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Ironbridge Gorge: Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution (3:41)

Ironbridge Gorge, England

By igniting the Industrial Revolution, Britain led the world into the modern age. And it all started around the first iron bridge in a gorge lined with factories. Today the museums of the Ironbridge Gorge take visitors back to that heady, if smoky, Victorian boomtime.

Complete Video Script

Driving along the sleepy Severn River Valley, we come to Ironbridge Gorge, named after its iconic bridge — the first iron bridge ever built. With the original factories of the Industrial Age once lining the valley, this is considered the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

In its glory days, the Severn River Valley gave the world its first iron wheels, steam-powered locomotive, and cast-iron bridge. The museums here take you back to those heady days, when Britain was racing into the modern age and taking the rest of the West with her.

This bridge was built in 1779 — while England was at war with her American colonies — to show off a wonderful new building material. Lacking experience with iron, they erred on the side of sturdiness.

Just up the valley, amid the ruins of a mighty industrial plant, is a memorial built around an invention that made iron in a revolutionary way.

The 19th century was an exciting time. With new materials and technology, Europe built more in the 19th century than in all previous centuries combined. Within a few decades, the entire continent was laced together by iron train tracks. And it all started here with Abraham Darby’s blast furnace.

Little remains of Darby’s first innovative furnace, which was built in 1709. But this made the mass production of iron possible, which eventually kicked off the modern industrial age.

The Severn River Valley is full of evocative industrial ruins. Take the time to walk through these sights imagining the way it might have been two centuries ago, and enjoy the scene as nature slowly reclaims the site of so much heavy industry.

The town of Ironbridge, just a few red brick blocks gathered around its bridge, was once a powerhouse. No longer engulfed in a smoke-belching bustle, today it’s just a sleepy base from which to explore this area.

Of the many museums here in the valley, the Blists Hill Victorian Town, creatively humanizing the age, is my favorite. You’ll wander through a 50-acre industrial site with a re-created town from the 1890s, staffed with characters in Victorian dress.

Pop in to whatever shop appeals. We’re meeting the candlestick maker. Repeatedly dipping her candles into the wax, she reminded us, “There’s no rest for the Victorian worker.” Then she shows off her clever double-wick candle.

Guide: This is a Victorian double-wicked candle. The flame can jump from wick to wick, and it won't blow out so easily.

Around the corner, the printer is hard at work. Even with ingenious mechanization, mass production still required skilled labor.

As the engineer fires up a replica of the first steam-powered locomotive from 1802, we’re reminded that Britain was the workshop of the world. And that the combination of steam power, iron wheels, and iron tracks helped propel the British Empire to world dominance.

Today, as industry evolves and this early technology is eclipsed by our digital and global age, museums like this help us appreciate the impact of the relentless march of progress.