McClellan: The Industrial Revolution

The population in England skyrocketed in the 18th century after the low periods caused by the Black Plague. Thanks to better hygiene and new agricultural practices, 9 million people crowded the island. Land and sources of energy (ie: wood) became increasingly scarce. The Norfolk system, a four-field crop-rotation system, and the enclosure of public land allowed for surpluses of food to support the growing population and economy. But land use for agriculture competed with ever-diminishing forests and exploding cities. Shipbuilding, smelting iron ore, military activities, and production of food all depended on timber for fuel. Especially the introduction of the blast furnace put huge pressures on the forest industry, and eventually was limited by the scarcity of fuel. Out of necessity, people looked to other sources of energy such as coal – which also faced its own limits in production.

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The steam engine helped not only coal production efficiency, but almost every other facet of society and economy. Newcomen first used coal to heat and cool down a cylinder to pump a piston, which was not an economical design. John Smeaton methodically tested different reiterations of Newcomen’s engine to double its efficiency. James Watt, in a less methodical way, had a stroke of genius on a walk one Sunday and figured that he could separate the cold and hot components. Watt’s improvements took the steam engine out of the coal mines and into urban manufacturing.

The textile industry similarly experienced bottlenecks caused by limits in human capital and energy inputs, which new innovations successfully removed. One such innovation was the ‘flying shuttle’ that increased weaving efficiency. Spinning technology improved to meet the higher thread demand, and then the steam engine introduced mechanized weaving. Changes to the textile industry, which originally existed in ‘cottages’, moved into large factories in response to the new, large and expensive machinery. In response, a social transformation took place as workers, including children, were exploited for their labor. Emphasis on families lessened, a rural-urban divide grew, and a gendered division of labor grew pronounced. Ideologies subsequently shifted as well to favor free trade and Adam Smith’s “laissez-faire” capitalism, moving away from the restrictive mercantilism that previously dominated. Other ideologies in response to the labor exploitation of the Industrial Revolution emerged, particularly Karl Marx’s writings on economics and labor which provided foundations for socialism and communism.

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During the Industrial Revolution, myths of inventors relying on the theoretical knowledge created by scientists spread but later discredited. As a whole, technological innovation developed separately from science during this time. The creators of inventions of the time were largely uneducated craftsmen — no professional schools existed for the things they were inventing. Science very rarely interacted with day-to-day activities of society, unlike technology.

Because this chapter only references male inventors, I was curious if there were any notable women inventors that ‘slipped through the cracks’. Henrietta Vansittart was a self-taught engineer in England, and improved upon her father’s screw-propeller that fitted onto steam ships. More can be read at the links below:

Henrietta Vansittart

11 Forgotten Women Who Invented the British Industrial Revolution

A little off-topic, but the last section of the chapter regarding what role science played in the Industrial Revolution reminded me of the more current battle of ‘alternative facts’ and climate change deniers etc. This NY Times article talks about Bruno Latour, who is a philosopher who researches scientists’ relationship with society.


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Ancient Technologies Against Soil Erosion: Terracing’s Legacy

Since its beginning more than 10,000 years ago, agriculture has created intense ecological damage. Some argue that soil degradation trumps all other human-induced impacts on our landscape. Plowing and planting significantly impacts the fertility and structure of soil. The plowing of land creates soil that helps crop grow, but water and wind easily carries away the precious topsoil. As a result, the fertile topsoil slowly disappears the more land is farmed, thereby making farming more difficult.

Ancient people involved in agriculture used various techniques to minimize this soil erosion. One such technology was terracing, a method of artificially flattening land for crop cultivation (Treacy). This allowed farmers to grow on hillsides and mountains, and not limited to floodplains as they had been before. Terracing arose independently across the globe and many ancient civilizations used this farming technique, including the Inca and Aztec (Sandor). Some studies date terracing as far back as the Chalcolithic era in modern-day Israel/Palestine (Gibson).

Many different styles of terraces exist. Important features of terraces include retaining walls that hold the soil, degrees of slope, and self-filling or hand-filled terraces. The horizontal fields created allowed for easier crop cultivation and irrigation on sloped areas (Treacy).

Historians argue that soil erosion was not the primary force driving farmers to begin terracing. Population growth, changing social and labor structures, trading, and irrigation are all factors that possibly encouraged the creation of terraces (Gibson, Rodriguez, Treacy). Because soil erosion creates subtle change to the landscape, historians believe that the first people to use terracing were not aware of its impact on the soil. Trying to pinpoint the primary reason for terracing often ignores the complex relationship between humans and the natural world, and casts aside the important social functions of terraces. Regardless of the reason for their creation, the benefits to soil health and erosion demonstrates terracing’s most important contribution to farming (Rodriguez).

Most of the research surrounding terracing focuses on how terracing impacts soil quality and finding the potential for indigenous practices like terracing to influence modern agriculture. Scientists estimate that 1.5 inches of topsoil disappears every year as a result of increased mechanization. To find solutions  to this, soil scientists and agronomists look to indigenous methods of farming, including terracing. There are dramatic changes in topsoil losses under terraced vs not terraced conditions. In one study, terraces decreased soil loss by 19 tons per hectare while in another study it decreased by 62 tons per hectare. As demonstrated by Dorren and Rey’s review of terracing, significant modern research being done on soil erosion and terracing. This ancient technology is reappearing to save our soil.



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Galileo and Perspective on Machines


Galileo is considered the ‘father of the scientific method’ and the ‘father of modern science’, among other titles complimentary of his impact on our current perspective of the natural world. In this article, Caldwell delves into Galileo’s influence on people’s view of machines and power.

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Before Galileo, machines were considered only in terms of their final purpose. Each machine was not thought of its individual parts, but of whether it milled grain or told time. People judged the quality of a machine based on the materials it was built out of, whether it served its purpose, and if it was interesting to some extent. Machines were viewed as a way of cheating the laws of nature, being able to get more output for less input.

Galileo introduced a few ideas that changed this outlook. First, that machines had more in common with each other than was thought. He was able to show that machines could be reduced to simple levers (Fig 1). Another important concept was that machines were an economic utility – they reduced the amount of human labor in ways that were meaningful. From this idea, the quantification of power was put forth. A measurement for energy and human labor had never been before considered or needed. In modern day, knowing the power a machine is capable of producing is a normal necessity.

Figure 1

Technology in Early China

As a child, I remember my father telling me stories about all the technology that originated in China. Gun powder, the compass, paper, and even pizza (although that may have been an exaggeration). I did not grow up with what most scholars seemed to think – that the western world brought technology to the east. Alternatively, I was given the impression that Chinese technology was dispersed through the world by way of the Silk Road, thus sharing the advances with other nations.

Unsurprisingly, my China-centric version of history is just as incorrect as historian’s assumptions that technology was transferred West to East. As usual, the history of technology in China is much more complex. According to Bray’s article, while there were some technologies like the horse-drawn chariot that were brought to China from the West, a lot of technologies arose independently in China.

One thing that was not communicated directly to me as a child about these inventions, was how the use of these advances were manipulated and controlled by various rulers and dynasties. How technology was used to create a well-defined power structure of ruling class vs peasants is an important part of Chinese history.

One of the technologies that imperial rulers used to secure their power were agrarian tools and techniques. Agriculture in early China was surprisingly mechanized and benefited from technological advances. In China, rice is grown in the south and wheat is grown in the north. That is an important distinction in China, people from southern China don’t consider a meal complete without rice and a similar sentiment is felt in the north in regards to noodles. At first rice was grown in marshes, where rice naturally grows because of the plant’s semi-aquatic characteristics. Farmers started to expand and began building paddies that had dikes surrounding the field to keep the rainwater in. Other technologies that helped with cultivation included field preparation, first using hand-held hoes, then ox-drawn plows, to iron plows mass-produced by the state. Post-harvest technologies helped farmers easily process their grain with trip hammers, that were later further mechanized using water wheels.

Agriculture and land are important areas for governments and institutions to control power in China. Those in power, aristocrats and the dynastic emperors, relied on peasant’s agricultural yield for taxes and to fill silos to feed armies, which is why there was a lot of old imperial texts encouraging the production and spread of agricultural technology. It was important during this early period to have stores of grain because of the relative frequency of warfare.

Innately tied to agriculture, land ownership policy is also important. Historians aren’t sure what land ownership looked like in early China, but in the Zhou dynasty there was a feudal-like system where aristocrats owned estates that peasants worked, paid taxes, and occasionally drafted into the army. The Qin dynasty took over after the Warring period and created private ownership where peasants still worked, paid taxes, and males were required to do service in the army or government projects. The relationship between governments and peasants regarding land is an interesting history in China. I am more familiar with more recent land seizures in China, as talked about here in this NPR article. Land seizures happen not just in rural areas, but also in old ‘hutong’ traditional neighborhoods in Chinese cities.

Another important technology that was controlled was metallurgy. Metallurgy in China developed independently from the Near East, demonstrated by the differences in their methods. Bronze was used as a political tool — elites would gift each other bronze crafts as signs of alliances. It was also used in music and in burials of nobles. Perhaps in a two-pronged attempt to first control the production of bronze and second to increase efficiency, bronze was produced in an assembly-line fashion. While craftsmen in Europe would perform all steps in the process, Chinese craftsmen were trained in a single step and repeated this one task over and over.

The Qin dynasty is known for creating great displays of their technological ability, and is another example of how the imperial rule dominated technology of the time. Under the rule of Shihuangdi, the Great Wall and his famous tomb of terracotta warriors were built. The Great Wall was a huge military undertaking – it’s role was to protect China from the northern warriors, the Hun. Parts of the wall were already built along the border, but rough terrain had previously prevented the connection of these individual parts.

Shihuangdi’s tomb was another large project that, like the Great Wall, required the sacrifice of thousands of laborer’s lives. The tomb was expansive and was significant in that they put over 8,000 life-sized statues of warriors made of terracotta. The purpose of the terracotta warriors was to protect Shihuangdi in the afterlife. Each statue is different, although the statues were put together in sections (arms, torso, legs) in probably the same assembly-line fashion with detailing later.

Reading about early Chinese history was interesting in terms of its relation to the power structure of the time (or lack thereof at some points) and how it impacted the relationship between the ruling class and the peasantry. Those in power controlled how technology was utilized as well as encouraging the use of certain types – such as special agricultural practices. It’s interesting to contrast this early history to more recent, like The Great Leap Forward  that is another huge example of the intersection of technology, the powerful, and the lay-people in China. This seems to demonstrate how technology and society affect each other in meaningful ways.