Construction skills are among the first sets of skills humans learned, and the history of construction has been one of constant innovation and evolution since the invention of the wheel.
From the creation of basic wood cutting tools to incredibly precise and specialist saws, the tools, techniques and priorities we have in construction are in a state of constant change.
However, whilst most technological advances are developed and adopted gradually, there are some that make an immediate and considerable impact on the way we live our lives.
These periods of rapid change, development and growth are known as Industrial Revolutions, and we have had four of them throughout the course of human history.
These are the epochal moments where developments in construction and manufacturing affect the rest of human life in one way or another.
Before The Industrial Revolution
Throughout all but 261 years of history, the dominant means of construction involved tried and tested handmade methods. Homes would be hand made from whatever resources were available nearby, transport was primarily undertaken by horseback, and crafts were hand-produced.
Whilst some innovative technologies existed before the first industrial age, such as crop rotation, improved ploughs, cranes, milling technology, the printing press, the spinning wheel, the rotary grindstone and the gun, they evolved slowly and gradually shaped human culture.
The First Industrial Revolution
The first major transition began in the year 1760 and depending on which interpretation is used, continued until around 1840, and was one of the biggest single changes in human history since the domestication of animals and plants.
Whilst there were uncountable numbers of innovations that took place in this 80-year stretch, there were four main developments that changed the world.
- Industrial Textiles – Power looms and mechanised textile spinning turned what was often a slow and individual craft into a powerful and dominant industry, particularly in the cotton industry, which was improved by orders of magnitude.
- Steam Engine – Whilst the principle of steam engines existed as early as the first century AD, major technological advances in the middle of the 18th century made them usable in industry and eventually for mass transportation.
- Ironmaking – Iron was initially made using charcoal, but the replacement of this with the much less impure coke allowed for better, cheaper and larger levels of iron production.
- Machine Tools – The milling machine, the lathe and the cylinder bore were all created in the industrial revolution and allowed for machine parts to be made for the first time, setting up many of the second industrial revolution’s advances.
The Technological Revolution
The second industrial revolution would begin just 30 years after the end of the first industrial revolution and was characterised by the adoption of technological systems and machinery into construction, manufacturing and many people’s everyday lives.
It would come to an end dramatically in 1914 when the First World War began, and itself completely changed the world around it.
It would be the era that would bring us motorised vehicles, electricity and the first-ever power tools, as well as so many other innovations:
- Railways – The steam engine would advance to the point that it can transport large numbers of people and significant amounts of cargo.
- Large Scale Steel Production – The Bessemer process would allow for cheap, high-quality steel to be made, which would be seen in the huge numbers of iron and steel construction projects during the Victorian age.
- Machine-Based Manufacturing – The development of tools and techniques to make standardised parts allowed for machinery to be used in mass production.
- Telegraph – The first long-distance communication system.
- Petroleum – The development of the first oil works would come to transform the world with the development of the internal combustion engine.
- Electrification – The final piece in the industrial revolution, mass electrification and the development of technologies such as the light bulb allowed for assembly line production.
The Digital Revolution
The third industrial revolution arguably started with the development of the Analytical Engine and the telegraph but was defined by the development of the personal computer.
The development of the MOS transistor, and the subsequent development of integrated circuits, computers and the internet, would transform and digitise large parts of our lives, and allow for more accurate and careful construction modelling and monitoring of plants and sites.
Technically, the evolution of computer systems means that this industrial evolution has not ended yet, although there is a fourth revolution that in some ways overlaps.
The fourth industrial age involves the automation of industry and construction, with developments allowing for greater accuracy and safety through the use of advanced, sophisticated machine technology.
Whilst Industry 4.0 is described rather vaguely, it is based on four key ideas:
- Cyber-Physical Systems – Sometimes known as an intelligent system, a cyber-physical system is a physical system that is controlled by computer systems and is sometimes known as “smart” technology. An example of this is the self-driving vehicle.
- Internet Of Things (IoT) – An evolution of the internet, the IoT is a network of physical objects that are connected together and exchange data with each other, such as smart lamps that turn on and off depending on whether someone is in the room.
- Cloud Computing – The ability to have access to a system’s resources anywhere and at any time, which when applied to construction allows for monitoring, communication and data management of systems even if you are not physically close to them.
- Cognitive Computing – The evolution of several interconnected artificial intelligence systems that mimic the human brain and could have major implications for how work is undertaken in the future.