Jul 11, 2017

5 min read

The Only Story in History That Matters

Somewhere around the year 1700, the Savery steam engine seriously entered the market. The subsequent technological lineage led to the end of the world as humans had known it since the dawn of the species.

It wasn’t a good steam engine (considering both thermodynamic and economic factors), but it made some headway. As a product, it was a whimper, relatively minor, but it was soon to be outdone by successors many times better.

Savery Steam Engine from Wikipedia, note the valve for cooling the surface of the vessel to the right, also consider the boiler on the left as the source of driving force, values a and b to switch modes of operation

My quest here is to consider what point in history might have been the point-of-no-return. Industrial steam applications grew furiously in the 200 years after the entrance of the Savery engine, with ebbs and flows therein. The Watt steam engine circa 1777 ushered into the world a coal-powered factory that was qualitatively the start of “The” Industrial Revolution. I’m learning about these events because I’m reading this book:

I have a particular kind of relationship with this source material, because I studied steam engines in depth in school myself. When I look at the Watt steam engine, I intuitively know what I’m looking at. It feels like a modern steam cycle, whereas the Savery design strikes me of something like a hybrid between science projects and a design of true utility.

Civilizations ebb and flow, and innovations do too. Knowledge has flowed over international boarders for all of history, and the cumulative quantity of knowledge seems to have mostly monotonically increased. But if the pace of growth had continued at roughly the same rate of increase, our current standard of life may not have occurred until 1,000 or 2,000 years after the present year. Something unique really did happen, and there was a surprisingly small (in the global sense) intellectual community about in which this happened.

William Rosen, the author of The Most Powerful Idea in the World, does justice to a much-overlooked concept that I think we all need to sober up to — innovation faces much greater headwinds than we give it credit for. Intelligence, itself, faces stiff penalties in the real world. Humans have profited enormously due to firstly the development of brains, and then secondly, as the result of the industrial revolution, but this does not mean that the instigators of those changes found it very profitable at all.

Actually, it’s truly remarkable that James Watt attained a kind of affluence due to his contributions. Something was unique about the environment of the world he was born into, because being rewarded for improving efficiency of a process was not a thing for almost all of history.

Depressingly common crimes against intellect, creativity, and innovation that are endemic to human culture are explained very well in the book How to Fly a Horse. For the tl;dr, innovation does not work that way you think it does. Contributions to civilization are almost never made at the gain to the individual making the contribution.

A fundamental shift was necessary in the relationship between the individual and society on this front — and I put it forth exactly that happened sometime in England in the last millennium. What that transition point was, I don’t really know. The theories outlined in Why Nations Fail had some interesting insight on this point.

So let’s return to when:

This one particular talk offers a compelling turning point of 1800, because there are actual graphs of output of the East versus West, and right around this point, the West’s graph goes totally vertical.

I still struggle with this. Many things were still diverging from the rest of history before the actual start of the Industrial Revolution (1800), and the European age of Colonialism surely had some of those ingredients that led to the Industrial Revolution. Another way of viewing these circumstances is that the Industrial Revolution may not have been possible without the level of sophistication of Colonialism that the great powers started out with.

It’s also interesting to argue about “why England?” It may have very well be some other nation that developed the steam engine if they had not. Nonetheless, there are several very unique arguments that answer the “why England?” question. For starters, there was a major shortage of wood, combined with extremely cold climatic conditions in the time preceding 1700. Many people have written about the coffee houses that allowed for people of different backgrounds to combine their ideas. I still doubt that similar things to Coffee Houses were not simultaneously happening in other nations around that time. The sheer power of England on the global scale was sure to have some relevance. Additionally, the nation was leading in government financial innovation by a couple of good case-in-point examples (such as the South Sea bubble), and had a relatively unique set of intellectual institutions.

It’s hard to do enough justice to this final point. It seems almost like a “duh” point that the same intellectual environment allowed for the discovery of universal gravitation in the 1600s, and then the steam engine in the next century.

It’s hard to mention Colonialism without also mentioning the brutality that came with it, but that point seems strange in this context. The European explorers were exactly non-unique in history because of their brutality and egotism. Those are fundamental components of the human condition in pre-industrial society. Technology only comes alongside with intellectual pursuit, and for whatever reason, England sparked the Industrial Revolution because a lot of that in a time when the economic pressures were ripe, and he civil institutions were permissive.

I find it very difficult to imagine an alternative history where the West went into decline right before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and certainly this seems unreasonably implausible toward the end of the 1700s. However, there was a point, some point very close to the invention of patents, steam engines, and science itself where things could have turned hard in the other direction. The fact that civilization did not go down that road (this time) is really just about the only story in history that truly matters.