We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

For the first time ever, labourers were able to purchase cheap goods for themselves. The first factories focused on mass production of cheap goods for the poor. Shoes, for example, were produced for the proletariat – the rich bought made-to-measure shoes. This was different from France, where the government’s mercantilist product standards, designed to uphold quality, ensured that nothing was produced for the poor at all. In France, mercantilism continued to be state policy for much longer than in England. This is the reason why industrialisation took fifty more years to arrive on France’s shores.

– This is a typical “I did not know that” moment from J. P. Floru‘s excellent new book Heavens on Earth: How To Create Mass Prosperity, from the chapter about the British industrial revolution.

Well, I myself did not know it. If you did know this particular thing about shoes, you will still probably find a hundred other such titbits in this book that you did not know. In an equal-but-opposite way, this made me think of how we can now buy excellent yet vastly-cheaper-than-before spectacles on the internet, that being a case of a made-to-measure product becoming available to all at a mass production price.

Besides the world-changing success story that was British industrialisation, Floru writes about: the USA and West Germany just after WW2, Hong Kong, China, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. The miseries of despotism are not glossed over, but the inevitable failure of statist economic policies and the almost automatic benefits of free market policies, provided only that you can make them stick, are made unmistakably clear.

I hope, Real Soon Now, to be supplying a longer posting here about this fine book, along the lines of the five star reactions to it here. Short version: it is a fine book.

Samizdata quote of the day

“We should recognize the issue of communism and Soviet espionage has become an antiquarian backwater. After all, the Cold War is over.” With these words, a typical leftish US historian, Ellen Schrecker, recommends that a whole sector of an historical era should be ignored and work on it effectively closed down. “It is time to move on,” remarks another academic, using the modern terminology that neither denies nor accepts responsibility, but leaves a mess behind for someone else to clear up. Now historians are, by definition, paddlers up backwaters, investigators of things that are “over” and move in, not move on when invited to examine data never before available. When World War Two ended historians started, not stopped, writing about it, just as an unending stream of books about Napoleon has continued in the nearly two centuries since he was bundled off to St Helena. The idea that, just as enormous quantities of material from Soviet and other archives are being released, work on them should be called off is so ludicrous that it could only have been suggested by those who feel the foundations of their beliefs and attitudes crumbling beneath their feet.

Findlay Dunachie, reviewing a book called In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage for Samizdata, in 2004. I came across that while trying to find something else, and was immediately hooked. Findlay Dunachie is sorely missed, now, still.

The good news is that, following the recent Samizdata makeover, we can now peruse the entire Samizdata Findlay Dunachie author archive.

Neal Asher

It is by no means necessary for my enjoyment of art that the artist has vaguely sensible political views, but it helps. Looking for a science fiction novel to read, discovering that the latest Alastair Reynolds was something to do with global warming, I instead took Amazon up on one of its recommendations and tried Neal Asher, who has a blog, and at the time had recently written this:

So, Cameron is a nannying statist who wants to stick a minimum price on alcohol per unit. What on Earth is he thinking? Does he think that this will result in fewer pavement pizzas and fat slags crying in the gutter on a Saturday night? Does he think there’ll be less violence on the streets after chucking out time on a Friday and less chaos in A & E over the weekend? If he does think that then he’s an idiot because the people responsible for that drink in bars where the price is already way above his damned 45p a unit.

He has also written favourably about fracking.

The novel I chose was The Departure, the first of the Owner trilogy. If anything it had too much action for my taste. If Alastair Reynolds writes film noir, Neal Asher writes Bruce Willis and explosions. The science is sensible enough: there are no exotic physics and the technologies discussed are robots, giant space stations and brain-computer interfaces. The politics is very interesting. Asher seems to have perceived a slippery slope and extrapolated in the extreme. Something like the EU has, thanks to a complacent populace, taken over the whole planet. This is the Committee and it has long since stopped pretending to be democratic and gone outwardly Orwellian. Cigarettes are illegal; armed robots are used to control rioting crowds; selfish, individualistic dissidents are taken away for readjustment by pain inducer; and clever scientists are allowed to do research useful to the state but are considered a risk and kept under scrutiny or even lock and key. The protagonist is one such scientist who sets out to get revenge.

The action includes novel ways of killing people, fantastic feats of computer hacking to fool officials who trust their computers rather too much, zero-gee small arms combat and lots of expensive things getting destroyed. Interspersed is plenty of discussion of the political situation that has lead to all this.

Statism gets a good kicking. Government is described as the biggest killer on the planet. A Committee member is scorned for her belief in “knowledge-based societal planning”. Fiat currency is scorned when the protagonist uses gold to make a purchase. There is a subtle reference to the purpose of practical politics as described by H L Mencken. In a history of NASA, the agency is described as “moribund under its stifling level of bureaucracy”. One chapter opens with a description of how people obtain things forbidden by the state:

The greater the power and extent of the state, the more room there is for corruption. The more inept state services and industries become, the more pies it takes its huge cut from and the more regulation it imposes, the greater the call for black markets.

Politicians are described as using global crises as an excuse to extend their power globally. The slippery slope is described:

Make the process slow enough to sit below immediate perception and they will grow accustomed to their enslavement; they even might not realize they are wearing any chains at all.

My biggest criticism is that the theme of overpopulation runs strongly through the book. There are food, housing and other resource shortages, and while it is acknowledged that the Committee members are doing very well for themselves, this is very much in a zero sum sense. At one point the protagonist wonders about “the mindless, ever-breeding swarm” governed by the Committee. In a discussion of how government waste prevented development of technology, he claims that the only technology needed was birth control.

The author understands that technology and people can overcome resource shortages. In a sub-plot on Mars, the colony has hydroponics which are somehow not applied on Earth, though robotic farming is. The colony has problems as a result of events back on Earth and the administrators plan to cull the population but the author understands that people create wealth:

Yes, they had problems over food, air and water production and usage and, yes, by killing off many personnel these could be eked out, but they would still eventually run out and those few remaining here would die. Better by far to apply all those useful minds to their present problems, since brainpower was all that could save them.

It is obvious that centralisation and misallocation of resources is enough to cause all of the economic problems described in the book. But none of the characters seem to connect these dots and I am not sure why. I am worried the author has not either. Perhaps the rest of the trilogy will make things clear.

What the Adam Smith Institute did

Successful people are often born into a world that is not, so to speak, theirs. The world in which they get dealt their first cards is what it is and where it is, but their real world, the world they were meant for, is something and somewhere else. They are born the son of a coal miner or of a provincial shopkeeper, yet their natural place in the world is to be a classical musician or a weather forecaster in a big city or a diplomat or a music hall comedian or a technology billionaire. The mega-successes are those who know, early, not so much what they want or want to do, as where they need to be – where, for them, the action is – and who shift heaven and earth to get to that sweet spot in the world just as soon as possible, often taking truly hair-raising risks to get there. They identify where they want to be, calculate the price of getting there, and pay that price. And then, having got to where they need to be, they are happy! The inconveniences and disappointments – even the humiliations – that they then encounter do not depress them, because everything that happens, however bad, is evidence that they are exactly where they want to be and where they should be.

In the early pages of Think Tank, subtitled “The Story of the Adam Smith Institute”, we are told exactly such a story, of a group of young pro-free-market guns knowing where they need to be, and doing whatever they have to do to get to that exact place, namely within ten minutes walk of the House of Commons, in the centre of London. They juggle finances, scrounge furniture off aunts in faraway places, put money down on a London office lease well before they know how they are going to meet the payments, buy and sell cottages in Scotland, earn extra money by teaching, and generally bet their farms on their new farm being just what they want. (By the way if you want a shorter review of this book than this posting is, try the three short reviews at the other end of the above link. All three are very positive, but also very informative.)

To help me think about this posting, I asked a respected friend what he thought of the Adam Smith Institute. I expected some sort of rumination on what they had achieved and what they might yet achieve, on what they have got right and what wrong. Instead my friend simply said that he liked Madsen Pirie. This is a significant fact about the ASI, I think. Simply, they are nice people, fun and interesting to be with. Following Madsen Pirie’s lead, they exude a gleeful camaraderie that my friend and I, and surely many others of a like mind, find very appealing. Madsen Pirie’s Think Tank radiates a similarly good humoured and companionable atmosphere. When reading it, I kept hearing that Madsen Pirie voice, with its big grin and its self-mockingly over-precise diction.

Cards on the table. I liked and admired this book a lot, just as I have long liked and admired its author. I was given a free copy of it by its author, who had very good reason to hope that I would say nice things about it, and I will. I recommend this book as an entertaining and informative way to acquaint yourself with the Adam Smith Institute and with those who founded and still lead it.

→ Continue reading: What the Adam Smith Institute did

Alex Singleton on Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent

Incoming from Alex Singleton:

I know you’ve described Noam Chomsky as “a monster” before now, so I thought you might be interested in a review that I have written of his book Manufacturing Consent.

Singleton’s review is entitled “Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Herman isn’t just wrong: it is ludicrous”. Chomsky argues that multinational corporations have it all their own way in the mainstream media. Singleton argues otherwise:

As Herb Schmertz, former VP at Mobil Oil, put it in a 1986 book: “[Many people are] under the false impression that the wealthier the organization, the more seriously its views are taken. I wish that were true! If anyone still believes that old canard, I invite them to spend a month working for a major oil company during the next fuel shortage.”


Having worked in the media himself, Alex Singleton now earns his living advising organisations, big and small, about how to handle the media. So, if you run a wealthy organisation, and you are facing some sort of crisis and consequently are liable to get a media beating, why not give Singleton a call? Maybe he could manufacture some consent for you.

I have yet to read most of it but I already greatly admire Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

Can one say worthwhile things about a book that one has only begun to read? I think, often: yes. One thing one can definitely report is whether one is reading this or that book with enthusiasm, eager to learn what will follow, or only because of a self-imposed, well-I’ve-started-so-I-might-as-well-finish sense of mere duty.

So far, I have only read somewhat over a hundred and fifty pages of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, but it definitely passes the above test. It is a huge book. Just before finishing this posting I happened to drop my (paperback!) copy of it on my foot, and it really hurt. The text alone runs to over eight hundred pages, and the notes take it over a thousand, yet I already know that I am going to go on reading this book until I finish it, and that when I do finally finish it (I am a very slow reader) I will almost certainly be somewhat regretful, as if coming to the end of a wonderful holiday trip or a particularly satisfying job assignment.

There are so many things I could say about this book, so many thoughts in it and provoked by it that would be blog-worthy, but let me focus on just one, which is that it is such a very, very worthy subject for an academic to be writing about. Pinker has chosen a subject that, he says, needs a long book. Well, a decent but short book could have been written about the relentless decline of violence in human affairs, but I am very happy that this one is indeed extremely long. It is not so much, for me, that this subject needs a long book, as that it so very much deserves one.

The story Pinker tells is of the relentless rise of what he is not afraid to call civilisation. Simply, we humans have become ever less nasty and sadistic towards one another as the decades and centuries and millennia have rolled by, both qualitatively and quantitatively. To make this point, he has already (as I am reading) piled on plenty of agony, about such things as medieval torture devices, and I am sure there will be plenty more such horrors to come.

Says Pinker of this process of moral improvement (on page 160 of the Penguin paperback edition), in a deeply felt parenthetical interjection …

– and if this isn’t progress, I don’t know what is –

Well said. → Continue reading: I have yet to read most of it but I already greatly admire Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

Violence has decreased over time

Ben Pile at Climate Resistance notes Steven Pinker’s latest book:

In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.

Sounds good, and all very plausible. But how to explain it?

Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.

I am not sure about that government bit. Perhaps “rule of law” might be more accurate. Perhaps the Amazon reviews can shed some light. Says one reviewer:

Pinker challenges the two prevailing views of human nature – Rousseau’s view that the noble savage has been corrupted by civilization, and Hobbes’s idea that human greed and violence can only be curbed by strong government. The first view is common on the left of the political spectrum, the second among conservatives. The reviewers who think poorly of the book may have been upset by the fact that Pinker rejects both positions. Instead he shows, with a mass of evidence and interpretation, that violence has declined through history. We seem likely to have started with the high levels of inter-group killing found in our chimpanzee cousins, eventually to be tamed by the slow development of effective government, peaceful trading and eventually Enlightenment thinking.

Says another:

Words like `democracy’, `government’ or `gentle commerce’ are not seriously analyzed. Consequentially, his view of history is a very mechanical one: we were extremely violent in the past and thanks to the Leviathan and `gentle commerce’ we have become better persons. We either accept the political and economical assets of our era or we risk going back to violence and chaos.

My sense is that Pinker’s evidence for decreasing violence over time will be very interesting to see, but his explanations for why this is so will be less interesting. I think the answer is that technology makes us less violent, by making our lives overall so much more comfortable that violence seems even more out of the ordinary, and so to be avoided, than it otherwise would.

Samizdata quote of the day

“I am not one of those who have ever flattered the people, or striven to win favour by telling them that from the Crown or from Parliament that could be got which could not be got from themselves, by themselves. I would impress upon you this. What the State gives to you, the State takes from you first; it further charges you with the cost of collection, and with the cost of distribution. Better by far that you should save for yourselves and spend for yourselves, than put into the purse of the State your earnings of which only part can at best come back.”

Charles Bradlaugh, 19th Century British parliamentarian and campaigner on issues such as rights of non-believers, contraception, the case against the monarchy, and as this quotation shows, an opponent of socialism. The quote is taken from a review of a book about Bradlaugh by Bryan Niblett, who is known to some of us at Samizdata. Bryan is an Objectivist (as in an admirer of the philosophy of Ayn Rand) and has worked for many years as a private arbitrator concerning areas such as intellectual property. A very good and smart man all round, in fact.

Beethoven’s Ninth – before and after

I have already quoted from and commented on The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 a couple of times here. Now I’ve read it. Unless I’m being paid to read a book, I only read it to the end if I’m enjoying it, so point one to make about this book is that I wasn’t paid to read it. Samizdata writers and readers are not brought together by a shared fascination for classical music and the world in which it was created and had its first impact, so I don’t know if you would also enjoy reading this book. But I can say a bit about why I did.

I know Beethoven’s music, and the Ninth Symphony in particular, quite well, possessing as I do a large classical CD collection containing lots of Beethoven and more than a few recordings of the Ninth. A painlessly entertaining way to learn more about classical music in general, and Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony in particular, is, for me, always welcome. This book was painless partly because it is all written in a language I can easily follow, English. Many books about classical music use lots of musical notation. I can just about decipher such symbols, but seldom with the fluency that is necessary immediately to get the points an author is trying to make with them. Sachs could easily have peppered his text with such hieroglyphics, having himself been a conductor before he became a writer. He did not. He relied on words. He also avoids using Italian words, saying very loud rather than fortissimo, and so on.

This book is also painless in being quite short. 225 pages, including all the extras. I’m a slow reader, so that, for me, was another plus. → Continue reading: Beethoven’s Ninth – before and after

A look at Robert Heinlein

This caught my attention, at a site called “The Smart Set”.

“If the zeitgeist has a face, it supposedly belongs to Ayn Rand and her capitalist philosophy of Objectivism. Talk radio hosts adore the author’s demands for limited government; Congressman Paul Ryan insists that his staffers read her overstuffed opus Atlas Shrugged; picket signs at Tea Party rallies suggest that we all “READ AYN RAND.” And yet, some pieces are missing. Ayn Rand was anti-war, but spending for hundreds of military bases and two-and-a-half wars remains sacrosanct even as Congress made the debt ceiling a major issue. She found homosexuality “immoral” and “disgusting,” and yet gay marriage has regained the initiative in the public square. And Randian heroes are explicitly — nay, objectively — elitist. They are genius millionaire square-jawed heroes who walked right off the screen at the movie matinee. The average Tea Party rallier, not so much.”

A bit of a jumble. Rand was anti-war, certainly, but she certainly was no pacifist, either about the Nazis or any other totalitarian regimes. She had a problem about homosexuality, but I doubt she favoured the state using its violence-backed powers to suppress it; indeed, from my reading of her journals and other material, I don’t know if she had developed views on this subject at all. As for the line about her support for “elitism”, it does rather depend on what you mean. For Rand, and most who broadly support her views (as I do), the idea was that people are entitled to develop their lives and talents to the greatest extent possible in free trade with their fellows. There is plenty of room for upward mobility, striving and competition. This has nothing to do with privilege, which is often what can be meant by an “elite”, for example. (Elitism is, of course, a boo word for the egalitarian left, and I suspect the author of the piece tilts in that direction).

“There is another writer whose political and philosophical influence is finally being felt in the public sphere. You may have read one of his books as a child. His name is Robert A. Heinlein, and he wrote science fiction. He was a libertarian enamored of military might, a conservative who championed free love. His heroes are certainly competent. They’re also folks who hack the systems in which they live, not elitists who abandon a corrupt world full of moochers and looters to worship the dollar as an end unto itself. And unlike Rand, most of Heinlein’s work is actually readable.”

Some of this is true, though I don’t think Heinlein was “enamoured” of military might; he understood that values need to be defended, of course, so to that extent he understood the warrior ethic and code, but he also understood the trader ethic, too. He was able to see how military codes develop and why they exist (his book, Starship Troopers, is about this very issue).

The idea that the characters in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged “worship the dollar as an end unto itself” proves that the author of this article clearly has not thought straight. The point for Rand is that the dollar, preferably a gold-backed dollar, is a symbol of liberty, not something that you worship as a totem.

It is sometimes instructive when a writer from outside the usual field opines about something about which you know quite a lot, as I do about Rand and Heinlein, having read pretty much everything they wrote. The author of this article hits on some good points, so don’t be put off by my nit-picking.

A review of Detlev Schlichter’s Paper Money Collapse on Amazon.com

I have just posted the following review on Amazon.com of Paper Money Collapse. I only learned last night that the review embargo date had now arrived and that the time to be talking this book up is now, so this review was somewhat hastily written, although it is the result of quite a lot of thought. This was my very first review of any book on Amazon, and it shows, I’m afraid, particularly in my blundering attempts to italicise, which work here by those methods, but not there. Also, although I said I liked it, I didn’t tick the box saying that I liked it. Can I do anything about any of that? Probably not. (LATER: actually, I now learn that you can edit these reviews. The italics thing now makes no sense!) Oh well, blog and learn, review on Amazon and learn. I will be amazed if I don’t find myself wanting to say lots more about this book, but what follows is my first best shot.

An effort but definitely worth the effort – could be huge

I agree with the bit on the cover of this book where it says that this is not an easy read. For me, it has not been, and not just because the truths Schlichter spells out and explains are so not-easy to take. I am a huge fan of his, and have been ever since I first heard him talk about the analysis in this book in London about a year ago, but he makes me work hard. This book is heavy on logical exposition, much lighter on diverting anecdote. For the latter sort of Schlichter stuff, you must read his blog.  

One way to describe Paper Money Collapse might be to say that it is the sort of book that the great Austrian School economist and economic historian Murray Rothbard might have written, had he lived a bit longer. Last year I read Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State. While doing this, I kept hoping that I would read a theoretical analysis of our current financial woes, as opposed merely to Rothbard’s general take on Austrian Economics as a whole. I realise that this was a lot to ask of a book published several decades ago, and not surprisingly I was, although in general much educated, largely disappointed on that particular count. Well, what I was only hoping to read in that Rothbard book was what I did read in Detlev Schlichter’s much shorter book, which I heartily recommend to anyone willing to really get stuck into it. Here is a conceptual analysis, in very much the painstaking Rothbard manner, of how non-commodity-backed currencies behave when they collapse, and why they do collapse, always, inevitably. In other words it is about the times we now live in.  

I learned a lot from reading Paper Money Collapse. In particular, Schlichter has convinced me of the wrongness of the argument that since we want economic activity in the world to increase indefinitely, but gold is, barring a few trivial further discoveries, fixed in quantity, gold won’t work as the basis of currency. But non-elasticity is exactly why gold is such a good basis for currency. Totally elastic money, on the other hand, inevitably collapses, always and everywhere. Why should our elastic money be any different?  

Schlichter is not pointing the finger at individuals. This is not a detective story, where in the final chapter all the suspects are rounded up and Herr Schlichter points the finger at the guilty man. President Nixon’s decision to break the final link between the dollar and gold is deplored, and Ben Bernanke’s recent pronouncements are likewise disapproved of, but many of the decisions that lead to our current mess were made many, many decades ago, and by their nature they are the kind of decisions which are far easier to make than they are to reverse and clean up after.  

Nor does Schlichter believe that hyper-inflation now threatens us all because central bankers are unaware of the badness of hyper-inflation. They know that hyper-inflation is bad. Unfortunately, they also know that if the collapse that Schlichter describes occurs while they are in office, then that, for them, will be even worse than a bit more inflation or even quite a lot more inflation. So, they carry on printing money and postponing the resolution of the problem, which means that when nemesis does finally arrive, it will be all the worse. But, says Schlichter, they know what they are doing; they just don’t know how to stop. Schlichter telling them to stop will accomplish nothing.  

I suspect that Schlichter may be being rather kind about just how plain stupid some even quite high ranking central bankers now are, but clever or stupid, these people are now thoroughly boxed in by their previous decisions and by the decisions of their predecessors of earlier years and decades.  

I have been using the phrase “paper money”, as Schlichter himself does in his title. But as we all know, when central bankers now create yet more money, they are mostly putting numbers in electronically managed bank accounts. It is not the printing of bank notes that is the problem; it is the lack of a commodity base to control the process. By the same token, paper bank notes that refer to a currency that is solidly based on something like gold would be fine. But I am sure that Schlichter has thought long and hard about this phrase, and I gladly defer to his decision to call it “paper currency” in his title. I certainly don’t know a better way of putting it. “Fiat” money? “Elastic” money? (That’s the phrase that Schlichter switches to in the subtitle, also prominently displayed on the front cover.) Both are a bit more accurate than “paper” money, but are also a bit less attention-grabbing for the kind of intelligent and educated everyman whom Schlichter is trying to reach. “Paper” gets over the gist of the problem pretty well, I think. And you start learning what that means as soon as you read the sub-title.  

When it comes to Schlichter’s pessimism about him personally having any influence on the conduct of public policy, I agree with him, in the short run. But I think he may be proved wrong, in the longer run. I agree with him that there is nothing much he can say to the people now in charge of financial policy that will persuade them to do the right thing now, which basically means getting the collapse over and done with as soon as possible. But when this collapse starts seriously happening anyway, in just the manner and for precisely the reasons that Schlichter says, he could then become a very Big Cheese, as we say in my native England. In fact, if this book does half as well as I suspect it may, Schlichter will probably be accused, by various paper (fiat, elastic) money idiots who know only the title of this book but nothing of what it says, of having precipitated the catastrophe he describes. But other people, including politicians and central bankers, could also then be asking him: So, Schlichter, what the hell do we do now? I urge Schlichter to be ready for this moment. Suggested title for his next book: Now What? (Presumed answer: Let non-state controlled and non-state backed bankers supply currency, which they will back with gold. Get out of their way and let them get on with it.)  

Meanwhile, I urge anyone who thinks that he might find this book enlightening, and helpful for personally navigating through the mess, to go ahead and be enlightened. I think this book may become very big. It certainly deserves to.

The age of steam powered transport

A Brief History of the Age of Steam: The Power That Drove The Industrial Revolution
Thomas Crump
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. → Continue reading: The age of steam powered transport