generation was raised in a world
transformed by the fruits of these new industries.
In 1831 the citizens finally rose up to demand some
semblance of public service. They wanted their
streets cleaned and lit, they wanted public
bathhouses, they wanted city government. Blood soon
flowed in the streets; then cholera followed.
Finally, in 1856, the Bessemer process took
steel-making away from this now-miserable town.
Changing the industry is what finally undid the
slum. The workers left, and Merthyr Tydfil grew
Now the town means TV, choral music, and
sailboating -- amenities of the good life it helped
to create. In the end, Merthyr Tydfil really has
done what it set out to do, over two centuries ago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds