Inventing Change: Why We Do the Things We Do

Consider when you showed up at work this morning and the consequences if you were late. How do you measure the power of your car and the light bulbs in your home? Consider your notions of a healthy environment, how your children are educated, and why most of us live where we do.

In that consideration, pay mind to the fact that at the Crofton Pump Station in Wiltshire, south of Birmingham, England, a steam-driven pump is pushing about twelve tons of water a minute to operate the locks along the Kennet and Avon canal. The same pump has been operating efficiently since it was installed in 1812. More than that, the pump’s core technology, and the notion that led to its invention, changed your world and is affecting you today in ways you seldom stop to think about. Change, you see, is sneaky.

inventing-changePhoto: feelgrafix.com

In 17th century Britain, coal had replaced wood as a source of energy. The need for more coal led to deeper mines which had a tendency to flood. At first, horses walked in endless circles to power the pumps that drained the mines. Then, using technology first developed by Hero in ancient Greece, Newcomen engines were developed. They burned coal to heat water to create steam which, when injected through big cylinders, caused a piston to move up and down to pump the water. In 1763, an enterprising young Scottish craftsman named James Watt was asked by the University of Glasgow to fix a broken Newcomen steam engine. He did more than that. He undertook a ten-year journey to solve the pump’s inadequacies. He even learned to read Italian and German to study current research.

Watt eventually invented a separate condenser that allowed cylinders to maintain a constant temperature and the pump to become enormously more efficient. He then formed a partnership with businessman Matthew Boulton. With Boulton’s financial backing and the use of his company’s precision tools and machinery, Watt invented an entirely new steam engine based on a rotary engine with separate gears and his separate condenser. It was powerful, efficient, reliable, and allowed an operator to control its heat and speed.

(For CBC TV fans, Watt’s brilliant assistant who ingeniously developed new tools and ways of doing things was named William Murdoch.)

To sell his engines, Watt calculated that a mill horse could pull about 33,000 pounds of grain one foot per minute. His engine, however, could push 200 times that amount of grain per minute. He boasted, therefore, that his engine had the equivalent power of 200 horses. A unit of measure was invented that could be easily understood. Watt’s company could barely meet the demand for his 200 horsepower engines.

Bouton-Watt steam engines were soon pumping water from every mine in the country. More coal was extracted than ever before. Brewers used the engine to grind ingredients. Steam engines were soon powering cotton-spinning textile factories and flint mills. Giant steam-powered bellows allowed manufacturers to smelt more refined iron than had been previously imaginable. Steam-powered rolling mills produced better quality steel which was used to make better machinery, tools, and buildings. Every industry that switched from water and horses to steam saw their productivity explode.

It was not long before another English inventor, Robert Trevithick, adapted the steam engine to move wheels and, in so doing, created the first locomotive. In 1830, George Stephenson announced the Rocket. The Rocket was the world’s fastest and most powerful locomotive and was soon moving what had been previously considered unbelievable amounts of freight at unfathomable speeds, up to 36 miles per hour. The world’s first railway linked Manchester mills to Liverpool’s docks. From there, newly developed steam -powered ocean going ships made with steel from steam-powered foundries linked those docks to the world.

Britain’s economy boomed. In the first fifty years of the nineteenth century, it became the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of steel, iron, textiles, and coal. Iron alone increased its production by an astounding 2,500%. A circle was created where colonies provided raw materials and then the markets for finished products. With its far-flung colonies and secure trade routes all protected by its enormous navy, the steam engine and the industrial revolution it had unleashed saw Britain become the richest and most powerful empire of all time.

Like in all revolutions, the industrial revolution had winners and losers. The few, the less than one percent, grew enormously wealthy through controlling the import of sugar, cotton, and more from the colonies. Others owned or invested in the railways and shipping lines. A few owned or controlled the mills or as Marx would call them, the means of production.

And those growing mills, factories, ports, trains, and ships needed workers. Thousands left farms and obsolete village cottage industries. Former farm workers made more of the tractors that replaced them in the first place. Rapid urbanization saw many cities grow. London became the economic and cultural capital of the world with its population doubling in only fifty years to 2.7 million. People left relatively independent self-sufficient lives to live in deplorable conditions and, at work, act like the cogs in the machines they serviced. Author Charlotte Bronte wrote in Shirley: A Tale, “Misery generates hate: these sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them: they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.”

People living in Africa, Asia, and the middle east, often against their own will, became under paid or sometimes unpaid workers that fed British wealth. The need for more textile material led southern American cotton plantation owners to buy more slaves and become so wealthy that, eventually, they thought they could split from the northern powers they never liked and create their own country. The ensuing Civil War killed 600,000 Americans.

Back in England, and in every other country that followed its lead into the industrial era, and for the first time, people cared about time. Farmers followed the sun and seasons. But factories didn’t obey nature, they conquered it. Nature’s time was defeated as workers had to show up at a particular time and were paid by the hour. There were regulated times for breaks, lunch, and going home. Trains had to run on time too and so schedules were created. The tallest feature in many cities and towns ceased to be church spires but the town clocks. For a long while, cities set clocks according to the sun, making schedules impossible to maintain until a Canadian, Sir Sanford Fleming, reworked the most fundamental part of our existence so that the new society that steam had created would work – he mapped out time zones and standardized time.

An education system was created to mimic factory hours and rules. The schools taught the factory mentality of rote learning and obedience to the boss. School was considered practical only if it rendered one better able to work. It was industrial revolution teaching for a determined purpose and not, as the Greeks had envisioned, learning to become a wiser person.

But most kids didn’t attend. Children had worked before but with the massive movement of people and the new, insatiable need for labour, more children than ever came to know 16 hours shifts in the harshest of conditions. The 1832 Sadler Committee Report described parents often being separated from their kids for months or even years at a time and children being denied education, suffering workplace physical and sexual abuse, and sustaining more injuries than adult colleagues due to chronic fatigue. The report said that it was impossible to accurately state the number of children under 10 who died every year on the job.

The burning of so much coal to operate the factories and heat the new homes in the growing cities blackened the sky. It filled lungs with soot and brought disease and death. The rich escaped to big estates outside the cities and far from what radical Christian William Blake called in his poem Jerusalem, “dark satanic mills.” Ironically, many schools, those relics of industrial age educational organization, still maintain Jerusalem as their school song.

The world’s first seismic change, the agrarian revolution, began about four thousand years ago when it was discovered that one could grow food instead of chasing it. Farming made land the world’s most valuable resource and so the world’s richest people were those with the most of the stuff. They were called different things in different societies but in Britain, Lords controlled the land and the King, who owned the most land, controlled the Lords. The industrial revolution meant that the richest people were suddenly those who didn’t own the land but controlled the factories. American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest people of the industrial age, in fact, one of the richest people ever, understood the change and how it had happened. He tipped his hat to James Watt by writing a biography of the Scottish inventor.

The world’s scientists understood too. Watt’s enduring influence in having created a new form of power is remembered each time you turn on a light or power-up nearly anything. A unit of power equal to one joule per second is called a watt.

A number of factors cause change and one of the most significant can be a single invention. Inventions are not discoveries. To discover something is impressive but is essentially noticing what already existed. To have noticed black holes in space was not to invent them. James Watt invented the steam engine and what that invention wrought changed the world. Although the industrial revolution is over, given way to the new information age, sparked by a new invention, its effects remain with us today in ways we seldom even think about.

I bet you showed up on time this morning. And meanwhile, in Compton, the pump keeps right on pumping.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others and consider checking my others at http://www.johnboyko.com

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