On the industrial revolution

Thomas Barlow in The Australian

The industrial revolution replaced wind power with coal power, it led to a dramatic increase in energy consumption and it enabled industry to produce manufactured goods at massively higher volumes and at drastically lower prices than was previously the case.

Contrast this with the outcomes from Australia’s proposed clean energy future. Our little revolution here seeks to replace coal power with wind power, its overt intention is to decrease energy consumption and it can only increase the cost of manufactured goods. The debate today is entirely about who should pay for it.

There is another important difference too. The industrial revolution was a commercial phenomenon. Practical people in private employment made the great inventions of the 18th and 19th centuries, and their ideas were implemented by businessmen who realised the potential for providing human wants on a mass scale.

By comparison, Australia’s new clean energy future is a political phenomenon. The transformation promoted in the government’s advertisements is entirely a creation of policy-makers and intellectuals: in other words, of impractical people for the most part working in pubic employment.

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11 Responses to On the industrial revolution

  1. Viva

    …the reciprocal readiness of scientists to blur the distinction between fact and assertion, their willingness to equate computer models with empirical data and their propensity to confuse present technological realities with future possibilities that got us into this mess in relation to climate change policy


    Nicely sums up the rebuttal to arguments that opponents of the current AGW/renewable push “deny the science”.

  2. Rafe

    Thomas Barlow is great value, he wrote an excellent book on innovation in Australia, he has a fine track record and is working in the private sector. It appears that he recently did a review of the state of play in research in the universities. Will attempt to obtain and report back.

  3. TerjeP

    The carbon tax is a demand side policy. It frames the solution in terms of shifting demand. Something like nuclear innovation would be a supply side solution. We are deep in the territory of the demand side mindset.

  4. Jim Rose

    Jevons was one of three men to simultaneously advance the marginal revolution.

    in 1865 , William Stanley Jevons, in The Coal Question (London: Macmillan and Company) said this of wind power:

    1) windpower is not new

    “When in 1708 windmills were wanted to try and drain certain Scotch coal-mines; John Young, the millwright of Montrose, was found to be the only man in the country who could erect windmills” (p. 75).

    2) windpower is intermittent and unsuitable for modern work

    “The first great requisite of motive power is, that it shall be wholly at our command, to be exerted when, and where, and in what degree we desire. The wind, for instance, as a direct motive power, is wholly inapplicable to a system of machine labour, for during a calm season the whole business of the country would be thrown out of gear” (p. 122).

    “Before the era of steam-engines, windmills were tried for draining mines, ‘but, though they were powerful machines, they were very irregular, so that in a long tract of calm weather the mines were drowned, and all the workmen thrown idle. From this cause, the contingent expenses of these machines were very great; besides, they were only applicable in open and elevated situations’” (p. 123).

    “Civilization … is the economy of power, and consists in withdrawing and using our small fraction of force in a happy mode and moment” (p. 122).

    3) windpower is land constrained

    “No possible concentration of windmills … would supply the force required in large factories or iron works. An ordinary windmill has the power of about thirty-four men, or at most seven horses. Many ordinary factories would therefore require ten windmills to drive them, and the great Dowlais Ironworks, employing a total engine power of 7,308 horses, would require no less than 1,000 large windmills!” (p. 123)

    4) windpower for transportation did not work

    “Richard Lovell Edgeworth spent forty years’ labour in trying to bring wind carriages into use. But no ingenuity could prevent [wind carriages] from being uncertain; and their rapidity with a strong breeze was such, that … ‘they seemed to fly, rather than roll along the ground.’ Such rapidity not under full control must be in the highest degree dangerous” (p. 126).

    “A wind-wagon would undoubtedly be the cheapest kind of conveyance if it would always go the right way. Simon Stevin invented such a carriage, which carried twenty-eight persons, and is said to have gone seven leagues an hour” (p. 125).

    HT: http://www.masterresource.org/2009/01/w-s-jevons-1865-on-windpower-memo-to-obama-part-i/

  5. It’s an enlightening passage but I wouldn’t say the drive for ‘clean energy’ comes entirely from politicians and bureaucrats; many supporters on the left side of politics (some unionists, lobby groups, and also random voters) are agitating for it as well. It’s still a political phenomenon but driven by a larger group than is defined by Barlow.

    In a way it’s an odd form of technological optimism at work here, of a similar sort to that which you get in golden age sf novels where the science of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, extrapolated a couple of hundred years into the future, produces results that are essentially magical. The way Bob Brown, Gillard, and their supporters imagine ‘clean energy’ will work is also, essentially, magical: an energy source that is basically dud works to produce unlimited power supplies for the entire world.

    Ironically golden age sf writers often based their technological hopes on nuclear power, so the comparison only goes so far!

  6. I would have shared the technological optimism with sf writers at one point; I don’t think I do anymore.

  7. TerjeP

    Have I mentioned the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor?

  8. wreckage

    Mmm, delicious thorium.

  9. Michael Sutcliffe

    Have I mentioned the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor?

    Liquid Fluoride Thorium. As Mrs Marsh says, it really does get in!

  10. TerjeP

    🙂 Toothpaste jokes are pretty common on this topic.

    Technically it’s a fluoride salt. Specifically Lithium fluoride (LiF) and beryllium fluoride (BeF2) together in a mixture called “F-Li-Be”. You melt this salt so it’s a bit like lava and then you toss in the nuclear fuel.

    Now this is really hot stuff. Because when you use it as a liquid coolant and fuel carrier in a purpose built reactor you get the following properties:-

    1. Instead of operating at 100+ atmospheres of pressure like the coolant in most conventional reactors it operates at normal atmospheric pressure. No expensive pressure containment required. No risk of high pressure explosions.

    2. If the coolant leaks then instead of flashing to steam and potentially explosive hydrogen and carrying nuclear material far and wide it oozes out and turns solid containing the bad stuff.

    3. As it heats the molten salt expands. As the molten salt expands the nuclear reaction within it slows. This creates a heat source that has an inbuilt physical feedback mechanism that tracks for stability.

    In short they could be much safer, much simpler and much cheaper. On many estimates cheaper even than coal.


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