Tag Archives: technology

Green revolution

September 1970 – March 1974

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

Paul Ehrlich. The Population Bomb. 1968

Ironically, it was just around the time that Ehrlich wrote this that production of rice and wheat in India, the Philippines, and other countries was booming thanks to the Green Revolution – more productive plant varieties that could take advantage of fertilizer and pesticide inputs. It’s true, as Malthus pointed out long ago, that exponential population growth can eat up any conceivable increase in agricultural output. But the Green Revolution bought the world some breathing space until birth rates began to come down. It probably also eased some of the paranoia about food supply that played a part in two world wars.

Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind … than the whole race of politicians put together.

Jonathan Swift

Steam engine time

1716-1732

The steam engine was a child of seventeenth century science; the Scientific Revolution gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. That’s not at all the conventional story, but David Wootton’s recent book The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution makes the case.

According to the conventional story, the steam engine resulted from the work of generations of inspired tinkerers, ingenious craftsmen with no particular scientific training and no great scientific knowledge. Indeed, according to one historian, “Science owes more to the stream engines than the steam engine owes to science.” (After all, the steam engine did inspire Carnot’s thermodynamic theory.)

But Wooton traces a path from scientific theory to practical application, beginning with the seventeenth century science of vacuum, air and steam pressure. The pioneering scientists here were not just theorists. They built (or at least designed) a number of devices for making use of differences in gas pressures, including an air gun (Boyle), a steam pressure pump (della Porta), and a vacuum-powered piston (von Guericke). Huygens took up the last idea, using an explosion to empty air from a cylinder, through a valve, and then using the partial vacuum to move a piston. This in turn was taken up by Denis Papin, a French Protestant medical doctor and mathematician, who worked as an assistant to Huygens, and then to Boyle. Papin combined scientific knowledge and engineering experience to design several steam engines. None of these was very practical – sadly Papin ended his life in failure and poverty. But the first of them was very similar to the first commercially viable steam engine, produced by Newcomen in 1712 – so similar that many historians have been convinced that Newcomen must have been familiar with Papin’s design.

Up to recently there’s been no convincing account of how Newcomen could have learned of Papin. But now Wooton has discovered the likeliest link, a book by Papin with the unpromising title A Continuation of the New Digester of Bones. The book has been neglected by historians, not surprisingly, but sold well in its own day. It gives plans for a pressure cooker (hence the title). But it also contains detailed descriptions both of vacuum powered piston, and of the use of steam condensation to produce a vacuum: just what Newcomen needed to put together to build his first engine. Wooton writes:

Newcomen’s steam engine is a bit like a locked-room plot in a detective story. Here is a dead body in a locked room: How did the murderer get in and out, and what did he use as a weapon? … We cannot exclude the possibility that Newcomen went to London and met Papin in 1687 … But we do not need to imagine such a meeting. With a copy of the Continuation in his hands, Newcomen would have known almost everything that Papin knew about how to harness atmospheric pressure to build an engine. … From this unintended encounter, I believe, the steam engine was born.

He concludes:

Historians have long debated the extent to which science contributed to the Industrial Revolution. The answer is: far more than they have been prepared to acknowledge. Papin had worked with two of the greatest scientists of the day, Huygens and Boyle. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a professor of mathematics. … Newcomen picked up … where Papin began. In doing so he inherited some of the most advanced theories and some of the most sophisticated technology produced in the seventeenth century. … First came the science, then came the technology.

A cycle of Cathay

The innovations which make their appearance in East Asia round about the year 1000 … form such a coherent and extensive whole that we have to yield to the evidence: at this period, the Chinese world experienced a real transformation. … The analogies [with the European Renaissance] are numerous – the return to the classical tradition, the diffusion of knowledge, the upsurge of science and technology (printing, explosives, advance in seafaring techniques, the clock with escapement …), a new philosophy, and a new view of the world. … There is not a single sector of political, social or economic life in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries which does not show evidence of radical changes in comparison with earlier ages. It is not simply a matter of a change of scale (increase in population, general expansion of production, development of internal and external trade) but of a change of character. Political habits, society, the relations between town and country, and economic patterns are quite different from what they had been. … A new world had been born.

Jacques Gernet. A History of Chinese Civilization, pp. 298-300

Scholars contemplating the sweeping economic, social, and political transformation of China under the Song dynasty (960-1279) seem compelled to draw analogies with later dramatic occurrences in Europe – with the Renaissance (as in the quote above) or with the Economic Revolution in England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

The changes are dramatic. Population roughly doubles, from about 50 million to about 100 million. Cities grow. Both internal and external trade boom. The division of labor advances, with different households and different parts of the country specializing in “goods such as rice, wheat, lighting oil, candles, dyes, oranges, litchi nuts, vegetables, sugar and sugarcane, lumber, cattle, fish, sheep, paper, lacquer, textiles and iron.” In a number of fields of technology – iron production, shipbuilding – China reaches heights which the West will not attain for many centuries.

With changes in the economy come changes in the relation between society and state. Taxes come to be mostly collected in cash rather than kind, Eventually revenues from taxes on commerce, including excise taxes and state monopolies, will greatly exceed those from land tax. A Council of State will put constitutional checks on the power of the emperor.

Yet Imperial China will ultimately follow a different, less dramatic developmental pathway than Europe. Some reasons why:

The nomad brake. By 1000, Western Europe has largely tamed its barbarians, folding them into a settled, stratified, Christian society. But the civilized folk bordering the Eurasian steppe, in Eastern Europe and continental Asia, are in for a rougher ride. During the whole Song period, China faces a threat from nomads to the north. In the Northern Song period (960-1126), the Khitan empire, founded by steppe nomads, occupies Mongolia, Manchuria, and part of northern China. In the Southern Song period (1127-1279), the Song lose all of northern China to a new barbarian dynasty, the Jin. Finally, the Song dynasty ends when all of China is conquered by the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his heirs, with the loss of about a third of the population. For all the wealth and sophistication of the Song, the succeeding native Chinese dynasty, the Ming, does not regard them as a model to be emulated.

Rice economics. Rice is the main food crop in southern China, the most populous and developed part of the country. Here’s a basic fact about rice versus wheat production (hat-tip pseudoerasmus): diminishing marginal returns to labor are less pronounced with rice than wheat. In other words, with rice, you can produce a lot more if you’re willing to put in a lot more work. With wheat, you more quickly reach a point where additional labor yields little additional production. This simple fact has far-reaching implications. Imagine an economy with two sectors, agriculture and manufacturing. And imagine that population expands up to a Malthusian limit. Under these assumptions, and given standard economic reasoning, it makes a big difference whether the principal crop is rice or wheat. With rice (diminishing marginal returns less pronounced), equilibrium population density is greater, output per capita is less, and more of the labor force is in agriculture, less in manufacturing.

So an economic model incorporating information about labor productivity of rice and wheat seems to account for some basic differences between China and the West. But rice cultivation may have more subtle implications.

Rice psychology. An older generation of humanist scholars was willing to generalize about Chinese thinking.

It is quite clear to all those who have been in contact with this world that it is quite different from the one in which we ourselves have been moulded. … China does not know the transcendent truths, the idea of good in itself, the notion of property in the strict sense of the term. She does not like the exclusion of opposition, the idea of the absolute, the positive distinction of mind and matter; she prefers the notions of complementarity, or circulation, influx, action at a distance, of a model, and the idea of order as an organic totality. … Chinese thought does not proceed from an analysis of language. It is based on the handling of signs with opposing and complementary values.

Gernet p. 29

Within the social sciences, sweeping pronouncements like this are suspect. To hard-headed materialists and quants they look hopelessly impressionistic and unscientific. To post-colonialist critical theorists, they reek of old-fashioned, condescending Orientalism. But there is now a substantial body of research demonstrating real differences in cognitive style across cultures, and between the West and China (and other East Asian societies), in line with the quotation above.

Of note here: there is also regional variation within China. Rice paddy farming requires high levels of cooperation, including joint work keeping up irrigation systems, and reciprocal labor exchanges. And research shows that there are differences in psychology as well between wheat and rice growing regions in China. Chinese from rice growing regions are more inclined to holistic, context dependent thinking. Chinese from wheat growing regions have a more independent, individualizing cognitive style. In other words, the expansion of rice cultivation in China may have reinforced some of its characteristic cognitive inclinations.

In conclusion: the history of the Song period poses in particularly clear form the “Needham puzzle” of why the Industrial Revolution did not originate in China. The answer, it seems, is complicated, combining (at least) political and social responses to external threat, the nature of agricultural economies, and more intangible (but still measurable) differences in cognitive style.

Weaving history

832-676 BCE

The association of particular plaid patterns (tartans) with particular Scottish highland clans is a phenomenon of the last several centuries. But the Celt-plaid connection goes back a lot farther than that.

plaid

This picture shows a scrap of fabric associated with the Iron Age Hallstatt culture of central Europe. The culture lasted from 800-500 BCE, and is ancestral to later historic Celtic cultures. In fact, traditions of plaid weaving seem to go back a lot further. We find similar plaids being woven at roughly the same time, but thousands of miles away, in what is now Xinjiang province in western China. Linguistic evidence (from later writing) and genetic evidence (from mummies) suggest that some of the inhabitants of Xinjiang at this point were speakers of Tocharian languages, a branch of Indo-European, deriving from the western steppes. (Both Tocharian and Celtic probably branched off the Indo-European tree long before Indo-European-speaking chariot riders rode south to Iran and India.) We know that Proto-Indo-European had words for weaving. The Celtic and Tocharian plaids are similar enough (according to those who know such things) that it seems likely that IE speakers were also weaving plaids from early on.

The Mediterranean developed its own culture of weaving. In Mycenaean Greece, slave women worked under factory-like conditions to produce cloth for ordinary wear, some of it exported. Aristocratic women too were weavers. They might work with spindles of bronze, silver, or gold, weaving story cloths – tapestries that illustrated family histories. The shroud that Penelope wove by day and unwove by night was presumably one such.

Mycenaeans used writing for bureaucratic record keeping, not story-telling. Remembering the past was the business of female weavers and male bards. When literacy disappeared during the Greek Dark Age, historic memory, such as it was, was kept going by weavers, and by bards – often called weavers of words.

Think like an Egyptian

houdin

2560 BCE

You might think that with the Egyptian pyramids being famous for thousands of years (they’re the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing) there wouldn’t be much new to say about them. But you’d be wrong. The Egyptians wrote down virtually nothing about their architectural methods; they may have worked with some kind of 3-D models – the Bronze Age version of Computer-Aided Design – rather than anything like blueprints. So we haven’t really known much about how the pyramids were built. In particular, it’s been a real puzzle how they moved building blocks to near the top of the pyramid in the later stages of construction. If blocks were moved along a straight ramp up the side of the pyramid, the ramp in the last stages would have had to be a mile long, and contained as much material as the pyramid itself. It also wouldn’t have fit on the Giza plateau. Recently, Jean-Pierre Houdin, a French architect, may have figured out how the problem was solved in the case of the largest pyramid, the Great Pyramid built for King Khufu (Cheops). According to Houdin, the builders used an external ramp for the early stages of construction. But they also built a vaulted internal ramp, spiraling around inside the pyramid, and moved blocks up it for the later stages. (And the builders economized by dismantling the external ramp and using it for construction material.) Houdin revealed his theory in 2005. Both before and since then he has put a huge amount of work into understanding how the Great Pyramid was built. For example, he may also have come up with an explanation for the 150 foot-long, narrow, slanting Grand Gallery in the pyramid: it looks like it was used to run counterweights on a trolley that helped to bring up some of the heaviest stones, the granite blocks used to reinforce the King’s Chamber.

Little deuce coupe, a prehistory

wheelfarside

Wheels probably started being used by copper miners in southeastern Europe, in the Carpathians, in the 4th millennium BC. The early wheels were wheelsets, with the wheel fixed solidly to an axle, and the axle rotating. For miners, any alternative to carrying loads of ore on their backs must have been welcome. Miners can smooth a path for their carts, so the problem of moving wheels on uneven terrain is reduced.

Several centuries later, somewhere between the Carpathians and the steppe country north of the Black Sea, another kind of wheel was developed, with the wheel rotating freely around a fixed axle. The new wheel was perfectly suited to a new way of life that developed on the steppes, where nomads followed herds of livestock. Horses might have been the flashiest part of the new lifestyle, but oxcarts, carrying family belongings from one grazing site to another, may have been just as important.

Judging by their reconstructed vocabulary, speakers of Proto-Indo-European – the ancestor of most of the languages of Europe and Northern India – were among those adopting the new technology.

wheel-pie

(Actually, looking at the reconstructions, it looks like the adoption of the wheel may have come after Proto-Anatolian – ancestor to Hittite – had branched off from other Indo-European languages.)

Some cultures got into wheels more than others. Sub-Saharan African societies, even including cattle nomads, never adopted the wheel. In the Middle East, wheeled vehicles gave way pack camels sometime between Roman times and the Islamic period. As a result, Islamic states didn’t have to put as much effort into road building as earlier states, and the narrow crooked streets of Islamic cities were made for camels, not carts, to traverse. Wheeled transportation was limited in Japan. And in the New World, wheels are known only from children’s toys.

wheeldog

Things were different in Europe and its cultural offshoots, where wheeled vehicles have exercised a hold on the imagination – especially the male imagination – right up to the present. This is from Richard Bulliet’s recent book, The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions (p. 33):

Not only is the world racing fraternity composed almost entirely of men, but it has historically recruited very few drivers from East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. …[T]he five-thousand-year history of wheels in Indo-European societies – specifically in Europe, including its former colonies, and North America – testifies to an affinity between vehicle driving and male identity in cultures that descend from the Proto-Indo-European linguistic tradition. Since the earliest days of wagon nomads and chariots, through the carriage revolution of the sixteenth century, and down to the automobile era, men brought up in European (and Euro-American) societies have repeatedly linked their manhood to their vehicles.

And here are the Beach Boys, carrying on the tradition in Little Deuce Coupe.

Jomon

11-10.5 thousand years ago.

We celebrated the evolution of the first flowers on Amborella Day, March 17. Now we can finally celebrate people having pots to put flowers in. The earliest pots in the world come from the Jomon culture in Japan. (Although they were more for cooking and storage than for flower arranging, of course.)

jomon

The advent of pottery defines the beginning of the Neolithic (New Stone Age). In some places, the Neolithic coincides with the inception of agriculture. But not everywhere. The Jomon are hunter-gatherers, ancestors to Japan’s Ainu. They live in villages, harvesting marine and arboreal resources (e.g. shellfish and acorns), which are rich enough that they can settle down and develop an increasingly elaborate ceramic tradition. A pot like this one was not thrown on a wheel, but made by hand, from coils of clay. Jomon means “cord marked,” from the patterns marked on the pots with cords.