The Industrial Revolution

From 1760 to 1830, a series of conditions in England triggered what came to be known as the Industrial Revolution. Primarily, it transformed the economic structure, as it passed from agricultural production, mostly by hand, to mechanised production based on new technologies.

The use of iron, steam engines and the rapid increase in the network of trains and roads, as well as river and sea routes, made it possible to manufacture and exchange goods on a scale that had previously been unimaginable.

It also changed the relationship between employers and employees. On one hand, the entrepreneurs invested the necessary capital for the machinery and paid salaries to those who operated the machinery in exchange for employment. On the other hand, the workers in the factory agreed to be organised according to rational criteria, in order to achieve the highest level of efficiency: functions, working hours, shifts.

The industries that developed most rapidly in England during this period, and were the driving force behind the economy, were cotton and steel. In Italy, these changes began about sixty to seventy years later. Only after Italian unification in 1861 would there be a more deliberate industrial policy.

Machinery and energy

Machinery has always been part of work and daily life, but with the Industrial Revolution, its assistance became essential and brought about decisive change. Using hydraulic power, connected to a transmission mechanism, a machine could reproduce human actions and functions, performing them repetitively at a higher speed.

For example, in textiles, the spinning machines use the movement of the single engine shaft that distributes the movement to the work area through a complex system of pulleys and leather belts. Hydraulic power was added when James Watt invented and perfected the steam engine between 1765 and 1781. A heat source brings a quantity of water to its boiling point, which produces steam that, as it expands, pushes against the walls of the container, moving a piston. With this clever solution, the movement could be circular and uninterrupted, ensuring continuity, power and mechanical operation.

The first energy source during the Industrial Revolution was water, or hydraulic power transmitted mechanically to machinery. Along with the steam engine, wood and coal became equally important energy sources. Water became the primary source again when hydroelectricity was invented and the first power stations were constructed.

Adda River and surrounding area

The Adda River plunged into local Lombardy history with the same turbulent force as its waters. The middle course of the river, which runs from Garlate, in the province of Lecco, to Cassano d’Adda, in the province of Milan, has left its imprint historically, socially and technologically as the engine of industrialisation in Lombardy.

Formerly, mills and workshops used the river’s power, mainly through a complex system of canals and irrigation ditches. Later, as the first factories were built, the energy of the Adda River was used more systematically and profitably, and was enhanced with the introduction of hydroelectric stations.

Naviglio Martesana

In 1457, under the current bridge at Trezzo sull’Adda, the inlet of the Naviglio Martesana canal was built. The canal was excavated to irrigate local fields and transport goods to Milan. Completed in only six years, Naviglio Martesana extends 38 kilometres to Piazza San Marco in Milan.

To transport goods against the current, a towpath was built alongside the canal for draught animals. The Adda River and the canal represented a pivotal coupling for the economy, transportation and the development of the surrounding area.

Binda paper mill

A paper mill was built in Vaprio d’Adda, between the Naviglio Martesana and the Adda River, at the end of the 1700s. The location was chosen specifically for the abundance of available water, which was an essential element for production.

The paper mill changed ownership many times, and almost nothing remains of the original building, however, there are traces of a small hydroelectric station on the canal.

Molinazzo spinning mill

The spinning mill belonging to the Mejani family, in Brivio, was built in 1776 and its layout reflects the typical characteristics of well-known Lombardy workshops – the river and the residential area adjacent to the manufacturing area. In fact, the homes and the spinning mill were connected by a footbridge.

The spinning mill was constructed horizontally, is large, and was well lighted from the nine large windows along the walls. One of the walls had a large clock that marked the rhythms of production.

Velvis velvet factory

In 1839, Stoli Dell’Acqua & Co. opened a factory for spinning and twisting cotton in Vaprio d’Adda.

In 1858, it was purchased by Archinto and seven years later changed ownership again to the Visconti family of Modrone, who created the Velvis brand – Visconti Velvet.

The factory resembles a medieval fort. The crenelated tower held the vertical engine shaft that provided power to the machines on the various floors of the factory. Once again, the water of the Martesana fuelled production, through a complex system of underground canals.

Abegg spinning mill

A Garlate, nel 1841, viene costruita la filanda Abegg, voluta da Gaetano Bruni. Gli Abegg, originari di Zurigo, la acquistano nel 1887 accrescendo la produzione.

L’acqua, tratta dal lago formato dall’Adda stessa, serve a far funzionare la ruota idraulica che, grazie a ingranaggi lignei e cinghie, trascina i fusi nel loro movimento rotatorio.

In 1841, Gaetano Bruni built the Abegg spinning mill in Garlate. The Abegg family, originally from Zurich, purchased it in 1887, increasing production.

The water, drawn from the lake formed by the Adda, powered the hydraulic wheel which turned the spindles through wooden mechanisms and belts.

Bertini hydroelectric station

With the introduction of hydroelectric power, the role of the Adda River became even more essential. Electricity production began in Italy in 1898. The Bertini hydroelectric station was constructed in this period in Paderno.

The station utilises a 28-metre drop in the Adda, which generates the power supply and activates the engines. The electricity produced is transferred to the power station in Milan at Porta Volta through high-voltage overhead lines, a distance of 32 kilometres. A true technological wonder.

Taccani hydroelectric power station

Cristoforo Crespi developed this power station in Trezzo sull’Adda in 1906 to provide energy for his company town, a few kilometres away.

The station resembles a giant lung that breathes along with the river. It is the perfect melding of the landscape and the historical context embodied by the Visconti Castle.

The station makes use of the natural bend in the Adda. The dam is one hundred metres long and consists of an underwater concrete crossbeam with seven gates supported by the rocky riverbed. As it leaves the engine, the water drains into a basin and flows back into the river after the bend, flowing once again in a straight line.

Esterle hydroelectric station

Viene terminata nel 1914 e risponde alla crescente necessità di energia elettrica nel settore industriale e civile. Se la Taccani di Trezzo assume un aspetto neomedievale, la Esterle prende le sembianze di una villa di delizia.

Le colonnine all’ingresso, i lampioni e le grondaie in ferro, le finestre goticheggianti, i mattoni ne fanno un edificio dal forte impatto ornamentale. L’eleganza della costruzione non ne diminuisce l’efficienza dato che diviene la centrale più potente del medio corso dell’Adda.

This station was completed in 1914 to satisfy the growing need for electricity for industries and towns. While the Treccani station has a neo-Medieval appearance, the Esterle station resembles a luxurious villa.

The columns at the entrance, the iron lampposts and drainpipes, the Gothic windows and the brickwork give it a highly ornamental impression. The elegant construction did not detract from its efficiency, as it became the most powerful station on the Adda’s middle course.

Semenza hydroelectric station

After the First World War, the need for electricity increased. For this reason, the dam at Robbiate was used to build another power station on the Adda’s middle course, which became operational in 1917.

The building is situated just below the dam, on the left bank of the river, and consists of a 100-metre canal leading into three loading tanks. The station did not make use of a drop in the water level, rather the vast amount of water flowing through the riverbed.

Paderno Bridge

Iron, cast iron, metal joints, rivets, bold geometrical overlays, 100,000 nails and no soldering, in other words – the iron bridge at Paderno d’Adda.

It lies just below the Robbiate dam and represents one of the most impressive Italian engineering feats of the 1800s. It was built between 1887 and 1889 as the project of the Swiss engineer, Julius Röthlisberger, in the same period and using the same techniques as the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In fact, just a few year earlier, Eiffel had designed the Garabit Bridge, in the heart of France, of which the Paderno version is an exact replica. The Eiffel Tower and the Paderno Bridge became a symbol of industrial progress on both sides of the Alps.

The bridge was constructed to provide a railway line in a highly concentrated industrial zone that was not able to make use of the Adda. It is 266 metres long and the upper span is supported by seven pylons, which are in turn supported by a semi-ellipse. The structure has two levels, with the lower one used by trains and the upper one for vehicles and pedestrians.

Great Exhibitions

The year is 1851. An enormous iron and glass structure, resembling a gigantic greenhouse, has been assembled in Hyde Park, London. The first ever Universal Great Exhibition is about to take place. In following years, the Exhibition will periodically be held in other important cities around the world – Paris, Vienna, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago – and represented an event space that was somewhere between museum, large warehouse, country fair and amusement park.

Products and discoveries of all kinds were put on display and sold during this event: from elevators to cannons, telephones to combustion engines. At the same time, the Exhibitions drew attention to scientific progress, including innovations in raw materials, machinery, industrial inventions as well as new trends in fine arts.

The Eiffel Tower, which was built specifically for the 1889 Exhibition and initially considered by the vast majority of Parisians to be a monstrosity, remains the most celebrated ad-hoc structure in the world.

Work and labour

The rise in factories dramatically changed working life and domestic life. Shifts and specialisation divided families into individual productive units. Within the factories, activities became mechanical and repetitive and the working environment was characterised by doubtful sanitary conditions.

Labourers were subject to humidity, dust, excessive heat as well as dangerous machinery. Labour was divided almost equally between men and women, but there was also a very high percentage of children in the factories.

Until 1886, when the first child labour laws were passed, children started working at seven years of age. There were 12-hour shifts, including throughout the night.

Sanitary conditions and illness

In 1880, the average life span for Italian men as 33 years, with women living slightly longer. By 1930, when the Crespi family sold their company town, the average life span had reached 50 years for women, slightly more than that of men. At the end of the 1800s, infectious diseases, such as measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough, smallpox, diphtheria, malaria and tuberculosis, were the leading causes of death.

Many diseases were caused by overpopulation, inadequate sanitation and nutritional deficiencies. Infant mortality was extremely high, but dropped significantly after the Second World War. Some diseases, such as rickets, were contracted due to a lack of light and air in homes, while others were caused by exposure to humidity or prolonged activity in the same position.

Industrial archaeology

Industrial archaeology is a field that developed in Anglo-Saxon countries in the 1950s and spread to Italy a few years later. It is the study of facts and data related to the industrial past, focusing on places, production technologies, tangible and intangible remains, photographs, and films that allow the researcher to interpret and narrate the complexity of the phenomenon known as industrialisation.

Hence, machinery, workshops, industrial complexes, road and rail network, bridges, canals, dams, urban planning initiatives and residential areas may all be subject to investigation. The objective of this field is to preserve the memory of a period of time that transformed the method of production and therefore, of living.