Liberal Arts Blog — The Industrial Revolution Is Mis-Named and So Is Its Successor

Liberal Arts Blog — Wednesday is the Joy of Science, Engineering, and Technology Day

Today’s Topic: The Physics of History: The Industrial Revolution Is Mis-Named and So Is Its Successor

The Industrial Revolution happened between 1700 and 1850 in England, right? It was all about iron, coal, machines, and the division of labor, right? To me, all of these have been around for a long, long time before. What was really new was the harnessing of steam. And how was that accomplished? It’s all about the manipulation of temperature to create pressure differentials that nature closes generating power. And the next age? Cars? Oil? No, it’s all about harnessing electrons and electromagnetic waves. The Steam Age was followed by the Electrical Age — the age of the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, the generator, the motor, the computer. Physics deserves much more respect in history courses than it gets. Only one problem — as John Von Neumann said about mathematics, “You never understand it, You just get used to it.” Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.


1. Meteorology in a nutshell: temperature differences drive pressure differences and pressure differences drive winds. On a macro level, think the trade winds: because of the angle of the earth’s tilt, the earth is heated unevenly. This temperature difference creates a pressure differential which drives planetary level winds. On a micro level, the sea breeze is driven by the difference between the temperature of land and sea.

2. In 1698, Thomas Savery (1650–1715) figured out how to create a vacuum to lift water out of a mine by first generating steam, then cooling it. This is the key — manipulating temperature to create pressure differentials.

3. Savery’s version was not practical. Thomas Newcomen (1664–1729) came up with a steam engine that actually worked. James Watt improved upon it — with a governor, a flywheel, and a condenser. Watt was fortunate to have a colleague named Bolton who managed to get him a monopoly between 1775 and 1800 by a special act of Parliament.

THE ELECTRICAL REVOLUTION: from the telegraph to the telephone to the radio

1. The telegraph gets short shrift in history books. It was the real beginning of the electrical age. Volta, Ampere, Gauss, among others, contributed to the early work on telegraphy, but it is the American Samuel FB Morse who came up with the Morse Code. He is pictured above sending the message “What God Hath Wrought” in 1844.

2. The telephone was an analogue miracle for which Alexander Graham Bell, a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University and an expert on teaching the deaf to speak, got the patent in 1876. His first message to his assistant: “Come here, Watson, I want to see you.” Why did he want to see Watson? He had spilled battery acid on his pants.

3. The radio took the whole electron manipulation thing to another level. Wires are tangible, palpable, relatable. Radio waves — not so much. Marconi gets the credit. But he didn’t send voice messages. That was a guy named Fessenden. The first transatlantic telegraph message was the Morse Code for the letter “s” (1902). But on Christmas Eve, 1906, Fessenden broadcast himself reading from the Gospel of Luke and playing a phonograph recording of a Handel aria.

NB: The phonograph is ridiculous. Grooves and ridges on vinyl storing the sounds of a symphony? Yeah, right. Whatever. History books should teach the cool stuff. The miracles.

ELECTRICAL GENERATORS AND MOTORS: Two sides of the same coin

1. Michael Faraday built the first electric generator in 1831. (Above)

2. By the end of the century, the Sears Roebuck catalog was selling headache-relieving electro-mechanical devices with a hand crank that generated electric current that passed through electrodes that you placed on either side of your head to get relief.

3. Generator: a spinning magnet generates electric current. Motor: current traveling in a curved path causes a magnet to spin generating rotary motion. The motor is the simple machine of the electrical age. Your house is full of them.

NB: More appreciation for the physics, more gratitude. More gratitude, better world.

Source: W. Bernard Carlson, Understanding the Inventions That Changed the World


Please share the coolest thing you learned this week related to science, engineering, or technology. Or, even better, the coolest or most important thing you learned in your life related to science and engineering. This is your chance to make someone else’s day. Or to cement in your mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply about something dear to your heart.

Continuity is key to depth of thought.

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, and art.