Science and Steam

Reactions to two of my recent posts — Mark Safranki‘s excerpt of my review of America 3.0. and Phil Arena‘s comment on my post on antiscience, plus some twitter conversations with Colin Wight — got me thinking.

What is the relationship of Science to the great economic systems we’ve had — hydrological, steam-powered, and now whatever-comes-next.

Well, in a hydrological system you’re either at the Malthusian limit or quite good at killing people off through war of disease.

Science is too risky (might not work, might have bad consequences if it does work) to spend much resources on in a pre-steam, pre-industrial society. So you get a few intellectual giants shouting to each other across time — like the nameless Chinese inventors or named European ones — with relatively little utility within a human lifetime.

But once you have steam-power, and the economic system it enables, society becomes incredibly wealthy. So you get science, institution science, whether in the form of corporate labs, or academic science, or the Department of Agriculture. The methods of advancement are so different, and the pace of change is so much quicker, this Science in a modern science is a different beast from pre-steam science — natural philosoph– which was basically bored men every once in a while discovering something.

What comes after the reign of steam, and the industrial society? What does Science look like after the next transformation?

It will be exciting to find out!

10 thoughts on “Science and Steam”

  1. “But once you have steam-power, and the economic system it enables, society becomes incredibly wealthy.”

    Cheaper, more ubiquitous power does help tremendously. But there’s a cultural-legal component too that is critical. The Romans understood steam power but by the time they figured that out, a steam engine made little economic sense vice extremely cheap slave labor and restrictive, proto-statist economic regulations of late third and fourth century Emperors. The late Republic and Principate also had slaves, but comparatively fewer and Augustus was disinclined to make price controls part of his regime beyond guaranteeing the dole for poor Romans, noting there was no need to regulate the price of wine because his son-in-law Agrippa had provided aqueducts for all who were thirsty.

    Steam power in the 18th century also intersected with the waning of power of Churches, Protestant and Catholic, to get secular authorities to vigorously police and punish unconventional ideas. You could still get in trouble for “moral crimes” like heresy but you really had to work at making a public nuisance of yourself. Royal authorities let Newton even in the 17th century keep a professorship of the Holy Trinity when his religious views were stridently non-trinitarian. The urge to restrict the flow of ideas was fading in Britain – had steam power started in the midst of the rise of Puritanism, it might have been different (especially if it had threatened the mercantile economic interests of the Puritan faction in Parliament). Interesting how things come together or not in different eras

  2. Hey Mark,

    Thanks for your insightful comment!

    I generally agree.

    Whether you’re dealing with grain elevators [1] or containers [2], most world-changing inventions require supporting infrastructure to actually matter.

    It’s probably the case that most societies during the agricultural age was at the Malthusian limit, and so could not risk the harm caused by new gizmos when the costs were clear and the benefits were vague. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the steam breakthrough was made in England, which was below the Malthusian limit both because of its poor public safety & sanitation [3], as well as its extracting resources from the Caribbean. This provided a surplus that could be risked on steam [4]. And that made a lot of the difference.

    The Great Qing are a case study of how an Imperial grand strategy can fully accommodate long-term technological weakness for centuries by outlasting enemies [5,6].


  3. “which was basically bored men every once in a while discovering something”

    I would look at your question in this post by starting with the observation above.

    If, as I think, the desire for knowledge is a desire for control (First Theorem of Curtis), then I would say that when the question of control — who has it, who does not — is not much of a question, there is a relative boredom for those who have it and a relative lack of curiosity for those who do not.

    But then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Steam power empowered people to take diverse pathways on their way to the forum; by empowering more people, the issue of “control” became less certain. In fact, it began to be seen that influence is a kind of control (Third Theorem). Dreams of absolute control vanished for those who had had it; dreams of increasing control via influence took root in those who had not had such dreams previously; and opportunities for increasing influence (personal influence) consequently led to a broader and more powerful desire for knowledge.

    (I would not however dismiss the influence of the printing press by emphasizing steam power. Here, steam power seems to me to be merely another mechanism—and an important one for those who could only go so far in their pursuit of personal influence via the written words.)

    As for the future….I would say there has been a trend away from visions of absolute control and toward a realization of influence-as-kind-of-non-absolute-control as more and more people gain greater potential power to influence. (See: Second Theorem) Of course, with so many options and so many people having access to them, a kind of soupy indeterminacy has set in, leading to a fear in powers of leverage: powerful influence is almost seen as absolute control, even if it is not. Within the complex competition occurring, there are some who continue to advance science in order to gain greater influence, but some of the focus — possibly quite a bit of the focus — has shifted away from the natural, practical sciences and onto social sciences. We may be looking at the beginning of growing interest in those as important “need to know” motivators for those seeking control.

  4. Hey Curtis,

    I want to pull out what I think is the central line of your comment

    ” Steam power empowered people to take diverse pathways on their way to the forum; by empowering more people, the issue of “control” became less certain. ”

    Indeed, power isn’t even an analogy here, as steam power dramatically increases the wattage frontier of a society.

    Steam power enabled both totalitarianism and libertarian in their modern (that is, age of steam) forms, with the major question being the best way to ascribe ownership to that wattage!

    Whether the economic engines of the future rely more on genetics, bioscience, or information technology (if those even make sense to keep as separate fields in the future), the economies of scale based on steam are shifting to something else…

  5. You might consider asking the question, what is the supporting infrastructure that we are missing right now to knock us loose from our current lethargy.

    I have been, and been shocked at how much is missing in the government sector.

  6. I was referring to a different problem, that most people can’t even name all the governments that have jurisdiction over where they live and work. How are people supposed to exercise democratic oversight when they do not know what they are supposed to oversee?

    Applicable infrastructure would include:
    1 a GIS server which would create a list of all govts at an address.
    2 an auto scheduler that would give you hours of availability, meeting times and agendas for same.
    3 smart agents that would monitor any parameter and provide alarms when a govt went wrong
    4 a BI dashboard for all citizens with drilldown capability

    Is that a better description?

  7. TM,


    I think my concern there is more philosophically, and less easy to quantify…. I suspect the only use of democracy is to provide the people a way to remove specific leaders they despise. I have a very low view of the ability of anything approaching a democratic majority to reach even a vaguely reasonable conclusion of anything but the most trivial issues.

  8. I wouldn’t use the term “despise” but won’t argue with you if it’s one you’ve your heart set on. We simply don’t have a good idea of what these people are doing and thus the re-elect rates are far too high. If we had a better idea (using the infrastructure I talked about), we’d realize more of them are rascals and throw them out earlier.

  9. Hey TM,

    I think our difference is that I don’t think voters are information constrained — they are attention and intelligence constrained. More data doesn’t address the problem.

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