A History of Mechanical Inventions
eBook - ePub

A History of Mechanical Inventions

Revised Edition

Abbott Payson Usher

  1. 480 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

A History of Mechanical Inventions

Revised Edition

Abbott Payson Usher

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About This Book

`The book is without peer in its field.` — American Scientist
In this completely revised and enlarged edition of a classic work in the history of technology, a noted scholar explores the importance of technological innovation in the cultural and economic history of the West.
Following an introductory discussion of the place of technology in economic history, the author offers a penetrating historical analysis of social change. Within this context he develops a theory of invention based on Gestalt psychology and a concept of social evolution as continuous development from antiquity to the present. Emphasis is placed on the role of economic forces in the development of technology, with scientific concepts also playing an important role in bringing about change.
The latter part of the book focuses on the production and control of power in general, and in particular on a number of important operative mechanisms. Thus we read thought-provoking accounts of the technology of textile manufacture from primitive times, of water wheels and windmills, water clocks, and mechanical clocks, and the work of Leonardo da Vinci. The development of printing is carefully studied, not only for its intrinsic interest, but because of its importance for the history of science. Other topics include the production and application of power (1500–1830), machine tools and quantity production, the production and distribution of power since 1832, and the role of Asia Minor as a source of techniques which dominated the Middle Ages and the modern period as well.
Thoroughly researched and cogently reasoned, A History of Mechanical Inventions belongs in the library of anyone interested in the history of science and invention, as well as the relationship of technology to economic and social history.
`Throughout the book there is constant proof of the author's wide learning and varied intellectual interests.` — The New York Times

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CHAPTER I

The Place of Technology in Economic History

I

Economic history is concerned with the description and the analysis of the mutual transformations taking place between human societies and their environment. The study of costs and prices is important, and the institutional structure of organized social life demands careful attention, but the basic problems of economic history lie in the field of the management of resources. We are constantly faced with the need of describing the resources effectively available to a given society over an appreciable period of time—the remote future no less than the most immediate present. The quantitative analysis of economic activities requires study of the processes and accomplishments of the system of production in physical units as well as in value units.
Economic history is therefore intimately concerned with the explicit geographic environment, and with the techniques by which resources are utilized at any given moment. The economic historian must use with care the broader results of both the geographers and the technologists. The dependence of economic history upon geography has long been recognized, but the importance of an effective understanding of technologic development is not so generally appreciated. Furthermore, little attention is commonly given to the relation between the geographic environment and the technology that makes the environment useful.
In the study of geology and geography we are prone to think of the earth comprehensively, without regard to the existing state of our knowledge of climate and resources or to our skills in using the physical environment. Such a point of view is valid for many purposes, but it is dangerous and unsound when we are concerned with the economic analysis of environmental factors. For purposes of economic and social activity, the geographic environment is not the totality of physical features, but only that part of the complex which we can conceivably use, immediately or ultimately. This effective geographic environment is determined by our skills in using it; it is, therefore, related to the development of technology. The environment is enlarged by new knowledge and new skills. The distinctive feature of human evolution lies in this fact. Human societies not only select an environment, they make their environment. The processes by which “man makes himself” include those procedures by which men transform their environment. Human evolution is doubly dynamic; man and the geographic environment react upon each other, and both terms are transformed.
Broadly conceived, technology is an important part of the central core in the evolutionary process. It is an essential aspect of the accumulation of knowledge and the development of skills. It does not exhaust the field of the development of the mind, but it is a characteristic segment of the whole. If we may presume that some common principle underlies all our mental activity, technology, and most particularly the mechanical field, may possess a peculiar importance. The processes of innovation can be studied more conveniently in the mechanical field than in most of the conceptual fields, because mechanical apparatus can be traced more accurately and more completely than religious, ethical, and philosophic concepts. In its own right, and as an aspect of the general process of innovation, technology has powerful claims upon our attention.
The central importance of technology will be more accurately perceived if we consider in broad outlines the relation of technical change to the geographic environment. The physical features of the environment may be divided into three general groups: the soil-climate complex, mineral resources, topographic structure.
The classification and description of climates has been developed on several principles, all of them significant and useful for particular purposes, but no single system affords direct and conclusive evidence of the economic importance of the different climates.1 The simpler systems of classification rest upon the analysis of rainfall and temperature data. It is essential to recognize seasonal variations and these adjustments present many difficulties when it becomes essential to determine the boundaries of climatic zones with accuracy. For some purposes averages are adequate; for other purposes full data on the range of variation are indispensable.
Thornthwaite has developed a refinement in the analysis of the temperature and rainfall data by computing the amount of evaporation that may be expected under the various temperature conditions. A coefficient of effective precipitation is developed that presents a more delicate measure of the boundaries of climates. The redefinitions are especially important in the distinctions drawn between the arid and the subhumid climates, and a more accurate picture is given of the effective differences between the warmer and the cooler climates.
An entirely different approach is afforded by the analysis of the natural vegetation of different regions.2 It is presumed that the actual vegetation presents a more accurate picture of the combined effect of all factors than any computation based on temperature and rainfall records. It has also been presumed that natural vegetation presents a better measure of the economic significance of the different climates. These studies of vegetation afford both some measure of the influence of differences in soils and some index of soil characteristics. We now know that soils are a complex product of the whole array of factors; parent materials, rainfall, temperature, and the character of the vegetative cover.
Natural vegetation brings us closest to the problems involved in the study of the development of agricultural activities, as the early forms of agriculture are closely related to natural vegetation. It is necessary to distinguish at least three general types of activity even in early cultures; dry-land agriculture, wet-land agriculture, and the purely pastoral activities of the nomads. Some considerable portion of the areas suitable for these different activities is probably determinable within reasonable limits of accuracy, but there are appreciable zones at all boundaries that allow freedom of choice. In these zones both political and technical factors may exert powerful influences, so that no determinate statement of resources can be made unless we have knowledge of social and economic conditions.
It is presumed that the early agriculture in northwest Europe was largely confined to the loessal grasslands, and that the clearing of the land for the plough did not begin to spread into the forested areas until the fifth and sixth centuries of the Christian era. Medieval and early modern agriculture was occupied with this process of picking over the forested land. Seventeenth-century colonists in North America had become so accustomed to clearing forest land that many supposed that the best arable land had a natural cover of hardwoods.
Since the seventeenth century, the outstanding developments in land use involve two types of change. General farming has been supplanted in many areas by the culture of special commercial crops in areas peculiarly suited to their use. But an even more important change has grown out of the new relation between cereal culture and stock raising. In the older systems of agriculture the products of the arable land were used almost exclusively for human food and alcoholic beverages. The stock derived some food from the mature straw of the cereal crops and from grazing on the arable fields after the harvest, but the effective forage derived from these sources was small. Livestock were primarily dependent upon the unimproved land—grassland, mountain heath, or forests. The most substantial pastoral cultures were nomadic: pure nomads moved their herds about in areas without any permanent settlement; the seminomads maintained a culture independent of the settled farmers, moving herds on regular routes between winter and summer pastures.
The development of the cultivated grasses and legumes resulted in a profound change in the balance between pasture and tillage, and ultimately resulted in great increases in agricultural productivity. Agriculture in North America presented special patterns of land use associated with the position of maize, potatoes, tobacco, and cotton.
Monsoonal Asia presents special problems which are not essential to the immediate discussion, but the spectacular consequences of the establishment of the sugar culture in Brazil afford a striking illustration of the relation of technique to resources. Though not indigenous to the New World, the sugar cane proved to be well adapted to a wide array of the soil-climate types found in South America and the Caribbean. Land ceased for a long period to be a limiting factor in the spread of the sugar culture.
The purely objective descriptions of climate or of the soil-climate complex afford no determinate definition of agricultural resources for two reasons: first, boundaries of the various patterns of land use in agriculture do not coincide with the boundaries of the objective classifications of climate; second, the use of important soil types depends upon accessibility to markets, either because the best product is too specialized to enter largely into general farming or because there is too much land of the given type to be fully used. Areas suitable for sugar and tobacco fall within the first type. In major centers of production, the soils of these areas could be used for general farming, dominated by the production of food for local consumption, only on a very restricted scale. Highly specialized small-grain areas in the drier margins of cultivation illustrate the dependence on economic and technical conditions. The wheat fields of Southern Russia and the wheat areas in North Central United States and Canada could not be conveniently or fully utilized for general farming, and much of the area could scarcely be utilized at all except as a very highly specialized region dependent upon cheap heavy-duty transport of massive raw materials. Agricultural resources are, therefore, determinate only in terms of some defined technology of production and transportation. The techniques existing at any particular time can be projected into the future for an appreciable period, but such projections are subject to the qualification that the estimate represents our present point of view and our present anticipations of applications of known techniques.
The error of the geographic determinists lay in their failure to recognize these limitations in the description and analysis of physical resources. They were too ready to view all the past and all the future in terms of existing knowledge. In this way they adopted a misleading and inaccurate concept of the geographic environment. This environment always belongs to some specified social group, however primitive or however sophisticated. We cannot identify our present position with the whole course of geologic time, entirely apart from the fact that “present-day conditions” have really occupied only a very small fraction of the known geologic period.
In respect of minerals, similar difficulties arise, though in slightly different forms. Let us assume that a survey of mineral resources was being made about 1820, for the world at large or for the United States and Europe; would it be essential to include the known resources of petroleum, scanty as they were? A few outcrops were known in the United States, the oil shales of Scotland were known, and in the Caspian a limited commercial use was made of the crude oils obtained from hand-dug wells. If the basis of the survey was defined as an estimate of reserves of commercially useful minerals, the resources of the United States and of Scotland would not have been included, for at that time there was no known technique for the use of crudes in either country, and no knowledge of the possible processes of distillation. Lack of commercial interest resulted also in an almost complete neglect of the various evidences of the existence of petroleum.
The actual difficulties of estimating petroleum reserves present a different and well-nigh unique problem. The mobility of petroleum and its concentration in a variety of traps among the impervious strata make its measurement underground impossible. We are thrown back upon estimates of the life of wells and of fields, and upon the probable content of the heavier deposits of sedimentary rocks. These difficulties of estimate obscure the importance of the development of new techniques in drilling and in the detection of oil in formations that give no surface indication of its presence. The great increases in the production of petroleum have been made possible by great increases in the depth of drilling. In the early years, Pennsylvania crudes were obtained at depths that rarely exceeded 300 feet; today large quantities are obtained from wells of more than 8000 feet, and producing wells have been brought in at 15,000 feet. The discovery of new fields has attracted wide attention, but new techniques of recovery are scarcely less important.
The deposits of fixed minerals commonly admit of description in terms of the depth of the ores, the width of seams, the approximate concentration of the minerals that are diffused in a matrix. Deposits of gold, silver, tin, copper, iron, coal, and most other important minerals can be described completely in terms of the occurrence of the mineral without explicit reference to specific techniques of exploitation. The interpretation of the record, however, requires consideration of techniques and costs of extraction. Determinate quantitative estimates of resources involve some positive definition of the technical conditions presumed to control the production of the mineral. Estimates usually distinguish between “actual” and “potential” reserves, the latter being reserves that cannot be worked by present techniques and at present costs. In practice, it is difficult to secure uniform definitions of the boundary between “actual” and “potential” reserves, so that totals for the world or for major continental areas require careful interpretation. Estimates of mineral resources are, therefore, based on the principle that the techniques of exploitation are defined.
It might be supposed that topographic features are purely objective, and that their description and analysis do not involve any consideration of technology. Subject to continuing processes of geologic change, the face of the landscape must inevitably seem to be one of the most objective elements in our environment. But as soon as man comes upon the scene, topographic features enter into human activities and in many respects are dominated by them. The influence of human settlement upon the environment is shown by the changing importance of urban sites.3 Sites derive their significance from the combination of local and regional functions. The site is useful both as residence for its permanent population and as a focus of regional activity. The town site may serve as a fortress to which the population of a considerable area may retire if threatened by force. It may be a center for trade, for industrial production, for civil or ecclesiastical administration, for cultural activities, religious or secular, for recreation. The use of a site is thus a definite outcome of an array of economic and social activities that have become associated with it, so that its life and development are peculiarly contingent upon human interests.
Although the defense functions of a site might seem to place a premium on inaccessibility, the important defense features are immediate and local, and are subordinate to other features. Defensive sites are really sites that present special opportunities for local defense, despite the fact that they command major land or water routes. Sites derive their basic values from their accessibilities. They are focal points in the network of land routes, and transfer points between land and water transport. Mackinder described them as nodes in the transport system. As a basis for units of settlement, the site becomes an organic part of the total social structure. The size of the individual units of settlement is a function of the total population of the region. The various units of settlement disclose a systematic gradation in size that exhibits the characteristics of a harmonic series. The structure of settlement in any region is an organic whole that is the result of dynamic adaptation to the environment.4 The system of transport is organized with reference to the physical features of the area, but it is also a function of the technology of the particular society.
The significance of the changes in the techniques of transport can be most accurately appreciated if we consider the effective capacities of the different forms of transport. On the basis of experience in Africa and other pioneer areas, Holmstrom has estimated the capacity of transport by porters and animals.5 Human porters, if fully organized for systematic transport, can move 1750 tons of goods p...

Table of contents

  1. Title Page
  2. Copyright Page
  3. Epigraph
  4. Preface to the Revised Edition
  5. Preface
  6. Table of Contents
  7. CHAPTER I - The Place of Technology in Economic History
  8. CHAPTER II - Historical Analysis of Social Change
  9. CHAPTER III - The Particular System of Events
  10. CHAPTER IV - The Emergence of Novelty in Thought and Action
  11. CHAPTER V - The Early History of the Pure and Applied Mechanical Sciences
  12. CHAPTER VI - The Mechanical Equipment of Pre-Christian Antiquity
  13. CHAPTER VII - The Development of Water Wheels and Windmills: 150 B.C.–A.D. 1500
  14. CHAPTER VIII - Water Clocks and Mechanical Clocks: 16 B.C.–A.D. 1500
  15. CHAPTER IX - Leonardo da Vinci: Engineer and Investor
  16. CHAPTER X - The Invention of Printing
  17. CHAPTER XI - Machinery of the Textile Industries: 100–1800
  18. CHAPTER XII - The Development of Clocks and Watches Into Instruments of Precision: 1500–1800
  19. CHAPTER XIII - The Production and Applications of Power: 1500–1830
  20. CHAPTER XIV - Machine Tools and Quantity Production: 1450–1850
  21. CHAPTER XV - The Production and Distribution of Power Since 1832
  22. Notes
  23. Bibliography - Index
  24. Index