The Roots of Progress


The first and true inventor

January 20, 2018

Willam Rosen’s book The Most Powerful Idea in the World had an interesting chapter on the origins of patent law.

I might have surmised that before patent law, inventors had no way of obtaining exclusive privileges to their inventions. But in fact, monopolies of this kind were granted to inventors and craftsmen going back thousands of years. Modern patent law, dating from the early 1600s, was a reform of this practice, limiting it to true inventions, while at the same time establishing the inventor’s right as a principle, and codifying a convention into law.

Here’s the story as excerpted from Chapter 3, “The First and True Inventor”:

In its original meaning, the word “patent” had nothing to do with the rights of an inventor and everything to do with the monarch’s prerogative to grant exclusive rights to produce a particular good or service. The idea of exclusive commercial franchises crops up occasionally throughout history: Five centuries before the Common Era, the Greek colony of Sybaris granted exclusive rights for a year to a cook who invented a particularly good dish … in 1421, the Lords of the Council for the city of Florence granted Filippo Brunelleschi three years’ exclusive use of the boat he designed to move the stones needed to build the great Duomo.

As a word, “patent” enters the lexicon in something approaching its modern meaning in 1449, when the mad king Henry VI signed a document known as a letter patent (so called because such letters were issued openly, rather than under seal; the phrase “patently obvious” is cognate) granting a glazier named John of Utynam a twenty-year exclusive right to use his secret method for making the colored glass to be used at the chapel at Eton College.

The practice, however, escalated problematically under the Tudors:

Patents were a reliable source of revenue for a monarch whose taxing authority was severely circumscribed by Parliament, and a powerful tool for rewarding friends and promoting commerce, even to the point of encouraging skilled craftsmen to immigrate to England. By the time of the last of the Tudors—Elizabeth—the royal trade in patents was, however, dangerously out of control. She granted monopolies for the selling of salt, or making of paper, to courtiers who had two things far more important to the queen than inventiveness: loyalty and ready cash. In 1598 she issued a letter patent to Edward Darcy, a courtier ranking high enough in the Queen’s regard that she admitted him to her Privy Chamber, granting him a monopoly on the manufacture, importation, and distribution of playing cards in England, evidently out of some queenly feeling that her subjects ought to be doing something better with their idle hands than dealing pasteboards with them. Unwilling to ban the practice (a slightly different monopoly had been granted by her father twenty years earlier), she was determined to regulate it, and to enrich one of her court favorites at the same time.

This patent was challenged in court in 1602, and overturned:

Chief Justice Popham … ruled that Darcy’s grant was forbidden on several grounds, all of which violated the common law. The most important one … was the judgment of the court that the Crown could not grant a patent for the private benefit of a single individual who had shown no ability to improve the “mechanical trade of making cards,” because by doing so it barred those who did. In other words, the court recognized that the nation could not grant an exclusive franchise to an individual unless that individual had demonstrated some superior “mastery” of a particular trade. Though it would be twenty years before it would be written, one of the foundations of Britain’s first patent law—the doctrine that patent protection must be earned by demonstrating mastery of the method for which protection was asked—was laid.

About two decades later, the first patent law was written by Edward Coke (prounced “cook”), one of the most prominent and successful lawyers in England:

Coke, who had in the intervening years been made Lord Chief Justice of England, drafted the 1623 “Act concerning Monopolies and Dispensations with penall Lawes and the Forfeyture thereof,” or, as it has become known, the Statute on Monopolies. The Act was designed to promote the interests of artisans, and eliminate all traces of monopolies.

With a single, and critical, exception. Section 6 of the Statute, which forbade every other form of monopoly, carved out one area in which an exclusive franchise could still be granted: Patents could still be awarded to the person who introduced the invention to the realm—to the “first and true inventor.”

This was a very big deal indeed, though not because it represented the first time inventors received patents. The Venetian Republic was offering some form of patent protection by 1471, and in 1593, the Netherlands’ States-General awarded a patent to Mathys Siverts, for a new (and unnamed) navigational instrument. And, of course, Englishmen like John of Utynam had been receiving patents for inventions ever since Henry VI. The difference between Coke’s statute and the customs in place before and elsewhere is that it was a law, with all that implied for its durability and its enforceability.

The importance of patents in the story of progress is that they represent one way that innovation can be rewarded, and thus an incentive to finance it. As I mentioned in a previous post based on Rosen’s book, I am starting to come to the conclusion that means and methods of financing research and development are crucial to this story.

Read the book: The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

Instant stone (just add water!)

January 6, 2018

From the time that humans began to leave their nomadic ways and live in settled societies about ten thousand years ago, we have needed to build structures: to shelter ourselves, to store our goods, to honor the gods.

The easiest way to build is with dirt. Mud, clay, any kind of earth. Pile it up and you have walls. A few walls and a thatched roof, and you have a hut.

Earthen hut with thatched roof in Sudan
Earthen hut with thatched roof in Sudan Petr Adam Dohnálek / Wikimedia

But earthen construction has many shortcomings. Dirt isn’t very strong, so you can’t build very high or add multiple stories. It tends to wash away in the rain, so it really only works in hot, dry climates. And it can be burrowed through by intruders—animal or human.

We need something tougher. A material that is hard and strong enough to weather any storm, to build high walls and ceilings, to protect us from the elements and from attackers.

Stone would be ideal. It is tough enough for the job, and rocks are plentiful in nature. But like everything else in nature, we find them in an inconvenient form. Rocks don’t come in the shape of houses, let alone temples. We could maybe pile or stack them up, if only we had something to hold them together.

If only we could—bear with me now as I indulge in the wildest fantasy—pour liquid stone into molds, to create rocks in any shape we want! Or—as long as I’m dreaming—what if we had a glue that was as strong as stone, to stick smaller rocks together into walls, floors and ceilings?

This miracle, of course, exists. Indeed, it may be the oldest craft known to mankind. You already know it—and you probably think of it as one of the dullest, most boring substances imaginable.

I am here to convince you that it is pure magic and that we should look on it with awe.

It’s called cement.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Limestone is a soft, light-colored rock with a grainy texture, which fizzes in the presence of acid. Chalk is a form of limestone. What distinguishes limestone and makes it useful is a high calcium content (“calcium” and “chalk” are cognates). Specifically, it is calcium carbonate (CaCO3), the same substance that makes up seashells. In fact, limestone, a sedimentary rock, is often formed from crushed seashells, compressed over eons.

Limestone from a quarry in southern Germany
Limestone from a quarry in southern Germany Hannes Grobe / Wikimedia

Limestone can be used for many purposes, including fertilizer and whitewash, but its most important industrial use is in making cement. When it is heated to about 1,000 °C (e.g., in a kiln), it produces a powder called quicklime. Chemically, what’s going on is that burning calcium carbonate removes carbon dioxide and leaves calcium oxide (CaCO3 + heat → CaO + CO2).

Quicklime is a caustic substance: touching it will burn your skin (hence “quick”, meaning active, “alive”). But perhaps its strangest property is that when mixed with water, it reacts, giving off heat—enough to boil the water! The result, called “slaked” or “hydrated” lime, is calcium hydroxide (CaO + H2O → Ca(OH)2 + heat).

Brick wall with cement mortar
Brick wall with cement mortar
Concrete wall with aggregate visible
Concrete wall with aggregate visible

Further, if you pour a lime-water slurry into a mold, not too thick, and expose it to the air, a still more amazing thing happens: in a matter of hours, the mixture “sets” and becomes once again as hard as stone. The calcium hydroxide has absorbed CO2 from the air to return to calcium carbonate (Ca(OH)2 + CO2 → CaCO3 + H2O), completing what is known as the “lime cycle”.

In other words, by mixing with water and air, this powder—a basic cement—has turned back into rock! If this technology hadn’t already existed since before recorded history, it would seem futuristic.

The product of a pure lime cement is too brittle and weak to be very useful (except maybe as a grout). But we can make it stronger by mixing in sand, gravel or pebbles, called “aggregate”. Cement, water and sand produce mortar, a glue that can hold together bricks or stones in a masonry wall. Adding gravel or pebbles as well will make concrete, which can be poured into molds to set in place. (The terms “cement” and “concrete” are often conflated, but technically, cement is the powder from which mortar and concrete are made; concrete is the substance made by adding aggregate and is what constitutes sidewalks, buildings, etc.)

Brick wall with cement mortar
Brick wall with cement mortar
Concrete wall with aggregate visible
Concrete wall with aggregate visible

This basic technology has been known since prehistoric times: the kilning of limestone is older than pottery, much older than metalworking, and possibly older than agriculture. But over the millenia, better formulas for cement have been created, with superior mixtures of ingredients and improved processes.

Pure lime cement needs air to set, so it can’t set if poured too thick, or underwater (for instance, on a riverbed to form the base of a column for a bridge). The Romans, who were great users of cement, discovered that adding volcanic ash, called pozzalana, to lime would produce a cement that sets even underwater; this is called a “hydraulic cement”. They used this “Roman cement” to build everything from aqueducts to the Colosseum. Another common hydraulic cement, called “natural cement”, is formed from a mixture of limestone and clay, which sometimes occur together in natural deposits.

Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct bridge near Nîmes, France
Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct bridge near Nîmes, France
Gothic window, Church of St. Helen, Lincolnshire, England
Gothic window, Church of St. Helen, Lincolnshire, England Spencer Means / Flickr

Since the mid-1800s, the most widely used cement is a type called Portland cement. Without going into too much detail, this is made through an unintuitive process that involves heating a lime-clay slurry to the point where it fuses together into a hard substance called “clinker”. Clinker was originally considered waste material, a ruined product—until it was discovered that grinding it into powder produced a cement that is stronger than Roman or natural cement. (!) Today a wide variety of cements are available on the market, optimized for different conditions.

No matter the formula, however, all cements have one shortcoming: they are very strong under compression, which is the kind of strength needed in a column or wall, but weak under tension, which comes into play, for instance, when a beam buckles under load. The Romans dealt with this problem using arches, which direct forces into compression along the arch. Medieval builders created the pointed Gothic arch, which could stretch even higher than the round Roman ones, and the flying buttress, which added support to the walls of their tall cathedrals.

Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct bridge near Nîmes, France
Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct bridge near Nîmes, France
Gothic window, Church of St. Helen, Lincolnshire, England
Gothic window, Church of St. Helen, Lincolnshire, England Spencer Means / Flickr

But in the twentieth century, a new way of building took over: reinforcing the concrete with steel. Steel, unlike concrete, has high tensile strength, so this “reinforced concrete” is strong under both compression and tension. The reinforcement bars created for this purpose are called “rebar.” Reinforcement allows concrete to be used not only for foundations, walls and columns, but for cantilevered structures such as the decks of Fallingwater.

Fallingwater, by Frank Lloyd Wright
Fallingwater, by Frank Lloyd Wright Mathieu Thouvenin / Flickr

This is cement. We start with rock, crush and burn it to extract its essence in powdered form, and then reconstitute it at a place and time and in a shape of our choosing. Like coffee or pancake mix, it is “instant stone—just add water!” And with it, we make skyscrapers that reach hundreds of stories high, tunnels that go under the English channel and the Swiss Alps, and bridges that stretch a hundred miles.

If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

Sources and further reading: Concrete Planet, by Robert Courland;; Minerals Education Coalition; Portland Cement Association; and many pages on Wikipedia. Thanks also to Doug Peltz of Mystery Science for helpful conversations.

Twelve books from 2017

December 31, 2017

In 2017 I read a dozen books for Roots of Progress. Here they are with brief commentary.

My top book of 2017 was The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. It’s the story of how and why the world has gotten safer and more peaceful, from tribal societies to today. I covered this in an earlier post.

A close runner-up is The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hager. It’s the story of the Haber-Bosch process for creating synthetic ammonia, which is crucial for producing the fertilizer needed to feed the seven billion or so people on Earth today. In Hager’s phrase, it turns air into bread.

I also enjoyed The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, by Willam Rosen. It’s the story of the steam engine, but also covers the origins of patent law. See a related post on the relationship of the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial.

Early in this project, I read a few broad survey books to get an overview of the subject. One was A Brief History of How the Industrial Revolution Changed the World, by Thomas Crump. I learned a lot from this but I couldn’t help thinking that I should have learned a lot more. I walked away feeling I had gotten many pieces of a story, but not sure if I’d gotten all the pieces, or exactly how they all fit together. (This is a failing of many history books, especially when they tackle broad subjects.)

I also read The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, by Lewis Dartnell. I have no interest in apocalyptic scenarios, but this book is a good survey of the key technologies of industrial civilization. However, I was only able to retain pieces of it—I may return to skim it after completing my initial study of the history of technology, at which point I may have enough context for more of it to stick.

One focus of my reading this year has been materials, since they’re one of the bigger parts of the story of technology, both before the Industrial Revolution and during it. The very archaeological ages we use are named after materials, from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. For a survey, I read Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, by Vaclav Smil (or the first few chapters of it, which were the ones relevant to me). Smil’s writing is dense at every level, but he does a good job of surveying and summarizing, so his books are good to get an overview.

Drilling in, I then read Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, by Steven Yafa, and Concrete Planet, by Robert Courland. Both were OK and worth reading for my purposes, but not the best books on this list. See related posts on pesticides and the cotton gin (I’m still working on a post on concrete).

In addition to reading about technology, I occasionally pick up a book that tries to get at the bigger picture (although I’m deliberately limiting this until I have more context on the details). The book that in a way started this project was A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, by Joel Mokyr. I had to skim large sections of this book, including the initial chapters, but the gems I found in the rest were worth it, particularly the material on Francis Bacon, whom I had not appreciated before.

In a similar vein, I read How We Got Here: From Bows and Arrows to the Space Age, by C. R. Hallpike. I came across Hallpike, an anthropologist, after reading his excellent takedown of Yuval Harari’s overrated book Sapiens. Hallpike is an expert on primitive cultures, and How We Got Here focuses on them disproportionately, but his insights on primitive thought were fascinating.

Finally in this category, I read The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski, based on his TV series of the same name. I enjoyed this one as well, but given the grand scope indicated by the title I was hoping for it all to add up to something more. Instead, I found it episodic: a series of stories, only loosely connected. My favorite chapter was the one on Galileo; I learned many new details about his conflict with the Church.

Rounding out the list, the most unusual book of the year perhaps was Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, by Nicholas Wade. This filled out the earliest part of the timeline for me, from the first stone tools used by the ancestors of our species millions of years ago; to the first glimmers of more abstract conceptual thought tens of thousands of years ago, as evidenced by art and religion; to the beginnings of settled societies and agriculture. (Unfortunately, the author’s other books seem problematic, including one that tries to argue for an evolutionary basis for faith, and I don’t think I’ll read more from him.)

In addition to these books, I wrote 34 posts (including this one) for this blog in 2017, the first year of this project.

In 2018 I’m interested in more books on materials, including Plastic: A Toxic Love Story; more about energy, possibly starting with Vaclav Smil’s overview Energy and Civilization: A History; a book titled Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, by Rachel Laudan, who wrote one of the best articles on food I’ve ever read; and the unlikely hit The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Also on my maybe-to-read list are books on the histories of steel, railroads, paper, salt, and money. It should be an interesting year!

And they shall walk

December 24, 2017

If you enjoy black & white movies, medical dramas, and strong, independent women fighting the establishment, I recommend Sister Kenny (1946).

Rosalind Russell in Sister Kenny
Rosalind Russell in Sister Kenny RKO

Elizabeth Kenny was an Australian nurse (not a nun) who developed a unorthodox treatment for the symptoms of polio that could in many cases reverse paralysis and allow children to walk again. Her methods were opposed for decades by the medical establishment in Australia, Britain, and the US – because she was a nurse, not a doctor; because she was a woman; and because she used nonstandard terminology to describe her observations and theories.

The movie, based on her 1943 autobiography And They Shall Walk, dramatizes her work and her battle with the doctors who ignored and ridiculed her. I enjoyed it as a portrait of someone deeply devoted to her work, and committed to the truth and to her patients even in the face of decades of opposition.

One tragic element of the movie is that Kenny never married, despite being engaged to a man she loved. She postponed the marriage and ultimately broke off the engagement so that she could continue her work—because at the time, a woman could not work as a nurse after she was married. This part of the story, as far as I can tell, is not true (her fiancé was invented for the movie), but the social situation it dramatizes was real. I’m glad that today, women aren’t forced to choose between a career and personal happiness.

More: Wikipedia, New York Times

Why did we wait so long for the cotton gin?

November 25, 2017

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, invented in 1793, is rightfully one of the most famous inventions of the Industrial Revolution. It separates the lint of the cotton plant, which thread and ultimately cloth is made of, from the sticky seeds—a process that, done by hand, is the definition of “tedious”.

A cotton gin on display at the Eli Whitney Museum.
A cotton gin on display at the Eli Whitney Museum. Wikimedia Commons / Tom Murphy VII

As told in Stephen Yafa’s history of cotton, Whitney invented the device after plantation owner Katy Greene invited him to sit in on a meeting of Southern cotton farmers:

Their common problem, he quickly discovered, was that they had no way to remove the stubborn green seeds of upland cotton from the fibers except by hand, and so they planted it only sparingly. Each five-hundred-pound bale of upland took as many as sixteen months of a single slave’s dedicated work to separate. The cost of feeding and clothing the slave for that period cut deeply into profits. The farmers’ other crops—rice, tobacco, corn, and indigo—were barely providing a livelihood. Tobacco exhausted the land and could not be trusted to provide steady future income. The British were expanding their indigo plantations in Bengal, weakening the market for American dyestuff. Wetland rice required special conditions for cultivation, insuring that it would never be a widespread crop. …

Green-seeded cotton grew like kudzu in this climate; there was a fortune waiting to be made and no way to make it. What to do? “Gentlemen, apply to my young friend, Mr. Whitney,” Katy told the assembled group of frustrated farmers. “He can fix anything!”

Ten days later Whitney came back with a working model of his cotton gin—crude, but essentially governed by mechanical design principles that are still in operation today. No engineers since have reinvented a better gin; they’ve simply built better versions of Whitney’s original. Legend has it that Whitney’s inspiration came as he was roaming the plantation grounds pondering how to solve the problem and paused to watch a cat hunt down a chicken. At the last moment the chicken fled and the cat’s lunging paw came away with only a few feathers. Why then try to separate the seeds of upland cotton from its fibers? Why not instead build a device to separate the fibers from the seeds? Small difference, huge implications. If Whitney’s machine could allow the fibers to be pulled away while creating a barrier that held back the seeds, the claws could exert enough force to yank the fibers free.

That elegantly uncomplicated premise led Whitney to build an apparatus that duplicated the motions of the slaves who cleaned cotton manually. He fashioned a mesh sieve or hopper with narrow slits in it running lengthwise to do the work of the hand holding the seed. On the surface of a drum rotating around the hopper he duplicated fingers pulling off the lint by attaching wire claws that protruded through the slits; these hooks grabbed the lint and wrenched it away from the seeds, which were held in check by the tight mesh. A cylindrical brush swept off the freed lint. This hand-cranked contraption, the cotton gin, was, in Whitney’s words, “an absurdly simple contrivance”—and unfortunately for Whitney, he was right: it was all too easy to copy.


Given the above I see no reason why the cotton gin couldn’t have been invented a century or more earlier than it was. Given the economic need, there was a strong incentive for its invention. So why did it wait so long?

The patent on the cotton gin, number 72X, was one of the earliest in America, filed only a few years after the first Patent Act. So one might be tempted to treat this as a case of patent law unleashing the creative force of entrepreneurial inventors. Certainly Whitney sought to make money from his invention (even if he was largely unsuccessful), and Greene, who sponsored his work, must have had this in mind as well. But suppose the Patent Act hadn’t been passed yet in 1793. Would Greene not have encourage Whitney to work on this problem that was so important to Southern plantation owners? Would Whitney not have bothered to solve it?

My personal, as-yet-unproven hunch is that cultural factors were significant here. This was the very dawn of the Industrial Revolution in America. People had not yet learned to expect mechanical inventions to revolutionize every aspect of life. They were used to the status quo and did not yet have “the idea of progress”, at least not in the industrial sense.

In any case, the story of the cotton gin is a useful counterpoint to my earlier post about the relationship of the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial.

Pesticides and old lace

November 4, 2017

The pesticide DDT is well-known for being one of the first targets of the environmentalist movement—attacked by Rachel Carson in her seminal book Silent Spring. But do you know what farmers used as pesticide before chemical advances such as DDT?


That’s right, arsenic, or at least compounds of it such as lead arsenate and calcium arsenate, was the first insecticide. As described by Stephen Yafa in his history of cotton:

The poison arrived in two popular compounds, calcium arsenate and highly toxic copper acetoarsenite, commonly known as Paris green. Farmers applied three million pounds of those powders in that year [1919]. “I carried poison to the cotton fields maybe four or five rows and… shake that sack over the cotton and when I’d look back, heap of times… that cotton would be white with dust, behind me,” [farmer Nate] Shaw recalled late in life, “and I’d wear a mask over my mouth—still that poison would get in my lungs and bother me.”

Arsenic is potent, and caused lots of problems:

As a youngster [farmer Marshall] Grant was given the job of pulling a mule duster to apply calcium arsenate over infested plants. He soon learned to wear long pants to protect his skin against the stinging powder. He also took showers day and night. The papers were full of stories about children on farms forgetting to wash up, becoming violently ill from the dust, and occasionally dying. Rains carried the insecticide into nearby streams. After a few years, most of the rabbits and small game that Grant (and Shaw, in Alabama) loved to hunt began to disappear.

Arsenic left over in the soil from the early 20th century is still a problem today for some crops.

In this context, it’s easy to see how synthetic insecticides were a major advance:

They came out of wartime experiments and killed a wide variety of insects on contact, while arsenic had to be ingested. In 1939 a Swiss chemist, Paul Müller, discovered that an organic chlorine originally synthesized in the nineteenth century killed insects with remarkable efficiency. That poison with an unpronounceable name quickly became known by its initials, DDT. From the moment of its appearance, DDT was hailed as the twentieth century’s miracle disease-eradicator, and by 1943 it was solely responsible for keeping thousands of GIs alive. By then, more American soldiers were dying from insect-borne diseases in the tropical Pacific than from combat. As many as 50 million civilians had died from malaria and typhus during the previous decade. DDT powder quickly began to reverse that carnage by eliminating the insects responsible, along with houseflies, bedbugs, fleas, hornflies, and lice.

Sources: Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, Wired Magazine

What was the relationship of the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial?

October 29, 2017

I have been wondering about the question in the title since I began this study.

The Scientific Revolution began in the 1500s; the Industrial Revolution not until the 1700s. Since industrial progress is in large part technological progress, and technology is in large part applied science, it seems that the Industrial Revolution followed from the Scientific, as a consequence, if not necessarily an inevitable one. Certainly the modern world would not be possible without modern science. Computers are completely dependent on our understanding of electricity, modern medicine and agriculture on biology, plastics and metals on chemistry, engine design on thermodynamics.

But how direct is the link? The inventors who kicked off the Industrial Revolution were not scientists, and I have read that they were not even well-educated in the latest science of their day. The steam engine, that singular invention that is taken to mark the beginning of the industrial age, was created well before the science of thermodynamics that would explain it. The great achievement of science prior to that age, Newton’s theory of motion and gravitation, did not lead directly to inventions that I know of, at least not in the late 18th or early 19th century.

Some light was shed on this question in The Most Powerful Idea in the World, by William Rosen, a history of steam power and the early industrial age. Specifically, in reading it, I discovered much more direct links than I was previously aware of.

The first direct link is that, while the steam engine did not depend on Newton’s laws or on thermodynamics, it did depend on understanding, at least qualitatively, the properties of the vacuum and the nature of atmospheric pressure. The first steam engines worked by creating a vacuum inside a piston and allowing atmospheric pressure to push the piston down (it wasn’t until much later that high-pressure steam would do the pushing). That this could happen would not have been obvious to a pre-scientific tinkerer. The properties of the vacuum were investigated by scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the use of vacuum to drive a piston in particular was demonstrated to the Royal Society by Denis Papin in the late 1600s.

The second direct link is that the inventors of the time corresponded with scientists, as a part of the “Republic of Letters.” In particular, Thomas Newcomen, inventor of the first steam engine, corresponded with the great physicist Robert Hooke. They discussed the engine in particular, and Hooke specifically advised Newcomen in 1703 to drive the piston purely by means of vacuum.

I also discovered other, less direct links, that nonetheless help explain why the Industrial Revolution did indeed depend on the Scientific:

Knowledge, method, and inspiration are three key factors making invention possible. The Most Powerful Idea also helped show me that there is at least one more: financing. But that’s a subject for another post.

Read the book: The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, by Willam Rosen

That Senator really took a beating

October 17, 2017

If you think politics today is divisive, if you think politicians can get away with anything, I give you… the Brooks–Sumner Affair.

In 1856, Massachussets Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, gave a now-famous speech, “Crime Against Kansas”, against admitting Kansas to the Union as a slave state. In the speech he insulted South Carolina and in particular mocked its Senator Andrew Butler:

He has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, Slavery.

Butler’s cousin Preston Brooks, a South Carolina Congressman, was infuriated. He was going to challenge Sumner to a duel for the insult—but a fellow Congressman convinced him that this was too honorable and that Sumner should be humiliated with a public caning. (!)

So two days later, Brooks approaches Sumner on the Senate floor, and, before Sumner can even get up, starts to beat him—repeatedly, on the head, using a thick cane with a gold knob, as hard as he can, not even stopping when his cane breaks into pieces. Sumner is bleeding and trying to get away, and other Congressmen are trying to help him, but they are blocked by Brooks’s accomplices. Finally someone manages to intervene. Sumner survives, badly injured. Brooks exits, leaving the broken cane on the bloody Senate floor.

What were the consequences for Brooks, let alone his accomplices? Sumner became a martyr in the North, but Brooks a hero in the South.

Brooks’s constituents bidded for pieces of his broken cane; he boasted that “the fragments of the stick are begged for as sacred relics.” Southerners sent Brooks new canes, showing their approval of the attack. One was inscribed: “Hit him again!” The Richmond Enquirer praised the attack as “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences.” (!)

He was tried in a DC court and convicted of assault. His punishment? A $300 fine. No prison sentence.

But at least he lost his seat in Congress, right? Nope. There was a motion to expel him from the House it failed. So Brooks resigns, in order to let his constituency cast their judgment. The re-elect him immediately. His two accomplices similarly escape punishment.

Got all that? A Congressman brutally, physically attacks a Senator, on the Senate floor, gets away with it, and is hailed as a hero. Imagine the shock, revulsion and horror if anything like that happened today.

Lessons? One, an illustration of the hostilities that led to the Civil War. Two, Steven Pinker was right re: the decline of violence.

Full story at Wikipedia: Caning of Charles Sumner. Discovered via Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber.

The most peaceful time in history

September 21, 2017

I recently finished reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Most of The Roots of Progress so far has been about technology, with a bit here and there on science and perhaps philosophy. But as I stated at the beginning, I am interested in progress of all kinds: technological, scientific, and political/moral. Pinker’s book was about political and moral progress throughout human history, specifically from the standpoint of the decline of force and violence.

It is the kind of book I would be proud to have written: a fascinating, important topic; rigorous analysis integrating tons of empirical data within a broad philosophical framework; clear and even entertaining exposition.

It is a long book: thorough and dense (although very readable). As such it will be difficult to summarize. But let me try to recount what I’ve learned.

The first major step in the decline of violence was the establishment of government: the transition from tribal existence to life under a king or other local ruler. Life in tribes was a life of constant warfare. Pinker estimates that government alone, any functioning government, reduces the rate of violent death fivefold compared to pre-state society. He calls this the Pacification Process.

The second major step is what he calls the Civilizing Process: a process by which, over centuries, individuals living within state societies became less violent towards each other. He documents a long downwards trend in homicide rates: In England, for instance, from a peak of somewhere between 10 and 100 murders per 100,000 people per year in the 1300s, the rate declined steadily over the centuries to less than 1. Similar declines are seen all over the civilized world, and they are accompanied by similar declines in violent crime in general. (Pinker also addresses why crime rates have not fallen as far in America as they have in Western Europe (short answer: the South), and why crime rates actually rose in the ’60s and then fell again in the ’90s (short answer: the Counterculture).)

With the Enlightenment came what he calls the Humanitarian Revolution. Slavery, a practice older then civilization, was outlawed around the world. Cruel and unusual punishments were abandoned, especially the use of torture: in medieval times, torture was applied even for minor crimes (or what today are non-crimes, such as blasphemy), and far from abhorring it, the public enjoyed it as a spectacle, even as entertainment. (!) War, previously seen as noble and glorious, came to be seen as a form of hell that civilized people should avoid at all costs. Pinker documents the overall decrease in deaths from war, despite the outliers of the World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. He notes that the great powers have not gone to war for for 70 years, that the Cold War ended without erupting, and that the threat of nuclear war has been kept at bay, all of which would have seemed like a ridiculously optimistic prediction to an observer circa 1950.

Finally, there were the Rights Revolutions of the twentieth century—civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, and even animal rights—in which the “circle of sympathy” was expanded and the principles underlying the previous centuries of progress were universalized to include people of all races, ages, genders, etc.

The sum of all of this: a consistent downward trend in virtually all forms of violence, over the long term, pretty much everywhere.

What caused this? And, as I asked in another context, how do we keep it going? Pinker rigorously examines many hypotheses for each decline, and the causes he finds are many and complex. However, there are some broad themes. The ones that stand out to me (Pinker summarizes it somewhat differently) are:

In other words, we get less violent as we get smarter, richer and freeer (indicating, as I have suggested elsewhere, that these three stories are intertwined into a single story of human progress).

I must include a word on Pinker’s methodology. For me, Better Angels sets a new standard for what social/political/philosophic writing can be:

I’ve been a fan of Pinker ever since I read his essay on the decline of war in the WSJ (which caused me to completely rewrite a Quora answer) and his incisive takedown of Malcolm Gladwell in the NYT (years later, I’m still chuckling about “igon values”). Now, I’m very much looking forward to his forthcoming book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

For me personally, there were a few interesting takeaways from the book. The biggest is that it gives an overview of the government/morality row in the overview chart I presented in “Charting progress”. This book is close to a summary of exactly what I had in mind for that row, and now I have a lot more substance to it and a framework for thinking about these issues.

It also gave me an even stronger appreciation for the excellence of the times we live in. The safest and most peaceful time in history is right now.

The book also made me more sympathetic to arguments for gun control and against torture and the death penalty. (It didn’t make me any more sympathetic to the animal rights movement, although for what it’s worth I don’t think Pinker is necessarily very sympathetic to animal rights; he and I agree, though, that burning cats alive as public sport, as they did in the Middle Ages, is disgusting and it’s a good thing we don’t do that anymore.)

But the most intriguing idea to me is the notion of the expanding circle of sympathy: the realization that until recently, most people, even the most enlightened intellectual leaders, simply didn’t see all of humanity as fully human.

From our modern standpoint this is simply bizarre, and I’m still struggling to comprehend it. Furthermore, I can’t analyze it with any of the moral philosophy that I’ve studied. I’m used to thinking about things like duty- vs. value-based morality, subjective vs. objective morality, or reason- vs. faith-based morality. I’m used to asking questions like “what does this ethical code hold as its ultimate good or standard of value?” and “what does this morality hold as the essence of virtue?” But none of these ideas help me understand why someone could think deeply about the universal rights of mankind and not comprehend that these apply to women or blacks. When I began this project, I suspected that there was a story here that devleoped in parallel with the progression in government from anarchy to tyranny to liberty. Now I’m sure of it, and I want to learn more.

Read the book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

The shadow of the moon

September 18, 2017

This weekend I went to the San Francisco Map Fair, a delightful exhibition of mostly antique maps. My eye was caught by an unusual map of the world centered on a northern point quite near the North Pole, with North America, Europe and Asia splayed out in a circle around it. There was a thin, dark band running a wavy course across the map, from the East coast of North America across the Atlantic, through Europe, down the Arabian peninsula, and ending in what is marked on the map as Ceylon. Around the edges of the map are various circles with crescents.

It was an eclipse map… from 1748.

The Geography of the Great Solar Eclipse of July 14, MDCCXLVIII, Exhibiting an accurate Map of all parts of the Earth in which it will be Visible
The Geography of the Great Solar Eclipse of July 14, MDCCXLVIII, Exhibiting an accurate Map of all parts of the Earth in which it will be Visible

With eclipses still on my brain from the Great American Eclipse last month, and encouraged by my amazing wife, I bought it. I spent some time this afternoon poring over it and researching its background.

The main question in my mind was, how did they predict eclipses in this much detail using 18th-century technology?

Having a BS in computer science (and a few summers of interning in a computing department at NASA when I was in school), I know how you could do this today: just punch the position, velocity and mass of the Sun, Earth and Moon into a computer simulation, and integrate Newton’s laws. The gravitational equation tells you the acceleration on each body; multiply that by dt (delta-time) to get a small change in velocity; multiply velocity by dt to get a small change in position. Repeat for as many timesteps as it takes to move the simulation forward to the desired eclipse. (That’s probably not accurate enough; you can make the simulation more accurate by adding in the other planets, or modeling the topography of the Earth or Moon, or accounting for relativity, or whatnot.)

But this involves untold numbers of multiplications and additions (millions? billions?), to many decimal places. Surely this can’t be how astronomers did it before computers. Yet, here we are with detailed eclipse predictions, seemingly down to the arcminute, in 1748.

An afternoon of online research was only moderately enlightening. Rough predictions of eclipses have been made for millenia. Multiple ancient civilizations from the Babylonians to the Chinese kept detailed records of eclipses. From centuries of records, patterns emerged, most notably the Saros cycle: the Sun, Moon and Earth return to approximately the same relative positions on a period of just over 18 years.

This allows you to predict the date and time of eclipses based on past observations. Indeed, Columbus used this level of prediction in 1504 to convince the Arawak natives he was butting heads with that his god was angry with them, thus resolving the conflict and laying the seeds of a plot device that would be used in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and countless other hackneyed stories.

The date and time are all you need for a lunar eclipse, which can be seen at the same time by everyone who can see the Moon. But a solar eclipse looks different from different points on Earth, and totality (when it occurs) can only be seen from within a narrow band. For centuries, it was possible to predict when a solar eclipse would happen, but not where you’d be able to see it from.

How exactly these calculations were made, I’m a bit fuzzy on. From what I can piece together, they were done with a series of approximations. The ancient Greeks had a few terms of the series. Tycho Brahe and Kepler added a few more. By around 1650 the first eclipse map was made.

Newton’s theory helped. In the Principia (published in 1687) he applied the idea of universal gravitation to explain how the Sun pulls on the Earth and Moon unequally and how this perturbs the Moon’s orbit. Somehow, through calculations that are too complicated for me to follow, he was able to use this to better predict the Moon’s position. Again, this seems to have been done through a series of approximations (and not, at any rate, through direct simulation).

In 1715, Edmond Halley (who would later become famous for predicting the return of the comet named after him) used Newton’s theory to make a map of an eclipse that was due to pass over London.

A Description of the Passage of the Shadow of the Moon over England, in the Total Eclipse of the Sun on the 22nd Day of April, 1715 in the Morning
A Description of the Passage of the Shadow of the Moon over England, in the Total Eclipse of the Sun on the 22nd Day of April, 1715 in the Morning

Halley explained his motivation:

The like Eclipse having not for many ages been seen in the Southern Parts of Great Britain, I thought it not improper to give the Publick an Account thereof, that the sudden darkness, wherein the Starrs will be visible about the Sun, may give no surprize to the People, who would, if unadvertized, be apt to look upon it as Ominous, and to interpret it as portending evill to our Sovereign Lord King George and his Government, which God preserve. Hereby they will see that there is nothing in it more than Natural, and no more than the necessary result of the Motions of the Sun and Moon; And how well those are understood will appear by this Eclipse.

Halley put out a plea to the public for observational data (an early instance of “citizen science” presaging the modern era of amateur astronomers sharing observations with academics?) He was off by only 4 minutes and 20 miles.

The map I found at the fair was published in 1748, by which time eclipse maps were apparently a thing. Unlike Halley’s simple map focused on England, it shows the full path of the eclipse across much of the world, including the initial and final locations of the penumbra, and the degree of the eclipse as seen from various cities. It, and other eclipse maps over the years, were published in Gentleman’s Magazine (an early periodical that covered a broad variety of topics for the educated public, and that for a time was employer to Samuel Johnson).

It’s amazing to me how much people were able to do, by hand—not only in predicting the eclipse but in creating a map like this. And it’s fascinating to see the spirit of the Enlightenment developing through events like these, as the general public took an interest in science and Newton’s theory showed the world that the universe is governed by natural laws which we can learn and master—a crucial development in the idea of progress.

Much more info is available at (where I took the Halley map from); see also interesting articles from Atlas Obscura, Quartz, The Guardian, and Popular Science.

The story of materials

September 3, 2017

A summary of what I have learned so far about the story of materials. I still have a lot to learn here, but a picture is emerging.

The story of materials is a part of the story of manufacturing, which is what I’m calling the general area of technological and economic development that can simply be understood as “making things”. “Manufacturing” itself, in this definition, is one of five broad areas that I’ve identified in my overall study of material progress.

Stone Age

In pre-historic tribes, people used the materials provided to them by nature. Having no settled society and no division of labor to speak of, there was little opportunity to process materials in any but the most rudimentary of ways. So, they were limited to:

With scant materials and little time, and subject to the constraints of a nomadic existence, there were only a few kinds of things they could make:

Agricultural Age

Starting with the advent of agriculture and settled societies about 10,000 years ago, people had time and space to experiment with new ways of processing materials and to accumulate capital equipment for doing so, from furnaces to mills. In this period, even before the Industrial Revolution, mankind developed most of the basic materials of the modern world.

I see five major categories of general-purpose materials from this era (a sixth was added in the Industrial Age):

This is not an exhaustive categorization. Rubber, for instance, is an important (if minor) general-purpose material, but it doesn’t really fall in any of the categories above. (I am not sure that an exhaustive categorization is useful.)

I call these “general-purpose” materials because they can be used for a variety of important products. There were also a few special-purpose materials, used mainly for one kind of product, that are important enough to deserve mention:

With these new materials, and thanks to a division of labor, we made many more things, such as:

Industrial Age

In the Industrial Age, we have mostly kept using all the same materials as before, but:

(In metal and glass, processes seem to be most important; in textiles, I think it was the machines.)

We also invented one major new material: plastic. Plastic is a wonder material with amazing properties. It is light, but can be made strong. It can easily be made into any desired shape through a variety of manufacturing techniques. It can be made rigid or flexible. It can be made any color, even transparent. And it’s extremely cheap. This combination of properties led to it replacing metal, wood, clay and glass for many applications. (We’ve even made new textiles out of it.)

Finally, an entire new industry arose—electronics—that required new properties of materials (such as conductivity or resistance), and that ultimately gave rise to a whole class of special-purpose materials: semiconductors.

In each age, as certain materials arise, most of the other ones continue to be used, but some fall away. We don’t use animal bladders as water pouches anymore. And some become luxury goods, like leather and ivory, because animal production couldn’t scale (this was a significant motivation for the invention of plastics.)

Turning air into bread

August 12, 2017

I recently finished The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hager. It’s the story of the Haber-Bosch process, the lives of the men who created it, and its consequences for world agriculture and for Germany during the World Wars.

What is the Haber-Bosch process? It’s what keeps billions of people in the modern world from starving to death. In Hager’s phrase: it turns air into bread.

Some background. Plants, like all living organisms, need to take in nutrients for metabolism. For animals, the macronutrients needed are large, complex molecules: proteins, carbohydrates, fats. But for plants they are elements: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). Nitrogen is needed in the largest quantities.

Nitrogen is all around us: it consitutes about four-fifths of the atmosphere. But plants can’t use atmospheric nitrogen. Nitrogen gas, N2, consists of two atoms held together by a triple covalent bond. The strength of this bond renders nitrogen mostly inert: it doesn’t react with much. To use it in chemical processes, plants need other nitrogen-containing molecules. These substances are known as “fixed” nitrogen; the process of turning nitrogen gas into usable form is called fixation.

In nature, nitrogen fixation is performed by bacteria. Some of these bacteria live in the soil; some live in a symbiotic relationship on the roots of certain plants, such as peas and other legumes.

Nitrogen availability is one of the top factors in plant growth and therefore in agriculture. The more fixed nitrogen is in the soil, the more crops can grow. Unfortunately, when you farm a plot of land, natural processes don’t replace the nitrogen as fast as it is depleted.

Pre-industrial farmers had no chemistry or advanced biology to guide them, but they knew that soil would lose its fertility over the years, and they had learned a few tricks. One was fertilization with natural substances, particularly animal waste, which contains nitrogen. Another was crop rotation: planting peas, for instance, would replace some of the nitrogen in the soil, thanks to those nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots.

But these techniques could only go so far. As the world population increased in the 19th century, more and more farmland was needed. Famine was staved off, for a time, by the opening of the prairies of the New World, but those resources were finite. The world needed fertilizer.

An island off the coast of Peru where it almost never rains had accumulated untold centuries of—don’t laugh—seagull droppings, some of the world’s best known natural fertilizer. An industry was made out of mining guano on these islands, where it was piled several stories high, and shipping it all over the world. When that ran out after a couple decades, attention turned inland to the Atacama Desert, where, with no rainfall and no life, unusual minerals grew in crystals on the rocks. The crystals included salitre, or Chilean saltpeter, a nitrogen salt that could be made into fertilizer.

It could be made into something else important, too: gunpowder. It turns out that nitrogen is a crucial component not only of fertilizer, but also of explosives. Needing it both to feed and to arm their people, every country considered saltpeter a strategic commodity. Peru, Chile and Bolivia went to war over the saltpeter resources of the Atacama in the late 1800s (Bolivia, at the time, had a small strip of land in the desert, running to the ocean; it lost that strip in the war and has remained landlocked ever since).

By the end of the 19th century, as population continued to soar, it was clear that the Chilean saltpeter would run out within decades, just as the guano had. Sir William Crookes, head of the British Academy of Sciences, warned that the world was heading for mass famine, a true Malthusian catastrophe, unless we discovered a way to synthesize fertilizer. And he called on the chemists of the world to do it.

Nearby, in Germany, other scientists were thinking the same thing. Germany was highly dependent on salt shipped halfway around the world from Chile. But Germany did not have the world’s best navy. If—God forbid—Germany were ever to be at war with England (!), they would quickly blockade Germany and deprive it of nitrogen. Germany would have no food and no bombs—not a good look, in wartime.

The prospect of synthesizing fixed nitrogen was tantalizing. After all, the nitrogen itself is abundant in the atmosphere. A product such as ammonia, NH3, could be made from that and hydrogen, which of course is present in water. All you need is a way to put them together in the right combination.

The problem, again, is that triple covalent bond. Owing to the strength of that bond, it takes very high temperatures to rip N2 apart. More troublesome is that ammonia is by comparison a weak molecule. So at temperatures high enough to separate the nitrogen atoms, the ammonia basically burns up.

Fritz Haber was the chemist who solved the fundamental problem. He found that increasing the pressure of the gases allowed him to decrease the temperature. At very high pressures, he could start to get an appreciable amount of ammonia. By introducing the right catalyst, he could increase the production to levels that were within reach of a viable industrial process.

Carl Bosch was the industrialist at the German chemical company BASF who led the team that figured out how to turn this into a profitable process, at scale. The challenges were enormous. To start with, the pressures required by the process were immense, around 200 atmospheres. The required temperatures, too, were very high. No one had ever done industrial chemistry in that regime before, and Bosch’s team had to invent almost everything from scratch, pioneering an entirely new subfield of high-pressure industrial chemistry. Their furnaces kept exploding—not only from the pressure itself, but because hydrogen was eating away at the steel walls of the container, as it forced into them. No material was strong enough and inexpensive enough to serve as the container wall. Finally Bosch came up with an ingenious system in which the furnaces had an inner lining of material to protect the steel, which would be replaced on a regular basis.

A further challenge was the catalyst: Haber had used osmium, an extremely rare metal. BASF bought up the entire world’s supply, but it wasn’t enough to produce the quantities they needed. They experimented with thousands of other materials, finally settling on a catalyst with an iron base combined with other elements.

This is the Haber-Bosch process: it turns pure nitrogen and hydrogen gas into ammonia. The nitrogen can be isolated from the atmosphere (by cooling air until it condenses into liquid, then carefully increasing the temperature: different subtances boil at different temperatures, so this process separates them). Hydrogen can be produced from water by electrolysis, or, these days, found in natural gas deposits. The output of the process, ammonia, is the precursor of many important products, including fertilizers and explosives.

The new BASF plant that Bosch built began turning out tons of ammonia a day. It beat out all competing processes (including one that used electric arcs through the air), and provided the world with fertilizer—cheaper and of more consistent quality than could be obtained from the salts of Chile, which were abandoned before they ran out.

Haber-Bosch fed the world—but it also prolonged World War I, and later helped fuel the rise of Hitler.

The Alchemy of Air is as much about the lives of Haber and Bosch, and what happened after their process became a reality, as it is about the science and technology of the process itself. Even though the technology was my main interest this time, I found the history captivating.

Haber was a Jew, at a time when Jews were second-class citizens in Germany. Rather than denouncing the society he lived in, this seemed to cause Haber to seek its approval. After his scientific achievement with ammonia, he got a high-status job at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in Berlin, and sought to be an adviser to the Kaiser himself. Jews were barred from military service, but Haber was able to become a science adviser to the military—even pioneering the use of poison gas in WW1, a role that left him with a reputation as a war criminal.

Haber believed that if Jews showed what good, patriotic German citizens they could be, they could eventually be accepted as equals. Decades later, when the Nazis came to power and began “cleansing” Jews first out of the German government, then out of all of society, Haber saw his dream of acceptance fall completely to pieces. He died, shortly before WW2, in great distress.

Bosch, on the other hand, held liberal political views and was against the Nazis. He even tried to speak out against them, and in a personal meeting with Hilter made a futile argument for freedom of inquiry and better treatment of the Jews. But at the same time he made deals with the Nazis to secure funding for his chemical company—by then he was the head, not only of BASF, but of a broader industry association called IG Farben. He was building a massive chemical plant in the heart of Germany, at Leuna, to produce not only ammonia but also what he saw as his magnum opus: synthetic gasoline, made from coal. In the end Farben became virtually a state company and provided much of the material Germany needed for WW2, including ammonia, gasoline, and rubber.

Bosch died shortly after the war began. On his deathbed, he predicted that the war would be a disaster for Germany. It would go well at first, he said, and Germany would occupy France and maybe even Britain. But then Hitler would make the fatal mistake of invading Russia. In the end, the skies would darken with Allied planes, and much of Germany would be destroyed. It happened as he predicted, and Bosch’s beloved Leuna was a major target, ultimately crippled by wave after wave of Allied bombing raids.

Synthetic ammonia is one of the most important industrial products of the modern world, and so Haber-Bosch is one of the most important industrial processes. Around 1% of the total energy of the economy is devoted to it, and Hager estimates that half the nitrogen atoms in your body came from it. It’s a crucial part of the story of industrial agriculture, and so a crucial part of the story of how we became smart, rich and free.

If this summary intrigued you, read the book: The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hager

Vaclav Smil on “Making the Modern World”

July 15, 2017

Just picked up Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, by Vaclav Smil (which was on Bill Gates’s list of “The Best Books I Read in 2014”).

The first two pages of the preface contain this amazingly compact summary of a large part of what Roots of Progress is about:

The story of humanity – evolution of our species; prehistoric shift from foraging to permanent agriculture; rise and fall of antique, medieval, and early modern civilizations; economic advances of the past two centuries; mechanization of agriculture; diversification and automation of industrial protection; enormous increases in energy consumption; diffusion of new communication and information networks; and impressive gains in quality of life – would not have been possible without an expanding and increasingly intricate and complex use of materials. Human ingenuity has turned these materials first into simple clothes, tools, weapons, and shelters, later into more elaborate dwellings, religious and funerary structures, pure and alloyed metals, and in recent generations into extensive industrial and transportation infrastructures, megacities, synthetic and composite compounds, and into substrates and enablers of a new electronic world.

This material progress has not been a linear advance but has consisted of two unequal periods. First was the very slow rise that extended from pre-history to the beginnings of rapid economic modernization, that is, until the eighteenth century in most of Europe, until the nineteenth century in the USA, Canada, and Japan, and until the latter half of the twentieth century in Latin America, the Middle East, and China. An overwhelming majority of people lived in those pre-modern societies with only limited quantities of simple possessions that they made themselves or that were produced by artisanal labor as unique pieces or in small batches – while the products made in larger quantities, be they metal objects, fired bricks and tiles, or drinking glasses, were too expensive to be widely owned. The principal reason for this limited mastery of materials was the energy constraint: for millennia our abilities to extract, process, and transport biomaterials and minerals were limited by the capacities of animate prime movers (human and animal muscles) aided by simple mechanical devices and by only slowly improving capabilities of the three ancient mechanical prime movers: sails, water wheels, and wind mills. Only the conversion of the chemical energy in fossil fuels to the inexpensive and universally deployable kinetic energy of mechanical prime movers (first by external combustion of coal to power steam engines, later by internal combustion of liquids and gases to energize gasoline and Diesel engines and, later still, gas turbines) brought a fundamental change and ushered in the second, rapidly ascending, phase of material consumption, an era further accelerated by generation of electricity and by the rise of commercial chemical syntheses producing an enormous variety of compounds ranging from fertilizers to plastics and drugs.

And so the world has become divided between the affluent minority that commands massive material flows and embodies them in long-lasting structures as well as in durable and ephemeral consumer products – and the low-income majority whose material possessions amount to a small fraction of material stocks and flows in the rich world. Now the list of products that most Americans claim they cannot live without includes cars, microwave ovens, home computers, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and home air conditioning (Taylor et al., 2006) – and they have forgotten how recent many of these possessions are because just 50 years ago many of them were rare or nonexistent. In 1960 fewer than 20% of all US households had a dishwasher, a clothes dryer, or air conditioning, the first color TVs had only just appeared, and there were no microwave ovens, VCRs, computers, cellphones, or SUVs.

In contrast, those have-nots in low-income countries who are lucky enough to have their own home live in a poorly-built small earthen brick or wooden structure with as little inside as a bed, a few cooking pots, and some worn clothes. Those readers who have no concrete image of this great material divide should look at Peter Menzel’s Material World: A Global Family Portrait in which families from 30 nations are photographed in front of their dwellings amidst all of their household possessions (Menzel, 1995). And this private material contrast has its public counterpart in the gap between the extensive and expensive infrastructures of the rich world (transportation networks, functioning cities, agricultures producing large food surpluses, largely automated manufacturing) and their inadequate and failing counterparts in poor countries.

If this intrigues you, get the book.

Charting progress

July 11, 2017

Here’s something I’ve been working on: summarizing human progress in a sort of timeline/chart.

This one charts progress in technology and production.

On the vertical axis I have five categories: manufacturing, energy, biology, transportation and information. This is the categorization I’m working with now, only slighly evolved from the one I discussed recently.

The horizontal axis is time. I’m dividing all of human history into three broad eras:

Very roughly, the first is the Stone Age, the second combines the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the last is the Industrial Age or Industrial Revolution.

In this one, I’ve zoomed out. The whole first chart is condensed to a single row. This is the overview of human progress. Now, the vertical axis separates the three broad areas I see: technology, science, and government. I’ve also replaced the “Industrial” period here with a “Modern” period, which I think has to go back at least 400 years to the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution.

To sum up 50,000 years of human history: we’ve gone from poverty, ignorance and war to wealth, knowledge and freedom.

Both charts are a first draft. I’m not happy with the box in the middle, which is why it has a question mark. I have a lot more to learn here.

And of course, everything here is radically simplified and condensed. I’ve chosen only a few representative facts to stand for a whole complex set of phenomena; many details are left out. But there’s something powerful in being able to see the whole of human progress in nine boxes.

Smart, rich & free

July 8, 2017

Why study the story of human progress?

50,000 years ago, our ancestors lived at the mercy of nature. They had stone tools, and the use of fire—and not much else. They had no agriculture: they survived by hunting and foraging. They had no medicine. They had small boats to travel short distances on water, but on land they had to walk, and anything they took had to be carried. They had language, but no writing. Of course, they had no science. And they had only the tribe to protect them: no police, no courts, no law. In short, their lives were characterized by abject poverty, superstition born of ignorance, and constant tribal warfare.

We have come a very long way. We live in buildings, not caves. We are surrounded by mass-manufactured products made of steel, glass and plastic. We extract vast sums of energy buried in the ground and we make it do our bidding. We have all the food we could want—so abundant and delicious that we have to restrain ourselves from eating too much. We have antibiotics and laser surgery. We zip around the world at hundreds (and maybe soon thousands) of miles an hour. We can communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime, instantly. And all of this is made possible by a vast and rapidly expanding scientific knowledge of the world. Further, we live in relative peace and freedom, made possible by governments that maintain law & order—and the institutions of democracy and republicanism that keep those governments in check. In short, compared to our prehistoric ancestors, we are smart, rich and free.

This story would be amazing enough in itself. But even more astonishing is that out of those 50,000 years, most of this progress has been made in the last 1% of that time. We owe the modern world to three revolutions—the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the American Revolution—all of which are less than 500 years old.

Anyone who loves human life must, I submit, be at least a little awestruck by these facts. And any society that values life ought to ask itself three crucial questions:

This is what Roots of Progress is about.

There are many theories about why this progress happened (and why it happened when and where it did). But to start I’m just concerned with what. What happened? My first goal is to get clear on that and to be able to summarize it and understand its structure.

I’m starting with technology and production—the “rich” part. But long-term I want to study the growth of science & knowledge as well, and also the progress in morality and politics.

Nomad life

July 2, 2017

I’m now reading Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (the book version of the television documentary series).

In Chapter 2 he talks about the transition from nomadic life to settled societies. He puts great emphasis on the transition, saying “I believe that civilisation rests on that decision.” To drive the point home, he tells the story of the Bakhtiari tribe in Persia, to illustrate how “civilisation can never grow up on the move”.

I found this passage fascinating and moving:

It is not possible in the nomad life to make things that will not be needed for several weeks. They could not be carried. And in fact the Bakhtiari do not know how to make them. If they need metal pots, they barter them from settled peoples or from a caste of gipsy workers who specialise in metals. A nail, a stirrup, a toy, or a child’s bell is something that is traded from outside the tribe. The Bakhtiari life is too narrow to have time or skill for specialisation. There is no room for innovation, because there is not time, on the move, between evening and morning, coming and going all their lives, to develop a new device or a new thought – not even a new tune. The only habits that survive are the old habits. The only ambition of the son is to be like the father.

It is a life without features. Every night is the end of a day like the last, and every morning will be the beginning of a journey like the day before. When the day breaks, there is one question in everyone’s mind: Can the flock be got over the next high pass? One day on the journey, the highest pass of all must be crossed. This is the pass Zadeku, twelve thousand feet high on the Zagros, which the flock must somehow struggle through or skirt in its upper reaches. For the tribe must move on, the herdsman must find new pastures every day, because at these heights grazing is exhausted in a single day.

Every year the Bakhtiari cross six ranges of mountains on the outward journey (and cross them again to come back). They march through snow and the spring flood water. And in only one respect has their life advanced beyond that of ten thousand years ago. The nomads of that time had to travel on foot and carry their own packs. The Bakhtiari have pack-animals – horses, donkeys, mules – which have only been domesticated since that time. Nothing else in their lives is new. And nothing is memorable. Nomads have no memorials, even to the dead. (Where is Bakhtyar, where was Jacob buried?) The only mounds that they build are to mark the way at such places as the Pass of the Women, treacherous but easier for the animals than the high pass.

The spring migration of the Bakhtiari is a heroic adventure; and yet the Bakhtiari are not so much heroic as stoic. They are resigned because the adventure leads nowhere. The summer pastures themselves will only be a stopping place – unlike the children of Israel, for them there is no promised land. The head of the family has worked seven years, as Jacob did, to build a flock of fifty sheep and goats. He expects to lose ten of them in the migration if things go well. If they go badly, he may lose twenty out of that fifty. Those are the odds of the nomad life, year in and year out. And beyond that, at the end of the journey, there will still be nothing except an immense, traditional resignation.

Who knows, in any one year, whether the old when they have crossed the passes will be able to face the final test: the crossing of the Bazuft River? Three months of melt-water have swollen the river. The tribesmen, the women, the pack animals and the flocks are all exhausted. It will take a day to manhandle the flocks across the river. But this, here, now is the testing day. Today is the day on which the young become men, because the survival of the herd and the family depends on their strength. Crossing the Bazuft River is like crossing the Jordan; it is the baptism to manhood. For the young man, life for a moment comes alive now. And for the old – for the old, it dies.

What happens to the old when they cannot cross the last river? Nothing. They stay behind to die. Only the dog is puzzled to see a man abandoned. The man accepts the nomad custom; he has come to the end of his journey, and there is no place at the end.

For more, read the book.

The beginning

June 25, 2017

One thing I realized reading a book on the Industrial Revolution is that to understand what happened in it, I really need to understand the state of technology just before.

As primitive as the world of 1700 was by modern standards, humans had come a long way from the caves and had figured a lot of things out. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we already had metalworking, pottery and glassblowing; coal mining and charcoal production; crop rotation; wind and water mills; paved roads; large ships and global navigation; wool, cotton and silk; intricate machinery and many kinds of tools—to name a few.

But if I’m going to understand those technological advances, then I’m going to need to learn what came before them—and the logical conclusion is that I need to go all the way back to prehistoric times.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m going to begin at the beginning.

I started by reading Wikipedia (e.g., Prehistoric technology), and then a book on the subject, Before the Dawn. I have learned a few things.

First, human-like species—who used stone tools and so seem to have had some level of conceptual consciousness; colloquially, “cavemen”—have existed for about 2.5 million years. This is the Homo genus, although they were not all Homo sapiens (who didn’t appear until about 200,000 or maybe 300,000 years ago); it includes our ancestors and cousins, such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals.

Stone tools were the first invention, dating back to the beginning of that 2.5-million year period, eventually including simple hand tools such as axes and spears. Maybe a million years later or more, other cavemen learned to control fire, and at some point began cooking their food. They lived in tribes, hunting and foraging together, possibly caring for their weak and infirm, and burying their dead. But other than stone tools, fire, and simple tribal behavior, they had almost nothing else, for most of that 2.5 million years—including at least 100,000 years or more of Homo sapiens existing.

Then, around 50,000 years ago (give or take), sapiens seems to have made a conceptual leap. Tool-making became more advanced, with more sophisticated and specialized stone tools, as well as tools made out of new materials, such as bone. They made boats and learned to fish. They established long-distance trade networks. And they developed art and religion.

This period, awkwardly known as the Upper Paleolithic, may have begun with the invention of language. The people of this era are known as “behaviorally modern humans”, in contrast with the “anatomically modern humans” that existed for 100,000+ years before.

It is unclear to me whether Homo sapiens were biologically capable of higher abstractions the whole time, and only actually developed them 50,000 years ago, or whether something changed biologically to make them capable of more abstract thought. It seems a good hypothesis, at least, that the other human species had some intermediate level of conceptual functioning, higher perhaps than any animal but maybe stuck at the level of development of a small child.

Behaviorally modern humans soon left Africa, where they evolved, conquering the world and wiping out the Neanderthals and other human species. They migrated (over thousands of years) throughout Europe and Asia, sailed on boats down to Australia, and crossed the Bering land bridge to the Americas (this was during an ice age, and sea levels were hundreds of feet lower than today, turning islands into continents and straits into isthmuses).

Civilization as we know it, however, was still tens of thousands of years coming. That would need to wait for settled societies, and agriculture—which didn’t happen until 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.

Just look at this (incredibly simplified) timeline:

What is striking to me is the exponential pace of progress. The gap from each milestone to the next is far greater than the time from that milestone until now.

Categorizing technologies

June 3, 2017

As I read about the Industrial Revolution and about pre-industrial technologies, I’m starting to think about how to categorize them. It helps to break things down into a handful of broad categories at the top level. That way you can tell the story of each one and then integrate those threads into an overall narrative; you can survey a given age easily by looking across the top-level categories, etc.

At the moment I’m working with six top-level categories:

This is far from settled in my mind but it’s working relatively well. I have on my desk a 1000-page Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology and I went through the table of contents, and everything seemed to fit.

Manufacturing seems like the broadest and most complex, and might be the most difficult to work with. It encompasses materials, since materials and manufacturing processes are tightly intertwined and the whole point of materials is to make things. It also encompasses construction and architecture. And it encompasses chemicals, which I’m starting to learn are an important part of the story.

“Information” encompasses communication, calculation, and measurement. Fifty years ago this might not have seemed like one category: different machines and companies were used for each. But today these have all converged in the computer—not unlike how fuel and motion technology converged into the “energy” field with the invention of the steam engine.

I suspect in the future, agriculture and medicine may undergo a similar convergence under some form of biotechnology, and I’m considering putting them together in a “biology” category.

One that’s not on this list, but that I’m wondering about, is finance. This doesn’t seem like a “technology”, exactly, but it’s certainly a form of progress, with prehistoric beginnings (the invention of money) all the way through to modern derivatives trading. Along the way there were some milestones, such as the modern corporation, that play an important part in the story of the Industrial Revolution. So the story of finance needs to be told somewhere.

Another category that might come to mind is infrastructure. But it seems to me that rather than a separate category, it’s just a part of the story of multiple categories, mostly transportation (rail, roads, canals) but also energy (power lines) and communication (starting with the telegraph). I’m not quite sure where to put things like water and sewage, those seem like health technologies and maybe should go together with medicine.

Trains and steamboats

May 25, 2017

Returning to How the Industrial Revolution Changed the World, I recently read a chapter on early industrial transportation: steamboats and trains.

There is a story here like the story of the steam engine. Before industrial transportation, people had to use what was available—what nature gave them. And of the options nature gave them, the most convenient was travel by water.

Ground is inconsistent. It has steep hills, even mountains and valleys. It can be rock, gravel, or sand; hard or soft; dry or swampy. And worst of all, it has friction.

Water is flat and level. It’s pretty much the same anywhere. And you can glide right over it, even with an enormous amount of cargo, as long as you can build a big enough boat to carry the load and still float. Better still, rivers have a consistent, predictable direction. As long as the river is going where you want to go, it’s like a natural moving walkway: just get on it and go.

On land, you (or your animals) have to walk, or if you want to roll on wheels, you need to massive infrastructure investments to pave roads or lay track.

So most transportation, especially for commerce, was by water, and that the biggest cities were ports on the coast or on major rivers. Shipping is still, today, the cheapest way to transport cargo.

However, like everything else nature gives us, travel by water has its inconveniences. At sea, sailors rely on the wind. Rivers have a consistent current, but they go where they want, not where people necessarily want to travel. Not all parts of them are navigable: some may be too narrow, too shallow, or too rocky, not to mention the possibility of waterfalls. And rivers change with the seasons and the weather: sometimes flooding, sometimes drying up, sometimes freezing (which can happen to lakes as well).

One early step in conquering travel was the digging of canals. I always thought of canals as bridging two bodies of water, like at Panama or Suez. But apparently they can also be used to straighten rivers or get around unnavigable parts of them. I’ve only caught hints of this in my reading so far.

The Industrial Revolution brought steamboats—which let you travel without wind, or upriver—and later, trains. In order to get from the stationary steam engines of Newcomen and Watt, to steam-powered vehicles, I gather, the engines had to be made smaller/lighter. I think this was accomplished by creating high-pressure engines, which were more compact yet more dangerous. (The internal combustion engine, I think, can be made smaller and lighter still, which is why the automobile wasn’t invented in the age of steam.) Crump is frustratingly light on details; I’ll have to research more elsewhere.

Why do trains trun on tracks, and pull cars of cargo? They were an evolutionary development from what already existed at coal mines. Mines ran track from the mouth of the mine down to the river, and cars would be filled with coal and then coasted downhill or pulled by horses. Trains were just a matter of hooking a steam engine to this existing technology.

The Malthusian Trap, analyzed

May 23, 2017

After writing on the Malthusian Trap, I solicited comments from some friends who are knowledgeable about economics. One thing they confirmed for me is that, yes, it’s literally true that (at least in some places and times, such as Ireland in the early 1800s?) a man’s land would be divided up among his descendants, so that each generation was farming a smaller plot until they could barely sustain themselves.

I also went and read the first few chapters of Malthus’s original book, An Essay on the Principle of Population.

After all this, my general conclusion is that the idea of population growth bumping up against resource limits is real, but that it needs reformulation.

Here again is the formulation from that Atlantic article, the key phrase being “stable supply”:

If lots of people died, incomes tended to go up, as fewer workers benefited from a stable supply of crops. If lots of people were born, however, incomes would fall…

Malthus himself seems to have been a little better: he at least allowed that production could be increased; he just assumed that it could be increased at most linearly. He doesn’t seem to have had much basis for this, except for an argument from failure of imagination:

If I allow that by the best possible policy, by breaking up more land and by great encouragements to agriculture, the produce of this Island may be doubled in the first twenty-five years, I think it will be allowing as much as any person can well demand.

In the next twenty-five years, it is impossible to suppose that the produce could be quadrupled. It would be contrary to all our knowledge of the qualities of land. The very utmost that we can conceive, is, that the increase in the second twenty-five years might equal the present produce. … The most enthusiastic speculator cannot suppose a greater increase than this.

(From the aforementioned Essay, chapter 2. To be fair, the whole of human history up to that point (1798) seemed to bear him out.)

What both formulations gloss over is the fact that humans work to create their own sustenance.

With that fact firmly in mind, the notion of a constant level of production in the face of a rising population, or that of an arithmetically increasing level of production with a geometrically increasing population, implies diminishing productivity per capita as population increases. So what would cause this?

Causal factors might include limits on:

Some part of these limits was technological, some political (e.g., the power of guilds), and some philosophical (tradition and custom).

That formulation I can believe and understand. The “static pool of wealth” theory is simplistic.

Turning Malthus’s principle around, we can say this: In order to support an exponentially growing population, and indeed to increase that population’s quality of life, technology and society have to exponentially increase our ability to take advantage of the resources of the earth. They need to advance fast enough for per-capita productivity to increase, even as the population overall increases and we have to make use of marginal resources.

Thanks to Ray Niles and Rob Tarr for their comments, which influenced this post.

The Malthusian Trap?

May 21, 2017

One idea I’ve heard repeatedly is that before the Industrial Revolution, people were stuck in a “Malthusian Trap”. E.g., from this blog post in The Atlantic:

In the thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution, civilization was stuck in the Malthusian Trap. If lots of people died, incomes tended to go up, as fewer workers benefited from a stable supply of crops. If lots of people were born, however, incomes would fall, which often led to more deaths. …

A followup post adds:

After a plague, a roughly stable supply of food and goods shared among a smaller number of people made everybody richer. That is, until births rose, and incomes fell again.

Something about this doesn’t quite make sense to me. Why is the “supply of food and goods” “roughly stable”? That supply is still produced by people. More people, more work, more goods. If people die, why does the food just keep coming? If people are born, can’t they work and produce?

Now, maybe the limiting factor at some point is not labor but land. Surely, given a certain level of technology, there is a certain carrying capacity to the land. Maybe civilization was right at that point?

But then, say more people are born, but there isn’t enough land for them all to work productively. What happens? Are the farms overstaffed, with hands who don’t have enough to do? Is there unemployment? But it’s not as if everyone, even in ancient times, worked on farms. Wouldn’t people leave farms and try to find another craft? Or was the pull of tradition too strong?

Or maybe I’m being a little anachronistic by even trying to analyze pre-industrial societies in terms of economic concepts like unemployment? I don’t know much about feudal Europe, but as I recall, serfs worked the land without owning it. Maybe if there were more people, they just got smaller plots of land to work? Maybe there was no market for labor to speak of?

But also, if a population is at the carrying capacity of the land, wouldn’t that spur migrations? Wouldn’t the people without farms head off in search of land? Was Europe already saturated? Was India? Was China??

And is the idea that every industry is at capacity? So, not only is there not enough land to farm, but there aren’t enough mines to dig, there’s not enough cotton to spin, there aren’t enough fish to catch, there aren’t enough bricks to lay, there aren’t enough trees to cut, etc. Because if there were capacity in any of these areas, the “extra” people could go work there and increase the overall wealth of an economy. (Again, assuming there is some labor mobility.)

I suppose, conceivably, that without the right technology you’d have an imbalance of goods in the economy. So maybe people can smelt a lot of iron, but that just makes iron relatively cheap while people are starving because food is expensive.

But anyway, if you want to explain why GDP per capita was roughly flat for thousands of years, isn’t the answer simply that productivity didn’t increase much because technology wasn’t advancing much?

And if you want to explain why GDP per capita went up and down over the centuries, as in the last graph in part 3 of that blog post series, then aren’t there probably other factors, like variations in climate affecting agricultural output?

In any case, the whole notion of the Malthusian Trap, even as something that was only operative in the technologically stagnant pre-industrial world, just doesn’t sit right with me. It seems to assume a static flow of goods, ignoring the fact that goods are produced by people. I don’t understand it.

Better living through chemistry

May 20, 2017

I took a break from reading the Thomas Crump book in order to read The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm. I’m not interested in apocalytpic scenarios (and I’m certainly not a “prepper”), but I hoped it would be a good introduction to and overview of the basics of industrial civilization.

I learned a lot of tidbits from it, such as how many different steps there are in producing wheat, or in making penicillin. But the biggest thing that stands out to me is realizing how certain chemicals, themselves, are useful products, and how they need to be created through industrial processes, just like cars or shirts.

When you hear about the Industrial Revolution, you hear about things like Bessemer steel or the power loom. But I never had “chemicals” in my head as a whole category of things that need to be made. The Knowledge mentioned, among other things, calcium carbonate, which is contained in limestone, and various kinds of acids and alkalis. But maybe the most striking to me was nitrogen, which is used for agriculture. Apparently the only way to increase productivity of land past a certain point is to inject nitrogen into the soil to help plants grow, and the way to do that is to mass-produce it, through something called the Haber-Bosch process.

Anyway, “chemicals” need to go in my list of technologies somewhere, probably under the broad heading of manufacturing/materials.

There are no natural resources

April 15, 2017

One observation from my reading so far: everything that nature gives us is in a highly inconvenient form.

For one, everything we need is mixed up with a lot of stuff that we don’t. Metal comes to us in ore, oxidized and mixed with rock, which needs to be smelted. Kernels of grain are nutritious, but they’re encased in hard, fibrous, indigestible material and need to be threshed out. Cotton can be made into cloth, but first you must remove the seeds, straighten the fibers, etc. Antibiotic penicillin is secreted by molds, but to be a usable medicine it need to be extracted from the “mold juice.” A lot of industrial processes are separating, distilling, and purifying materials.

For another, nothing is found exactly where or when you need it. Deposits of clay used for bricks may not be near the fertile field where a farmer wants to build his house. Rivers flow where they want, and the wind blows at whim. Naturally growing fruits, vegetables and roots are scattered randomly throughout fields and forests, inconvenient for harvesting. The grain may not grow near the mill, nor the cotton near the loom.

So a lot of industrial processes come down to: extracting useful materials from the environment, making them into the form or the products we want, moving them to the place where we want them, and making them available on demand.

There are no “natural” resources. Everything nature gives us is wrong somehow. Through effort and ingenuity we make natural materials and energy into what we need.

(Note: I’m not the first to make a similar point.)

What is smelting?

April 15, 2017

Did you just spell “melting” wrong, with an extra letter? No, smelting is the process of extracting a metal from its ore.

Before I started this project I had a very vague notion of what ancient smelting was like. I pictured it something like this: “ore” is like a rock with some little bits of metal mixed in. You make a bonfire and you hold the rock over the fire with, like, tongs or something. The rock heats up and the metal in it melts and drips out, leaving… a rock with holes in it, like Swiss cheese. Maybe you hold a pan under it to catch the dripping metal.

Smelting is nothing like this:

Here’s a good YouTube video showing the smelting process:

And here’s another showing smelting and then forging of the resulting bloom:

Some observations from watching this and the charcoal video:

What is steel? And how is it related to iron?

April 9, 2017

Here’s another example of my staggering ignorance of basic technology.

I heard long ago that steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. Only recently did I learn that cast iron is also an allow of iron and carbon—and that steel actually has a lower carbon content than cast iron: under 2% carbon for steel, vs. more like 3–4% for cast iron. So steel is, in a sense, more iron than “iron”. Pure iron, it turns out, is too soft and not very useful.

One site helpfully explains:

When we talk about “steel”, we usually mean “steels”; broadly speaking, steels fall into four groups: carbon steels, alloy steels, tool steels, and stainless steels. These names can be confusing, because all alloy steels contain carbon (as do all other steels), all carbon steels are also alloys, and both tool steels and stainless steels are alloys too.

That clears that up!

As an aside, another mistaken notion I had was that steel was invented in the 19th century. I thought this because I had an idea that early trains and tracks were made of iron, and later converted to steel. But it turns out steel has been made since antiquity—what was invented in the 19th (or early 20th?) century was cheap steel, that is, better processes for manufacturing steel more cheaply and reliably.

What is charcoal? And how is it different from coal?

April 9, 2017

I’m in the stage of my reading where my knowledge of how much there is to learn is expanding faster than my actual knowledge. So the more I read, the more I realize how ignorant I am of the very basics of industrial civilization. So many simple questions I’d never even thought of, let alone knew the answer to.

Here’s one: What is charcoal, exactly? And how is it related to coal?

It turns out these two have nothing to do with each other. Coal is a rock you dig out of the ground (that much I knew). Charcoal is a man-made product, and it’s made from wood.

You make charcoal by heating wood to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. This can be done with ancient technology: build a fire in a pit, then bury it in mud. The results is that the wood partially combusts, removing water and impurities and leaving behind mostly pure carbon.

The benefit of charcoal vs. wood is that it burns hotter and cleaner. The temperature is, I think, important for purposes such as smelting. The cleanliness matters for health vs. hazard of the working conditions around a furnace, and may also affect the resulting metal—I’m not clear on this part.

This general process of partially combusting a fuel by heating it in the absence of oxygen is called charring, and it can be applied to coal as well. Confusingly, charred coal is called “coke”. This was important for converting the British iron industry from wood to coal.

Update: Here’s a ~5-minute video of someone actually making charcoal from scratch in the woods (via the Primitive Technology channel on YouTube). Good illustration of the process.

What is an “engine”?

April 8, 2017

Reading about the original steam engines raised a question for me: What did the term “engine” even mean before the steam engine?

The first steam engine was called an “engine”, so the word was around and it meant something. And I knew the term “siege engine”, which I guess refers to catapults and things. But today the term mostly refers to something that takes fuel and combusts it somehow to generate motion, usually turning a shaft of some kind. What did it mean before any such invention existed?

Wikipedia confirms my understanding of the contemporary meaning of the term:

In modern usage, the term engine typically describes devices, like steam engines and internal combustion engines, that burn or otherwise consume fuel to perform mechanical work by exerting a torque or linear force (usually in the form of thrust). Devices converting heat energy into motion are commonly referred to simply as engines. Examples of engines which exert a torque include the familiar automobile gasoline and diesel engines, as well as turboshafts. Examples of engines which produce thrust include turbofans and rockets.

Reading the rest of that page, it seems that the term originally referred to any (complex?) mechanical device that took any form of energy and converted it into useful mechanical motion. So something hooked up to a wind or water mill, or even powered by humans or animals, would be called an engine.

It’s interesting to me that the very meaning of the term has changed, and it underscores the dramatic significance of the invention.

The significance of the steam engine

April 8, 2017

Before the steam engine, if you wanted to generate useful motion—to grind wheat, to saw logs, to pump water—you had to rely on natural forces. You could harness wind or water, with mills. Or you could use muscle power—from domesticated animals, or failing all else, on your own.

But all these sources of energy, by themselves, have serious limitations. Wind and water are not portable: you have to go where they are, and their energy cannot be used elsewhere. Wind, especially, is unreliable: the wind blows when it wants to, and you can’t turn it on or off. And all of them are limited: you can’t make the river stronger, or design a more efficient horse.

Separately, for many thousands of years, mankind was in control of fire. We could create heat by burning fuel, such as wood or coal. But in 1700, these two had nothing to do with each other.

The significance of the steam engine is that it was a way to turn heat into motion. With this ingenious device, we could now use fuel instead of wind, water or muscle power. In fact, the Newcomen engine was originally called a “fire engine”.

Fuel can be transported, so engines can operate anywhere. Fuel can be burned at any time, and can be started and stopped at will. If you need more energy, you can use more fuel—as much as you can afford. And through mechanical innovations, we can improve the efficiency and the power of engines.

So the steam engine solved all of the problems with natural forces at once. I’m still early in my reading, but that, it seems to me, is why the steam engine was such a turning point and why it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

James Watt's steam engine

April 8, 2017

The Newcomen engine was a great invention, but it was inefficient.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the engine works by letting steam into a chamber, then spraying a bit of cold water into the chamber to condense the steam, creating a vacuum.

My understanding of this is rough, but I think the main inefficiency is that in this process the chamber is being repeatedly heated and cooled—one cycle of that for each stroke of the piston. The repeated heating and cooling wastes a lot of energy and consumes a lot of fuel.

Further, the machine is losing heat proportional to the surface area of the chamber, but generating power proportional to the volume, so the way to make it decently efficient was to make it large. So Newcomen engines were generally big and heavy. They were stationary, in fact I think they generally had a small house/shed constructed to house them on one spot.

If the steam engine had stopped there, we would never have gotten trains or steamships, let alone automobiles.

Enter James Watt. Watt’s key innovation was a separate condenser. Again, my understanding here is rough, but basically there were two chambers—a hot one and a cold one. The water/steam cycled through them. This greatly improved the efficiency of the engine and allowed it to be made smaller and lighter.

It was with Watt’s engine, I believe, that the use of steam power really took off.

The Newcomen steam engine

April 2, 2017

After A Culture of Growth, I turned back to my original idea of studying the history of the Industrial Revolution. I’ve picked up the book A Brief History of How the Industrial Revolution Changed the World, by Thomas Crump.

The first story of the Industrial Revolution is that of the steam engine. When you think “steam engine”, you may think of James Watt, but the first steam engine was actually created by Thomas Newcomen, in 1712.

The Newcomen engine was not an engine the way we think of engines today: as a kind of motor, turning a shaft or crank. It was a pump. And its original use was to pump water out of mines.

“Old Bess,” an early steam engine, at the London Science Museum
“Old Bess,” an early steam engine, at the London Science Museum

The British iron industry at the time needed a new fuel. Ironmaking requires intense heat and therefore fire. For a long time this was provided by wood (actually by charcoal—but that’s a story for another post). But Britain was rapidly depleting its forests. So, they needed a new fuel, and they turned to coal, which they had plenty of.

The problem was that once you go down far enough in a mine, you hit groundwater, and you need to pump it out. In copper or tin mines, the pump was powered by horses. But coal was needed in vaster quantities, requiring larger volumes of water to be pumped. A better source of motive power was needed.

Enter the Newcomen engine—a steam engine, although it was also known as an atmospheric engine or a “fire engine”. The engine worked on an established scientific principle that had been demonstrated to the Royal Society in the previous century: a piston, filled with steam, will pull with substantial force when the steam is condensed by cooling it.

That science demonstration, however, had to be manually reset with each stroke of the piston. Part of Newcomen’s invention was making the machine reset itself for continuous motion. The action is:

  1. Steam from the boiler is let into the piston, letting the chain attached to the pump sink down.
  2. Cold water is briefly sprayed on the piston, cooling and condensing the steam.
  3. This creates a vacuum, which pulls the chain back up.

You can see it in action on Wikipedia.

Reading this story, I was struck by how much Newcomen was hampered by not having, well, the Industrial Revolution yet. There was no good transportation, so machines had to be built locally, out of local parts and materials, by local craftsmen. The engines were big and heavy. Also the fuel had to be local, because there was no good way to transport the fuel itself. There was no good way to communicate, so innovations that local engineers made didn’t spread and were reinvented by others decades later. Materials science was in its infancy, so they couldn’t use the best metals. Et cetera.

Looking at it this way, it’s clear why progress is exponential: every part of it strengthens every other part. Not only is human progress an interconnected whole, it’s a self-reinforcing, self-accelerating whole.

Conversely, it’s a little brilliant how the whole thing got started. The engine pumped water out of coal mines. It was powered by coal from the mine itself! (And apparently it was small bits of coal from the head of the mine, which weren’t very useful anyway, so it wasn’t a waste.) That’s how they avoided the need for railroads to carry fuel (powered by advanced versions of the steam engine that wouldn’t be invented for decades). It’s like the single-celled prokaryote of the Industrial Revolution, that eventually evolved into the multi-celled organism of today’s global economy.

Religious freedom and the Enlightenment

April 1, 2017

Another theme from A Culture of Growth is the role of relgious freedom in creating the Englightenment:

Between 1500 and 1700, many of the heterodox scientists and innovators were threatened by some authority that sensed a challenge. Religion had not yet divorced itself from physics, astronomy, and even medicine and chemistry, and it represented powerful forces that supported the status quo.

Fortunately, tolerance won out:

In the market for ideas, one of the most successful ones that won out in the seventeenth century in much of Western Europe was the idea of tolerance. Religious bigotry did not die easily, as the follies of the aging Louis XIV attest, but in its most extreme and virulent forms, it was doomed. What was needed was not just a set of incentives and motives for those who did science, but also an ideology that protected them from those whose entrenched monopoly on explaining the world was being threatened by science and its insistence on evidence and logic.

Mokyr describes religious tolerance among the intellectuals of the time:

… it is striking how blithely intellectuals bridged or ignored altogether the chasms between different religions. The Republic of Letters on the whole seems to have paid fairly little heed to the religious beliefs of its citizens. Grafton (2009a, p. 12) explains that it was regarded morally wrong to break off scholarly communication with people of different religious convictions, because such “restrictions could only hamper the flow of information and ideas.” Moreover, citizens of the Republic of Letters argued against religious persecution, a voice that became louder as wars of religion increasingly showed themselves to be destructive and pointless after 1562. Prominent citizens of the Republic of Letters, from Sebastian Castellio (1515– 1563) to Spinoza to Voltaire, argued for religious tolerance and against the persecution of apostates (Zagorin, 2003). 20 Even scholars of fundamentalist religious beliefs, such as the great Swiss Huguenot polymath Louis Bourguet (1678– 1742), were able to develop what Barnett (2015, p. 149) has felicitously called a “strategy of toleration” in which deeply felt religious differences were papered over in scientific exchanges and a scholarly civility was maintained despite private outrage at the heretical opinions of “unbelievers.” The Republic of Letters is an illustration of Cipolla’s (1972, p. 52) remark that the same qualities that make people tolerant also make them receptive to new ideas.

He chalks some of this up to political fragmentation:

The dark forces of reaction in the sixteenth century were no less benighted than those of the fourteenth, but it became increasingly difficult for those forces to work together, in part because some defenders of the conventional wisdom were Protestant and others Catholic. The forces of the Catholic reaction were fragmented among themselves. Authorities could not agree on who were heretics and what to do about them, and the heretics took full advantage of this. The unique situation in Europe, then, was that intolerance and the suppression of cultural heterodoxy, long before they fell out of fashion, could not be properly coordinated.

I said in the beginning that I am interested in progress of all kinds: moral and political as well as technological and scientific. One thing I’m already starting to see is how those stories are intertwined. Progress in science, technology and economics depends on progress in politics and perhaps vice versa. The story of human progress is a single, integrated story.

The virtuousness of technology

March 31, 2017

One more key idea from A Culture of Growth:

A critical cultural belief that drives economic growth and complements the belief in the “virtuousness of technology” is a belief in progress, and specifically in economic progress.

In a later passage, Mokyr elaborates:

What has not received enough attention in the recent literature in which economists have begun to reexamine the effect of culture on economic development is the matter of cultural beliefs regarding the relationship between humans and their physical environment and the virtuousness of technology. If the natural environment is treated with too much respect or fear and if the aversion to playing God or angering a deity was too strong, the willingness of humans to manipulate their physical settings for their material benefit could be impeded. Similarly, if nature is regarded as unfathomable and beyond human comprehension, or as totally arbitrary and capricious, there can be little advantage in controlling it for human purposes.

What struck me in particular about this passage was the notion of treating nature with “too much respect or fear”, which reminds me of the anti-technology attitudes of some in the environmentalist movement (or, I would argue, inherent in the movement).

Part of why I am interested in studying human progress is to understand, not only its history, but its future—what will sustain and accelerate it, and also what might threaten or halt it. Progress isn’t natural—indeed, for most of human history there wasn’t much of it—and it certainly isn’t inevitable. If we don’t understand the roots of progress, we will lose it.

The Baconian program

March 30, 2017

Another thing I learned from A Culture of Growth is the importance and influence of Francis Bacon, who plays a key role in Mokyr’s story.

Bacon championed a number of key ideas. One was the importance of experimental science vs. rationalism or arbitrary hypotheses: “Bacon’s legacy was a concrete and materialistic science based on data and experiments, sharply rejecting what the age called ‘hypotheses’ but which in our lingo would be thought of as speculation.” At the same time, though, he advocated for a methodical approach, vs. the more haphazard trial-and-error approach some investigators were taking at the time.

Another was the idea of “useful knowledge”—that scientific knowledge would be applicable to the problems of life in practical ways, captured by his famous dictum that “knowledge is power.” Indeed, Mokyr refers multiple times to “the Baconian program”: a grand vision in which scientists would find patterns in nature and apply those to the benefit of industry.

Essentially, Bacon predicted and advocated the Industrial Revolution, two hundred years before it actually began. And what is even more remarkable than his foresight is that his vision took hold among the European intellectual elite and that they stuck with it, even though tangible progress came far slower than any of them expected.

The idea of progress

March 23, 2017

I began this project simply thinking that I wanted to study the history of the Industrial Revolution.

There wasn’t an obvious place to start. I searched for books and asked friends for recommendations, but there wasn’t a clear one-volume overview that could serve as a starting point.

At the same time, I had recently read a great article in The Atlantic, “Progress Isn’t Natural”, by Joel Mokyr. I was especially intrigued by this quote:

… most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so.

The article continues:

Why might people in the past have been hesitant to embrace the idea of progress? The main argument against it was that it implies a disrespect of previous generations. … With the great voyages and the Reformation, Europeans increasingly began to doubt the great classical writings on geography, medicine, astronomy, and physics that had been the main source of wisdom in medieval times. With those doubts came a sense that their own generation knew more and was wiser than those of previous eras.

This was a departure from the beliefs of most societies in the past, which were usually given to some measure of “ancestor worship”—the belief that all wisdom had been revealed to earlier sages and that to learn anything one should peruse their writings and find the answer in their pages.

So I ended up beginning my reading with Mokyr’s new book, A Culture of Growth.

Don't read this blog

March 17, 2017

This isn’t a normal blog. The posts are going to be frequent and short—my goal is that each one contains only one idea (maybe I should say, at most one idea).

The posts aren’t going to be polished, which is not my normal style. They’re going to be informal, rough, off-the-cuff, almost stream-of-consciousness. I’ll try to make up for that by making them short and focused.

I’m doing this so that I can actually get the posts out—if they had to be long and polished, I’d never write them. And I’m doing it because what I really want to do is make notes as I do my research.

So if you want to follow my notes and my thinking in real time, as it evolves—read along. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.


March 17, 2017

My motivation in this project is to discover the nature of human progress: to learn its history and therefore to discover its nature. By “progress”, I mean progress of all kinds: technological, scientifical, political, moral.

I began this project a few months ago thinking that I was setting out to study the history of the Industrial Revolution. But after reading A Culture of Growth, by Joel Mokyr, I became inspired to set my sights on a broader concept of human progress, and to set this as a goal for myself over the next 5–10 years.

I am interested in this because I believe that the story of human progress is the most important story in the world. I believe that understanding it is the foundation for some of the most important questions of philosophy and politics.

This is a long-term project. I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go or how I’m going to go about it. But I’m inspired to do this, and if you’re inspired too, I hope you’ll enjoy going on the journey with me.