Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rebuilding the Past (Yet Again)

I came across a little tidbit in a book I am reading that sent me off, once again, in search of another lost technology story.  The book, The Company, A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, was written by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge of The Economist magazine.  I was re-reading the book because of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing corporate contributions to political campaigns under the argument that corporations are people and campaign money is the same as free speech.  Anyway...the authors were talking about how early companies protected their competitive space either through government charters or patents.  The example the authors used was the English steam engine firm of Boulton and Watt which bullied Parliament into granting them a broad patent on James Watt's steam engine.

A brilliant young Scottish engineer, William Murdoch (image at right), worked for Boulton and Watt and invented the first steam-powered "road locomotive" in 1784 (drawing at top of page).  He even built working models of his invention and showed them to a number of people in his Cornwall community.  This was 45 years before the first successful railroad was operational in England.  Murdoch was way ahead of his time.  To protect his idea, Murdoch decided to go to London to obtain a patent.  On the road there, who should he meet but his boss, Matthew Boulton, returning from a trip to London.  Boulton talked Murdoch out of the idea of patenting his road locomotive.  As reported in Wikipedia, Boulton later wrote to a friend about the encounter with Murdoch:

He said He was going to London to get Men but I soon found he was going there with his Steam Carg to shew it & to take out a patent. He having been told by Mr W. Wilkn what Sadler had said & he had likewise read in the news paper Simmingtons puff which had rekindled all Wms fire & impations to make Steam Carriages. However, I prevailed upon him readily to return to Cornwall by the next days diligence & he accordingly arivd here this day at noon, since which he hath unpacked his Carg & made Travil a Mile or two in Rivers's great room in a Circle making it carry the fire Shovel, poker & tongs.

Murdoch returned home to Cornwall and put away his ideas for the steam carriage.  But Murdoch was a born inventor and went on to dream up many other useful inventions including gas lighting from coal gasification. (No patent here, either.)

So that's the backstory.  Now for what really caught my attention.  People (make that mostly men) seem to have a deep desire to show that old inventions really could have worked.  People like to rebuild old cars, old locomotives, old clocks, old (your entry here) to bring them back to life.  Well,  you guessed it, so did a group of men with Murdoch's steam carriage.  They first built a non-operational, full-sized model...and then they got carried away.  They built small steam-powered models and then decided in 2002 to take on building a full-scale, working road locomotive.  Four years later, they had completed the task.  You can see a video of their road locomotive chuffing around a parking lot here.  William Murdoch would have been proud.

Some people seem to remain much more linked to past technology than the rest of us.  They can't seem to resist the pull of finding out if something that has vanished years or centuries ago can be made to work once again.  The same curiosity that motivated Murdoch's admirers resulted in the modern reconstruction of the two-millenia old Antikythera Mechanism (see my posts here and here).  Much the same process motivates a lot of archaeology.  Deep down, we want these old machines and devices to work.  We want to be pleased and surprised like young children who crank the Jack-in-the-Box over and over again.  The child knows the puppet will pop out but there is always a joy in the moment of surprise when it happens.  So often, we come to take our current technology for granted or we complain loudly when it doesn't work.  But the old machines are our adult Jack-in-the-Boxes.   We love the surprise when they work once again.

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