How Innovation Works
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How Innovation Works

Matt Ridley

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eBook - ePub

How Innovation Works

Matt Ridley

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About This Book

‘Ridley is spot-on when it comes to the vital ingredients for success’ Sir James Dyson

Building on his bestseller The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley chronicles the history of innovation, and how we need to change our thinking on the subject.

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Fourth Estate



Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.

Of heat, work and light

Possibly the most important event in the history of humankind, I would argue, happened somewhere in north-west Europe, some time around 1700, and was achieved by somebody or somebodies (probably French or English) – but we may never know who. Why so vague? At the time nobody would have noticed or realized its significance; and innovation was anyway a little-valued thing. There is confusion too about whose contribution among several candidates mattered most. And it was a gradual, stumbling change, with no eureka moment. These features are typical of innovation.
The event I am talking about is the first controlled conversion of heat to work, the key breakthrough that made the Industrial Revolution possible if not inevitable and hence led to the prosperity of the modern world and the stupendous flowering of technology today. (Here I use the word ‘work’ in its more colloquial sense, as controlled and energetic movement, rather than in the broader way physicists define it.) I am writing this on a laptop powered by electricity aboard a train also powered by electricity, and with the help of electric light. Most of that electricity is coming down wires from a power station in which enormous turbines are being spun at high speed by steam generated by the burning of gas or boiled by the heat of nuclear fission. The purpose of a power station is to turn the heat of combustion into the pressure of water expanding into steam and thence into the movement of the blades of the turbine, which moves inside an electromagnet to create the movement of electrons in wires. Something similar happens inside the engine of a car or a plane: combustion causes pressure, which causes movement. Virtually all the gigantic amounts of energy that go into making my life and yours happen come from the conversion of heat to work.
Before 1700 there were two main kinds of energy used by human beings: heat and work. (Light came mainly from heat.) People burned wood or coal to keep warm and cook food; and they used their muscles, or those of horses and oxen, or rarely a water wheel or a windmill, to move things, to do work. These two kinds of energy were separate: wood and coal did no mechanical work; wind, water and oxen did no warming.
A few years later, albeit initially on a small scale, steam was turning heat into work, and the world would never be the same again. The first practical device for doing this was the Newcomen engine, and Thomas Newcomen therefore is my first and most promising candidate for the innovator of the heat-to-work transition. Notice I do not call him an inventor; the difference is crucial.
We possess no portrait of Newcomen, and he is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Islington, north London, where he died in 1729. Not far away, though again we do not know where, lies the unmarked grave of one of his rivals and a possible source of his inspiration, Denis Papin, who simply faded from view around 1712 as a pauper in London. Only slightly more favourably treated by his own world was Thomas Savery, who died in 1715 in nearby Westminster. These three men, neighbours for a few years and near contemporaries (Papin was born in 1647, Savery probably around 1650 and Newcomen in 1663), all played crucial roles in the heat-to-work transition. But they may never have met.
They were not the first to notice that steam has the power to move things, of course. Toys built to exploit this principle were used in ancient Greece and Rome, and from time to time throughout the centuries clever engineers would build devices to use steam to push water about for fountains in gardens or some such trick. But it was Papin who first began to dream of harnessing this power for practical purposes rather than entertainment, Savery who turned a similar dream into a machine, albeit one that proved impractical, and Newcomen who made a practical machine that actually made a difference.
Or so goes the conventional narrative. Dig deeper and it gets more confusing. Was the French Papin robbed by one or both the Britons? Did Savery or Newcomen pinch his insights from the other? Was Papin perhaps inspired by Savery as much as the other way round? And was Newcomen even aware of the work of the other two?
Although he died in the most obscurity, Denis Papin was the star in terms of intellect and fame in his lifetime. He worked with many of the great scientists of the age. Born in Blois on the Loire, he studied medicine at university. He was recruited by the great Dutch natural philosopher and president of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, Christiaan Huygens, as one of his assistants in 1672, along with another clever young man destined for even greater renown, Gottfried Leibniz. Three years later, Papin found himself exiled in London to escape anti-Protestant persecution in Louis XIV’s France.
There, presumably with an introduction from Huygens, he became Robert Boyle’s assistant, working on an air pump. Robert Hooke then hired him briefly before Papin left for Venice, where he spent three years as a curator of a scientific society, before returning to London in 1684 to do the same job for the Royal Society. Somewhere along the line he invented the pressure cooker for softening bones. By 1688 he had become a professor of mathematics at the University of Marburg, before moving to Cassel in 1695. There is a sense either of restlessness or that nobody could stand his company for very long.
Huygens had employed Papin to explore the idea of a machine driven by a vacuum created by the explosion of gunpowder in a cylinder (an idea that is distantly ancestral to the internal-combustion engine), but he soon realized that the condensing of steam might work better. Some time between 1690 and 1695 he even built a simple piston and cylinder in which steam could condense on cooling, causing the piston to plunge, thereby lifting a weight by a pulley. He had discovered the principle of the atmospheric engine in which it is the weight of the atmosphere that does the work once a vacuum has been created under the piston. It is a machine that sucks rather than blows.
In the summer of 1698 Leibniz exchanged letters with Papin about the latter’s designs for engines that could raise water by the use of fire. Pumping water out of mines was the chief problem to be solved, for it was the one place where horses were difficult to use and where fuel was abundant. Wet mines were safer than dry ones, because the fire risk was lower, but flooding kept foiling the miners.
Yet Papin was already dreaming of powering boats by steam: ‘I believe that this invention can be used for many other things besides raising water,’ he wrote to Leibniz. ‘In regard to travel by water I would flatter myself to reach this goal quickly enough if I could find more support.’ The idea was that steam from a boiler would push a piston ejecting water through a pipe on to a paddle wheel. The piston then returned through a combination of new water being readmitted to the piston chamber and the condensation of the steam. In 1707 Papin actually built a boat with a paddle wheel, though he does not seem to have got it working by steam, but by manpower instead, to demonstrate the superiority of paddle wheels over oars. He trundled down the River Weser in it on the way to England. The professional boatmen took umbrage at this competition and destroyed the craft: Luddites before Ludd.
The historian L. T. C. Rolt concludes that Papin could have done more than he did: ‘Tantalisingly, having reached the very brink of practical success, the brilliant Papin turned aside.’ He returned to steam when Leibniz told him about Thomas Savery’s patent on the use of fire for raising water, a patent granted in 1698 on the very day that Papin boasted to Leibniz that he knew how to make such a machine. Papin then built a different steam engine, which, from the diagram he drew, is clearly a modified version of a Savery engine. Yet it is surely possible that Savery had heard of Papin’s designs from the various letters Papin sent to former colleagues at the Royal Society, though his machine is quite distinct from Papin’s. Who was copying whom?
The coincidence of timing is strange, but quite characteristic of inventors. Again and again, simultaneous invention marks the progress of technology as if there is something ripe about the moment. It does not necessarily imply plagiarism. In this case the combination of better metalworking, more interest in mining and a scientific fascination with vacuums had come together in north-western Europe to make a rudimentary steam engine almost inevitable.
‘Captain’ Savery may have been a military engineer, or the rank may have been an honorary one, but he is almost as mysterious a figure as Newcomen: there is no portrait of him and the date of his birth is unknown. Like Newcomen he came from Devon. What we do know is that on 25 July 1698, the very day that Papin wrote to Leibniz about designing steam ships, Savery was granted a fourteen-year patent on ‘raising water by the impellent force of fire’. The next year the patent was extended for twenty-one more years till 1733 – a rich gift to Savery’s undeserving heirs, as it turned out.
Savery’s machine worked as follows. A copper boiler over a fire sent steam into a water-filled tank called a receiver, where it expelled the water up a brass pipe through a non-return valve. Once the receiver was full of steam, the supply from the boiler was shut off and the receiver was sprayed with cold water, collapsing the steam inside and creating a vacuum. This sucked water up from below through a different pipe, and the cycle began again. In 1699 Savery demonstrated a version at the Royal Society with two receivers, and at some point he seems to have partly automated the mechanism of a combined valve that could fill either receiver, so the thing worked continuously.
In 1702 an advertisement said Savery’s demonstration model could be inspected ‘at his Workhouse in Salisbury Court, London, against the Old Playhouse, where it may be seen working on Wednesdays and Saturdays in every week from 3 to 6 in the afternoon’. He certainly sold some to the nobility, and he installed one at York Buildings, now just off the Strand but then on the banks of the Thames, where London got water from the river, but it was a failure. Mine owners were not interested. It raised water only a short distance, needed far too much coal to fuel it, leaked from its joints and blew up too easily. Failure is often the father of success in innovation.
By 1708 Papin, presumably having crossed the Channel in a conventional sailing craft rather than his own paddle boat, was in London hoping to get support to build his steam boat; we do not know if he met Savery. His hopes of being recognized as the genius of steam in England were quickly dashed. His increasingly desperate letters to Hans Sloane, Sir Isaac Newton’s secretary at the Royal Society, fell on deaf ears. That he was a friend of Leibniz hardly helped. Newton’s furious feud with Leibniz over who invented the calculus (they both did, but Leibniz’s version was neater) was at its height, and no doubt had poisoned poor Papin’s reputation by association at the Royal Society. ‘There are at least six of my papers that have been read in meetings of the Royal Society and are not mentioned in the Register. Certainly, Sir, I am a sad case,’ wrote Papin to Sloane in January 1712.
After that, nothing more is heard from him. He just fades away, and historians assume he must have died that year, too poor to leave a will or a record of burial. Savery would die three years later, less obscurely but hardly a national hero. He left behind one important legacy: his patent on using fire to raise water, which would force Newcomen to partner with Savery’s heirs for many years.
So it is that neither of these men of science, wearing their long wigs as they mixed with grandees, managed to change the world. That was left to a humble blacksmith from Dartmouth in Devon, Thomas Newcomen. He was an ironmonger, which in those days meant something more like an engineer or blacksmith, who went into business with a glazier or plumber, John Calley, in 1685. Beyond that we know almost nothing of how he arrived at his fully fledged design of a steam engine in 1712, the year that Papin died.
Over the centuries many historians, reluctant to believe that a humble blacksmith could have succeeded where cerebral professors failed, have postulated ways in which Papin’s and Savery’s ideas could have reached Newcomen, including a conspiracy theory once popular in France that somebody handed Newcomen some of Papin’s letters to Sloane. There is also speculation that he saw a Savery machine in a Cornish tin mine, but none of this has stood up to careful scrutiny, and it remains possible that he knew nothing of the work of the London savants. Indeed, one source insists he was at work on his first designs before 1698, the year of Savery’s patent and Papin’s letter to Leibniz.
That source, the only one who actually knew Newcomen, was a Swede named Mårten Triewald. He worked with Newcomen and Calley, and then built several early engines in Newcastle before taking the technology back to Sweden. He describes Newcomen as experimenting with steam for a long time before getting a workable machine, and he identifies an accidental breakthrough when the injection of cold water into the cylinder was discovered:
For ten consecutive years Mr. Newcomen worked at this fire-machine which never would have exhibited the desired effect, unless Almighty God had caused a lucky incident to take place. It happened at the last attempt to make the model work that a more than wished-for effect was suddenly caused by the following strange event. The cold water, which was allowed to flow into a lead-case embracing the cylinder, pierced through an imperfection which had been mended with tin-solder. The heat of the steam caused the tin-solder to melt and thus opened a way for the cold water, which rushed into the cylinder and immediately condensed the steam, creating such a vacuum that the weight, attached to the little beam, which was supposed to represent the weight of the water in the pumps, proved to be so insufficient that the air, which pressed with a tremendous power on the piston, caused its chain to break and the piston to crush the bottom of the cylinder as well as the lid of the small boiler. The hot water which flowed everywhere thus convinced even the very senses of the onlookers that they had discovered an incomparably powerful force which had hitherto been entirely unknown in nature.
Newcomen’s design collapsed the steam in a cylinder by means of this cold-water injection, and it transmitted the energy of the vacuum collapsing under the weight of the atmosphere, via a piston and a beam lever, to a pump, a mechanism safer and stronger than in Savery’s design. It is probable that some full-scale versions were first built in Cornish tin mines, near where Newcomen worked, but no firm evidence has survived. The first working Newcomen engine in the world that we know of for certain was built in 1712 near Dudley Castle in Warwickshire. According to Triewald it could pump ten gallons of water twelve times a minute, lifting the water 150 feet out of the coal mine. An engraving of it by Thomas Barney in 1719 shows the beautiful complexity of the machine in sharp contrast, Rolt argues, to ‘Savery’s crude pump or the scientific toys of Papin’. He goes on: ‘Seldom in the history of technology has so momentous an invention been developed by one man so rapidly to so developed a form.’
Yet at first it was a horribly inefficient device. A Newcomen engine is by today’s standards a monster. The size of a small house, it smokes and clanks and hisses ponderously, wasting about 99 per cent of the energy in its coal fire. It would be decades before the separate condenser of James Watt, the flywheel and drive shaft, and other improvements turned it into something that could be of use in any field other than coal mining, where fuel was cheap.
I have a personal connection to this story. My ancestor, named Nicholas Ridley, got into the mining business around the end of the 1600s. Leaving a farm in the South Tyne Valley in Northumberland he became a partner in a lead-mining business and tried to smelt silver from the lead ore. He then moved to Newcastle and somehow got into coal mining. By the time of his death in 1711 he was a prosperous coal merchant and mine owner on the north bank of the Tyne and mayor of the town, then the third largest in England. His son Richard ran the mines in a buccaneering fashion, gaining a reputation as the ‘stormy petrel of the coal trade’ for his propensity to get into fights and break price-fixing cartels, even trying to murder a rival at one point, while the second son, Nicholas, seems to have been mostly in London, presumably receiving and marketing the coal. Coal supplied half of England’s energy as early as 1700.
The younger Nicholas recruited the teenage Sam Calley, son of Newcomen’s partner, John, to come north and build an engine at Byker, probably around 1715 or 1716. This might have been the third or fourth such machine in the world if the engineer John Smeaton is to be believed. The Ridleys paid an enormous £400 a year in royalty to Savery’s heirs to be allowed to use this design and laid out around £1,000 on building the first engine. This was to drain a mine whose flooding had ruined two previous owners.
We know this because Nicholas (junior) persuaded Newcomen’s friend Mårten Triewald to go north and oversee the youthful Calley. The Swede left an account of his dealings with the Ridley brothers. With the success of the first one, the Ridleys ordered more engines built and by 1733, when the Savery patent expired, there were two at Byker, three at Heaton, one at Jesmond and one at South Gosforth. I like to think that Richard and Nicholas Ridley must have met Newcomen.
The Newcomen steam engine was the mother of the modern world, ushering in an era in which technology could begin to amplify the work of people into fantastic productivity, freeing more and more people from the drudgery of the plough, the scullery and the workhouse. It is a key innovation. Yet the way that it emerged is mysteriously obscure. Was it because of the advance of science in Britain and France, exemplified by Denis Papin? Perhaps a bit, but Newcomen apparently knew nothing of that. Was it because of improvements in metallurgy of the late seventeenth century so that large brass cylinders and pistons could now be built? Partly. Was it because of the dramatic expansion of the coal-mining industry driven by the rising price of wood as British forests shrank, and with it the demand for pumping equipment? To some extent. Was it because of the expansion of trade in north-west Europe, begun by the Dutch and leading to the creation of capital, investment and entrepreneurs? Surely yes, in part. But why did these conditions not come together in China, or Venice, or Egypt, or Bengal, or Amsterdam, or some other trading hub? And why in 1712 rather than 1612 or 1812? Innovation seems so obvious in retrospect but is impossible to predict at the time.

What Watt wrought

In 1763 a skilled and practical Scottish instrument maker, by the name of James Watt, was asked to mend a model Newcomen engine belonging to the University of Glasgow. The thing barely worked. In trying to understand what was wrong, Watt realized something about Newcomen engines in general that should have been spotted much earlier: three-quarters of the energy of the steam was being wasted in reheating the cylinder during each cycle, after it had been cooled with injected water to condense the steam. Watt had the simple idea of using a separate condenser, so that the cylinder could be kept hot, while the steam was drawn off for condensing in a cooler container. At a stroke he had improved the efficiency of the steam engine, though as usual it took months of work to get the metalworking right to make his ideas into practical devices.
After demonstrating the principle in a small test engine, Watt went into partnership with first John Roebuck to acquire a patent, then the entrepreneur Matthew Boulton to build full-scale versions. They unveiled the machine on 8 March 1776, a day before the publication of The Wealth of Nations, written by another Scot, Adam Smith. Boulton wanted Watt to develop a method of converting the up-and-down motion of the piston into a circular motion capable of turning a shaft for use in mills and factories. The crank and flywheel had been patented by James Pickard, which stymied Watt for a while and forced him to develop an alternative system, known as the sun-and-planets gear. Pickard in turn had got the idea of the crank from a disloyal and drunken employee of Boulton’s own Soho factory, leaving the origin of this simple device mired in confusion.
Despite this example of patents getting in the way of improvement, as Savery’s had for Newcomen, Watt himself was an enthusiastic defender of his own patents, and Boulton was adept at using his political contacts to acquire long-lasting and broad patents on Watt’s various inventions. Just how much Watt’s litigiousness delayed the expansion of steam as a source of power in factories is a hotly contested issue, but the ending of the main patent in 1800 certainly coincided with a rapid expansion of experiments and applications of steam. Indeed, one source of steady...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Introduction: The Infinite Improbability Drive
  7. 1. Energy
  8. 2. Public health
  9. 3. Transport
  10. 4. Food
  11. 5. Low-technology innovation
  12. 6. Communication and computing
  13. 7. Prehistoric innovation
  14. 8. Innovation’s essentials
  15. 9. The economics of innovation
  16. 10. Fakes, frauds, fads and failures
  17. 11. Resistance to innovation
  18. 12. An innovation famine
  19. Afterword
  20. Sources and further reading
  21. Index
  22. Acknowledgements
  23. About the Author
  24. By the same author
  25. About the Publisher