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.

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What Can We Learn from Leviticus, Wealth, and the Monkees?

As a historian, my job is to urge greater understanding of where we are through offering fresh perspectives on where we’ve been. My humble efforts constantly have me discovering things I never knew while challenging myself to reconsider things I thought I knew for sure. The curiosity quest has led to more questions than answers, which, I think, is as it should be. The following are among those issues and queries currently furrowing my brow.

Questions(Photo: http://www.cedar-rapids.org)

Science: In grade 4, Miss Haney taught me that man very early made jars stand up nearly perpendicular. The mnemonic device allowed me to remember the nine planets and their order from the sun. Look back and see what I mean; I’ll wait.

All was well until 2006 when scientists demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status because it had an unsteady orbit and was unable to “dominate its neighbourhood”. Then, thanks largely to the Hubble telescope, it was discovered that beyond our solar system there are perhaps a trillion planets. I don’t really know what a trillion is but it’s a lot more than eight. These new facts laid waste to Miss Haney’s old facts and ruined her perfectly charming memorization trick.

So, is science based not on facts but our best guess at the moment? If that is true, then what of mathematics, economics or anything else resting upon quantifiable truths?

Music: I used to sneak a small transistor radio into my bed every night. From beneath my pillow, so my parents couldn’t hear, I nodded off to a Buffalo radio station that skipped the latest rock ‘n’ roll across Lake Ontario just for me. I was ripe for the Monkees. I bought the records and every week enjoyed their TV show.

Although an enamoured nine-year old, I noticed that what I was hearing did not match what they were playing; especially Micky the drummer. It ends up that the Monkees sang but the music was played by a group of crack LA studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew. They were the same talented group we really heard when listening to The Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Beach Boys, Association, Partridge Family, Grass Roots, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and many more.

So, can music be enjoyed while accepting deceit in its creation? If so, does the same acceptance apply to other forms of artistic endeavour? If we accept deception in art, then where else will we wink at irony tilting toward lies – perhaps business and governance?

Bible: Until we stopped going to church for some reason, I attended Sunday school. Every week I fidgeted with the adults before we kids were led downstairs for a snack and lesson that we could actually understand. The rather violent portrayal of Jesus upstairs and the equally gruesome representation in the basement frightened me. The stories of God were thankfully reassuring as we were encouraged to consider Him as an old man who not only looked like Santa Claus but also acted a lot like him. Both had lists of naughty and nice and both meted out rewards and punishments although God seemed more quick to anger and a whole lot more spiteful and violent. I recall being shaken by the thought that I was apparently under constant surveillance.

I later enjoyed a university World Religions course, read a great deal, and, over the years, I have re-read the Bible four times. I learned to accept that Jesus was likely not the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blond man with whom I’d grown up. I learned that crucifixion was the Roman’s chosen form of capital punishment. So wearing a cross as jewellery then would be like wearing an electric chair now. Further, I learned that God is no more a man than Santa but, rather, a concept.

All this was fine but I was more troubled to find myself cherry picking from the Bible. I read that Leviticus 18:22 says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Ok, I disagreed, but it was clearly stated that homosexuality is a sin. But wait, 25:44 says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” So slavery, alternatively, is not a sin but, in fact, encouraged. It must be so because Exodus 21:7 says, “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.”

So, can we accept the good things a religion proffers while ignoring the questionable stuff? Can we use a part of the Bible to justify a particular belief while ignoring other parts? Can we treat the Bible as a smorgasbord without cheapening or even rejecting its core message?

Wealth: I once worked at a school for teenagers who were damaged, learning disabled, culture shocked, lost in the criminal justice system, or just lost. Later, I worked in a private school where those of means could buy their children’s peers and opportunities no longer available in the ideologically besieged and fiscally starved public system. I found about the same percentage of happy and unhappy kids in both schools.

Happiness, it turns out, has little to do with money. Last year, University of San Francisco psychology professor Ryan Howell determined that buying more stuff, having more clothes and cars and living in bigger houses do not make people happier. His findings supported a 2010 Princeton study showing that happiness rises until income hits about $75,000. After that, it was found that happiness goes up not one whit even if one’s income soars higher than poor old Pluto.

So, was John Lennon right? Is love really all we need? If the studies are true then should we re-examine the meaning of success, the efficacy of ambition, and the value of materialism?

There are folks I know who are deeply offended by questions that invite an exploration of opinions that they have hardened into facts. The questions should none the less be asked. I believe that we owe it to ourselves to ask questions of ourselves, even if the answers are difficult, illusive, or impossible.

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