The industrial revolution is a turning point in world history.  

As the power of the steam engine is attached to every imaginable device, enormous efficiencies are achieved in business and industry. But those efficiencies come at a cost that is not understood in its early years.  And so, as a result …

Living conditions horrify reform commissions in Britain in the 1830s – 40s and the US  in the 1850s – 60s. Progress is slow, and sidetracked in the mid-1850s by ultra-conservatives who do not like being “bullied” into public health.   But the common interest in pure drinking water and sanitation is again spurred by raging epidemics of typhoid and cholera.

Water pollution carried disease, but no one knew exactly why until the 1880s. Some reformers didn’t wait for exact knowledge: John Snow, a London physician, traced the London cholera epidemic to a contaminated water pump in 1855 and famously broke the handle  so that the pump couldn’t be used. Although we now know this was a carefully calculated and officially approved act, it was made to seem like an act of defiance at the time, due to the political conditions surrounding the reform movement.     

Conservation of wilderness areas begins to be an issue.  In one episode,  the 1851 felling of an enormous tree, called the “Mother of the Forest,” sparks outrage that leads to calls for a national park system.

Environmental science begins with natural history and exploration by Charles Darwin (Britain); Alexander Von Humboldt  (Germany); William Bartram (US); and many others.


Essential Reading

Marsh, G. P. 1869. Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Condition. rev. ed. New York: Scribner & Co.

Marx, Leo, 1964, The Machine in the Garden (NY: Oxford University Press).

Melosi, M. V., ed. 1980. Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870-1930. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Mumford, Lewis 1961 The City in History