Change the world

All too often enthusiastic inventors claim their inventions will change the world….

One of my current pet hates is the wild claims made for 3D printing. Enthusiastic bloggers and journalists claim that it will revolutionise the way we make and buy everything: we’ll just print off everything we want at home from a downloaded data file. This is technically most improbable. The reality is that while it’s certainly a useful tool in manufacturing engineering, and could become a fun toy for hobbyists, the most exciting domestic application seems to be for making amazing shapes in sugar icing.

Fun, but hardly world changing.

In contrast however, some inventions really do change the world, but often in unexpected ways.

A few weeks ago, I bought a wonderful old book, “An Historical Descriptive Account of the STEAM ENGINE” by a Dr Partington, published in 1822. It was written towards the end of the Industrial Revolution, shortly after James Watt’s death and gives a detailed account of the most important invention of the time. A century earlier the economy had been predominantly based on agriculture and manual and animal labour, but the invention of the steam engine and its successive improvements, allowed mines to be drained and textile mills powered ever more efficiently than before.

Partington wrote enthusiastically

“The political economist must hail, with most heartfelt gratification, the introduction of so able and efficient a substitute for animal labour as the Steam Engine. It has been calculated that there are at least ten thousand of these machines at this time at work in Great Britain; performing a labour more than equal to two hundred thousand horses, which if fed in the ordinary way, would require above one million acres [an area the size of Norfolk] of land for subsistence; and this is capable of supplying the necessaries of life to more than fifteen hundred thousand human beings”

This was clearly a dramatic increase in the available power, but to give a sense of how it compares to what we have today, two hundred thousand horses are roughly equivalent to just 6 hours of UK car sales.

The steam engine, or more precisely, access to a new source of power, led to wealth for some (the new class of industrialists and businessmen) but hardship for many and social transformation for all. Large number of workers moved into the rapidly growing cities to get work in the new factories, often under very hard conditions.  Because the new machines did not need strength to operate them and children could be paid less than adults, child labour was common. In some mills in the late 18th century they formed the majority of the workforce.

Understandably, this led to protests, of which the best known were by the Luddites. Even though machine breaking was made a capital offence in 1811, protests continued, peaking two hundred years ago in April 1812, with an attack on William Cartwright’s mill in Huddersfield in which a few soldiers held the mill against 150 attackers. Several of the attackers were killed, and others were subsequently hanged.

The steam engine was genuinely a transformational innovation, but it’s made me think about the way in which we so often have totally unrealistic expectations about the impact of our inventions.

Even if the invention is genuinely important, we tend to extrapolate the present, seeing the invention purely in terms of its value as an improvement on the current way of doing things. Partington and his contemporaries saw the Steam Engine as a stronger horse, and one that didn’t need feeding. In the early days of the internet, we thought of websites just as better brochures that didn’t involve printing costs.

New replacing old may well be how things start, but for a transformational innovation, the real change comes later, and often from an unexpected direction.

In the early days of the Internet in the 1990s no one anticipated the rise of social media, or the way smart phones would accelerate the change in the way we relate to our friends, buy things, learn, do business, or think about the world.

The steam engine contributed to an unanticipated social revolution and, once various laws were in place to prevent the worst of the exploitation, a massive rise in the standard of living. We benefited from this in the 19th and 20th centuries, but increasingly however, it’s becoming clear than in the 21st century we’ll be facing a more serious set of unanticipated consequences: climate change.

In 1822, the coal burnt to power the UK’s 10,000 steam engines would often have caused unpleasant local pollution, but the resulting carbon emissions were trivial in comparison to the natural flows of carbon. It was irrelevant on a global scale. However, this was just the beginning.   By 1900 our global fossil fuel use was high enough for the emissions to be equivalent to all of the observed increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We now burn around 20 times more than in 1900, and as a result carbon dioxide levels are rising sharply in both the atmosphere and the oceans, and climate change is starting to cause real trouble.

We are literally changing the world….