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Fleeing the Flowing Commons: Robert Thom, Water Reservoir Schemes, and the Shift to Steam Power in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain

  • Andreas Malm
Publishing year: 2014
Language: English
Pages: 55-77
Publication/Series: Environmental History
Volume: 19
Issue: 1
Document type: Journal article

Abstract english

In the 1820s and 1830s, British industry faced a choice between two energy sources to fuel its expansion: water and coal. A series of water reservoir schemes were proposed to scale up the power capacity of rivers in the central manufacturing districts, but the schemes with the largest potentials were never realized. Instead, the industry veered toward steam power, fatefully linking self-sustaining growth to the combustion of coal for mechanical energy. This article presents the first inquiry into the fate of the reservoir schemes. It describes the work of Robert Thom, leading Scottish engineer, champion of water, and critic of steam, and traces the fate of several plans in Lancashire. It demonstrates that water, contrary to the dominant narrative of coal in the Industrial Revolution, was consistently the cheaper alternative. The reservoir schemes had the drawback of obliging manufacturers to coordinate their energy consumption, submit to planning, and contribute to collective funding of construction work. In an environment of free competition, this ultimately proved unfeasible. This raises questions on the perception of the role of energy in the Industrial Revolution, as well as of the prerequisites for a future transition to renewable energy sources.


  • Social and Economic Geography


  • ISSN: 1930-8892
E-mail: andreas [dot] malm [at] hek [dot] lu [dot] se

Associate senior lecturer

Human Ecology


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and the Human Ecology Division

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Faculty of Social Sciences