In the first century CE, Hero of Alexandria described the aeolipile (pronounced “ee-oh’-la-pile”), the device shown in the drawing above. A fire below heats water in a boiler. Steam from the boiler enters the hollow ball through the two horizontal pipes that form the ball’s axle. The steam exits the ball through two jets and makes it spin.
We have no evidence that this was more than a curiosity, which, when you think about it, is remarkable. The Roman Empire (of which Alexandria was one of its biggest cities) built roads, bridges, coliseums and temples, and aqueducts that weren’t surpassed for many centuries. If they had applied their engineering genius, could the Romans have launched the Industrial Revolution 1700 years before it actually happened?
The Industrial Revolution
That would seem possible since the Industrial Revolution began in England with a far more mundane invention, the flying shuttle (1733). This increased weaving speeds by a factor of four. The spinners who made the thread now became the bottleneck, but the invention of the spinning jenny a few decades later made them more productive. To spin a pound of cotton had taken five hundred hours by hand. Machines reduced this to twenty hours by 1780 and just three hours a few decades later.
The weavers in this arms race shot back with the water-powered loom in 1785 and later, steam-powered looms. Cotton suppliers became a bottleneck, and the cotton gin (1793) boosted their productivity. By 1830, England had perhaps ten million spindles for spinning thread and over 100,000 looms, most powered by steam. One worker had become as productive as several hundred with manual equipment. The mills in Lowell, Massachusetts at this time were producing a hundred miles of cloth per day.
Like the trickle over an earthen dam that becomes a torrent, the change spread and grew. The equipment that worked so well with cotton was applied to silk, flax, and wool. The Jacquard loom wove elaborate designs with punch cards.
The innovation spread to other industries. The manufacture of glass and pottery were automated. More demand for steam power meant more demand for coal, so coal mining ramped up in response. Tin, copper, and lead mining also expanded. Thousands of miles of canals, followed by tens of thousands of miles of railway as well as steamship routes, connected mines to factories to markets.
England had gone in a few generations from a country like every other to a country like no other.
(Much of this is taken from my book, Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change.)
A Roman Empire without labor-saving equipment
The problem for the Roman Empire was slavery. Labor-saving machinery was the last thing needed by a society built on slaves doing manual labor.
The article “An Apologia for Anarchism” points out the problems. There is no incentive to find a quicker way to complete a manual task—manual labor is a good thing, because idle slaves are a problem. Slaves aren’t consumers. And slaveholders will use their slaves first rather than hire workers, which creates a discouraged class of unemployed free men.
Would Christianity be the answer? Emperor Constantine decriminalized Christianity in 313, and it became the state religion in 380. Many Christian apologists today insist that not only does their religion hate slavery but that we have Christianity to thank for abolishing it in Europe and the United States the early 1800s. They also tell us that not only does Christianity embrace science but that the Old Testament contains clues to scientific truths that preceded modern science by millennia.
With the Christianization of the Empire in the fourth century, Christians seem to be saying that society was fertile ground for the labor-magnifying ideas of the Industrial Revolution. Christianity obviously can drive innovation as we see with the remarkable period of cathedral building beginning in the twelfth century and the commissioned artwork from the Renaissance. Was the aeolipile too distant to be an inspiration in fifth-century Christian Europe? Did the flying shuttle (or any other invention that might drive innovation in an industry) simply not occur to anyone?
Those are possibilities, but the bigger problem is that Christianity’s claims about slavery and science are false. While the Catholic Church did disavow slavery, that wasn’t until 1965. The Old Testament didn’t reject the institution but instead managed it by imposing rules. Old Testament slavery was basically identical to slavery in America. Similarly, the New Testament tells slaves to obey their masters.
Christian claims that the Bible anticipated modern scientific discoveries are also wrong. In fact, such claims are inept post-hoc attempts to imagine farsighted scientific observations in verses that said nothing of the kind, and the Bible makes plenty of false claims about science.
Christian Europe didn’t nurture innovation. Yes, there was some during the medieval period (eyeglasses, water wheels, the stirrup, metal armor, gunpowder weapons, castles, improved plows, crop rotation, and others), but that was in spite of Christianity, not because of it.
Christianity has had a chance to improve the lot of its flock. It was largely in charge from the medieval period through the Renaissance, but there is little to show for it. Modern apologists struggle to point to fruits of Europe’s Christian period, like universities and hospitals, though these examples crumble on inspection. Christian Europe was ruled by superstition, not reason.
Science, not religion, has ushered in the health and prosperity that we have today. Keep that in mind during the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign.
- When Christianity Was in Charge, This Is What We Got
- Yeah, but Christianity Built Universities and Hospitals!
- The Bible’s Confused Relationship with Science
If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow,
there would be no doctors but witch doctors,
no transport faster than horses,
no computers, no printed books,
no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming.
If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow,
would anyone notice the smallest difference?
— Richard Dawkins,
Free Inquiry, 2004 Feb./March. p. 11
Image credit: Wikimedia