A Brief History of the Age of Steam: The Power That Drove The Industrial Revolution
Carroll & Graff, 2007, 370pp., paperback, $15.95 (but now much less – I got my copy for £3.99 in a remainder shop)
The best thing about this book from my British point of view is that it does not focus only on British events and circumstances. It surveys the entire world, as best it can in the space it allows itself. In most other stuff I can recall reading about the history of the steam engine, Newcomen, Watt and Trevithick, the British pioneers of steam engines during the eighteenth century (Trevithick being the first to build a steam engine that propelled itself along a track – in other words the maker of the first locomotive), are followed immediately by the heroic deeds of George Stephenson and IK Brunel, the mighty British railway pioneers of the Victorian age. Foreign places get mentioned because Stephenson’s son did railways in them. Steamships are mentioned because Brunel also did them. But before you know it, you are being told about streamlined steam locos breaking speed records by hurtling from London to Scotland in the nineteen twenties and thirties, which was all good stuff but hardly central to the history of steam technology. By then, steam locomotives were a mature technology and soon to be an obsolete one.
In this book, by contrast, the steam engine arrives at its early nineteenth century state, but then the scene switches from Britain to North America. Steam engines, being still very heavy, made sense as the engines of big river boats on big American rivers well before they made sense as small locomotives on railway lines less than five feet apart. The USA, unlike Britain, has an abundance of huge rivers, in exactly the parts of the USA that were then developing most rapidly. The next chapter then concerns itself with rivers and canals (the two often being rather hard to distinguish) elsewhere in the world, most notably in central Europe, in particular in the form of the Rhine and its many reconstructions and appendages.
But already, I am getting ahead of the story. The first big job performed by steam engines was pumping water out of coal mines, the market that Newcomen catered to (1712 being the date of Newcomen’s first installation), and then the one in which James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton also got their start. Until Newcomen made his engine, many a British coal mine would have to cease operating, not because the coal had run out but because the coal that remained, often in large quantities, was under water. Any kind of mechanically powered pump, however expensive and inefficient, could make itself useful in circumstances like that, a classic niche market of just the kind that a cumbersome but clearly important new technology needs to get started.
Thomas Crump (and yes, that is a rather Victorian sounding name, isn’t it?) does not make anything of the comparison, but the similarity between the early steam engines and the computers of our own time will strike anyone who reads this book. Steam engines started big and cumbersome. Then they got smaller and more powerful, thanks to a succession of technical innovations, and thanks to a general rise in engineering savvy and all-round craftsmanship. Not that this steam engine/computer parallel won’t have occurred to Crump. It’s merely that this book is published as one of a series called “A Brief History of …”, and you often sense, sometimes because Crump comes right out and says it, that lots of interesting stuff is being left out. Personally, given my technological ignorance, I would have appreciated just a few more pictures to explain how steam engines and their successive iterations and improvements actually worked. The big improvement that Watt made was that he contrived for the down beat of the steam engine to be powered, as well as the upbeat. And, he somehow made steam engines better at twiddling wheels than they had been hitherto. Another hugely important development was when they started using steam of much higher pressure, which is the sort of thing you can only do if the general standard of craftsmanship is high. A good idea like that in an unsatisfactory engineering environment is a recipe not for success, but for untimely explosions, of which there were plenty anyway. Later came the steam turbine, which means squirting a jet of steam at a big propellor, yes? A few more pictures might have fixed the details of these and other developments in my head a bit better, and also given a better idea of how big each of these things was, and what they looked like from the outside. The general point, however, I did get. The steam engine wasn’t just one giant leap forward. It was a succession of important steps, resulting in a constantly improving power to weight ratio and a steadily widening range of applications. Crucial from the historical point of view was the moment when it was possible to put an engine on railway wheels that was powerful enough not only to drag itself along, but other loads also. But, there were plenty of other important moments in the story.
This, however, is a book which is strong on maps of railway systems and waterways in various parts of the world, less so on the ins and outs of the technology itself. That is because it is at least as much about the impact and context of the steam engine, about what circumstances made people invent and develop it and what they did with it, rather than merely what, in their various and successive forms, steam engines actually were. Never mind. The Internet (our internet mania being not unlike the mania that kicked off the railway age) is a big and most informative place, and at least I now know more of the words that I need to type into google to learn more.
I did enjoy the maps. One of my favourites shows the many early – pre-Stephenson’s rocket – railways in the vicinity of the River Tyne (p. 149). The point being that the railway age had begun well before the Rocket made its first journeys between Stockton and Darlington in 1825. Railways as a technique for shifting stuff were actually centuries old by then, having a history that is entirely distinct from the matter of putting machines on them, to drag things along them. People, horses and gravity had been doing this for ages, until the late eighteenth century along rails made of timber rather than iron or steel. There are some very good pages about the development of rails to assist military engineers in their efforts to lift earth out of trenches, and suchlike. The first application of the steam engine to railways was in the form of stationary engines at the end of short railway lines, dragging wagons along with ropes or chains.
That Tyneside map of ancient railways illustrates a general point about transport technology. Please now follow me along a slight digression.
I have long been fascinated by the ins and outs of the history of communications technology, which is of course heavily dependent upon transport, especially in the days when complicated messages could only travel as fast as a human message-carrier could. And a recurring story in the history of the technology of communication is how someone invents a new method of communicating, and everyone then says: hey, this is going to put a stop to … some earlier and much loved method of communication. Printed books, it was said, and then television, would kill the art of conversation. The internet will finish off books and television. And so on. But what really happens is that methods of communication combine and assist one another. People use emails not to stop meeting each other, but, among many other things, to arrange meetings and to continue the conversations started at those meetings. Television gives people new stuff to talk about, and it also sells books, for example the books on which television dramas are based. The internet doesn’t kill off books either. On the contrary, one of the first mega-businesses of the Internet age is a bookstore. Physical books like this one that I am now writing about may in due course become a thing of the past, but virtual books will live on vigorously.
Similar things apply to transport. Someone invents a new way of travelling or of transporting stuff, but as likely as not and especially to begin with, the new system of transport revitalises the older methods rather than rendering them instantly obsolete.
What that map of the River Tyne shows is all the little railways which connected coal mines to … the River Tyne! The railways were all separate. They went downhill, with horses dragging the empty wagons up to the top again when they had been unloaded. Then, when the railway age as we now think of it got into its huge and interconnected and above all steam-driven stride, horses, far from being done away with, increased greatly in number, to transport people to and from railways stations, and to transport people into and within the huge new cities that the railways made all the huger. The horse population boomed in the steam age, before later forms of locomotion pushed both steam locomotives and horses, and smaller horse-drawn boats on smaller inland waterways, into the relative (but only relative) backwater than is the leisure industry.
Or consider those big rivers in America. There comes a point as you travel downstream on the upper reaches of such a river when it becomes navigable by ocean going ships, at which point there is invariably a big city where all the resulting loading and unloading gets done. But loading and unloading is cumbersome, especially in the absence of twentieth century cranes and the like. So instead, you can bind lots of little boats together, like so many tree trunks, and stick a super-powerful steam-powered tug boat on the front. Steam doesn’t put a stop to smaller boats on smaller waterways. It instead greatly increases their productivity, even though the boats themselves are far too small to accommodate a steam engine actually on them. Are you thinking “containers”? Me too.
Railways and state power were always intermingled. In Britain, this mostly took the form of the politicking needed to contrive the lines of violated property rights that railways needed to get built at all. Then, the government was again “needed” (Crump has entirely conventional ideas about this) to compel railways to be operated more safely than might otherwise have happened quite so soon. Crump’s political views seem to be conventionally centrist. He favours human advancement and prosperity, but takes it for granted that governments were needed to get railways started, and then to regulate them, impose safety regimes upon them, and so on. As a libertarian, I can’t help wondering what might have happened to the steam age if landowners could simply have vetoed railways on their land if they felt inclined, and if those railways that did nevertheless materialise had been allowed to be as unsafe as their proprietors felt inclined for them to be. But, as is often said in pro-laissez-faire blogs like this one, the triumph of laissez-faire in the nineteenth century was only very partial.
In the USA, railways were all mixed up with the creation of new states of the union. Railways made it possible for new settlers to move in, and for them then to sell their produce to the rest of the USA. And of course, railways played a huge part in the waging of the American Civil War, railway junctions, then and since, becoming important military objectives. I was charmed to read an oddly large number of pages in this book (pp. 140-146) about an amazing episode in the Civil War, upon which the movie The Great Locomotive Chase was based, which was one of the very first movies I ever saw. All I remembered, of course, was locomotives chasing one another. I didn’t care why, and I assumed they’d made the whole story up. But not so. Now, I know more about who really was chasing whom and why. Many other late nineteenth century wars, with prominently featured railways, are referred to, most notably wars in China.
Railways and war is another topic that British-centric books about the steam age tend to neglect somewhat, apart from how the railways managed to keep going during World War 2 despite all the bombing, because British railways were probably more innocent of military motivation in their origins than the railways almost anywhere else in the world. In most countries, economic and national-strategic considerations tended to go hand in hand, giving rise to lots of financial corruption involving politically adept plutocrats, most especially in Russia, surprise surprise. In Russia the plutocrats got vast amounts of money from the government. In the USA, the plutocrats used their vast amounts of money to buy governments. The pattern in the world generally tended to be that the railways were built to aggrandise states and state military power, but then it was thought by the relevant national grandees, well, now that we’ve built these things, we might as well allow mere people to use these trains to transport themselves and their produce, if they would like to, which invariably many of them did.
I especially enjoyed the pages about Japan. I knew, very roughly, about how Commodore Perry first parked his ship off the coast of Japan and demanded that Japan get with the nineteenth century. I did not know, until I read this book, that when Perry made his second visit to Japan to sort out the details, he brought a train set with him:
Conforming to oriental custom, Perry, on his second visit, brought a variety of gifts, among which was a quarter-size model railway, complete with locomotive, tender and a carriage, with several miles of rails. The American visitors having laid a circular track – about a mile long – behind the reception hall at Yokohama, proceeded to show the assembled dignitaries what the train could do. They were overwhelmed. According to Perry’s official record: ‘Crowds of Japanese gathered around, and looked on the repeated circlings of the train with unabated pleasure and surprise, unable to repress a shout of delight at each blast of the steam whistle.” One official actually rode the whole circuit, sitting on the roof of the diminutive carriage, and reported that the experience was ‘most enjoyable’. Travelling at 20 mph was far beyond anything conceived possible in what was still a feudal state. …
And the “assembled dignitaries” duly decreed that the railways should come to Japan. Their heads were full of armies which could then be transported hither and thither and which could then more easily rampage about in China and Korea. But much more entertaining, for me, was the story of how the new trains in Japan impacted upon the Japanese silk trade, which was the big economic story in Japan when the railways first arrived. When silk is first harvested, or whatever it is you do to silk when you first get your hands on it, you have then to spin it into silk thread very quickly. Wait more than a few hours and the silk stops working, apparently. This meant that the traditional Japanese silk industry required silk spinning, as well as harvesting, to be highly decentralised. Harvesting and spinning effectively had to be the one operation. But once railways started snaking their way across Japan, that all changed. Now it was possible to transport harvested silk to bigger, steam powered spinning … places, by train. If the train went through where you lived, then your silk harvesting stayed in business and prospered as never before. But if the train went elsewhere, your silk business collapsed. I knew nothing about any of this, until I read this book. In general, Crump observes, the railways centralised. They created huge new cities, with huge new business empires based in them, while causing many a small town to die.
In India, the same pattern was repeated, of politics leading and people following. The rulers, this time British, built their railways to do such things as suppress the Indian Mutiny, and then wondered if mere Indians might like to travel on them also. As many a dramatic photo tells us, Indians took to train travel with a passion. I am fond of writing at this blog about the game of cricket, which now serves as one of the great modern unifiers of India. Right up there with cricket is another British designed, Indian built wonder of the modern age, the Indian national railway system.
Ocean going liners figure prominently towards the end of Crump’s story, as they should, and he credits Brunel with the key insight upon which the nature (very big) of modern ocean going steamships was based (p. 289):
Brunel, although no shipbuilder, had the fundamental insight that a substantial increase in size was the key to building a ship that could carry sufficient coal for crossing the Atlantic in either direction. Quite simply, with the increase of the dimensions of a vessel by any factor, its carrying capacity increases by the cube of that factor while the resistance to be overcome by its engine increases only by its square. With the help of this principle it is possible to determine the minimum dimensions of a steamship able to carry sufficient fuel for a voyage of any prescribed length – such as the distance involved in any Atlantic crossing.
This will seem banal to many of Samizdata’s tech-savvy commentariat, but I had never before encountered this particular point about how much size matters, when it comes to steamships. Does any similar kind of principle apply to modern jet airliners, I wonder?
Crump makes much of the sinking of the Titanic, a story he tells at similar length (pp. 313-317) to his earlier telling of the story of the Great Locomotive Chase. His excuse is that the Titanic sinking drama illustrates the crucial contribution made by wireless telegraphy to ocean going liners and their voyages, and the “need” for the law to demand greater safety at sea. Had just one wireless telegrapher on a nearby ship been at work instead of having just a minute or two earlier gone to bed, all of the Titanic’s passengers would have been saved. Having made a point of ignoring the movie-induced Titanic mania of recent years, I did not know this. Crump also earlier emphasised the contribution made by telegraphy of the wired sort to railways. Obviously communications technology is intimately mixed up with the story of transport, to the point where it is hard to separate the two. Think only of national newspapers and postal services everywhere, both impossible without the means to transport the messages.
A number of things make me suspect that this book was first written not as a history of the steam age generally, but rather as a history of the application of steam to transport. The final chapter, for example, is entitled: “The Eclipse of Steam Transport“. Steam did utterly transform transport, but it did other things too, like spin that Japanese silk. Crump tells us little about how steam power was applied to making clothes, printing newspapers, and powering “industry” – i.e. industry of the sort that goes on inside huge and immobile factories. Crump describes steam engines before they climbed onto the rails, so to speak. And he also mentions the stationary steam engines that still throb away, still powered by coal and still generating the bulk of the modern world’s electricity supplies. And, he makes the further point that steam power lives on in nuclear power stations, in the form of steam turbines supplied with steam heated by nuclear means. The steam age is still very much with us! But as a general observation, Crump tells us little about what steam did indoors during the railway and steamship age. I guess I should read this book.
Nevertheless, as you can surely tell, I enjoyed reading this book very much, being much more diverted by what it did say than in any way annoyed about anything it may plausibly be said to have omitted. That’s usually the way with books reviewed by unpaid bloggers. Why read a book carefully enough to write about it if you aren’t enjoying it?
I’ll end this with a general point, about technology and technological history and about the people who made it, and continue to make it. One of the great intellectual divides of modern times is between those who take technological modernity for granted, and those who do not. Those of us who regularly write for or read Samizdata are surely in the latter camp. We know how much sheer graft, as well as intellectual insight and analysis, went into and goes into the development of steam engines, railway lines, steam locomotives, steamships, power stations, and cars and airplanes and computers and space rockets and nanotechnology and mobile phones and better washing up liquid and cheaper laser eye surgery and corn flakes, etc. etc. etc. We also know that the right economic policy setting is needed for such things to be devised, or even borrowed from elsewhere and applied. This stuff doesn’t just design and make and operate itself. That much I do know about technology and its ongoing history, even if I know little of the technological detail, as I fear I have made only too clear in this review. This, fundamentally, is what I liked about this book. It celebrates the achievements of people who deserve to be celebrated, just as our current techno-wizards also deserve to be celebrated. True, a lot of what the steam age pioneers did was construct the technological sinews of war, as the book well explains. But that doesn’t diminish the impressiveness of their achievements, or the debt that we, who are fortunate to live the almost uniquely peaceful and comfortable and entertained lives that we mostly do now live, still owe to them.