July 15, 2003
Terence Kealey on the uneducatedness of the steam engine pioneers

My current reading enthusiasm is Terence Kealey's The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, and he has interesting things to say about just how educated Britain's steam engine pioneers were.

The first commmercial steam engine, Thomas Newcomen's, was at work in 1712 at Dudley Castle, Worcester. It was huge, expensive, and inefficient, but it clearly met a need because, by 1781, about 360 had been built in Britain, most of them devoted to pumping water out of coal mines. …

… The historian D. S. L. Cardwell has established that Newcomen, who was barely literate, was a humble provincial blacksmith and ironmonger who, stuck out in rural Devon, had never had any contact with science or scientists. Newcomen did, however, have a lot of contact with the tin mines in the neighbouring county of Cornwall, and he knew that they were frequently, and disastrously, flooded. There was, unquestionably, a market for an effective pump.

So, no "education" in the sense most people now understand it, then. Plenty of knowledge, but no book learning.

The first significant improvement was made in 1764 when James Watt invented the separate condenser …

Whatever that may be. I'm not concerned here with what these people did, just with how much schooling they had.

Watt's advances … owed less than nothing to contemporary science; they proceeded on an 'old established fact'. In any case, Watt had not been formally educated in science; he worked at Glasgow University as a technician. …

So some schooling there, but no scientific training.

… Moreover, the next major advance in steam engine technology, the use of high presseure steam to push the piston, was made by a man in Newcomen's mould. Richard Trevithick, whose engine in Coalbrookdale in 1802 achieved the unprecedented pressure of 145 pounds per square inch, was barely literate. Born in Cornwall to a mining family, Trevithick received no education other than that provided at his village primary school, whose master described him as 'disobedient, slow and obstinate'. But Trevithick addressed a problem. The Cornish tin mines were a long way from the nearest coal fields, so their Watt steam engines were expensive to run. Could they be made more efficient? Unlettered and ill-educated though he was, Trevithick thought so, and he introduced steam under high pressure to push, not suck, the piston. …

In 1801, Trevithick built his first steam carriage, which he drove up a hill in Camborne, Cornwall, on Christmas Eve. In 1803, Trevithick built the world's first steam railway locomotive at the Pendaren Ironworks, South Wales. On 21 February 1804, that engine hauled 10 tons of iron and 70 men along 10 miles of trackway. …

Still not much in the way of education, although bags of engineering intuition, acquired by mucking about with existing machinery, and struggling to improve it.

Who's next?

The very next major advance, too, was made by an ill-educated, barely literate, barely numerate, self-taught artisan called George Stephenson. Light though it was, Trevithick's locomotive was still too heavy for the cast-iron rails of the day. … But on 27 September 1825, a steam engine designed by George Stephenson drew 450 people from Darlington to Stockton at the trrifying speed of 15 miles per hour. Stephenson went on to built the Liverpool to Manchester line, for which he then designed the 'Rocket', an engine which could attain 36 miles per hour! Yet Stephenson was unschooled. The son of a mechanic, he followed his father in operating a Newcomen Engine to pump out a coal mine in Newcastle. He only learnt to read (just) at the age of 19 when he attended night school, and he never really acquired mathematics. So unsophisticated was Stephenson, and so dense his Geordie brogue, that he needed an interpreter when talking to educated men from London. Yet it was the educated men – from all over Europe – who consulted him, not the other way round.

In other words, then, very little schooling at all went into the inventing of the steam engine and the steam locomotive? Correct. Ten out of ten. Or to be precise, three and a half out of four, and when it comes to formal scientific education, four out of four.

It will be seen therefore, that the development of the steam engine, the one artefact that more than any other embodies the Industrial Revolution, owed nothing to science; it emerged from pre-existing technology, and it was created by uneducated, often isolated, men who applied practical common sense and intuition to address the mechanical problems that beset them, and whose solution would yield obvious economic reward.

It is of course a matter for debate just how much can be learned from this story that is of relevance to the modern world. Maybe the steam engine was invented and pioneered by barely-educated men, but it is very hard to believe that the Industrial Revolution could have got underway in a nation populated only by such unlettered men as these. Those educated men who consulted with Stephenson may indeed not have invented the steam locomotive, but they surely made better – and better organised – use of it than a nation consisting only of similar illiterates would have done. The educated men did surely contribute a lot.

Furthermore, it is hard to see how "intuition" alone could have enabled anyone to devise and perfect the modern electronic chip, and it would be impossible for an illiterate to programme a computer.

But even so, the story does throw an interesting light on the limits of education as a contributory explanation of one of the great technological events in human history. And all this from the Vice Chancellor of a University.
Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:52 PM
Category: HistoryLearning by doing