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Hi, everybody, welcome to Dance Knows History. We're talking about one of the most important technological breakthroughs in the history of the world. On this episode, we're talking to John Darwin. He was a legend at university when I was studying. There's been a professor of global history, of imperial history there for years. And he's written many, many books on Britain and Europe's empires of the 19th and early 20th centuries. His latest book is about Steam Power Remade the world.
And he described to me this podcast, How Steam Power Transformed the world. I mean, harnessing the elemental forces of nature to produce almost unlimited power. Absolute fascinating stuff. And he's very convincing on just how instrumental steam power was in that first great era of globalization. If you want to watch more programs about the British Empire, about Europeana, but not the natural history, frankly, any history get a history TV. It's like Netflix, but it's just history.
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Lots of exciting stuff going on. So enjoy this podcast, all of that steam power.
John, thanks very much, come on the podcast. I was thinking the other day as I was lifting boxes at the extraordinary revolution that steam power was, I mean, can you give me a sense of how it replaced human bones and gristle and muscle with with almost effectively unlimited power?
Well, I suppose because of the way in which you think until steam indeed has to be relied upon, human muscle, animal muscle, we relied upon a wind which could be highly variable. We relied upon currents in rivers and at sea and all those things. Of course, as you say, they could be easily exhausted or fail to deliver when you needed them. Steam provides once you have access to the fuel called improvisors, they are nonstop, really unceasing, untiring source of power and energy.
And that makes an enormous difference not only in industry, but of course, famously in transport, both at sea and overland. So all of a sudden, the kind of limitations imposed by how much manpower you had available to you could be overcome. And that's an extraordinary benefit, especially when you think of settings where manpower will be limited, either by the fact you can't get people there or because of things like disease or hunger or other sorts of limitation on manpower.
So in that sense, it is it is absolutely revolutionary was its geographical nature was quite nucleate in terms of that initial first wave industrialization. Was it was it notable? Was there a sort of little islands of steam activity that then vastly outstripped neighbouring territories?
Oh, yes. I mean, the extraordinary thing about the steam revolution, what I call steam globalisation, is you have an absolutely unprecedented concentration of mechanical power, energy and all the things that go with that in one vanishingly small part of the world, north west Europe, and of course, above all, in Britain. So this is something which you don't see it any previous era in world history. And it remains like that really for a surprisingly long time.
I tried to describe in the book why it's so hard for countries like China or even Turkey, ultimately Ottoman Empire or other places outside the West to really access steam power properly. And it means, yes, the delay in getting steam power to them is probably 40 or 50 years.
What are the barriers to entry for steam power? You mentioned I mean, is it hard to create cylinders? Is it coal or is it energy? Why did Turkey China? Why do they struggle with steam power?
I think the cars were mainly perhaps because although you might say steam power is not a very difficult idea to grasp, it can be difficult to grasp if you have, as the Chinese had, a rather different tradition of understanding and drawing and creating diagrams of how machines work. For some reason, it's very strange they weren't equipped with the kind of technical drawing to understand how the dynamics of the steam engine worked. But I think another, perhaps more serious problem is that setting up a steam engine requires you to have very precise the engineered elements to it, whether it's the boilers or the tubing or particularly the means of delivering steam power to locomotion, it all has to be quite carefully engineered and the number of skilled artisans able to do that is relatively limited.
And it's extraordinarily dominated by artisans from Britain, many of whom, of course, emigrate to America. So it's something which spreads very quickly in America as well. Without that artisan base, it's very hard to maximize your use or to increase your use of steam power very much.
Okay, this is the big one. I'm afraid I'm going to hit you with this now. Why Britain? Why the Northeast? Why Northumbria County Durham? Why do these artisans emerge? And I've heard about as many reasons for this as there are reasons for the fall of the western Roman Empire from accessible coal with the right amount of sulfur near the surface. I mean, why is it this extraordinary little island, unremarkable island? Why did it all happen here?
Well, it's not so unremarkable.
I mean, historians have been struggling with this question of why the north west of Europe was able to achieve higher living standards, greater productivity than other parts of the world. And in many ways, you can see that the diffusion of artisan skills in Britain is actually very widespread right back well before we really encounter steam. So there is quite a wide base of artisan skills to draw upon. And then to you might say, then to mobilise when you have new sorts of machinery.
I mean, just think of the way in which, for example, the skills of running a steam engine and not unrelated to those of managing a large windmill or watermill, a lot of it is rather similar so that they've got a big artisan base. And then, as you say, of course, the other thing is you have literally energy to throw away. Coal is extremely cheap in many parts of England because England has got and Scotland because they had, South Wales because they have such extensive coal fields.
You can explore experiment with the use of coal in a way which in countries which were like China, especially where fuel has become very expensive, you have a kind of fuel economy which minimises or seeks to minimise. The wastage of fuel in Britain, those constraints don't apply. So we've got lots and lots of fuel. You've got the artisans in the right place. You've got things like patent law and a legal system and a bit of venture capital money.
And also you've got you get this cocktail of virtuous adjective. You describe it circle. What is the effect on Britain's geo political clout? Because, of course, what's interesting is Britain's economy globally, hegemonic power on the way to being won without massive application of steam. So what does Steam do for Britain?
Well, I mean, you can say that Britain was a global hegemon. I think that's an exaggeration. Until you get into the 19th century, Britain certainly had a quite extensive colonial holdings, mostly in a new world with very limited extent indeed in the east until the late, very late 18th century. So, yes, there were there was a basis for being a global hegemon in that era. What Stephen does is allows you to maintain your lead over other parts of the world, especially, of course, in the manufacture of of textiles, which is the most widely traded goods in this period, right through the 18th and 19th century.
So that having penetrated some economies in the eastern world, particularly India and China, which were very productive economies, in many ways, you can maintain the industrial lead over them and indeed extend it. Because the remarkable thing is that the gap between economic performance and prosperity between North West Europe and Asia and also including, of course, the United States or parts of the U.S. and Asia and Africa, that gap goes on widening until quite late in the 20th century.
And it's driven in part by the enormous advantage that steam had converted, because it gives you a lot on other things, of course, not just industrial power, but the capacity to penetrate other parts of the world in much more far reaching way, much more quickly and much more cheaply than you have been able to do in the age of wind. And.
So there have been various waves of globalization before. We've had to bring in academics on this podcast talking about the globalization of the 11th century. So why is this wave of globalization? Why did the steam make the world even smaller and more connected? And how is it different?
Well, because steam means that those parts of the world, which lay only a few miles from any usable waterway, could suddenly be connected up to an international trading economy. If you remember that even after a railway arrived, it was calculated that if you were trying to produce something bulky and you were more than 20 miles from a rail railway station, it was virtually pointless to try and produce it because you couldn't make a profit. The cost of getting it to the railway was so great that you would you would no longer make a profit.
Now that apply to close to waterways as well. So prior to steam and prior to the railway, the vast, vast areas of the world were simply lay outside the reach of an international economy of exchange. They are brought into it, although again, there are limitations in the course of the 19th century, particularly in the late 19th century. So that hugely extends, you might say, the reach of global exchange of all kinds, not just commerce, not cost goods, but also many other things that flow around with globalisation.
That's probably the most striking feature. And of course, you have to remember also that once you have steamships able to make numerous voyages in the course of a year, as compared with usually sailing ships or longer journeys, the volume available space available to move goods around also expands enormously as well. So that reduces costs and increases the possibility of exchange of goods and which then can drive. And I say commercial globalization.
You look at these case studies, these great cities that we think of as fulcrum of the modern world, whether it's Shanghai, Mumbai place that you argue other great legacy of this age. Can you tell me a bit more about them?
Well, what these port cities do, I mean, when I spent a lot of time looking at the history of empires and what strikes you after a while, if you stare at a map long enough, is that much of the business of empire is actually passing down a fairly narrow set of corridors, oversee and indeed over land. But certainly in the most important ones, particularly in terms of exchanges between Europe and other parts of the world, those corridors enter continents through port cities.
And what happens in the 19th century is that when you have the combination of steamship and railway, it produces what is actually a quite a small number of great hub cities. These are the places where the railway system meets steamship because these are the places which then are able to invest in large harbors and all the equipment needed for the efficient exchange of goods and efficient management of railway systems. So these cities emerge very rapidly in the course of the 19th century as really enormous cities within a vast range of facilities, vast range of activities, vast range of skills and large populations.
And they're the ones which really are, you might say, the bridgehead between. An expanding international economy and new hinterlands in Asia, Africa, the Americas, which are being brought into that global economy, that's a role. That's their importance. And they are, of course, fascinating, not just because of their commercial role, because they are also a cultural frontier, a cultural and political frontline as well.
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What exactly to talk about culturally and politically, presumably then that sets up.
If you look at, for example, what we would call Rangoon in Myanmar, I mean, you get these places where there are then huge issues around that port, that area of activity and the hinterland. Yeah, yeah.
There are, of course, a lot because the striking feature, almost all these port cities that I look at, I got eight outside Europe, is that the people who are really running their commercial economies and also usually playing the biggest role in politics are not locals, they're outsiders. I mean, even in Shanghai, the merchant elite come from other parts of not that far away, but from other ports in China at Lightning Po or even Canton. And it's certainly very striking in the case of, say, Bombay Day that the commercial elite come they are posse's further up the West Indian coast.
And of course, the European element as well vary greatly in their importance in these different port cities. So that, first of all, creates sort of a natural tension between these more local elites and European outsiders. But then what you find happening in the course of the later 19th century, early 20th century, is that these cities tend also to attract large scale immigration. Rangoon is an obvious example. It becomes really an Indian city, just as Singapore in Malaysia it becomes a Chinese city.
So there's another source, you might say, of potential cultural conflict or tension. But the other element as well is that when they industrialise, that draws in other populations in Bombay is the best example of this. Once Bombay starts to industrialize, it attracts a large scale population from the hinterland of the Decken. And these are people who have very little in common with the policy elite or indeed with the Gujarati Muslims who on the whole, between those two of them have dominated the Indian side of the Bombay's commercial life and cultural life.
So there's a kind of they are cockpit's in which different populations, different social and cultural groups mingle and to some extent, of course, have to work out conflicts of interest and conflicts of ambition.
At the moment, we're living through an era of digital malaise. People are very worried about the Internet, both in terms of the destruction of traditional working practices, the propagation of fake news and the threat to democracy. Do you see Stiehm provoking quite a backlash politically, socially, economically and how quickly they emerge? And dare I ask if any of that is to do with the pollution it gives off that we now know might prove catastrophic to human civilization?
I haven't come across much sign that people were worried about steam pollution, certainly in the cities I've looked at. But yes, of course there is a backlash against steam mechanization and the most brilliant exponent is Gandhi. Gandhi says, in effect, when he produces his great manifesto against British rule in India in the Swaraj, in the very early when the first decade of the 20th century, this is what we are contending with is a kind of what he's really describing, a very inhumane form of mechanical civilisation, which has to be rejected.
Otherwise, you know, in a sense, this is what allows the outsiders, the British, to rule us. Is this inhumane, mechanized civilisation. We've got to get away from it. And of course, what is well known now is that many of these ideas were, in a way, a reworking of ideas written about and expressed by Tolstoy, where, again, you have this reaction against what is seen as an industrial civilisation characterised by caste conflict, by impoverishment, by alienation.
And sort of installation of a plutocratic class, you know, that feeling lack social solidarity. So all those ideas, I think, are certainly around and they spread into, you might say, the regions penetrated by Western commerce and Western empires in the late 19th century. And they fuel reactions of the kind that Gandhi expresses so vividly. And you can see them in China, you can see them in other parts of Asia as well, just harnessing steam, having power, does that confer power?
I'm thinking about internally now coming back to the U.K., do we see a reshaping of the British elite aristocracy? I mean, just in the way that again today technology and the tech, the tech barons are now so prominent, not just in the sort of the economic sphere, but increasingly to politics as well as other areas, just as steam confer great power to individuals within societies.
Well, certainly. I mean, it does create a class of very wealthy industrial entrepreneurs. But I think, again, as has been often quite often pointed out, although these people do come to exercise quite a lot of social power, particularly within great industrial cities, something like Armstrong in Newcastle or some of the great textile manufacturers in parts of West Yorkshire or Lancashire, that if you think about the national stage, on the whole, their role is relatively modest and compared, say, with those who are exerting influence through financial power in London, who tend to have much closer contacts with government and politics and ministers.
Probably to be true to say that industrialists in this great area up to 1930 had rather less power than you might expect if you thought that steam was really going to be really was the great source of British power. The other factor, of course, is that the landed aristocracy is very canny in many ways. Landed aristocracy also enjoyed enormous wealth from its possession of that. It was true of its possession of coal or from like the heirs of Derby, where they own vast swathes of what became doable, or South Lancashire and drew the rent these.
So they became extraordinarily wealthy as well. And of course, there was also I mean, the capacity to to marry into new wealth. So oddly enough, I think that you might have expected the Russian Revolution in Britain to produce a great change in the distribution of political power even as late as 1914. It only seems to have happened to a rather limited extent. And the professional classes, and you might say those who are derive their incomes from banking and finance and so on are still in very powerful positions.
Yes, it's all bringing back happy memories. Is it Kane and Hopkins talk about British imperialism when they said, you know, that these oil oily northern industrialists were excluded from the sort of corridors of power in Whitehall? So you mentioned the end of the period there. I mean, I think we should talk about hard power as well as economic power, the ability to make textiles. I mean, what is so profound about the second half of the 19th century and into this century is the ability of humans to kill each other with monumental success and in unlimited numbers.
That is surely a huge part of this as well. It is I think if you ask I mean, people have often pointed out that what happens in the late 19th century is that if you just take the expansion of Europe's colonial empires, that they are able now to kill any opponents very efficiently and sometimes in quite large numbers. So that's the ability to project military power is certainly striking as a novelty. I mean, in the later 19th century. And if you think about it, I mean, it's because now you can deliver a an expeditionary force by steamer to any part of the world within a matter of a few weeks.
And then it's like Kitchener, you are going to try and recapture or capture, shall we say, Khartoum and defeat the Mahdi. You can build a railway over the desert and deliver an army in a region which 30, 40 years earlier would have been effectively unreachable by a British army. So steam power, the railway and the steamship, I think, are really just as important in delivering a sort of physical punch in different parts of the world for Western armies.
Anyway, as perhaps, you know, the use of the machine gun or more powerful rifles, the more powerful firearms and artillery, probably because especially in remote places carrying heavy weaponry, even carrying large numbers of bullets for a machine gun is so difficult unless you've got good roads, which you won't have. That means somebody studied this, that using a machine gun, for example, in the war and war, colonial wars in Nigeria, armies didn't do it.
They used it for 10 seconds because they never ran out of shells. And so, oddly enough, you know, having the maximum gun could be useful where you could supply it, where you couldn't resupply. It was all a limited use.
But getting there in the first place was something that by steamship or railway, that was an enormous acquisition of physical power since the invention of bronze, as a historian of empire and of global history and having just written this monumental book, how important do you think the steam revolution is in the great sweep of human history?
Well, as you say, I mean, it is quite difficult because you open up all sorts of other questions about which are the most far reaching effects. That's difficult. But I think there's no doubt in my mind that in Davos sweep pre modern history, steam comes as a really dramatic acceleration of the capacity to exchange goods across the world, to move across the world, and indeed, especially, I think, to be able to assume a regularity and frequency of contact between the furthest reaches of the world.
That is really revolutionary. And you've been able to travel across the world in the past and the very distant past. But it took a very long time. And secondly, it was there was no there was no certainty about arriving at any particular point. Therefore, messages could be exchanged, but they could be exchanged only with a very great deal of uncertainty about whether they would get there or when they would get their steam transforms that, I think, in a most dramatic way.
But the other thing it does, as I was saying earlier, is there's no previous era. I think when a particular technology handed so much power to one part of the world, which was the west or northwest Europe. And what I think of as being its annex in the United States, that is that is, I think, pretty, pretty unprecedented. In previous eras, there have been a number of different locations in the world, all of which have got broadly comparable technological achievements or technological capacity.
But this is different and it confers I say this this extraordinary world changing power, which only begins to unravel really, I suppose, from about the middle of the 20th century and then is accelerated quite sharply in our own time.
John Darwin, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. What's the book called? It's called Unlocking the World Portages and Globalisation and the Age of Steam. Thank you very much indeed. Good luck with it.
Thank you. Okay. I know. Speech found in the history of our country. I honestly don't know, done so, just a quick request. It's so annoying and I hate it when the podcasts do this, but now I'm doing it. I hate myself. Please, please go into iTunes, where you get your podcasts and give us a five star rating interview. It really helps basically boost up the chart, which is good, and then more people listen, which is nice.
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