Carlyle (and Rosen) on Arkwright

(p. 236) The greatest hero-worshipper of them all, Thomas Carlyle. described Arkwright as

A plain, almost gross, bag-checked, potbellied, much enduring, much inventing man and barber… . French Revolutions were a-brewing: to resist the same in any measure, imperial Kaisers were impotent without the cotton and cloth of England, and it was this man that had to give England the power of cotton…. It is said ideas produce revolutions, and truly they do; not spiritual ideas only, but even mechanical. In this clanging clashing universal Sword-dance which the European world now dances for the last half-century, Voltaire is but one choragus [leader of a movement, from the old Greek word for the sponsor of a chorus] where Richard Arkwright is another.

. . .
Arkwright was not a great inven-(p. 237)tor, but he was a visionary, who saw, better than any man alive, how to convert useful knowledge into cotton apparel and ultimately into wealth: for himself, and for Britain.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: internal ellipses in original; ellipsis between paragraphs added.)

When Yarn Was Scarce There Was Less Incentive to Develop Power Looms

(p. 223) Though power looms had existed, at least in concept, for centuries (under his sketch for one, Leonardo himself wrote, “This is second only to the printing press in importance; no less useful in its practical application; a lucrative, beautiful, and subtle invention”), there was little interest in them so long as virtually all the available yarn could be turned into cloth in cottages. This fact reinforced the weaver’s independence; but it also encouraged another group of innovative types who were getting ready to put spinning itself on an industrial footing.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

Higher Cancer Rates Due More to Longer Life Spans than to Modern Life Styles

PrehistoricSkullCancer2011-01-12.jpg“DIAGNOSIS. Evidence of tumors in the skull of a male skeleton exhumed from an early medieval cemetery in Slovakia. Often thought of as a modern disease, cancer has always been with us.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D1) When they excavated a Scythian burial mound in the Russian region of Tuva about 10 years ago, archaeologists literally struck gold. Crouched on the floor of a dark inner chamber were two skeletons, a man and a woman, surrounded by royal garb from 27 centuries ago: headdresses and capes adorned with gold horses, panthers and other sacred beasts.

But for paleopathologists — scholars of ancient disease — the richest treasure was the abundance of tumors that had riddled almost every bone of the man’s body. The diagnosis: the oldest known case of metastasizing prostate cancer.
The prostate itself had disintegrated long ago. But malignant cells from the gland had migrated according to a familiar pattern and left identifiable scars. Proteins extracted from the bone tested positive for PSA, prostate specific antigen.
Often thought of as a modern disease, cancer has always been with us.
. . .
(p. D7) . . . , Tony Waldron, a paleopathologist at University College London, analyzed British mortality reports from 1901 to 1905 — a period late enough to ensure reasonably good records and early enough to avoid skewing the data with, for example, the spike in lung cancer caused in later decades by the popularity of cigarettes.
Taking into account variations in life span and the likelihood that different malignancies will spread to bone, he estimated that in an “archaeological assemblage” one might expect cancer in less than 2 percent of male skeletons and 4 to 7 percent of female skeletons.
Andreas G. Nerlich and colleagues in Munich tried out the prediction on 905 skeletons from two ancient Egyptian necropolises. With the help of X-rays and CT scans they diagnosed five cancers — right in line with Dr. Waldron’s expectations. And as his statistics predicted, 13 cancers were found among 2,547 remains buried in an ossuary in southern Germany between A.D. 1400 and 1800.
For both groups, the authors wrote, malignant tumors “were not significantly fewer than expected” when compared with early-20th-century England. They concluded that “the current rise in tumor frequencies in present populations is much more related to the higher life expectancy than primary environmental or genetic factors.”
. . .
“Cancer is an inevitability the moment you create complex multicellular organisms and give the individual cells the license to proliferate,” said Dr. Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute. “It is simply a consequence of increasing entropy, increasing disorder.”
He was not being fatalistic. Over the ages bodies have evolved formidable barriers to keep rebellious cells in line. Quitting smoking, losing weight, eating healthier diets and taking other preventive measures can stave off cancer for decades. Until we die of something else.
“If we lived long enough,” Dr. Weinberg observed, “sooner or later we all would get cancer.”

For the full story, see:
GEORGE JOHNSON. “Unearthing Prehistoric Tumors, and Debate.” The New York Times (Tues., December 28, 2010): D1 & D7.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 27, 2010.)

Taking Away Patents Would Be “Cutting Off the Hopes of Ingenious Men”

(p. 208) For Watt, the theft (as he saw it) of his work was a deeply personal violation. In (p. 209) 1790, just before realizing the extent of what he perceived as Hornblower’s theft of his own work he wrote,

if patentees are to be regarded by the public, as . . . monopolists, and their patents considered as nuisances & encroachments on the natural liberties of his Majesty’s other subjects, wou’d it not be just to make a law at once, taking away the power of granting patents for new inventions & by cutting off’ the hopes of ingenious men oblige them either to go on in the way of their fathers & not spend their time which would be devoted to the encrease [sic] of their own fortunes in making improvements for an ungrateful public, or else to emigrate to some other Country that will afford to their inventions the protections they may merit?

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: italics and ellipsis in original.)

Longfellow Created a “Hero Whose Bravery Can Inspire”

(p. C13) When it comes to the galloping meter of a narrative poem with a message, Longfellow has no equal.

Unfortunately, this poetic tradition has fallen on hard times. Academics have come to prefer different forms–mainly lyrical verse on personal topics more suited to the tastes of intellectuals than the masses. In recent years, many of Longfellow’s works have fallen out of literary anthologies. The reputations of his contemporaries Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman have eclipsed his own.
In his day, however, Longfellow was America’s most widely read poet–and his most widely read poem was interpreted as both a warning cry and a call to action on the eve of the Civil War. Yet Longfellow achieved a larger purpose, creating a national hero whose bravery can inspire his fellow citizens down the generations: “For, borne on the night wind of the past / Through all our history, to the last / In the hour of darkness and peril and need / The people will waken and listen to hear / The hurrying hoofbeats of that steed / And the midnight message of Paul Revere.”

For the full review, see:
JOHN J. MILLER. “MASTERPIECE; Spotty History, Maybe, but Great Literature.” The New York Times Book Review (Sat., December 18, 2010): C13.

“A Nation’s Heroes Reveal Its Ideals”

(p. 133) Robert and John Hart were two Glasgow engineers and merchants who regarded James Watt with the sort of awe usually reserved for pop musicians, film stars, or star athletes. Or even more: They regarded him as “the greatest and most useful man who ever lived.” . . .
. . .
(p. 134) . . . the hero worship of the brothers Hart is more enlightening about the explosion of inventive activity that started in eighteenth-century Britain than their reminiscences. For virtually all of human history, statues had been built to honor kings, solders, and religious figures; the Harts lived in the first era that built them to honor builders and inventors. James Watt was an inventor inspired in every way possible, right down to the neurons in his Scottish skull; but he was also, and just as significantly, the inspiration for thousands of other inventors, during his lifetime and beyond. The inscription on the statue of Watt that stood in Westminster Abbey from 1825 until it was moved in 1960 reminded visitors that it was made “Not to perpetuate a name which must endure while the peaceful arts flourish, but to shew that mankind have learned to know those who best deserve their gratitude” (emphasis added).
A nation’s heroes reveal its ideals, and the Watt memorial carries an impressive weight of symbolism. However, it must be said that the statue, sculpted by Sir Francis Chantrey in marble, might bear that weight more appropriately if it had been made out of the trademark material of the Industrial Revolution: iron.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

A Late Bronze Age “Cornucopian Example of Multiculturism”

BronzeAgeContainer2010-12-20.jpg“Influences from Egypt and Mediterranean Asia appear to merge in this container, from around 1390 to 1352 B.C.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The cultural flowering (see above and below) brought about by Late Bronze Age Mediterranean trade, is highly compatible with arguments made in Tyler Cowen’s Creative Destruction, which argues that capitalism promotes the important kind of diversity that within cultures increases creativity and options for individual choice.
It would be interesting and useful to know more about the causes and effects of the dark age mentioned below–the one that started around 1200 BC. An earlier entry mentioned archeological evidence of a small family group near Katilimata on Crete who attempted to hunker down to defend themselves and their property from the invaders from the sea mentioned below.
Sometimes the Phoenicians are given credit for the trade, and Paul Johnson in his recent Heroes book (p. 4), identifies the evil invaders who killed the trade as being the Philistines.

(p. C28) For a truly cornucopian example of multiculturalism, though, nothing matches the contents of the Late Bronze Age merchant ship recovered from the sea off the southern coast of Turkey. Discovered by a sponge diver in 1984 and considered the oldest surviving example of a seagoing ship, it probably sank around 1300 B.C., packed with cargo representing a dozen cultures, from Nubia to the Balkans.

Although the ship’s home port is unknown, it appears to have traveled a circular route through the Mediterranean and Aegean, stopping in Greece, Crete, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, picking up and unloading as it went. Bulk materials included copper ingots, Cypriot pottery, African wood and Near Eastern textiles, all for waiting markets.
Divers also found luxury items, possibly personal possessions of the ship’s crew and passengers. Examples of ivory containers in the form of ducks have parallels with Egyptian prototypes, but were probably made in Mediterranean Asia. The two sources merge in a figure found in a tomb: a nude female swimmer with a chic, Nile-style pageboy who is hitching a ride behind an ivory-headed bird.
More precious and enigmatic is a standing bronze figure of a woman, probably a goddess, her head and face still covered with the sheet gold that may once have encased her whole body in a radiant epidermis. The exhibition catalog suggests that she might be a talismanic charm intended to protect the ship from harm.
Harm came anyway, as it did to much of the Mediterranean world, around 1200 B.C. with the arrival of mysterious, sea-based invaders, who conquered most of the great maritime cities, interrupting trade and easy cultural exchange, and bringing on a dark age, a depression. The depression — or was it severe recession? — didn’t last forever. The passion for acquisition, exchange and accumulation survived it, as it always does.
This passion is, of course, our own. It is one reason that we can, if we try, identify with the diverse people who, thousands of years ago, made the objects in this show. The globalist, all-in-it-together world model they invented is another reason. Their dark age could be one too.

For the full review, see:
HOLLAND COTTER. “Art Review; ‘Beyond Babylon’; Global Exchange, Early Version.” The New York Times (Fri., November 21, 2008): C23 & C28.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 20, 2008.)

The Cowen book mentioned in my initial comments, is:
Cowen, Tyler. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

The Paul Johnson book mentioned in my initial comments, is:
Johnson, Paul M. Heroes. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Chinese Centralized Autocracy Prevents Sustained Innovation

Zheng He’s voyages of exploration were mentioned in a previous blog entry.

(p. C12) The real problem with contemporary China’s version of the Zheng He story is that it omits the ending. In the century after Zheng’s death in 1433, emperors cut back on shipbuilding and exploration. When private merchants replaced the old tribute trade, the central authorities banned those ships as well. Building a ship with more than two masts became a crime punishable by death. Going to sea in a multimasted ship, even to trade, was also forbidden. Zheng’s logs were hidden or destroyed, lest they encourage future expeditions. To the Confucians who controlled the court, writes Ms. Levathes, “a desire for contact with the outside world meant that China itself needed something from abroad and was therefore not strong and self-sufficient.”

Today’s globalized China has apparently abandoned that insular ideology. But it still clings to the centralized autocracy that could produce Zheng’s voyages in one generation only to destroy the technology and ambition they embodied in the next. It still officially celebrates “harmony” against the unruliness and competition that create sustained innovation. Its past would be more usable if it offered models of diversity and dissent or, at the very least, sanctuary from the all-or-nothing decisions of absolutist rule.

For the full commentary, see:
VIRGINIA POSTREL. “COMMERCE & CULTURE; Recovering China’s Past on Kenya’s Coast.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., DECEMBER 4, 2010): C12.

Financial Gain an Important Motive for Invention

(p. 121) In 1930, Joseph Rossman, who had served for decades as an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office, polled more than seven hundred patentees. producing a remarkable picture of the mind of the inventor. Some of the results were predictable; the three biggest motivators were “love of inventing,” “desire to improve.” and “financial gain,” the ranking for each of which was statistically identical. and each at least twice as important as those appearing (p. 122) down the list, such as “desire to achieve,” “prestige,” or “altruism” (and certainly not the old saw, “laziness,” which was named roughly one-thirtieth as frequently as “financial gain”). A century after Rocket, the world of technology had changed immensely: electric power, automobiles, telephones. But the motivations of individual inventors were indistinguishable from those inaugurated by the Industrial Revolution.
. . .
In the same vein, Rossman’s survey revealed that the greatest obstacle perceived by his patentee universe was not lack of knowledge, legal difficulties, lack of time, or even prejudice against the innovation under consideration. Overwhelmingly, the largest obstacle faced by early twentieth-century inventors (and, almost certainly, their ancestors in the eighteenth century) was “lack of capital.” Inventors need investors.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

“The Most Important Invention of the Industrial Revolution Was Invention Itself”

(p. 103) Alfred North Whitehead famously wrote that the most important invention of the Industrial Revolution was invention itself.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.