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Posts Tagged ‘Industrial Revolution

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance”*…

Employees at the BMIT data centre in SmartCity Malta, 22 June 2017.

Hot, strenuous and unsung. As Steven Gonzalez Monserrate explains, there is nothing soft and fluffy about the caretaking work that enables our digital lives…

The ‘cloud’ is not an intangible monolith. It’s a messy, swelling tangle of data centres, fibre optic cables, cellular towers and networked devices that spans the globe. From the tropical megalopolis of Singapore to the remote Atacama Desert, or the glacial extremes of Antarctica, the material infrastructure of the cloud is becoming ubiquitous and expanding as more users come online and the digital divide closes. Much has been written about the ecological impact of the cloud’s ongoing expansion: its titanic electricity requirements, the staggering water footprint required to cool its equipment, the metric tonnes of electronic waste it proliferates, and the noise pollution emitted by the diesel generators, churning servers and cooling systems required to keep data centres – the heart of the cloud – operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

But less has been written about those who work inside the machinery of the cloud. Though often forgotten, this community of technicians, engineers and executives is integral to the functioning of our increasingly digitised society. They are the caretakers of the digital, the wardens of our data, and the unsung heroes working tirelessly to sustain an ever-expanding array of digital objects, including our emails, cat videos, maps, non-fungible tokens, metaverse avatars, digital twins and more. The idea of digital caretakers might conjure science fiction images of empty, towering warehouses stacked with racks of automated machines. But these workers are very much flesh and blood. The silicon milieu they’re part of is as human as it is mechanical. From their vantage, the cloud is not merely an infrastructure they maintain, but a way of life, an identity, a culture of stewardship – replete with its own norms, rituals and language…

Explore that fascinating culture: “The people of the cloud,” from @cloudAnthro in @aeonmag.

Apposite: “The Maintenance Race,” from Stewart Brand (@stewartbrand)

* Kurt Vonnegut


As we contemplate continuity, we might spare a thought for Richard Arkwright; he died on this date in 1792. An inventor and entrepreneur, he was a leader in the early stage of the Industrial Revolution. Arkwright was the driving force behind the development of the spinning frame, known as the water frame after it was adapted to use water power; he patented a rotary carding engine to convert raw cotton to ‘cotton lap’ prior to spinning; and he was the first to develop factories housing both mechanized carding and spinning operations, combining power, machinery, semi-skilled labor and the (then-new to England) raw material of cotton to create mass-produced yarn. Indeed, His organizational skills earned him the honorific title “father of the modern industrial factory system.”


“Almost everybody today believes that nothing in economic history has ever moved as fast as, or had a greater impact than, the Information Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution moved at least as fast in the same time span, and had probably an equal impact if not a greater one.”*…

Actors pretend to be in the Industrial Revolution as part of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012

Dylan Matthews talks with Jared Rubin and Mark Koyama, the authors of an ambitious new economic history…

You can crudely tell the story of our species in three stages. In the first, which lasted for the vast majority of our time on Earth, from the emergence of Homo sapiens over 300,000 years ago to about 12,000 years ago, humans lived largely nomadic lifestyles, subsisting through hunting and foraging for food. In the second, lasting from about 10,000 BC to around 1750 AD, humans adopted agriculture, allowing for a more secure supply of food and leading to the establishment of towns, cities, even empires.

The third period, in which we all live, is characterized by an unprecedented phenomenon: sustained economic growth. Quality of life went from improving very gradually if at all for the vast majority of human history to improving very, very quickly. In the United Kingdom, whose Industrial Revolution kicked off this transformation, GDP per capita grew about 40 percent between 1700 and 1800. It more than doubled between 1800 and 1900. And between 1900 and 2000, it grew more than fourfold.

What today we’d characterize as extreme poverty was until a few centuries ago the condition of almost every human on Earth. In 1820, some 94 percent of humans lived on less than $2 a day. Over the next two centuries, extreme poverty fell dramatically; in 2018, the World Bank estimated that 8.6 percent of people lived on less than $1.90 a day. And the gains were not solely economic. Before 1800, average lifespans didn’t exceed 40 years anywhere in the world. Today, the average human life expectancy is more like 73. Deaths in childhood have plunged, and adult heights have surged as malnutrition decreased.

The big question is what drove this transformation. Historians, economists, and anthropologists have proposed a long list of explanations for why human life suddenly changed starting in 18th-century England, from geographic effects to forms of government to intellectual property rules to fluctuations in average wages.

For a long time, there was no one book that could explain, compare, and evaluate these theories for non-experts. That’s changed: How the World Became Rich, by Chapman University’s Jared Rubin and George Mason University’s Mark Koyama, provides a comprehensive look at what, exactly, changed when sustained economic growth began, what factors help explain its beginning, and which theories do the best job of making sense of the new stage of life that humans have been experiencing for a couple brief centuries…

Two economic historians explain what made the Industrial Revolution, and modern life, possible: “About 200 years ago, the world started getting rich. Why?,” from @dylanmatt @jaredcrubin @MarkKoyama in @voxdotcom.

* Peter Drucker


As we contemplate change and its causes, we might spare a thought for Charles Francis Jenkins; he died on this date in 1934. An engineer and inventor, he is rightly remembered for his contributions to film and television: he invented a film projector and sold the rights to Thomas Edison, who marketed it as the Vitascope, the projector that Edison used in paid, public screenings in vaudeville theaters; and he opened the first television broadcasting station in the U.S. (W3XK in Washington, D.C.).

But Jenkins also pioneered in other areas. He was the first to move an automobile engine from under the seat to the front of the car; he invented the automotive self starter (replacing the crank) and an improved altimeter for aviation; and he created the cone-shaped drinking cup.


“When the graphs were finished, the relations were obvious at once”*…

We can only understand what we can “see”…

… this long-forgotten, hand-drawn infographic from the 1840s… known as a “life table,” was created by William Farr, a doctor and statistician who, for most of the Victorian era, oversaw the collection of public health statistics in England and Wales… it’s a triptych documenting the death rates by age in three key population groups: metropolitan London, industrial Liverpool, and rural Surrey.

With these visualizations, Farr was making a definitive contribution to an urgent debate from the period: were these new industrial cities causing people to die at a higher rate? In some ways, with hindsight, you can think of this as one of the most crucial questions for the entire world at that moment. The Victorians didn’t realize it at the time, but the globe was about to go from less than five percent of its population living in cities to more than fifty percent in just about a century and a half. If these new cities were going to be killing machines, we probably needed to figure that out.

It’s hard to imagine just how confusing it was to live through the transition to industrial urbanism as it was happening for the first time. Nobody really had a full handle on the magnitude of the shift and its vast unintended consequences. This was particularly true of public health. There was an intuitive feeling that people were dying at higher rates than they had in the countryside, but it was very hard even for the experts to determine the magnitude of the threat. Everyone was living under the spell of anecdote and availability bias. Seeing the situation from the birds-eye view of public health data was almost impossible…

The images Farr created told a terrifying and unequivocal story: density kills. In Surrey, the increase of mortality after birth is a gentle slope upward, a dune rising out of the waterline. The spike in Liverpool, by comparison, looks more like the cliffs of Dover. That steep ascent condensed thousands of individual tragedies into one vivid and scandalous image: in industrial Liverpool, more than half of all children born were dead before their fifteenth birthday.

The mean age of death was just as shocking: the countryfolk were enjoying life expectancies close to fifty, likely making them some of the longest-lived people on the planet in 1840. The national average was forty-one. London was thirty-five. But Liverpool—a city that had undergone staggering explosions in population density, thanks to industrialization—was the true shocker. The average Liverpudlian died at the age of twenty-five, one of the lowest life expectancies ever recorded in that large a human population.

There’s a natural inclination to think about innovation in human health as a procession of material objects: vaccines, antibiotics, pacemakers. But Farr’s life tables are a reminder that new ways of perceiving the problems we face, new ways of seeing the underlying data, are the foundations on which we build those other, more tangible interventions. Today cities reliably see life expectancies higher than rural areas—a development that would have seemed miraculous to William Farr, tabulating the data in the early 1840s. In a real sense, Farr laid the groundwork for that historic reversal: you couldn’t start to tackle the problem of how to make industrial cities safer until you had first determined that the threat was real.

Why the most important health innovations sometimes come from new ways of seeing: “The Obscure Hand-Drawn Infographic That Changed The Way We Think About Cities,” from Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson). More in his book, Extra Life, and in episode 3 of the PBS series based on it.

* J. C. R. Licklider


As we investigate infographics, we might send carefully calculated birthday greetings to Lewis Fry Richardson; he was born on this date in 1881.  A mathematician, physicist, and psychologist, he is best remembered for pioneering the modern mathematical techniques of weather forecasting.  Richardson’s interest in weather led him to propose a scheme for forecasting using differential equations, the method used today, though when he published Weather Prediction by Numerical Process in 1922, suitably fast computing was unavailable.  Indeed, his proof-of-concept– a retrospective “forecast” of the weather on May 20, 1910– took three months to complete by hand. (in fairness, Richardson did the analysis in his free time while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I.)  With the advent of modern computing in the 1950’s, his ideas took hold.  Still the ENIAC (the first real modern computer) took 24 hours to compute a daily forecast.  But as computing got speedier, forecasting became more practical.

Richardson also yoked his forecasting techniques to his pacifist principles, developing a method of “predicting” war.  He is considered (with folks like Quincy Wright and Kenneth Boulding) a father of the scientific analysis of conflict.

And Richardson helped lay the foundations for other fields and innovations:  his work on coastlines and borders was influential on Mandelbrot’s development of fractal geometry; and his method for the detection of icebergs anticipated the development of sonar.


“The world is bound in secret knots”*…

It’s knot easy, but it’s important, to understand knots…

From whimsical flower crowns to carelessly tied shoelaces to hopelessly tangled headphones, knots are everywhere. 

That’s not surprising, as knots are quite ancient, predating both the use of the axe and of the wheel and potentially even the divergence of humans from other apes. After all, ropes and cords are practically useless without being tied to something else, making one of the most ancient technologies still remarkably relevant today.

But these tie-offs can be a problem, since knots actually decrease the strength of a rope. When a rope made up of multiple fibers is taut, those fibers all share equal portions of the load. However, the bending and compression where the knot forces the rope to curve (usually around itself, or around the thing it is tied to) create extra tension in only some of the fibers. That’s where the rope will break if yanked with too much force. And this isn’t a small effect: common knots generally reduce the strength of a rope by 20 percent for the strongest ones, to over 50 percent for a simple overhand knot.

Experience has taught surgeons, climbers, and sailors which knots are best for sewing up a patient, or rescuing someone from a ravine, or tying off a billowing sail, but until some recent research from a group at MIT it was hard to tell what actually makes one knot better than another… 

Which knot is the strongest? “The tangled physics of knots, one of our simplest and oldest technologies,” from Margaux Lopez (@margaux_lopez_).

See also: “The twisted math of knot theory can help you tell an overhand knot from an unknot.”

Athanasius Kircher


As we understand the over and under, we might send constructive birthday greetings to John “Blind Jack” Metcalf; he was born on this date in 1717. Blind from the age of six, he was an accomplished diver, swimmer, card player, and fiddler. But he is best remembered for his work between 1765 and 1792 when he emerged as the first professional road builder in the Industrial Revolution. He laid about 180 miles of turnpike road, mainly in the north of England– and became known as one of the “fathers of the modern road.”

Just before his death, he documented his remarkably eventful life; you can ready it here.


“Patents need inventors more than inventors need patents”*…




Patents for invention — temporary monopolies on the use of new technologies — are frequently cited as a key contributor to the British Industrial Revolution. But where did they come from? We typically talk about them as formal institutions, imposed from above by supposedly wise rulers. But their origins, or at least their introduction to England, tell a very different story…

How the 15th century city guilds of Italy paved the way for the creation of patents and intellectual property as we know it: “Age of Invention: The Origin of Patents.”

(Image above: source)

* Kalyan C. Kankanala, Fun IP, Fundamentals of Intellectual Property


As we ruminate on rights, we might recall that it was on this date in 1981 that IBM introduced the IBM Personal Computer, commonly known as the IBM PC, the original version of the IBM PC compatible computer design… a relevant descriptor, as the IBM PC was based on open architecture, and third-party suppliers soon developed to provide peripheral devices, expansion cards, software, and ultimately, IBM compatible computers.  While IBM has gone out of the PC business, it had a substantial influence on the market in standardizing a design for personal computers; “IBM compatible” became an important criterion for sales growth.  Only Apple has been able to develop a significant share of the microcomputer market without compatibility with the IBM architecture (and what it has become).

300px-Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-F077948-0006,_Jugend-Computerschule_mit_IBM-PC source


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