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 as 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, temples, and aqueducts that weren’t surpassed in scale for centuries. If they had redirected 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 in 1733 with a far more mundane invention, the flying shuttle. This increased weaving speeds fourfold. 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 roughly 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.)
The Roman Empire missed the boat of an early introduction of the Industrial Revolution, but there was another monumental change coming: the sweep of Christianity across Europe.
Emperor Constantine decriminalized Christianity in 313, and it became the state religion in 380. Labor-saving machinery would reduce or eliminate the need for slaves. 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 in 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. We know that Christianity can drive innovation given the remarkable period of cathedral building beginning in the twelfth century and the commissioned artwork from the Renaissance. With Christianity newly empowered as it quickly overran the continent, was the first-century aeolipile too distant an invention to inspire the Industrial Revolution? Did the flying shuttle (or any other invention that might drive innovation) simply not occur to anyone?
Debunking the claims
Those are possibilities, but the bigger problem is that Christianity’s claims about slavery and science are false. While the Catholic Church did eventually disavow slavery, that wasn’t until 1965. Not only didn’t the Old Testament reject slavery, it regulated slavery with rules. Old Testament slavery was basically identical to slavery in America. The New Testament is no better, and it tells slaves to obey their masters.
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 stand out for its nurturing of innovation. Yes, there was innovation during the medieval period (eyeglasses, the water wheel, the stirrup, metal armor, gunpowder weapons, castles, improved plows, crop rotation, and others), but that was in spite of Christianity, not because of it. In fact, much of this wasn’t native innovation but was simply the adoption of foreign inventions.
Christianity has had the opportunity 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 wither on inspection. Christian Europe was ruled by superstition, not reason.
The technological and scientific advances that did happen—paintings, statues, cathedrals—were just the Church glorifying itself, rather like the whore in Ezekiel 16. Anything to help the people was inadvertent, and sponsoring or encouraging that wasn’t the church’s interest.
What explains Christianity’s missing its opportunity? We could find excuses. A society is a complex thing after all. For example, it’s possible that a successful society discourages innovation—why mess with it if it ain’t broke? But trying to find excuses for Christianity assumes that it’s just another manmade institution. And, yes, it is. That’s the problem—Christianity looks merely like another human institution. It’s not magical, and it doesn’t harness the power of the Creator of the universe.
Because it should: the Bible promised that God’s people will be vastly more prosperous than others. Jesus said, “No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age” (Mark 10:29–30). God said, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse . . . and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Malachi 3:10).
Science, not religion, has ushered in the health and prosperity that we have today. A peasant living in Europe in the year 1100 would’ve noticed very little different a century later. Contrast that with the enormous jump between 1900 to 2000. That might be worth keeping in mind during the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign.
(h/t: The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire by Richard Carrier pointed out that slavery didn’t hinder industrial innovation.)
- When Christianity Was in Charge, This Is What We Got
- Yeah, But Christianity Built Universities!
- Yeah, But Christianity Built Hospitals!
- The Bible’s Confused Relationship with Science
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
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/11/16.)
Image from Wikimedia, public domain