The Roots of Progress

One man's junk

April 28, 2019

“Natural resources” are anything but.

I have said this before in the sense that everything we get from nature comes in an inconvenient form: metals must be extracted from their ores; grain must be milled or threshed and the wheat separated from its chaff; crude oil must be refined into its constituent weights.

But the more philosophical point is that all resources are the product of the human mind. A “natural” resource is only a resource at all in the context of a particular technology. It is only a resource to someone who can look at it and understand its use and value. And it is only a resource to someone who has the technology and the capital to extract it from its environment and put it to that use.

You can see this in the stories of the early development of industries. Before the oil industry, there were known places where oily sludge or tar would seep out of the ground; people might skim some of it off a pond to light a torch, but no one was drilling it and no one considered it “black gold”. The Marquette Iron Range near Lake Superior, which disrupted compass readings and attracted lightning, was known to local Chippewa tribes only as the home of a thunder god, until miners arrived to prospect and extract the ore. The Chinchas Islands off the coast of Peru, covered in seagull droppings, were for a time the most valuable real estate in the world, owing to the value of guano as fertilizer—but before that discovery I can only imagine that sailors literally steered clear of them, owing to the overpowering stench.

But you can see the principle perhaps most starkly in the stories of valuable resources that were once considered waste products of industrial processes. Here are a few:

Natural gas. It was originally just a by-product of oil drilling. As told in Energy: A Human History:

Other than for local applications such as salt boiling, no one knew what to do with it once it had served to push petroleum out of the ground. Producers typically burned it off. “Natural gas wells were often abandoned when oil was not discovered,” writes historian David A. Waples, “left to blow freely. If ignited purposely or accidentally by friction, lightning, or careless open flames, they would burn for months or years.”

The problem with natural gas was always how to deliver it from the wellhead to the customer, at the right pressure. Manufactured gas—town gas—had the advantage of its controlled production and nearby location, from which it could be piped like water and its pressure controlled. Natural gas required pipeline delivery from wellhead to point of use, and the technology of constructing leakproof pipelines that could deliver gas of varying natural pressure across miles of intervening land developed only slowly.

(This problem was solved by George Westinghouse, foreshadowing his achievements in AC electricity.)

Portland cement. The most common type of cement is made by grinding up a hard substance called “clinker” that was previously considered useless, a botched product of an earlier process called “slurry-mixing”. Quoting Concrete Planet:

Cement makers using the slurry-mixing process were careful not to “overcook” the mixture in the kiln. If the mix was kilned too long, the resulting material was completely vitrified. In other words, it would become a hard, rock-like substance, called “clinker”, which was very difficult to pulverize. Over-burned and blackened bricks that could not be sold were also called clinkers, and this is probably where it got its name. Cement clinkers were also deemed useless and tossed away, since the cement manufacturers wanted an easily pulverized product. If they had taken the trouble to grind up the clinkers… they would have discovered the finest cement the world had yet seen.

Cast iron. The oldest process of ironmaking begins by heating iron ore in a small furnace called a bloomery, which gets hot enough to extract iron from its ore, but not enough to melt it. Instead, the heavy iron collects in a spongy mass (a “bloom”) at the bottom of the furnace; smelters pull it out with tongs and then hammer it to remove impurities. Because it is worked with tools, this form of the metal is called “wrought iron”.

When iron does melt during smelting, it absorbs more carbon from the fuel, which makes it brittle; it will break during hammering. Thus, like clinker, it was considered a botched product. However, it was eventually realized that the liquid metal could be poured into molds; hence it was ultimately termed “cast iron”.

The Epic of Steel (as excerpted here) tells how smelters gradually changed their minds and their processes:

In the taller furnaces the iron ore remained exposed to the reducing action of charcoal for a longer period, and this, combined with higher temperatures from the water-driven [bellows] blast, generally, but not always; caused some of the iron to melt and trickle from the bottom of the furnace, where it solidified. This iron, having absorbed enough carbon to transform it into cast iron, which is brittle and unworkable in the forge, was an annoyance to the smelter whose object was to produce low carbon wrought iron. As yet he had no use for cast iron and returned it to the furnace to be remelted. … The increasing appearance of molten iron running from the furnace presented the smelter with a problem. We are left to conjecture what may have passed through his mind. In the proportion that iron flowed from his furnace, the quantity of wrought iron which he obtained was lessened. At the same time, the return of the solidified iron to the furnace for remelting interfered with his operations as a producer of wrought iron. Bronze was then being cast in many forms. Among the chief—if not the chief—cast bronze products were church bells. The iron smelter was certainly familiar with the bronze foundry industry. What could have been more natural than for the producer of cast iron and the bronze foundryman to have been brought together? The circumstances under which this may have occurred are obscure, but it appears most likely that church bells were the first cast iron products extensively produced, followed by a much greater demand for cast iron cannon and cannon balls.

Alert to these new outlets for cast iron, more smelters adjusted their furnaces to produce the metal in a molten state and the true blast furnace came into being.

Today, virtually all iron ore is smelted in a blast furnace to produce cast iron (before further refining into steel).

So natural gas was a “by-product” and was burned off, clinker was “deemed useless” and was discarded, cast iron was “an annoyance” and was remelted. In all these cases, the resource was not just under our feet, it was in our hands, and we threw it away—until we realized how to harness it and how to value it.

Not only natural materials, but even artificial ones, are only “resources” after we learn to see them as such.

Relevant books

Energy: A Human History

Steel: From Mine to Mill, the Metal that Made America

Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World's Most Common Man-Made Material

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler

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