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The Most Powerful Idea In The World
A Story of Steam History and Invention
Before the seventeenth century, there were only 3 ways of getting work done: muscle power (either human or animal), water power or wind power. Human power is most effective: an adult human is able to convert about 18% of the calories he consumes into work, while a horse has a max of 10% (which is part of the reason why slavery has been popular throughout history). Egyptians were using waterwheels both for irrigation and milling 3500 years ago. Europeans started harnessing wind power some time after the tenth century, in areas like Belgium where flat land meant no fast flowing rivers for waterwheels.
Obviously waterwheels are site-specific, but also, less obviously, they cannot be scaled up. Cannot reduce operating expenses so no incentive to innovate. But once coal-powered machines invented, innovation became inevitable.
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By 1230, British had cut down so many of its trees that was importing most of its timber from Scandinavia.
London in mid 1750's when James Watt first arrived - a large (600,000) unwashed population, untreated sewage, and the miasma from burning two-thirds of the world's dirtiest coal, the city literally stank.
A lifetime of inventing almost always has negative financial outcomes. Their fundamental stubbornness, while sometimes a virtue, is usually a handicap. Plus they are wildly over-optimistic about every aspect of their invention.
Teaching maths to as many as possible - Dutch windmills are complicated - sail pivots in one plane while rotating in another, so there are a huge number of permutations. A Swiss mathematician, Leonard Euler, calculated the optimum size and orientation for the sails, and then found that the builders and millwrights had got there by trial and error - but it had taken them centuries to achieve what Euler figured out in few weeks.
John Smeaton was regarded as the most brilliant engineer of his era - a bit like being the most talented painter in Renaissance Florence. main contribution was introducing systematic measurement and experimentation. He helped found, and led, The Society of Civil Engineers (civil bc it was non-military engineering), the first engineering society in the world.
America took a while to get its patent system going. In the first year, 1790, only 3 patents issued. The first two patents wound up generating far more wealth as rare documents, bid up by collectors avid for the signatures of Jefferson and Washington.
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