9/28/12 - the most important invention in economic history

In today's excerpt - the most important invention in economic history was the steam engine, introduced by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and then refined by James Watt, which ushered in the Industrial Revolution. This simple invention brought in an age in which the world's population exploded from 700 million to 7 billion, personal income -- which had been unchanged for thousands of years -- increased over twenty-fold, and Western nations came to dominate the world by building empires of colonies. Historians have debated why this revolution started in Britain, and many have invoked causes from religion to work ethic as the explanation. However, some have instead attributed the discovery to a flukish combination of circumstances. England had burned through most of its forests and turned its voracious energy appetite to coal. And coal, which was rare in most parts of the earth, was plentiful in England. But coal was hard to mine because of the seeping ground water that interfered, and so a steam-powered machine was introduced to pump away the water. The machine was hopelessly inefficient. It converted less than 1 percent of the energy it consumed into steam production, and would never have been viable except that the fuel it consumed was the very coal plentifully strewn about in the water-clogged mines -- and was therefore free.

The steam engine brought unprecedented industrial might to Western Europe, and with it a voracious appetite for raw materials to feed its new factories, far more raw materials than could be provided within its own borders:

"Humans had exploited coal since ancient times, but only on a limited scale. The limit was set by the energy required to produce the fuel. ... Mines tended to fill with ground water, which in deeper pits was pumped out using teams of animals. At a certain depth, keep­ing the workings dry consumed more energy than could be obtained from mining them. In Britain, where the shortage of timber increased the value of coal and a dense network of waterways was developed to lower the cost of its transportation, New- comen's atmospheric-pressure steam engine overcame this limit. Introduced in 1712, the engine used coal from the mine to produce steam that drove a vacuum pump and enabled miners to extend the work­ings deep underground using less energy than the energy they produced. The engine was inefficient, converting less than 1 per cent of the energy it burned into useful motion and consuming large amounts of the mined coal. Since waste coal was now abundant at the mines, however, there was little need to improve the pump's efficiency. Not until 1775 did [Matthew] Boulton and Watt introduce and patent a more efficient design with a separate condenser, which was adopted initially where coal was scarce, especially in iron smelting and in the copper and tin mines of Cornwall. ...

"Freed from the limits of the muscular power of animals and the speed of regeneration of woodlands, the supply of energy began to grow at an exponen­tial rather than a linear rate. ... The amount of energy produced was extraordinary. Britain's coal reserves, today virtually exhausted, produced a quantity of energy equivalent to the cumulative oil production of Saudi Arabia, allowing the motive power used in British industry to expand by about 50 per cent every decade, from an estimated 170,000 horsepower in 1800, almost all water-driven, to about 2.2 million horsepower in 1870 and 10.5 million in 1907. This growth in turn was dwarfed by later increases, including the use of fossil fuels to generate electrical power. The 10.5 million horsepower of 1870 included a capacity for generating electricity of 1.56 million horsepower. That sector alone grew to about 22 million horsepower (15,000 megawatts) by 1950, and about 100 million horsepower (70,000 megawatts) by 1977. ...

"The change from the use of wood and other renewable energy sources to the use of coal underlies the 'great divergence' between the development of north­ern and central Europe after 1800 and the development of China, India, the Ottoman Empire and other regions that until then had enjoyed comparable standards of living. ... From its beginnings, the switch in one part of the world to modes of life that consumed energy at a geometric rate of growth required changes in ways of living in many other places. ... Its use in manufacturing required a large increase in the supply of industrial raw materials. ...

"The commodities Europe needed as industrial raw materials could not be obtained simply through relations of trade, ... [so] Europe needed alternative ways of obtaining materials from overseas, using methods that prevented those farming the land from controlling what they grew and impeded local efforts to indus­trialise. In acquiring lands for sugar and cotton production in the New World, Europeans had relied on the total dispossession of the local population and the importing of slave or indentured workforces. In places where the agrarian population could not be removed en masse—India and Egypt were the main examples—Europeans and their local allies pioneered a method of localised dispossession known as private land ownership [by the colonizers]. This replaced older ways of claiming shares of agricultural revenue with a regime where one claimant, now designated the 'landowner', determined the crops to be grown and asserted exclusive control of the product. These colonial arrangements secured the extensive, solar-based production used to supply agricultural goods in quanti­ties that allowed the development of intensive, coal-based mass production in the towns and cities of Europe."


Timothy Mitchell


Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil




Copyright 2011 by Timothy Mitchell


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