Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Energy Revolution

Professor Harari's latest lecture is on the industrial revolution. Of course I'm slightly familiar with many of the events and with his overall theme - that the industrial revolution was above all an energy revolution. The industrial revolution wasn't the first time humans made use of energy other than that of muscles, but it really was a huge leap in that. Steam and pumps have been known for thousands of years, but steam powered pump for coalmines marked the first large scale application of energy from fossil fuels for commercial purposes. In a short few decades steam power had been applied to transportation. Steam powered looms, steam powered trains and ships transformed the world, and made Britain the world's major power. The rest of Europe, and of course the US, quickly followed, but not the empires of the East.

Science, technology and commercial application made it possible. The centrality of commercial application cannot be neglected. By way of contrast, consider Ctesibius, the great Greek inventor of the third century BC. Despite his enormous accomplishments (the water clock, the reciprocating pump) he was so poor that a visting philosopher secretly left money under his pillow.