Wednesday, November 9, 2022

“Why didn’t the Roman Empire have an industrial revolution?” [and why Britain did]


 For my money, Bret Devereaux might be the most interesting long form blogger working today. His writing is sharp, his arguments are well reasoned and placed into context, and everything is supported by a carefully constructed framework of evidence.

This post starts with the kind of question that too often takes some minor historical fact like Heron inventing a (thoroughly impractical) steam engine and quickly devolves into a bad Turtledove imitation. Instead of going down that tiresome route, Devereaux explores the economic, technological, and social conditions necessary for an industrial revolution and shows how late eighteenth century Britain was both the right time and the right place. 

And now, at last, the pieces in place the revolution in production arrives. There a machine (the spinning jenny) which needs more power in rotational motion and already encourages the machines to be centralized into a single location; the design is such that in theory one could put an infinite number of spools in a line if you had sufficient rotational energy to spin them all. Realizing this, textile manufacturers (we’re talking about factory owners, at this point) first use watermills, but there are only so many places in Great Britain suitable for a watermill and a windmill won’t do – the power needs to be steady and regular, things which the wind is not. But the developments of increasingly efficient steam engines used in the coal mines now collide with the developments in textiles: a sophisticated steam engine like the Watt engine could provide steady, smooth rotational motion in arbitrary, effectively infinite amounts (just keep adding engines!) to run an equally arbitrary, effectively infinite amount of mechanical spinning jennies, managed now by a workforce a fraction of a size of what would have once been necessary.


But the technology could not jump straight to railroads and steam ships because the first steam engines were nowhere near that powerful or efficient: creating steam engines that could drive trains and ships (and thus could move themselves) requires decades of development where existing technology and economic needs created very valuable niches for the technology at each stage. It is particularly remarkable here how much of these conditions are unique to Britain: it has to be coal, coal has to have massive economic demand (to create the demand for pumping water out of coal mines) and then there needs to be massive demand for spinning (so you need a huge textile export industry fueled both by domestic wool production and the cotton spoils of empire) and a device to manage the conversion of rotational energy into spun thread. I’ve left this bit out for space, but you also need a major incentive for the design of pressure-cylinders (which, in the event, was the demand for better siege cannon) because of how that dovetails with developing better cylinders for steam engines.

1 comment:

  1. A bit related: Kingdom of the Wicked is a book that reimagines the period of the Gospels / Jesus' life in an alternate timeline where Archimedes invented calculus a few hundred years before, sparking a scientific and then industrial revolution, so that by the time of Pontius Pilate the Romans had World War II / Vietnam-era technology. Pretty wild!