All of Anton Howes's Comments + Replies

Why Wasn't the Steam Engine Invented Earlier? Part I

Step back a bit?! But I like it down here in the weeds! 

That's a very useful way to separate out two issues here, and helps me to clarify what I'm up to.

My main focus is on whether atmospheric pressure exploitation is older than the standard historiography suggests. Hence the choice of title, about whether the steam engine could have been invented earlier. 

Part I is really about setting up 1) the pretty uncontroversial claim that it is atmospheric pressure and not steam itself that is the key issue of debate here, because of how human energy expl... (read more)

Why Wasn't the Steam Engine Invented Earlier? Part I

Thanks Jason,

Great comments. 

  1. The torque estimate you shared is, as I understand it, only for one version of the aeolipile - the famous one with the spinning hollow ball with nozzles. That version is often referred to as the aeolipile, which it is not. It is simply one variant of it, and certainly not the one that people used most commonly, which was the much simpler "philosophical bellows" or blowing face form that I illustrated. I think we'd need a different estimate of the torque from a more ordinary aeolipile, e.g. the one portrayed by Branca direc
... (read more)
1jasoncrawford7moThanks Anton! Let me step back a bit and clarify where I'm coming from. I don't know where you're going with this, but there are a few kinds of conclusions you might end up on: * Which invention was the most important one, the one that deserves to be called out on our historiographic timelines (did Newcomen “really” invent the steam engine, or was it Savery, or was it de Caus, etc.) * Whether the steam engine “could have been” invented earlier (maybe even in ancient Rome) * Whether science was “needed” to invent the steam engine And what I'm saying is that in considering those topics, it's crucial to consider (1) the universality of the mechanism and (2) the amount of force that can be generated (not to mention other factors such as the fuel efficiency and therefore the cost of operation). It could be that many types of machines operated by steam and/or air pressure for a long time, but if for practical reasons they couldn't be applied to a wide range of industrial purposes, and if some later design change was needed to achieve that, then I think said design change is what deserves to be called out as the key invention. I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, just harping on a pet issue of mine.
Is Innovation in Human Nature?

I'm glad Hannes should notice this deeper implication, as it is certainly one thing I had intended when I originally wrote this piece! When I give seminars to economists, convincing them that innovation might be outside of one's choice-set is one of the first and most difficult things I try to do.

Was agricultural progress a prerequisite for the development of the mechanized textile industry?

Overall, the answer is no. 

The early mechanisation was not of cotton, but of silk and wool. Cotton only looks so important in retrospect. You see huge silk-twisting factories in Piedmont in the 17thC already, with the methods then stolen and brought to the Netherlands in the 1680s, and to England by the 1710s.

It's also worth bearing in mind that textile mechanisation takes many forms. It's not just about spinning, but about carding, weaving, and more - e.g. stocking knitting was mechanised in the 1590s.

Now, looking at cotton specifically, textile hist... (read more)

Guarantee Funds / Leveraged Philanthropy

Carbon capture seems like a pretty good potential use, yeah. I hadn't thought of vaccine development, though I wonder if traditional finance may be better at that, as you'd marshal more resources promising people the upside too. Good question on the Gates Foundation, I'd be interested to know too.