The Roots of Progress

What I've been reading, March 2023

A new monthly feature, let me know what you think.


Matt Ridley, How Innovation Works (2020). About halfway through, lots of interesting case studies, very readable.

Vaclav Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century (2005). I read the first chapter; saving the rest of it for when I get to drafting the relevant chapters of my own book. Smil argues that the period roughly 1870–1914 was “the time when the modern world was created,” completely unrivaled by anything since: “those commonly held perceptions of accelerating innovation are ahistorical, myopic perspectives proffered by the zealots of electronic faith, by the true believers in artificial intelligence, e-life forms, and spiritual machines.” The four big themes at the core of the book—electricity, internal combustion, materials, and communication/information—are the ones that I have identified, except that I also include the germ theory, which Smil does not mention (and which is often neglected in industrial history).

Ananyo Bhattacharya, The Man from the Future (2022), a biography of John von Neumann. Lots of interesting stories, not only about JvN, but about the Manhattan Project, ENIAC, etc.

(These aren’t in my bibliography yet because it is hopelessly out of date, sorry.)

Early locomotives

Trial of locomotive carriages”, 10 Oct 1829, a contemporary newspaper account of the Rainhill trials, where practical passenger locomotives were first demonstrated to the public and where their potential was proven beyond doubt. (Incidentally, I love that this article is now just a part of The Guardian’s website):

Never, perhaps, on any previous occasion, were so many scientific gentlemen and practical engineers collected together on one spot as there were on the rail-road to witness this trial. The interesting and important nature of the experiments had drawn them from all parts of the kingdom to be present at this context of locomotive carriages, as well as to witness an exhibition, whose results may alter the whole system of our existing internal communications [i.e., transportation], many and important as they are, substituting an agency, whose ultimate effects can scarcely be anticipated…

Report to the Directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, on the Comparative Merits of Locomotive and Fixed Engines, as a Moving Power; Observations on the Comparative Merits of Locomotives and Fixed Engines, as Applied to Railways; An Account of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (1831)—three documents compiled into a book:

The trial of these Engines, indeed, may be regarded as constituting a new epoch in the progress of mechanical science, as relating to locomotion. The most sanguine advocates of travelling Engines had not anticipated a speed of more than ten to twelve miles per hour. It was altogether a new spectacle, to behold a carriage crowded with company, attached to a self-moving machine, and whirled along at the speed of thirty miles per hour.

And on the impact of railroads:

The traveller will live double times: by accomplishing a prescribed distance in five hours, which used to require ten, he will have the other five at his own disposal…. From west to east, and from north to south, the mechanical principle, the philosophy of the nineteenth century, will spread and extend itself. The world has received a new impulse.

An article in The Quarterly Review, Vol. 31, 1824–25, about the prospects of railroads. It was skeptical:

As to those persons who speculate on making rail-ways general throughout the kingdom, and superseding all the canals, all the waggons, mail and stage-coaches, post-chaises, and, in short, every other mode of conveyance by land and by water, we deem them and their visionary schemes unworthy of notice.

It called “palpably absurd and ridiculous” a proposal for a London–Woolwich line which claimed that locomotives could travel twice as fast as stage-coaches with greater safety, adding:

we should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s ricochet rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine, going at such a rate… We trust, however, that Parliament will, in all the rail-roads it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured upon with safety.

Other sources:

Pre-industrial machines and automation

Georg Böckler, Theatrum Machinarum Novum (1661). Many fascinating diagrams, such as this fulling mill:


Robert Boyle, “That the Goods of Mankind May Be Much Increased by the Naturalist’s Insight into Trades” (1671). Even at this early date it was possible to see the potential for automation (spelling and punctuation modernized):

[M]any things that are wont to be done by the labor of the hand may with far more ease and expedition… be performed by engines…. [O]ur observations make us bold to think that many more of those that are wont to require laborious or skillful application of the hands may be effected than either shopmen or book men seem to have imagined…. [W]hen we see that timber is sawed by windmills and files cut by slight instruments, and even silk stockings woven by an engine… we may be tempted to ask what handiwork it is that mechanical contrivances may not enable men to perform by engines.

Derek J. de Solla Price, “On the Origin of Clockwork, Perpetual Motion Devices, and the Compass” (1959). Argues that the mechanical clock did not evolve as an improvement on previous time-telling methods such as sundials and water clocks, but rather devovled from much more elaborate astronomical devices:

… I have suggested elsewhere that the clock is “nought but a fallen angel from the world of astronomy.” The first great clocks of medieval Europe were designed as astronomical showpieces, full of complicated gearing and dials to show the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets, to exhibit eclipses, and to carry through the involved computations of the ecclesiastical calendar. As such they were comparable to the orreries of the 18th century and to modern planetariums; that they also showed the time and rang it on bells was almost incidental to their main function.

Abbott Usher, A History of Mechanical Inventions (1954). Have only read bits and pieces so far.

Samuel Smiles

Henry Petroski, “Lives of the Engineers” (2004), a review in American Scientist. (Petroski is known for To Engineer is Human among other books.)

Smiles’s Lives had an enormous influence on the enduring image of the heroic engineer, and the engineers that he chose to profile as exemplars became the engineers who to this day stand out among all contemporaneous British engineers….

There has not yet arisen an American Smiles.

Courtney Salvey, “Tools and the Man”: Samuel Smiles, Lives of the Engineers, and the Machine in Victorian Literature (2009), a PhD thesis:

Who read the Lives of the Engineers series? How did that reading affect the portrayal of engineers in literary texts? … Before 1857 engineers were absent from biography, as Smiles noticed, but they were also absent from novels…. After the publication of the Life of George Stephenson, representations of engineers in fiction shift: they appear more prominently in texts that are not explicitly industrial and that have wider ideological relevance, implying the cultural redirection by Smile‘s industrial biographies.

Monument to Mr. Watt” (1824), a news article in The Chemist magazine:

Mr. Watt was not a warrior, over whose victories a nation may mourn, doubtful whether they have added to its security, and certain they have diminished enjoyment and abridged freedom. His were the conquests of mind over matter; they cost no tears, shed no blood, desolated no lands, made no widows nor orphans, but merely multiplied conveniences, abridged our toils, and added to our comforts and our power.

Edsger Dijkstra, “The Threats to Computing Science” (1984), source of the title for my essay on LLMs:

The Fathers of the field had been pretty confusing: John von Neumann speculated about computers and the human brain in analogies sufficiently wild to be worthy of a medieval thinker and Alan M. Turing thought about criteria to settle the question of whether Machines Can Think, a question of which we now know that it is about as relevant as the question of whether Submarines Can Swim.

Edgar Allen Poe, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” (1836). Hat-tip to Eliezer Yudkowsky. Argues (correctly) that the “mechanical Turk” must be a hoax, run by a midget—by arguing (incorrectly) that no machine could ever play chess:

Arithmetical or algebraical calculations are, from their very nature, fixed and determinate. Certain data being given, certain results necessarily and inevitably follow. These results have dependence upon nothing, and are influenced by nothing but the data originally given. And the question to be solved proceeds, or should proceed, to its final determination, by a succession of unerring steps liable to no change, and subject to no modification. … But the case is widely different with the Chess-Player. With him there is no determinate progression. No one move in chess necessarily follows upon any one other. From no particular disposition of the men at one period of a game can we predicate their disposition at a different period. … A few moves having been made, no step is certain. Different spectators of the game would advise different moves. All is then dependent upon the variable judgment of the players.

Samuel Butler, “Darwin Among the Machines” (1863). Hat-tip to Robert Long:

We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race….

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

Thanks to Lea Degen for research assistance finding several of the above sources.

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

Get posts by email:

Become a patron

Get posts by email