In modern historiography it has become common to see the process of industrialisation as a vast, all-powerful economic force, transforming the Western world with a ruthless inevitability. In this analysis, which owes much to Marxist determinism, the role of the individual is continually downplayed. But the historian and broadcaster Gavin Weightman has adopted a far less sweeping and impersonal approach to the Industrial Revolution. His latest book is refreshingly old-fashioned, focusing on the lives of some of the men whose work led to such dramatic changes in our society. In this lively study, there is little room for the dry academic prose that so often makes economic histories a painful reading experience. Instead, we have a wealth of vivid portraits of figures from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, featuring such characters as the pioneer of the electric telegraph Samuel Morse, whose eagerness for publicity was matched by his gift for engaging in feuds with rival inventors, and Hiram Maxim, developer of the machine gun and, according to the author, a bigamist with a penchant for young girls.
In his concentration on the personal, Weightman not only looks at the renowned names of the Industrial Revolution (like James Watt, the cool, cautious Scot who helped to make steam power a practical reality) but also rescues some of the now-forgotten heroes of the past. One of the most striking