Third in a #ReadWithMe series.*


“For all of human history until the 1820s, nobody went faster than the speed of a galloping horse”. I cannot think of another consideration equally telling, of the tremendous progress we made in a rather short time. The main engine, pardon the pun, of such progress was the locomotive. “The man who did most to make the breakthrough in speed” as a craftsman of humble origin, George Stephenson:

“The year is 1810 and a new coal mine has been sunk at Killingworth in Northumberland, with a brand-new Newcomen engine installed to pump out the water. But it does not work, and for a whole year the pit remains drowned, despite the best efforts of engine-men from all around … the humble brakesman in charge of the winding gear at a neighboring pit, 29-years-old George Stephenson, who has a reputation for being able to mend clocks and shoes, offers to help. His only condition is that he will pick his own workmen to help him. Four days later, having dismantled the engine, reshaped the injection cap and shortened the cylinder, he has the engine working well, and the pit is soon dry. Stephen gets the job of engineman and is soon much called upon as an engine doctor all over the district”.


Using a steam engine to pull wagons was not a new idea, but it was made more interesting by the war, as “the Napoleonic conflict created an insatiable demand for horses and for hay to feed them, driving up the price of both”.

In 1814, Stephenson “built a two-cylinder locomotion at Killingworth” which “proved capable of hauling fourteen wagons carrying 2 tons of coal each at 3 miles an hour [this is _not_ a typo], doing the work of fifteen horses”.

In a few years, in 1822, Stephenson will be busy in the building of the Stockton to Darlington railway. Fast forward to 1832, he will be inaugurating the Liverpool-Manchester one.


In his book, How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley makes a splendid use of these stories, which may remind us of the work of Samuel Smiles. In describing Stephenson’s “moving up” from workman to “engineer” (“he was no less a worker, but only in a different way”), Smiles noted that he had “now many more opportunities for improving himself in mechanics than he had hitherto possessed. His familiar acquaintance with the steam-engine proved of great value to him. The practical study which he had given to it when a workman, and the patient manner in which he had groped his way through all the details of the machine, gave him the power of a master in dealing with it as applied to colliery purposes”.


The 19th century was the era of the inventor, geniuses of unlikely backgrounds who through tinkering accomplished magnificent innovations. In a sense, the steam train is the quintessential example of “ideas having sex”, to use a favorite catchphrase of Ridley’s. The steam engine mated with wagons and rail tracks. This happened not because of grand designs, but of very practical needs: how to save on horses. It happened not because of grandiose theorists, but of very practical men, such as Stephenson.


Here’s a point many tend not to get about innovation: needs are a big part of it. It is not necessarily about grandiose research programs pursued for the sake of mere knowledge (though pursuing knowledge qua knowledge is a great source of meaning and happiness to scholars who write on this subject). More often than not, it comes out of very precise, “local”, needs. Adam Smith observed long ago that “a great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the inventions of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it”. That is not necessarily true today, but when it comes to the beginning of the industrial age, I think Ridley would agree with Smith that common workmen played a central role.



*Read Part 1 here.

*Read Part 2 here.