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frogontrombone t1_iqy7b95 wrote

I teach the history of the industrial revolution in my engineering classes, and I was expecting technical gaps, but were not any. This was a great article.

The only thing I would add, and it is a corollary to the article's thesis, is that machine precision was not worked out until the industrial revolution. The early steam engines were next to useless and would have remained so if it were not for precision machining.

There were several key innovations that happened in quick succession that lead to precision machining, after centuries of research into them. First, the lathe completely transformed manufacturing because it allowed for precision screws, which allowed for precision measurement. At the same time, the straight line mechanism was essential for getting steam engines to hold any significant pressure, and the lathe was also modified to create the first precision cylindrical bore. All of this and more came together in the Watt-Bolton engine, which was the point at which steam power became widespread. The first flat plates were created not long after. And shortly after that, high precision lengths and weights. Exactly none of the industrial revolution could have not happened without major leaps in measurement, precision, and mechanisms.

But as I said, this is secondary to the articles thesis

Edit, wanted to add some sources for those interested. The Youtube channel "Machine Thinking" produces extremely accessible yet technically useful videos on the history of the industrial revolution. Highly recommend.

Edit 2: in particular, this video is most informative:


cambalaxo t1_iqychtt wrote

Very interesting . Thanks for your comment


boda_fett t1_iqywjd8 wrote

I smoked like a little bit of weed and then was reading this answer and soon realized that it blew my mind. Super interesting stuff, especially when you talk about the lathe. Never even considered how transformative it was.


Borazon t1_iqzinti wrote

I only missed a little bit more fleshed out argument about the possible usage of wind power. It in itself could have triggered a 'little industrial revolution'. Like we have in the Netherlands where it turned into a economic powerhouse in a short amount of time. That also required a perfect combination of factors, like England in this example. But those would have been more present in the Roman empire.

Btw, I love your argument about the requirements of machining and precision. I always made the same argument about why a blacksmith wouldn't be able to create a good motor block from scratch. And that this is one of the reasons you can't just 'skip' technologies.

The industrial revolution also enabled societies to create new forms (of metal), because it allowed for options to create higher forces, pressures, then ever before. It were great steam presses that enable making the plates for the Great Eastern, for example.


frogontrombone t1_ir03hg2 wrote

Great ways to put it with a blacksmith making an engineer block.

The part of the thesis i found so compelling was that Britain had a unique combination of resources and economics that presented creative pressure to invent that was not present otherwise. I think the Netherlands is a great counterpoint because even very inefficient windmills were enough to get the land reclamation done, so there was no creative or economic pressure to create precision pumps, for example.

To your point, I do think that the medieval use of wind and water turbines itself constitutes a "little industrial revolution", as these were not present to the same degree in antiquity.


Borazon t1_ir08jtr wrote

The little industrial revolution in the Netherlands was how wind energy was used to turn Zaandam, the region above Amsterdam into one of the premier shipbuilding facilities in the Netherlands, able to turn out 1 ship every two days. And it was likewise a combination of technological factors, geographical and historical factors that enabled it.


  • Amsterdam's position was great for trade, for both Canal/Atlantic trade, trade via inland barges and most importantly, the Baltic sea routes.
  • Via the Baltic Amsterdam had access to lumber forests from Scandinavia (as the Netherlands never had much forests)


  • New ship designs like the Fluit which required fewer personal to man, meaning cheaper trade (at the max, half of the ships passing through the Kattegat at Denmark were Dutch)
  • New windmill innovation, in the crankshafts for transferring power and new designs for lumber cutting with reciprocating blades


and to truly create Amsterdam's golden century, lots of historical opportunities, among which:

  • the discovery of new sea routes to the indies
  • the availability of much manpower in the form of refugees from the 30 year war; the availability and knowledge of new forms of finance from rich Huguonets and Belgium refugees from the 80 year war both drawn in part by Amsterdam's religious freedoms.

Which allowed Amsterdam to turn the reliable Baltic trade into investments in the far east, in turn powering investment into the Netherlands and a golden age of arts. Do keep in mind that many of these sort of things interact with each other, similarly as in the English industrial revolution.

I'm both an Archeologist and a Mechanical engineering by education, so I always loved these kind of technological foundations to large cultural/historical changes.


Wintersbone7 t1_ir88yhr wrote

Don’t forget Jewish exiles from the Spanish Inquisition who brought much needed financial and other professional skills that helped monetize this industrial revolution


QueenOfGehenna45 t1_is6ssmr wrote

I thought the end of the cottage industry was a little bit later though?


BobbyP27 t1_iqzjeea wrote

Thanks for this post, it is interesting to see the steps needed and taken to allow modern type metalworking. I would, however, take issue with this being the necessary step to denote the beginning of the industrial revolution. Steam engines, albeit in less efficient formats, had existed for quite some time before Watt’s improvements, and those improvements came when they did because a requirement emerged to make improving the steam engine a problem that needed a solution rather than an interesting curiosity.

At it’s core the industrial revolution is taking what had been artisanal skilled craft based trades and using machinery to deskill them, allowing for a huge increase in volume and reduction in cost of production. The two milestone events in this were the opening of the Etruria pottery in 1769 and the Cromford Mill cotton mill in 1772.

Both of these events preceded the machining developments you describe by a few years, and I would suggest that it was these and similar developments in the factory system that showed the need for and motivated the improvements in machining technology, rather than the machining technology being the key enabler that you imply.


frogontrombone t1_ir05g5t wrote

I appreciate the pushback. I agree that Watts contribution was preconditioned on those earlier inventions and that the growth period preceded Watts engine by a few years.

In my mind, all tech is a continuum, and we choose events to mark beginnings of whatever taxonomy we lay on top to make sense of it. With Watt and Bolton, I see their engine as occupying a similar position to the industrial revolution as solid state transistors replacing vacuum tubes in the computing revolution. I see both as the point where the technologies took off because they were the first two to improve efficiency by orders of magnitude.

Case in point, the steam engines up through the 1940s were all incremental improvements of the Watt Bolton engine. By this, i mean the thermodynamic cycle remained unchanged after them and all future steam engines used the exact same thermodynamic configuration until the steam turbine became widespread in the early 20th century. In terms of thermodynamics, the difference between the watt engine and the ones even a year before was as stark as the first Macintosh personal PC and the ENIAC before it.

Im not disagreeing with you. Im memorializing a different milestone for different criteria


BobbyP27 t1_ir0axo4 wrote

I think your comparison with the information revolution is a good one. Programmable digital electronic computers did exist and were used based on tube technology, and while they did lay the foundations and get the ball rolling with the information revolution, without the solid state transistor (and later the integrated circuit), the full impact of the "Information Age" could not be achieved. In that sense, the early factories of the likes of Arkwright were a clear start on the path to intense industrialisation, but to realise the full potential required both powerful and efficient steam engines, and the ability to make the machinery they drove.

I would take issue with your comment that everything from Watt to the 1940s in steam engine technology was incremental, though. While James Watt built engines that were recognisably the ancestors of engines still in use in the mid C20th, Watt himself was vehemently opposed to "strong steam", all of his engines were based on a boiler at atmospheric pressure, expanding down to condenser vacuum.

When Trevithick tried to develop higher pressure boilers, Watt used the patent protections he had to effectively shut down this development, and it was only when those patents expired that positive boiler pressure engines, a necessary prerequisite for things like railway locomotives or ship engines, that progress resumed.

The other major thermodynamic advance was the use of superheated rather than saturated steam, a development that came in the later 19th century, and also significantly changed the thermodynamics of the steam engine.

For high pressure superheated steam to be used effectively, compound engines were a necessary development, and in terms of the efficient operation of steam engines, the development of the steam turbine by Charles Parsons was also a huge leap forward. In modern thermal power stations, high pressure superheated steam expanded through multiple turbines are still in use today.

As with anything as complicated as "the industrial revolution", it took multiple steps in terms of science, engineering, finance and supporting social and agricultural systems to all come together to enable the change to take place, and a case can be made for any one of these things being the trigger. An argument could be made, for example, that the invention of the limited liability joint stock company was actually the key enabler, as industrialisation on a large scale was impossible within the limits of the capital an individual person could raise, and the risk that a company with unlimited liability would pose.


frogontrombone t1_ir0i55s wrote

Fair points. I made my comments with steam locomotives in mind, but I appreciate the more comprehensive description.

And yes, when talking about the most complex economic and scientific revolutions, single factor explanations necessarily fall short. I tend to see technology as something akin to biological evolution, where economic and social pressures drive mathematics, science, and engineering. More generally, we can say "necessity is the mother of invention".

On this point, I often reflect on pre-Columbian copper culture in the Great Lakes region. The natives of that region never developed metallurgy because they didn't need to. They could literally bash out huge nuggets of pure copper straight from the rock and they already had access to lithic material that produced razor sharp edges that self-sharpened with use. They had no pressure to develop for harder metals than copper. Despite their use of the metal, their use of it was a stone age tech, not a bronze age one. I find it a striking example of a people who were highly intelligent, sophisticated, and advanced, but didn't have the need for metallurgy, and thus never put effort toward it. It really reinforces for me the role of external factors in preconditioning and driving technological innovations.


Rainbike80 t1_iqzd3n4 wrote

Have you read The Perfectionist's? It's a great book and covers the early history of precision.

Fantastic read!


MoogTheDuck t1_iqzxhwn wrote

Thanks for this, great addendum. As an aside I love acoup


fuckfrankieoliver t1_ir15u62 wrote

I have a bachelors in ME and did not learn any of this, now I’m sad :(


frogontrombone t1_ir2c9zw wrote

lol, sorry to hear that. On the bright side, lifetime of learning, right? :D

I cover it so students feel some sense of their professional "heritage" and to motivate why we care about planar mechanisms at all in the age of mechatronics. And my class is very demanding, so it's a "sit back and enjoy it" lecture to give them a breather.


AgoraiosBum t1_iqxb856 wrote

I'd say to sum up, it was from being an agrarian slave state vs a proto-capitalist merchant state with heavy interest in scientific advancement.


doctorcrimson t1_iqzg2wt wrote

Not to mention they were destroyed by mobs of barbarians, no offense to the French and Germans, and lacked much of the mathematics and scientific understanding to progress.


AgoraiosBum t1_ir1oyjf wrote

That didn't matter; the Romans weren't on the verge of a big tech or science breakthrough by 200 AD.

That's the point of the article; it took the confluence of a whole bunch of unique factors to make the creation of an engine and then decades of further investment to refine it even worthwhile.


doctorcrimson t1_ir2yhj8 wrote

I don't think engines have any real place in this discussion. Almost completely nonsequitur, a better example would be things like even the basics of modern chemistry, efficient manpowered or mill powered machinery, or architecture. Not to say romans were bad builders or that their food preservation was poor, far from it, they simply hit their limits far before what would imply an industrial revolution of the time period.


bjornbamse t1_iqzj53i wrote

Yeah, Roman math sucked. Indian math was really good and it was really the foundation of the math we use today.

But Romans were really good at logistics and manufacturing. That's something that India lacked.


War_Hymn t1_ir3rwsq wrote

India was one of the largest manufacturer in the world up until the late 1700s, I will think they were on par with the Romans in terms of craftsmanship know-how during the relevant time. The 5th century Iron Pillar of Delhi is a testament to this, a 6-tonne monument of forged iron that even the Romans would had been hard pressed to create.


thecarbonkid t1_iqy1pxi wrote

Because they didn't have the physics metallurgy or chemistry to industrialise.


TheGreatOneSea t1_iqyaimu wrote

Metallurgy is the big one: it isn't like everyone was too dumb to understand why steam is great to use, but if the pipes continually burst, you're kinda just wasting time.


War_Hymn t1_ir3tj4l wrote

Or just to create decent tight fitting pipes and piston heads in the first place. The early steam engines built by Newcomen and Watt had the benefit of three centuries worth of gunmaking technology to rely on, namely expertise in being able to drill long straight and accurate holes in gun barrels and cannon tubes - which conveniently carried over for boring out steam engine cylinders.

At that time, cannon founders were able to create cannons with a windage tolerance between the barrel and cannonball at a 1:50 gap ratio. So a cannon barrel made to fire a 10 cm diameter cannonball would only have a gap space of 2 mm - which was pretty good at the time.

In addition, 17th/18th century Europe was producing a lot more iron and steel than the Roman Empire ever did - Great Britain alone in the early 1700s was producing the same amount of iron as the entire Roman Empire during it's heyday (50,000 tonnes) with just 1/5th the population. Cheap iron was vital in allowing steam engines to proliferate for industrial and commercial use.


mauricio_agg t1_iqymkt9 wrote

Something as obscure as piece interchangeability is crucial to any industrial society. The possibility of replacing a damaged piece of a machine with other (almost) equal was something humanity didn't grasp until a few centuries ago.


pwnd32 t1_iqzmat5 wrote

Not disagreeing with you but interchangeable parts were a thing that was grasped by Carthaginians during the Punic Wars with ships that were built with standardized, interchangeable parts and even had IKEA-style assembly instructions. It’s just that this kind of thing didn’t really catch on again at large until the Industrial Revolution


War_Hymn t1_ir3u3w4 wrote

As I understand it, we didn't really have truly interchangeable machine parts until the 1850s. Before that, everything had to be fitted manually.


mauricio_agg t1_ir3ulj8 wrote

The French were already in that during the Napoleonic era regarding to cannons.


War_Hymn t1_ir3zz7m wrote

Cannons in your specified period were cast as one piece - there's not much machine parts to be fitted or interchanged.


AnaphoricReference t1_irdrqgm wrote

Every cannonball needs to fit the barrel as closely as possible to maximize the power of the cannon. This leads to two big technical problems: firstly precision, and secondly metallurgy to keep the cannon from exploding when you achieve the desired tight fit. Precisely the two key problems you need to solve for interchangeable machine parts.

The Japanese successfully fast-tracked themselves for Industrial Revolution with a decades-long program trying to replicate the range of European cannons. And this was with access to European scientific and technical knowledge through the Dutch trading post (Deshima) in Nagasaki. Otherwise it would have been even more difficult.


War_Hymn t1_irf5d1y wrote

You have to understand that they were still pretty limited in terms of large scale precision manufacturing back in the early 1800s. The skilled craftsmen of the time could certainly create very tight and precise fitting metal parts as showcased by the accurate timepieces made by 18th century clockmakers, and also Eli Whitney's stunt demonstration of interchangeable parts in a couple of muskets he had made by hand.

But to make precise parts consistently the same, and in great quantities cheaply was a whole different matter and wasn't really achieved until the mid-19th century. Until that time, complex mechanical devices and parts that required minute precision to work had to be made and fitted by hand and eye. Producing true interchangeable parts with this system was not economical. Even Eli Whitney, a pioneer in the field, failed to live up to his claim of producing 10,000 muskets in 2 years, taking 10 years instead. This rate wasn't much better than what the larger gunmaking firms in Birmingham, England (a major center of gun production at the time) were doing in the late 1700s without the aid of a interchangeable parts system.

>Every cannonball needs to fit the barrel as closely as possible to maximize the power of the cannon

Cannonballs of that period were usually casted from casted iron, with no final machining afterwards. Casting does not lend to precise final dimensions as 1. It creates a rough, imperfect finish, and 2. Most metal and alloys tend to shrink in the mold as the casting cools, leading to slight variance to the final dimensions of each casted shot if factors such casting/pouring temperature, composition, cooling rate, etc. are not exactly the same. In addition, rust and grime built up that inevitably occurs during storage/transport, especially on board a damp seagoing ship, would further change the functional dimensions of the casted shot.

So as you see, there had to be some amount of gap or windage between shot and gun bore in Napoleonic-era cannons in order to compensate for these discrepancies. Usually about a few millimeters for naval or artillery guns, or a few percent of bore diameter. In service, the windage grew significantly as each firing eroded the cast iron or bronze barrel (which were much less durable than steel or wrought iron barrels used in later guns).

In comparison, the British Brown Bess musket in that same period fires a .71 cal ball in a .75 cal bore barrel - a windage of about 5% - and it'll still develop a peak internal pressure of around 10,000 psi with the standard military powder loads at the time despite such a "loose" fit. So no, you don't need tenth of a millimeter precision for a Napoleonic cannon, and trying to make one so would had been prohibitedly expensive.


AnaphoricReference t1_iris9zd wrote

Interesting detail. For centuries, European ship cannons were perceived to outrange Japanese and Indian cannons because the Europeans were always a step ahead on daring to reduce windage, because of trust in their production processes.

There was a topic half a year ago or something about 'ugly' late Roman coin faces vs. 'pretty' early Roman coin faces. The explanation people settled on was: mass production. Heavy pure gold and silver coins made in one production line for a relatively small upperclass is something else than making thin coins from alloys that don't flow well in many production lines for millions of users. So to keep the coin faces consistent and recognizable you made them simpler. The problem of scaling up production while keeping consistent quality is as old as civilization. And it still is, obviously, in for instance nanolithography.


War_Hymn t1_irjrk6t wrote

>European ship cannons were perceived to outrange Japanese and Indian cannons because the Europeans were always a step ahead on daring to reduce windage, because of trust in their production processes.

Their guns probably did have better windage thanks to superior manufacturing (to achieve such boring precision, they literally used a lathe big enough to turn a cast cannon against a boring bar), and better gunpowder too, but being able to create a 1:50 windage to bore ratio cannon tube doesn't automatically spell out to the ability to mass produce interchangeable parts, especially when said parts called for reproducing machined dimensions to a hundredth or thousandth of an inch accuracy, which again something that wasn't worked out until the mid-1800s.

Interesting you bring up Roman coins, because I recently read that the debased "silver" coinage of the late empire (when silver supplies had depleted) were basically just copper coins washed in silver salt to give them a silver coating that was so thin that it rubbed off after moderate use. As the coins had to be stamped after the silver washed, for good reason any stamped impression made on them couldn't be too sharp or deep, lest the silver wash would be damaged and the copper base be exposed, exposing the farce.


TaskForceCausality t1_iqyrdhm wrote

Slavery. The Romans integrated slavery in a way very alien to the modern understanding of the term. With slaves integrated into the social fabric of the Roman civilization and being a valuable commodity to boot , the pressure to invent technological labor saving advancements wasn’t there.

Using slaves to accomplish a task would always be more cost effective than using a machine , especially when the number of slaves one owned was a social signal to boot. Much like driving a Mercedes signals success in some cultures today , having a lot of educated and capable slaves equaled similar sentiments back then.


AnaphoricReference t1_irdsvzo wrote

If supplying fuel for a labor-saving machine (for instance a sawmill) takes just as much or more slave labor as is saved by the machine (sawing), it is prefereable to just put the slaves directly to sawing instead of gathering fuel because it requires less oversight over the slaves.

In roman times the most efficient to move a large amount of fuel would have been a trireme with slaves at the oars and a very basic sail. In the 18th century the same would have been possible with a ship manned with just a handful of sailors. From this perspective the wind power revolution in the age of sail contributes to the preconditions for the industrial revolution.


DefenestrationPraha t1_iqx9ccf wrote

I also recommend reading something by Václav Smil. He devotes a lot of effort to show that civilization is energy and vice versa.

He is not as fun to read like Bret Devereaux is, though. Much drier style.


WeldAE t1_iqz9zjy wrote

Nantucket Series and the 1632 Series. Fun reads on messing with the societies tech tree, especially the 1632 series which is less isolated from others and doesn't have a lot of time to prepare.


DoktorSpengler t1_iqysny9 wrote

Did they have the population for it?

Were they really there? I thought they made it to the point of being equivalent to the 15th century but never got any further technologically.

But they never found the Americas, so they didn't really have an Age of Empires


War_Hymn t1_ir3vp08 wrote

It's not just about population - China by the 1800s had a population approaching half a billion, but they had almost no industrialization compare to the Europeans at the time.

>Were they really there? I thought they made it to the point of being equivalent to the 15th century but never got any further technologically.

In terms of metallurgical technology, they were closer to 13th century Europe-level. Just looking at iron production, the Romans of the late Empire were still running dinky bloomery furnaces to smelt iron- not much different from the ones their forefathers were operating when their city was found.

Historic and archeological evidence suggest the Romans never produced more than a hundred pounds of iron from their furnaces, while European smelters by the time of the 1200s were already producing nearly a ton of iron per run from their larger furnaces (which were more efficient in terms of manpower and fuel consumption). By the 1300s, they were able to produce a few tons of iron from each furnace operation, which spelled out to a greater and cheap iron supply that helped pushed the adoption of plate armour, and then gun artillery.


DoktorSpengler t1_ir5tkcn wrote

Presumably, there is some minimal population that is a necessary condition for industrialization.

Thanks for all this information about their relative achievements. This is exactly what I was wondering about. Where did you learn all of this?


War_Hymn t1_ir7iqad wrote

>Presumably, there is some minimal population that is a necessary condition for industrialization.

On the Italian peninsula alone, the Roman population was at least 14 million by 200 CE - compare to Great Britain in 1800 CE at around 10 million.

> Where did you learn all of this?

Just stuff I've read over the years from various sources, I have a particular interest in industrial technology and history.


DoktorSpengler t1_ir7mbln wrote

>Just stuff I've read over the years from various sources, I have a particular interest in industrial technology and history.

What are you working for a think tank in Oakland? Stay strange, but stay sane.


Dahvtator t1_iqz4cts wrote

I think plagues and wars continually came around keeping the population down. As well as loss of their best arable lands. By the time the eastern roman empire was the only part left much of western europe had become much more productive and their populations were able to grow bigger.

Also i think your last point is a big factor. While rome was wealthy throughout its times the increase of wealth to the powerful western states by their access to the americas was massive. Constantinople finally fell in 1453. Columbus did his thing in 1492. Sadly rome never knew that the americas existed.


Reggie222 t1_ir0by2d wrote

Au contraire, they made it to the Americas twice that we're aware of, although there's no record of Romans returning from the new world. The ships that were found were most likely blown across the Atlantic by storm.


DoktorSpengler t1_ir13p7m wrote

Where is the evidence for this? I've never seen anything definitive.


Reggie222 t1_ir1e6wb wrote

I found it in a book called Ghosts of Vesuvius by Pellegrino.


Airborne_Oreo t1_iqz1ldr wrote

I literally have been thinking about this exact subject for the past two days and had it bookmarked for research. This is awesome thanks!


boda_fett t1_iqyxg0t wrote

Thanks for posting this article, it’s really interesting and the blog seems great.


moonbunnychan t1_iqz4171 wrote

I actually just watched a video about this. The jist of it is firstly they hadn't invented steel, iron was incredibly expensive at the time, and why even bother when there were slaves to just do things for them?


Lovat69 t1_iqzbr86 wrote

I'm no historian and this is a very off the cuff answer with next to no sources. But according to my history teacher. When you have slaves you don't need an industrial revolution. There's no impetus to bother with all the work of setting up the complicated logistics it requires.


BobbyP27 t1_iqzjvqc wrote

Not exactly. While slaves don’t need to be paid, they are not free to keep, and there is a limit to what one slave can do in a day. If you are working with high value products, there is also the problem that an unwilling workforce (slaves) has the potential to destroy a lot of value simply due to being uninterested in doing a good job.

If a factory machine can produce more in a day than 10 manual workers and require 1 operator, but if the operator neglects their job the machine gets badly broken, it is far more economically advantageous to have 1 happy, paid worker to run the machine than 5 slaves whose cost is the same as the paid worker doing the job by hand.


Jonathan3628 t1_ir2b1a9 wrote

Does anyone know of some good sources that discuss the relative prices and levels of consumption of different fuels (especially wood, charcoal, and coal) in England over time?

The article provides a citation (to a Wikipedia article, which is better than nothing) for the claim that by [the year] 1000, only 15% percent of England was forested. Then it claims "Consequently wood as a heat fuel was scarce and so beginning in the 16th century we see a marked shift over to coal as a heating fuel for things like cooking and home heating."

This seems very plausible, but it would be great if someone knows of a source that verifies this claim. [In the 16th century, people in England started shifting to using coal more than wood for heating. This shift occurred because wood was scarce (and thus more expensive than coal).]


War_Hymn t1_ir3wdlt wrote

I recall a source stating that after rent, wood fuel was one of the biggest reoccurring expenses for a late medieval/early modern English household in the cities. I'll have to look it up again.

It should be noted that the coal mines in England were also conveniently located at the coast, so they could be shipped to the urban settlements of the country in bulk through sea transport.

EDIT: Found something in one of the volumes of History of Agriculture and Prices in England - there's a chapter on Fuel that states that a hundred faggots (a tied bundle of wood sticks, about 3 feet long and 2 feet wide) was sold wholesale at Cambridge for 6 shillings 8 pences in 1512. Compare this to an average of 2 shillings and 8 pences between 1260-1400 for a hundred faggots. So there was definitely a steady increase during and after the 15th century for wood.

The price of "sea" coal varied in price, depending how close of an access a market had to the coastal coal mines. At York in 1402-1404, a chaldron of coal (36 bushels by volume, equivalent to 1.5 tonnes of coal) could be bought wholesale at 5 shillings, dropping to 4 shillings by 1419. At the coastal Sunderland area, the price of coal was about half as much.


fluffychien t1_iqzbbwt wrote


My question: how does this affect Drake's equation?

One of Drake's factors is

fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space

The article doesn't explicitly state it, but it's imaginable (since I've just imagined it) that the set of circumstances described as necessary for the invention and perfection of the steam engine could be so unlikely as to make our own planet the only one in the galaxy to have developed such technology.

Or maybe something of the kind is inevitable after a few thousand years of agrarian civilisation.

Who knows?


Morkarth t1_iqzdkub wrote

Wouldn't it mostly have to do with the discovery of other energy sources. Think like coal, dynamite. Wouldn't be suprised if mining would be one of the major limits. And not forgetting their knowledge of metallurgy.


amitym t1_iqzmomn wrote

So, there is another aspect to this issue that the author of the cited article touches on briefly but then does not revisit, and that is labor.

It's funny because he starts getting into that with his high-level discussion of the Roman economy, as an essentially alien thing, but then almost makes the same mistake as the "old modernists."

Yes, everything he describes connects the dots in terms of establishing the basis for the industrial revolution. But he doesn't include the labor factor. The ur-question behind all of the technical innovation that drove the Industrial Revolution -- and indeed its underpinnings in the mechanical power generation of the pre-industrial era -- is: why not just get lots of people to do the work?

Like... why were there so many water-wheels and windmills to begin with? Why so much animal muscle power for that matter?

Like I say, he mentions this question but then shies away from it, which is a little surprising. Because one of the glaring differences between Great Britain and Ancient Rome is that Ancient Rome didn't have a manpower shortage. If you needed 20 people to pump something, or even if you needed 200, or 2000, you could get them. Or to turn a wheel. Or perform any repetitive work that we would today associate with a machine.

We have become accustomed to not thinking of 17th and 18th century Britain in those terms, as a labor-scarce society, because we look at the energy economics of work in that milieu and we say, "Oh well they had labor enough, and oh look at all these machines they also had, everyone has machines, that's just a normal thing to want in any society." But that belies the issue. These are not independent phenomena. The machines existed precisely in order that the economy do enough work while still having enough labor. And that goes back into the proto-industrial era of the early 18th century.

By the time the steam engine comes along, the stage is already set. Yes, of course the steam engine was valuable for pumping water from coal mines because the labor requirements were prohibitive. But why? It's because Great Britain didn't have a large class of idlers, fed by patrons to hang around and be available for labor-intensive tasks. And, increasingly, Britain also didn't have slaves. Certainly not a large slave underclass the way Rome did.


[deleted] t1_iqylakm wrote



Leo_Bony t1_iqzqiqm wrote

I think that slavery was bad for ecomomical progress.


Napalmdeathfromabove t1_iqzfgms wrote

No need to indicate when you can work millions to death as slaves.

Also, lead poisoning from plumbing can't have helped.


jah05r t1_iqyv3ur wrote

Because there was no Roman steam engine?


Cyka_Blyat_47-74 t1_iqynwsl wrote

Because of all that lead in their plumbing has dumbed them down over the generations.