The Sands of Time: Part I

Introduction (Read Part II)

This is part I in a series of pieces attempting to dig up chunks of history and relate those chunks to the present IOTA experience. Expect the first few parts of the series to lay fairly rigorous groundwork in order to enable proper payoff of later pieces in the series.

As they say, you must study history to know the future. Or whatever it is they say. There are any number of “study history because of xyz” quotes to choose from, but Seth Godin might be one of the few who have gotten straight to the core of the present predicament.

We’re entering a revolution of ideas while producing a generation that wants instructions instead. –Seth Godin

Information is coming at us like never before. It’s too easy to waste an hour scrolling through social media, watching a tv show, or reading a news article on the latest trend/outrage. Every pundit has an opinion in this revolution, nay, war, and we media consumers are willingly pulled in every direction.

When we finally peer up and exit our trance, we realize there remains an infinite ocean of information, opinions, and ideas to sift through. Endless entertainment, facts, gossip, and everything else 24/7 at the tip of our fingers. In a time like this, maybe it’s best to take a step back and ponder information that’s more Lindy.

Nothing is more Lindy than history itself.

Up until 1760, GDP per capita, a measure of economic productivity per member of society, had been largely unchanged for centuries. Let’s look at England as a representative example.

First Industrial Revolution

Then, the United Kingdom kicked off what historians now call the First Industrial Revolution in the late 1700’s. In only a handful of decades, Great Britain had led the cutting edge technology development of new manufacturing (textiles, steal) and production (chemicals, energy) processes. They figured out how to use steam power, combined that with newly invented factories, and started to make machines that would do the jobs previously done tediously by hand.

1764: Thorp Mill in Lancashire, England was the first water powered cotton carding mill. Carding cotton is the process by which the raw cotton is cleaned, disentangled, and aligned in preparation for the next step in production called spinning … a step which was immediately subjected to a huge innovation by James Hargeaves’ multiple spindle spinning jenny within the same year! The spinning jenny was human powered, but allowed one person to work on eight or more spools at once. Humans had only ever been able to spin one spool at a time. The low power of the jenny made for relatively weak threads, but the capability of production quantity had nearly 10x-ed overnight.  

Spinning Jenny led to a 10x increase in productivity

In a twist of fate, Hargreaves didn’t get around to patenting his masterpiece for another FOUR years, which was too late to prevent tens of thousands of spinning jenny’s from having already been spun up across the countryside.

Edward Baines wrote about Hargreaves’ role in the development of cotton production in his seminal 1835 tome entitled History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain. According to Baines, Hargreaves was initially able to use his own jenny while selling a few others to friends. At first his friends loved the productivity boost. However, soon thereafter, as the invention spread, the price of yarn declined due to increased supply.

The yarn spinners in town became furious with Hargreaves as their revenues took a downturn, eventually running him out of town! Hargreaves sought refuge in the textile hub of Nottingham where the hosiery industry was now thriving upon their newfound cheaply sourced yarn. They loved him, and he lived there working his spinning jenny until his death.  

1771: The tech revolution in carding produced cheap supply of clean cotton for spinners. The tech revolution in spinning produced a cheap supply of yarn for the textile mills. Five years later came a second revolution in spinning – this time it was Richard Arkwright’s spinning mill, which used water frames. Water frames had been around since the days of Ancient Egypt, so the core idea wasn’t new or unique, but Arkwright was the first to apply the contraption to yarn production. As it turns out, the force of flowing river water is much stronger than horses and people.

The spinning jenny 10x-ed production of cotton yarn up to that point in history, and then the spinning frame 10x-ed the spinning jenny. All in a few years. On top of allowing for nearly 100 simultaneous spools (10x the quantity of the old spinning jenny’s), the spinning frame’s water power meant that it made much stronger yarn as well.

The even larger quantities of stronger yarn enabled the true takeoff of industrial textile manufacturing.

All the while, a Scottish inventor, chemist, and mechanical engineer was reaching the climax of his career in the mid 1770’s. He had been working to perfect the original Newcomen steam engine (1712) for decades, and was finally able to break through after teaming up with an English manufacturer and businessman named Matthew Boulton. The Boulton & Watt steam engine was born in 1776. Watt’s genius was to add a condenser to the original engine that would let steam exit from the main cylinder – enabling the “power stroke”.

They sold their first engine to an Iron factory in Scotland. But the real breakthrough came in 1781 when Watt stumbled upon an invention that has come to be known as the “sun and planet gear”.

This new configuration of gears is widely believed to have been a turning point in the Industrial Revolution … why?

Two years earlier, Samuel Crompton had figured out how to combine the work of Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Arkwright’s spinning mill into what’s called the spinning mule. It made even stronger yarn than the mill was able to make, and could be run by hand or water.

The spinning mule needed a spinning circular power source. Enter the Boulton & Watt steam engine complete with the new circular sun and planet gear. This potent combination released the textile industry from its geographical shackles as it was no longer necessary to build directly on rivers.

The cotton/yarn/textile industry was among the leading industries as a result of such immense innovation. Going from one human powered spool to many water powered spools was almost too much change for society to grapple with. After all, local yarn spinners booted the luminary of yarn spinning out of town.

Going from many water powered spools to many steam powered spools was too much for society to grapple with. It was too much change in too short a time span. Urbanization reached unprecedented levels as people flocked to work in downtown textile mills. Unions formed. An economy built on “cottage-industry” had urbanized and revolutionized in less than a generation.

With these technological advances came great wealth. Larger populations could be supported, and thus birth rates surged. The economic success allowed Great Britain to establish far-away trade hubs in places as remote (at the time) as North America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. East India Company and colonization are terms you probably associate with this time period.

Of course, global competition is fierce, so these technical advancements had spread to the rest of Europe and North America by the middle of the 1800’s. Continental Europe quickly developed its own share of economic hubs in places like Belgium and France. Textiles and raw materials were integral in this new world of widespread improved production.

A lull (recession) followed the tech blast of the First Industrial Revolution. For about a decade in the middle of the 1800’s, technology stagnated as the stragglers caught up to the early advances in milling and steam power.

Second Industrial Revolution

It wasn’t long before the sprint was on again! The Second Industrial Revolution began in 1870, and is more widely known as the “Technological Revolution”. It was ushered in by immense innovations in the processes and ideas on which the previous Industrial Revolution was built: complete rethinking of manufacturing which led to production lines and economies of scale, interchangeable parts (!), more widespread use of machines in everyday life, and further advancements in chemical production processes which most notably increased steel production speed while significantly reducing its cost.

Knock-on effects of these seemingly moderate advancements? Steel railroads lasted ten times longer than iron rails. On top of that, steel rails became so cheap that it was trivial to produce thicker rails. Thicker rails can carry heaver locomotives, which in turn can pull longer trains.

Better industrial factories capable of producing more products combined with the first-ever broad distribution channels (railways) meant an economic and societal boom lasting all the way to World War I. Humanity had experienced the largest growth in economic prosperity in a millennium.

Next in the Series

As we move along in the series, we’ll examine things like the Digital Revolution in the Age of Information, where historians and modern thinkers see technology going, and conclude by relating all of this history directly to IOTA.

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