Arnold Toynbee’s Lectures, published in 1884, set forth the thesis that a British Industrial Revolution occurred in 1776. The academic world has often accepted this date, plus or minus ten or so years, with few reservations concerning the premises that support Toynbee’s concept. Underlying much of what Toynbee writes about James Watt and his steam engine lays a sophisticated argument concerning a technical development that has kept most mechanical engineers and scholars of the history of technology at bay since further analysis requires research into the musical history and science and the literary history of ancient manuscripts.
To paraphrase Toynbee’s argument:
1) Steam power brought on the Industrial Revolution, i.e. the ability of machinery to convert heat energy to mechanical energy efficiently using an apparatus known as a steam engine, qua prime mover, which consists of a boiler, various valves and connecting rods, a steam chamber, and separate condenser.
2) The Industrial Revolution, according to this concept, could not have taken place until someone invented these steam engine components ready for assembly.
3) The separate condenser was the last, and most critical, element invented; therefore, the time of its invention and implementation with the other sub-assemblies of the steam engine determined the onset date of the Industrial Revolution.
4) James Watt set the date of the first steam engine incorporating a separate condenser in 1776.
5) Because the development of the separate condenser occurred less than twelve years after Watt first envisioned the separate condenser idea, which was in 1765, it was fair to conclude that the process took place suddenly as a radical or revolutionary innovation. Watt’s vacuum or atmospheric type steam engine represented a radical shift in the capability of industrial machinery to perform work more efficiently. The virtually simultaneous economic expansion, which took place after 1776, led Toynbee to conclude that indeed an Industrial Revolution resulted from this sequence of events, Watt’s invention, and rapid economic development.
There is a thread of logic binding Arnold Toynbee’s entire thesis for his concept of an Industrial Revolution together with prior scientific experimentation and the parallel development of economic expansion in the late 18th century. Toynbee’s theory, as summarized above, provides a crisp and succinct answer to one of the most complex sets of events within the human experience: man’s ability to create a substitute for human and animal energy through the harnessing of heat energy through his technology. However, Toynbee narrowly defines his concept to events taking place in Scotland and England, largely, if not exclusively, ignoring significant, related steam mechanic predecessors going back to Antiquity.
By combining and commingling the history of both the direct-pressure and vacuum pump types of steam machinery, Toynbee, and his interpreters developed a hybrid theory of steam power development. This theory, historians of technology assimilated rapidly, perhaps, applying “Occam’s Razor” because of its simplicity; they apparently did not examine it with extensive research to validate how the complex industrial developments on the European continent could further verify or refute its claims. Formative industrial events recorded before 1714 and after the ascendancy of King George I (1660-1727) to the throne of England from Hanover conflict with Toynbee’s analysis.
The central thesis of this book is the argument that the Industrial Revolution started earlier than the 1780s and required predating back to 1714. The removal of the artificial chronological constraint from 1604 to 1654 counter-intuitively allows for a longer period of pre-industrialized technological and economic development to take place. With the distorted vacuum arguments put aside, the history of the Hydraulis allows for the precursors of the steam engine to return to their rightful chronological position in the history of technology. The fellows of the Nuremberg Academy witnessed the steam engine’s evolution between 1682 and 1730. By discounting earlier vacuum experiments, but including Papin and Leupold’s direct-pressure steam engine designs in the longitudinal sequence leading up to the Industrial Revolution, they discovered an alternative view for the understanding of the steam engine’s mechanical evolution.
The Lost Industrial Revolution and its Renaissance
Arnold Toynbee’s role in coining the phrase, “The Industrial Revolution”
Does history now, or ever before, support Toynbee’s assessment of an Industrial Revolution? Can a better-documented analysis provide a superior claim for it rather being the result of a longer series of evolving technical, economic, cultural and political transformations and intertwining events that shifted the center of overall human activities from an agricultural to a predominately, industrial base in the West?
In labeling this transformation, as Toynbee did in naming it “The” Industrial Revolution, do not historians of technology now need to reassess that conclusion within a wider spectrum of evolutionary changes taking place in the 17th and 18th centuries? Not taking up the challenge to review and suggest modifications to Toynbee’s thesis, by demonstrating that contra underlying arguments, as expressed in the outline above, that subjecting Toynbee’s nomenclature would allow it to remain an open issue subject to eventual logical refutation.
Historians should consider arguing that Denis Papin’s historical precedent of the first direct-pressure steam engine of 1707 and later Oliver Evans’ U.S. patent application in 1786 technically made obsolete the often cited, historical significance of James Watt’s separate condenser innovation. These two physically superior systems render redundant Watt’s vacuum or atmospherically functioning steam engine through their achievement of superior functioning, direct-pressure steam systems.
Papin’s and Evans’ technology called for the application of direct, expanding steam into the power cylinder chamber, to move its internal piston in an upward or outward direction from the part of the cylinder from the source of the steam. However, the basic structural designs of such an engine preceded their achievements by two millennia.
That the commonly termed “Industrial Revolution” bears that name is due to the misperception of its short time for development. To demonstrate, we will delve back into the history of technology to explain our revisionist claim. The popular understanding of the Industrial Revolution relates to James Watt’s vacuum steam engines innovations used as the basis for the beginning of this period. However, its origins date back considerably further in time. We will provide a different account of its origins that takes us to the 3rd-century B.C. when Ctesibius of Alexandria invented the Hydraulis and conducted siphon experiments that advanced steam mechanics further with a broad array of devices created by Hero of Alexandria (10-70 A.D.) .
The steam engine’s origin predates even the days of the Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, (63 B.C.–14 A.D.) His chief engineer and architect, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (1st century B.C.) wrote: “De architectura” also known as “The Ten Books of Architecture” that he dedicated to Augustus Caesar (Exhibit 3) providing a complete summary of Greek and Roman architectural and mechanical achievements for surviving from Antiquity.
Exhibit 3: Image of Vitruvius presenting "D’architectura" to Augustus Caesar
Hero’s Pneumatica carried much of his text down from Philo of Byzantium (Philōn ho Byzantios or Φίλων ὁ Βυζάντιος ca. 280 BC – ca. 220 BC). In a like manner as Philo before him, he repeated much of what Ctesibius had written in his “Hypomenemata” and “Memorabilia” and possibly other of his writings that are no longer extant.
Ctesibius (Ktesibios or Κτησίβιος) invented the Hydraulis and was a leading member, if not the director, of the Engineering School of Alexandria during the time of Ptolemaîos Philádelphos (Πτολεμαῖος Φιλάδελφος, 309–246 B.C., who reigned from 283 to 246 B.C.).
The Hydraulis embodied and reified the technical realization of the Pythagorean theory of “the harmony of numbers” and his experimentation with the vibrating frequencies of stringed instruments. Compressors, reciprocating piston pumps, check valves, instrument keyboards, organ pipes, and cylinder engines have evolved from his designs of the Hydraulis and pneumatic and hydraulic pumps.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Roman architect and engineer (1st century B.C., Exhibit 4) preserved Ctesibius’ Hydraulis design through its partially detailed description in his “De architectura.” Hero’s description and graphics found in his “Pneumatica” supported continued construction of the instrument in the Byzantine Empire.
Exhibit 5: Ctesibius and his family likely sailed from the Antikyra to Alexandria
Thus, Ctesibius’ family immigrated early in his life to Alexandria. (Exhibit 5) This move from a small Greek town or village to the city founded and named after Alexander the Great provided the young Ctesibius with the potential to explore the most advanced scientific and technological environment available at the heart of the Ancient World. Archimedes, who was born and died in Syracuse, did not have this opportunity at the place and time of his birth. Ctesibius was able to find artisans to fabricate devices that were unrivaled until the beginning of the 16th century. Although historians know that Archimedes studied in Alexandria, it would likely require at least a week by sea and almost two months by land after crossing by ferry from Syracuse to Carthage and proceeding the rest of the distance on land (Exhibit 6).
Exhibit 6: Archimedes' Land route to Alexandria
Therefore, Ctesibius should remain high on the list of ancient Greek inventors, along with Archimedes and Posidonios, capable of having designed and supervised the fabrication of the Antikythera Mechanism that archaeologists still have not firmly established. No one speaks higher of Ctesibius’ importance in the history of science and technology than Thomas W. Eubanks:
Ctesibius of Alexandria [was] one of the most eminent mathematicians and mechanicians of antiquity—one, whose claims upon our esteem, are not surpassed by those of any other individual, ancient or modern.
The simple, the trivial sound produced by the descent of the weight in his father’s [barber] shop, was to him, what the fall of the apple was to Newton, and the vibration of the lamp or chandelier in the church at Pisa, to Galileo, and may add their names to those of Ctesibius and Franklin.
British authorities might have suspected that steam power could have potential military applications, since few understood the limits of steam pressure at that time, and therefore possibly taken it as a potential military threat and kept under wraps until they better understood the extent of the exponentially expanding character of steam power.
The secret power of Archimedes’ Steam Canon alone could justifiably be one reason for their concern, not unlike the fear of nuclear proliferation by scientists privy to the knowledge of the Manhattan Project for being capable of building another atomic bomb for the Soviet Union.
M.I.T., after years of speculation, tested the potential power of the Leonardo’s Steam Canon that he had erroneously attributed to Archimedes. They discovered that “High-speed camera footage showed that the muzzle velocity was over 300 m/s (1078 kmh or 670 mph)! Historians cannot say that if Archimedes did it, but this small-scale test illustrates a simple, powerful steam cannon could probably have been made using the technology of his era.” Modern aircraft carriers use the same steam principle found in Archimedes’ Steam Canon to launch aircraft swiftly from their decks. ×