Chapter 2. Rebooting Reality: Labor

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
William Faulkner


Food is the number one factor shaping our swarm. Labor is a close second. It shapes how we, wittingly or not, organize to get what we want. That determines our labor lives, which shape many other things. In the 1800s we started into a big wave of labor change, and that happened partly because of ‘reaction networks’ and ‘synergy.’ The first describes how we sometimes work together to build things, even when we don’t mean to. The second describes how such networking can sometimes grow so strong that it overthrows even our age-old divisions of labor. Those two swarm-physics behaviors help suggest how our labor lives might change, perhaps even in the near future.

Network Reactions

It’s 1774, in Scotland, and Jamie’s fire engine is still “a shadow, as regarded its practical utility and value.” For nine years, scrimping and saving, he had tried everything he could think of, yet still it doesn’t work. Now he’s broke, and out of time. His investor—who has poured a fortune into the machine—has lost everything, and creditors are taking it all. They don’t care a farthing for Jamie’s unfinished device. To them, it’s an unproven, high-tech rat-trap, and they need money now. Many private Scottish banks had just crashed, driven out of business by bad harvests and bad investments. Plus, everyone is running for financial cover because the previous December, a bunch of colonists in British America, angry about taxes, had turned Boston harbor into a teapot. War with the colony seems nearly certain. Further, Jamie’s wife has just died, as has his infant child, and two of his other children had already died. In despair, and in debt, he’s ready to give up. At first, he plans to flee Scotland for Russia, which has been after him for a while, and which would soon offer to quintuple his wages. But then he decides to try his worthless engine down south, in England, with a new investor. That decision helped trigger a big labor change, for today we remember Jamie as James Watt, and we call his fire engine the reciprocating steam engine.

Mention the term ‘steam engine’ today and eyes glaze over. It brings back memories of tedious schooldays filled with dry stories of grimy machinery and oppressed wage-slaves. But mention it two centuries ago and many eyes would light up. Back then, it was the last word in high tech, much as the computer is today—and learning what happened to it then might help when trying to figure out what might happen to the computer today. It played a big part in the start of our ongoing phase change from farming to industry, which would lead to major changes in our labor lives, much as our phase change from foraging to farming had millennia ago.

How and why did such a momentous thing happen, and what did Watt have to do with it? Take the next Russian offer that would so tempt him, in 1775. That might seem like a mere footnote in his life, but why did Saint Petersburg reach across 1,300 miles to offer a failed Glaswegian machinist £1,000 a year when he scraped by on a mere £200 a year as a lowly surveyor? To answer that question, step back a little further in time, to Russia.

It’s 1758, and Ivan Polzunov, a young mining officer, is escorting a mule train carrying 8,000 pounds of silver, plus some gold, 2,600 miles from Siberia to Saint Petersburg. There he sees the old tsar’s fountains, which are powered by the first steam engine that Britain had ever exported. That engine excites him because back in Siberia, he has a problem. He’s stuck in a small feudal town in the middle of nowhere—miles and miles away from nothing but miles and miles of more nothing. That town exists solely because it mines about 90 percent of Russia’s silver. But, lately, the mines have been drying up. So he wants to build a machine to increase the smelter’s bellows pumps, and perhaps even run other mine equipment, rather than rely on manual labor. Maybe this strange engine could do the trick, if only he could adapt it to work there. After he returns to Siberia, he spends three years designing the world’s first two-cylinder steam engine. Russia’s empress, desperate for silver, promotes him and promises him a prize if he can build his machine. He then spends the next few years doing so. Then, exhausted, he dies in poverty, of tuberculosis.

A week later, on May 23rd, 1766, his orphaned engine started driving four pairs of bellows in the smelting furnaces. But it was crude—in Russia, we would say it was ‘built by the axe.’ Polzunov, in a town so isolated—and with winters so harsh—that bread had to come from hundreds of miles away (and when it didn’t arrive in time, some of us there starved to death), had lacked even the tools he needed to build the tools he needed. So he had brought in gangs of laborers and organized them to help him build many things from scratch, and by hand. His machine worked for three months, then sprang a leak and stopped working. With him dead, his apprentices couldn’t fix it. Asking them to do so must have been like asking one of us today to repair a spacecraft with a can opener and some duct tape. It never worked again and the mine returned to waterwheels and forced labor. Polzunov was a failure. History forgot him.

Three years after he died, Watt patented a similar idea, another two-cylinder engine. That’s why Russia was after him. In Scotland, though, even after years of trying, he failed to get it going. But by March 11th, 1776, his engine was huffing away down south, in England, in a Birmingham coal mine. Within a year, mine owners were after it like a pack of rats after a plate of sausages. They all wanted to buy what he had to sell—power. Watt was a success. History idolized him.

Watt succeeded where Polzunov failed. So was he smarter? Or perhaps he worked harder? Well, maybe. But he built on an engine common in England, not Russia. That engine was common because of work done by Thomas Newcomen, John Smeaton, Thomas Savery, and others. To increase its power, he needed to understand the physics of heat, and he got some of that insight from Joseph Black, a Glasgow professor. To build it, he needed cylinders that could withstand high pressure (which he got from Abraham Darby and John Thomas). To make it cheaply enough, he needed cheap iron instead of costly brass for his cylinders (Abraham Darby II and Thomas Goldney III). To run it cheaply enough, he needed cheap fuel, which he got from coke—that is, coal cooked to remove impurities—instead of wood or charcoal (Abraham Darby). To machine its cylinders precisely enough, he needed high-grade iron (John Wilkinson). To cut its precision-ground cylinders and pistons, he needed crucible steel (Benjamin Huntsman). And so on.

Without all those boring people doing all those boring things, Jamie might have been as lost in Britain as Vanya had been in Siberia. So crediting Watt alone for the steam engine makes about as much sense as crediting Wilkinson alone for it, since Watt’s steam engine didn’t begin to take off until after Wilkinson’s precision cylinders. Huntsman would also do. So would Black—or Darby (father or son). Many others also mattered. Thus, Watt didn’t ‘invent the steam engine.’ The group that he was part of did.

An idea can matter, but where it falls can matter, too—as someone noted about farming millennia ago: “[S]ome seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them.... But other[s] fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit.”

Watt wasn’t even the only steam-engine designer in Britain. In 1782, what got him steamed was that “Nature had taken an aversion to monopolies, and put the same thing into several people’s heads at once, to prevent them.” By then, he was battling other inventors for patents. Had he died young, as Polzunov had, others in Britain would, almost surely, have gone on to do what he did.

After all, Newcomen’s engines had been pumping out mines in England since 1712—24 years before Watt was born. Savery had patented the first prototype steam engine in London in 1698—the year Watt’s father was born. So the group Watt belonged to didn’t ‘invent the steam engine,’ either. That group inherited a steam engine, which it further refined.

Why stop even there? Newcomen seems to have gotten the idea of using a copper boiler—which could withstand high heat and pressure—from local brewers. Darby surely got some part of the idea of using coke instead of coal from local beer makers, since that’s where he had apprenticed. Black, too, was just as dependent on others. He was a chemistry professor who had worked out latent and specific heat. But why? Well, he was trying to reduce the fuel needs of local whiskey distillers. So all three got at least part of their skill from our thirst for alcohol. Huntsman, too, inherited part of his skill. He figured out how to melt steel by using a special clay to reflect furnace heat. And how? He got the idea from local glassmakers, who had come across that idea while trying to melt old glass. Who knows how many generations it took our species to work out, then accumulate in one place and time, just those particular bits of knowledge.

Nor does the chain of dependencies stop even there, either in time or in space. For instance, Black could teach physics to Watt only because hundreds of us, stretching back centuries, and spread over several countries, had worked out lots of stuff. To do so, we had to drop things from heights, measure things down mines, and carry things up mountains. We had to figure out that even air could have weight. We had to invent ways to measure temperature and pressure. We had to discover how liquids, gases, and energy flow. Above all, we had to learn that a vacuum could exist—despite what all of us had thought for over two millennia. Thus, behind every idea, tool, or resource that aided Watt’s group in the 1770s lay human pyramids of work and thought stretching back millennia.

Millennia ago, and anywhere on the planet, we probably couldn’t have built a precision steam engine. For one thing, we probably wouldn’t have even bothered to try. Nor is that a simple matter of saying that slave labor outmatched it. Slave labor might be free labor, but it isn’t labor for free—slaves cost something to capture, feed, house, clothe, and suppress. So had we a machine alternative, we would have tried it out. But we had no such machine. To build one, we first would have had to see that we could. That couldn’t happen until we worked out that we could make a vacuum, and nowhere on the planet did we know that—until the mid 1600s.

Nor was that all. To go from a dream to something real, we then needed high-grade iron for vacuum cylinders. We needed crucible steel for precision cutters and precision bearings. We needed steam-proof solders, sealants, and gaskets. We needed enough hands who could reliably build all those materials. And we needed those hands to be near each other, and to be cheap enough to be worth hiring. Also, the overall effort had to be cheap enough for us to bear the cost. Plus, our need for the device had to be large enough to make it worth that cost.

All that didn’t come together in one time and place until the late 1700s and in England—not in Siberia, and not even in Scotland. The same frictions that defeated Polzunov’s engine, and that defeated Watt’s first engine, would likely have defeated anyone’s engine—unless they had the kind of support structure that Watt ended up in by 1776.

That kind of support structure, of many parts working together, even when they don’t, or can’t, plan to do so, isn’t unique to us. Biochemists might call it a reaction network. Such networks are widespread in all known life-forms. Our body, for instance, is a walking chemical factory. Thus, when we eat an apple, many reactions break it down into stuff that our body can use. Take fructose, one of the sugars in that apple. Some reactions in our stomach first make it safe so that it won’t react with just anything. Others then move it to our liver—our body’s factory floor for sugar conversion. There, other reactions break it down into glyceraldehyde or dihydroxyacetone. Yet others break those down into glycerol or pyruvate. Still others turn those into even smaller bits. Others shift those into our cells, where yet others burn them for fuel or use them as spare parts. Thousands of such reactions must work together, or we couldn’t digest an apple—we might even die from eating one.

Similarly, like molecules in a cell, or cells in a body, when Watt, Wilkinson, Huntsman, Black, or whoever, built a new tool, had a new idea, supplied a new fuel, or whatever, someone else in their network could react to that change by building something with it, or having a new idea because of it. In that way, one thing and one thing might make not two things but three or more things. So 1+1=3. But that needn’t happen. For it to work, such parts must be in touch, somehow, yet they needn’t be aware that they’re in touch—or even be aware at all. Whether aware or not, once in touch they can still be parts of something larger than themselves. They can each go about their business, yet still they together can form a reaction network. Such a network was strong enough to give our species our first precision steam engine in 1776. Watt’s group, not Watt alone, did that.

Birth of a Notion

Watt’s reaction network could do what it did in 1776 because by then Britain had many scientific and technical tools. But that might hardly have mattered had Britain not also had many other tools as well, especially financial and legal ones, because for steam engines to come to exist they also needed banking credit (and therefore banks), legal protection (like patents), and so on. Together, all such tools helped several networks of us in Britain interact to work out, build, refine, and maintain the world’s first precision steam engines. But that cost a lot of money and took a lot of effort. Why did we bother? And why in the 1700s? Why not long before? Or long after? Just because we could try to do something needn’t mean that we will. Supply needs demand, just as demand needs supply. So why did Britain want a steam engine so badly, and why then? Well, by the 1700s it had several pressing military and commercial needs, one strand of which began with trees.

In England in the 1500s, centuries before any steam engine, we had started chopping down our easiest to reach trees. With cheap wood vanishing, and plenty of coal below the soil, we then reached for our spades and started digging. As early as 1550, in some parts of the island, wood cost about twice as much as coal. Between 1500 and 1700, the price of wood in London rose almost fourfold. But while coal was cheaper, it was smellier and smokier. When we burned it for heat, it smelled bad. When we burned it to brew beer, the beer smelled bad. When we burned it to smelt iron, the iron was brittle. So we looked for ways to make it less polluting. That then led to coke, which started to replace wood and charcoal.

But while we did that on one small island—and in China half a millennium before—we didn’t do it everywhere, like, for example, Russia. Why? Well, in Russia we didn’t have to bother. We still had huge forests to chop down. Russia was still sparsely settled and densely forested. So as early as 1700, it was tiny Britain, not huge Russia, that produced five times as much coal as the entire rest of the world.

All that spadework led to deeper mines, and deep mines flood. Pressure then grew for some means to get the water out. Thus, in England from 1561 to 1642, about one in seven patents were for the raising of water. By 1700, some mines were already 360 feet deep.

But that in itself wasn’t new. Millennia before, anything sufficiently exciting—gold, silver, iron, salt, whatever—had driven us as deep as that in Egypt, China, Greece, Rome. However, besides our usual mining tools, we now had new tricks to try, including gunpowder, and we had just figured out that we could try vacuums. They’re great at sucking. By 1698, early steam engines were the result. Those engines lying about the place then had catalytic effects. So instead of one lone inventor in Siberia (much later on), dozens of inventors in Britain got all fired up about them.

So in England some of our early experience with coal and iron grew out of our long history of tree-chopping and mine-digging. But why did we chop down so many trees? And while beer may have made life bearable, what made iron so, er, ironic?

Well, our numbers were rising fast. From 1500 to 1700 they roughly doubled, which was twice as fast as the rest of Europe. As houses went up, forests went down. But also, ships at the time needed wood—lots of wood. A warship might take over 2,000 century-old oaks. To arm such ships meant cannons, which meant iron (or bronze, which meant copper and tin), which meant even more wood to smelt those metals from their ores.

We needed lots of ships and lots of guns going back at least as far as the 1540s. That’s when our king, who was busy running through six queens searching for a son, looked at his threats across the channel, looked at his measly ten navy ships, panicked, and started importing French and German experts to build his navy and coastal weapons against the power of the time—Spain.

So in England we chopped down our trees and dug up our coal and smelted our iron partly because we were scared. We also envied the wealth that Spain and Portugal were then sucking out of the Americas, plus their new spice trade with India. So both fear and greed drove ship building and arms dealing, which meant lots of timber and fuel. And by the 1570s, our growing numbers also meant growing brass, glass, brick, tile, and beer industries, which meant even more fuel, which meant even more coal mining.

By the 1670s, our ship building, and our many wars, meant that our navy was sucking in three-quarters of our national budget. So we were desperate for more money. But, being mostly poor and rural, to get that money we needed more trade. To protect that trade, we had to beef up our navy. So that meant borrowing oodles of money. (And chopping down oodles of trees.)

However, borrowing that much money from hostile foreigners proved impossible. Also, we were (unwittingly) shifting from an agrarian world to an urban world. So instead of the age-old mass of farmers—where only about one in 20 of us were townsfolk—now about one in eight of us were. So getting money the usual way—taxing it into existence—wouldn’t work anymore. The peasants would revolt. The last king who lost his head and tried that, triggered a civil war—and lost his head. So where was the new navy money going to come from? We needed a different kind of mining—financial mining.

Further, while we needed lots of cash, we also didn’t have enough precious metal to make that cash. Geology had made us rich in coal and iron, but it had made us poor in gold and silver. So making more cash meant importing a financial tool new to us—paper currency. But nobody in England trusted paper. So giving value to that currency meant stapling it to hard assets (like land, houses, ships). That meant importing other financial tools from foreign city slickers—mortgages, limited liability companies, bills of exchange, credit, insurance, and such like. A mortgage, for example, divides up land into chunks small enough for many of us to pay for. Similarly, a limited liability company divides up large risks into chunks small enough for many of us to bet on.

Such financial tools weren’t new. In China we had paper money since 1111—and other such tools went back at least as far as 3,800 years ago in what we today call Iraq. But they were new to us in England; we only tried them because we were under pressure.

We began adopting such tools in stages, especially after 1688, when a political scuffle led to the ouster of our then king. The new tools, like the new king, came mostly from the nearby Netherlands, which, to pay for its 80 years of war with Spain, had adopted several such debt instruments from Italy, which had developed some of them to pay for its centuries of wars there.

Our attention got really focused in 1690, after losing a big sea battle—to France—then even more in 1693, when we lost a flotilla of merchant ships, and a whole year’s worth of trade goods—to France. At the time, France, not Spain, had the largest land army in Europe, and the strongest navy in the world. Thrashing around like gaffed fish, we were suddenly certain that without an even bigger one, we were doomed.

So we tried all sorts of financial mining experiments: lotteries, annuities, tontines, land banks, and such—and one worked. Today we would call it government bonds, which are state-backed promises to pay back borrowed money, with interest to cover the risk of lending.

In 1694 a gang of merchants and financiers sold shares in that bond market idea, which became the Bank of England.

Did they (or anyone) predict what would happen? Nope. In just 12 days we showered them with £1.2 million. Did we do so because we thought of its direct effect on the navy? Nope. Perhaps we were thinking of its future effect on steam engines? Nope. Maybe it was because we wanted to spit in France’s eye? Nope. The new bank promised eight percent interest a year! It then lent money to the state. The state used over half that pile of cash to build up our navy, which protected our trade, which made our merchants richer, which gave it more tax income, which it used to pay down its debt to the bank—then borrow yet more. Our shipping thus grew autocatalytically.

That wasn’t all. That autocatalytic cycle also spurred industry. A single wooden ship might need over five tons of iron nails and bolts. So sucking in a pile of cash in London only meant that gobs of money had to then gush out to the north, south, and west to pay for more iron mines, more coal mines, more coke to smelt iron, experiments looking for faster and cheaper ways to make more iron nails, a slow merging from the age-old cottage system to more of a manufactory system for iron nails, and so on. That’s not to mention the same ship’s three-ton cannons, guns, miles of ropes, acres of sails, anchors, timbers, barrels, pulleys, winches, knees, treenails.... Within a decade, tiny Britain had a huge, well-armed fleet. In a sense, it had become one body—Navy, Inc.

The result was war with France and Spain (and the Netherlands and others), with conquests around the globe, as well as lucrative trade in slaves, rum, and sugar in a triangle between Africa, the Caribbean, and North America.

That a dinky island, which not that long before had been known mostly only for its lead and tin and sheep, could do all that, began to awe, then scare, all Europe, and soon, the world.

As Britain’s fleet grew, so did its go-anywhere, do-anything empire. As its empire grew, so did its trade. As its trade grew, so did its industry—to satisfy foreign demand and so pay for yet more trade. The urge to move from countryside to city rose. The drive to industry rose. The need to read rose. The acceptance of paper money and other unfamiliar tools rose. Then, by the 1770s, all that money sloshing around England meant that some of it could flow out of London to bet on other money-making schemes—one of which in 1776 was the funding up north, in Birmingham, of a newfangled steam engine.

Prime Movers

Before 1800, and across the planet, our labor lives hadn’t much changed in millennia. Even in Britain, and even counting early steam engines, we had much the same labor sources as we had in Rome and China two millennia before, and as we had in Egypt and Iraq two millennia before that. We had invented many new tools across the millennia, but few of them had changed our labor lives much at all. Transport hadn’t much changed since the horse. Farming hadn’t much changed since the plow. Family size hadn’t much changed since farming began. That was our life. For millennia.

For all that time, nearly all of us were farmers. Our lives were driven by the harvests, and thus the seasons (even in the tropics), and thus the sun. (Today they still are, just not quite as much.) So, baubles aside, our main real wealth was in land and labor. Only with them could we capture energy—the sun’s energy—with plants. Only with that energy could we fuel our main ‘prime movers’—that is, ourselves and our draft animals. So land meant food, which meant energy, which meant wealth.

Since the sun didn’t change much, and since there was only so much land, when our tools didn’t change much—which was most of the time—to gain wealth, a gang of us might try to snatch a bunch of bodies for labor. But since those bodies would need food, that was the same as trying to snatch land. And snatching land meant war.

That could never mean an overall gain for our species. No matter how much havoc we cried, and however many dogs of war we let slip, no gang’s power could grow beyond an amount proportional to the land just gained, if any. And feeding a horse twice as much can’t ever make it run twice as fast, or pull twice as hard. So while a war might mean that flags and borders and such might change, in the long run our labor lives couldn’t ever change. We lived in a zero-sum world.

However, a war might also lead to a new tool or trade. But we could also devise such things without a war. And after we made our first sickle in Iraq, fired our first pot in Japan, harnessed our first ox in India, tamed our first horse in Mongolia, or whatever, more of us could eat off the same amount of land.

But even that didn’t really change our food-to-labor ratio because we kept competing for wealth. So after each new tool we just pumped out more babies to work that same land. (Trying to snatch slaves to work the land would make no difference. It merely meant that someone else would pump out more babies somewhere else.)

So while a new tool might mean that we could feed more bodies with less work for a while, there would soon be more of us to feed. So overall food demand would rise. So food prices would rise. Thus, while our labor demand would ease up for a bit—just as it would for the winners of any war, or just as it would if the weather had gotten a bit nicer—after a while, each of us would be back to getting only about as much food as before. And to get that food, we would each have to do about the same amount of work as before. So, again, in the long run, there would be no real change in our labor lives.

So once we blundered into farming, we were trapped in a zero-sum labor world—a world of roughly constant manual effort per kilocalorie of food. Thus, for instance, in the 1,700 or so years before 1800, we invented and traded lots of labor-saving things—the sail, the wheelbarrow, gunpowder, and such. Our numbers rose about fourfold—from around 160 million to perhaps 700 million. But all around the planet, while we had different gods, spoke different tongues, waved different flags, wore different clothes, we still worked and traveled and lived and died much as before.

For all that time we lived in a bottle, and that bottle limited what we could do and build, which limited what we could think and be. That trapped us in a world of farms and slaves and manual labor. It told us that enslaving hands made sense, and that women had to be baby-machines to make more hands—because as farmers we always needed hands to work the land. So we toted that barge, we lifted that bale, we got a little drunk, we landed in jail.

That near-stasis depended on no new tool changing our land-labor equation much at all. However in Eurasia, Egypt, and north Africa (but not the rest of Africa, the Americas, or anywhere else) a few new tools did just that. First we tamed a few draft animals millennia ago, then came the waterwheel, which some of us in Turkey first worked out about 2,300 years ago. At first, as farmers we had to irrigate our fields and grind our grain or hull our rice by hand. Once we had the ox and the horse and such, we could build a capstan or treadmill and have them do it. But we still had to feed them, which meant land—which meant they competed with us for food. Build a waterwheel, though, and it could move our water, or move a stone to grind our grain. Like us and our tamed animals, it was a mover—a prime mover. But unlike ourselves, or an ox or a horse, we didn’t have to feed it, house it, or keep it warm—so it needed no new land. That freed up labor, which we could use for other work, or for free time.

By around a millennium ago, waterwheels had sprouted all over Eurasia, from England to Japan, but far more in the west than the east. For instance, in England by 1086, we had about 5,624 of them—one for every 50 or so families. By 1250, almost every village in England had one.

Yet while a 20-foot-high waterwheel can move about 700 pounds forever, it’s stuck in place. A windmill, which some of us in Greece first figured out around 1,900 years ago, can do about the same amount of work (if it’s big enough and in a windy enough place), but it, too, is stuck in place. A horse can do about one-seventh of that for about a day. A man can do about one-seventh of that for several hours. That was it.

The steam engine, though, which at first we called a ‘fire engine,’ was different. Like a waterwheel (which we called a ‘water engine’), or a windmill (a ‘wind engine’), it could be a far stronger prime mover than a horse or ox. And, like a waterwheel or windmill, it didn’t need land; so its fuel didn’t compete with our food. But, unlike a waterwheel or windmill, we could put it anywhere we could find cheap fuel for it.

That was new. Here was a relocatable prime mover, sort of like a super-strong horse or ox, except it didn’t need land.

But there was a catch. Unlike a waterwheel or windmill, which we made with wood, and which we by then understood very well, we had to make it with metals—to make steam and hold a vacuum. It was also more intricate—since it had many more parts. And it was more dangerous—since it could blow up. So it was harder to build. Plus, it depended on physics that almost none of us understood. So, at first, only a few of us knew how to build and maintain one, and we lacked the tools to do so easily and cheaply. Further, like a waterwheel or windmill, at first it was just as stuck in place—namely, in coal mines.

So making the first one was a leap into darkness. Just as when we first started farming, we couldn’t possibly have foreseen its future. At first, we used it only in coal mines because it could only pump water, and it burned lots of coal to do so, so it had no other use. Had we lacked the skills to make one, we would have done what we had always done: we would have abandoned the mine and dug somewhere else. We only bothered because of the depth of the mines, the seriousness of the flooding, and the money to be made because now we could keep digging. It was a niche product only.

Unlike the horse or waterwheel or windmill, though, its usefulness depended not on land or rivers or wind, but on our cleverness. And the longer it was useful, the more we were driven to keep making it, because it could only exist where we had cheap coal, and we used it to burn cheap coal to keep coal cheap. So it catalyzed itself.

Then, the more we kept making it, the better we got at making it. So small skilled clumps of us began to form in Britain. New reaction networks, based on skilled labor and precision tools, sprang up here and there. After a while, we could churn out precision-made steam engines, and we could do so more cheaply and quickly.

Those next-generation engines only needed half as much coal as before. So they no longer had to infest only coal mines. They then jumped to copper and tin mines, too. Only then did we begin to see that since they could pump up and down, they could also push back and forth. If they can push, they can saw; if they can saw, they can pound; if they can pound, they can knit, and so on.

That was another leap. The steam engine, like the horse, but unlike the waterwheel and the windmill, wasn’t tied to a place, but a fuel. So if its fuel costs fell, its number of niches rose. So applying our cleverness could bear direct fruit. New production centers then sprung up wherever they were best suited to grow—first, a coal mine (for its fuel), but then a town (for its labor), a market (for its sales), a port (for its transport). Thus, this leap was like making the planet spout new raging rivers and mighty winds.

As the engine spread into new niches, demand for it grew, as did demand for the specialists who made it—and their new precision tools. So our newest prime mover didn’t merely lead to increases in power; it also led to increases in tools and skills. As new engines, new engine makers, new engine-making tools, and new toolmakers who made those new engine-making tools spread, engine-building went autocatalytic.

By 1800, a Manchester cotton mill might buy a 100-horsepower steam engine. It would thus get 100 horses it didn’t have to feed. Those horses weren’t cheap, but they also never tired—nor slept. With them, plus the machines they ran, the mill could start running around the clock. Suddenly, 750 of us could make as much cotton as 200,000 of us could have made before. By then, 84 cotton mills in Britain already had the next-generation engine. So did 31 coal mines, 12 waterworks, and many mills for salt, flour, wood, wool, iron, and steel. Britain already had about 2,000 steam engines of all sorts. Of course, water still powered almost all mills, but wherever coal was cheap enough, steam was coming. As it did, a few of us got more wealth, but also many more of us got more goods. As our newly cheap goods spread, and the profits rose, we cheapened our engines still further. As we did, our engine-building tools and engine-building skills grew faster still. As the horse began to turn into the engine, the cottage began to turn into the slum tenement, and the farm day began to turn into the work day. We didn’t know it yet, but we were beginning to lurch into a new gear, because after a while something even bigger than autocatalysis started driving us.

A Synergetic Machine

In 1800, although the steam engine was a potentially large tool change, our labor lives, even in Britain, hadn’t yet changed much at all. Breaking out of our farming bottle required massive changes. And while that phase change may have started with the steam engine, it didn’t end there. Nor did it happen all at once. It came in at least four waves, with steam power triggering the first one. Its three later waves started with railroads, then mass production, then mastery of hydrocarbons, electricity, and magnetism. Together, those four waves gave us new vehicles, new production schemes, new prime movers. Those new tools changed how much food we had, how far and how fast we traveled, how we traded, how we lived, and far above all others in consequence: how many kids we needed to work the land.

The steam engine alone didn’t cause all that. No single new tool or deal need necessarily lead to many other changes. For instance, we first worked out how to make coke, then used that to smelt iron, not in Britain but in China—and over a thousand years ago. By 1078 China made twice as much iron as England would go on to make in 1778. But by itself that didn’t trigger a huge labor change.

So although the steam engine by 1800 was a useful new tool in several niches, had it been all that we ever got, after a while we might have settled down again in our usual zero-sum way. That didn’t happen—or hasn’t yet, anyway—because it wasn’t just any important new tool, like the wheel, the compass, or paper. It was a rootless prime mover, a riverless waterwheel, a tireless giant. Once it escaped the mines, it alit on many new niches. That led to many new pressures, which led to many new tools, which led to more new pressures, which led to more new tools.

Here’s how: In Britain, as we made more and more steam engines, we began to see how to make them less and less coal-hungry. Thus, in 1727 they had needed about 44 pounds of coal to produce a horse’s strength for an hour. By 1860, though, they could produce the same power with only about two pounds of coal. So over time we could use them even where coal cost a lot.

What we were doing was pouring our brain into the new machine. With that, we figured out how to make the planet spout even more new raging rivers and mighty winds wherever there was coal, not just where it was cheap. And that started to break our age-old link between land and wealth.

After a point, the cost of the amount of coal that a steam engine needed to do a fixed amount of work fell below the cost of the amount of food that we—or our horses or oxen—needed to do the same work. That was like finding a horse that we could feed half as much for it to go twice as fast. At first the trick only worked in a few of our industries—mining, cloth, pottery—but in them our surplus labor started rising faster than our food costs did.

So, in them, our labor returns from pumping out more babies started to fall behind. We started to produce faster than we needed to reproduce. And that started to break our age-old link between babies and wealth.

As those two age-old links started to crack, we began to spurt through the first fissures in our agrarian bottle.

For instance, in 1783, Manchester had just one cotton mill powered by steam. By 1800, it had 42. By 1816, it had 86. Over the same period, its headcount shot up from around 25,000 to about 150,000—not with reproduction, but mostly from migration.

Suddenly, to make massive amounts of new stuff we no longer needed to go conquer many acres of new land, or produce (or steal) huge numbers of new babies. (Although we were still making lots of babies; in Britain as a whole, our numbers nearly tripled between 1750 and 1850.)

But that sharp rise in production only brought us up harder against the next problem—transport.

Take pottery. To make pots, we needed clay for the pots, potter’s wheels and lathes to shape the pots, flint and salt to glaze the pots, coal to fire the pots, power to grind the flint and run the wheels and lathes, and, of course, potters. Where, though, do we site the pottery itself? Where the clay is? Where the coal is? How about where the power is? What about the flint, or salt—or potters? Wherever we site it, something may be missing. To fetch that, we might need ships, carts, packhorses, and people. Transport adds time, or cost, or both. Plus, power is a special case. Waterwheels and windmills are stuck in place. So are early steam engines, since they needed so much coal.

Every manufacturing industry is the same (even today). To make anything, whether its pots, or cotton, or flour, or whatever, we need materials, power, and hands, but rarely are all three in the same place at the same time. Wherever we had lots of power, we usually didn’t have enough food for lots of hands, or we didn’t have much materials. Wherever we had lots of hands, we either didn’t have much materials, or not much power. Wherever we had lots of materials, we either had too little power, or too few hands.

So, for millennia, most of our industry had to be either small or slow, or both—and, usually, hands had to make do for missing power, and most everything was handmade. Of course, we could build large things—we built pyramids, for instance—but not quickly. Or if quickly, then not cheaply. Fast, cheap, or large—pick any two. It was as if three kids were trapped in a burning building, but we could only ever carry two, so we always had to decide which one had to die.

In Britain, as we ramped up production, turnpike roads, then canals, helped. But even our widest and newest canals, which could carry up to 400 times what a packhorse could, weren’t enough to bleed off the head of steam building in our industrial pressure cooker.

So we poured our brain into the new machine yet again and by 1825, we managed to make high-precision steam engines so small and safe that we could plop them on rails. A new vehicle, the locomotive, was born.

The first railroad, just 25 miles long, then halved the cost of a ton of coal. And steam could pull 50 times what even a horse drawing on a canal could. Many of us began to smell money. Railroad mania then took over and the stock market went mad.

So we poured even more of our brain into the new machine. That then led to further engine changes—for instance, to use even higher pressure steam—which then pushed the train faster and faster. The train then led to our second wave of industry by creating entire networks of catalyzing cycles. As it linked different places into new networks, they started working together, making things that weren’t makeable before, then things that weren’t even thinkable before. That’s when Britain, then later a few other of our nations, started to get seriously rich.

Here’s why: We want coal, but deep coal mines flood. We get more coal with steam engines, but to pump water they need coal. So steam pumps burn coal to help us reach more coal to burn. That’s an autocatalytic cycle. It could give us piles of pumps and tons of coal. But to make those pumps, we need iron, and deep iron mines also flood. If we stick steam pumps in iron mines, we get another autocatalytic cycle. It could give us piles of pumps plus tons of iron. But while those pumps would give us lots of iron they won’t work without lots of coal. Each set of pumps needs something that the other set makes. Both cycles could feed each other—if only we had some cheap and fast way to haul coal to iron mines, and iron to coal mines. A railroad makes that happen.

But a railroad can’t exist without iron for its rails and coal for its engines. So, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, coal mines, iron mines, and railroads fit together. They all need steam engines, which need coal and iron. So if we link the mines with a railroad, all three could ‘trade’ materials with each other. The three reactions together are co-catalytic—they all catalyze each other.

That’s already a larger network process than mere autocatalysis. But now add factories. They catalyze railroads, because they could make rails and engines—if they have iron—and coal to smelt it—and railroads to fetch both. But railroads also catalyze factories, as they do mines, because they can fetch things that factories need, and carry things that factories make. Similarly, mines catalyze factories, just as factories do mines.

So once we link everything up: we can dig coal to carry coal to make iron to build trains that burn coal to carry coal to make iron to build pumps that burn coal to dig coal to feed factories that burn coal to....

industrial synergy
Trains Help Mines Help Factories Help Trains

That second wave of industrial change started in Britain. As rail travel blossomed there, the new engines, skills, and tools spread wildly. Production rocketed up. In 1800, thanks to Britain’s tree shortage, Russia and Sweden exported iron to Britain. (Smelting iron takes lots of fuel, and Russia and Sweden had lots of trees.) But Britain was soon exporting over five times as much iron as it imported. In 1800, it made about 280,000 tons of pig iron. By 1850, it made about 3.4 million tons—more iron than all the rest of our nations combined. By 1872, it made about 7.25 million tons.

The new cycles didn’t merely result in more coal and iron. We can’t eat coal. We don’t wear iron. Since factories were linked into the same cycle, we also sprouted factories that made other things. But even when we could make some industry large-scale, why bother if its large-scale products couldn’t then cheaply reach large-scale markets? That’s why towns have always had an edge over the countryside. In a town we can’t feed ourselves, but enough of us live in one place to make it worth dividing our labor so that we can pay for our food, and more. Thus as industry ratcheted up, so did cities, sucking in labor from the countryside. Further, even where there weren’t any cities, new cities simply grew up around new factories, which grew up around new sources of power, sucking more and more of us out of the countryside, like black holes popping up out of nowhere. Supply fed demand, which fed supply, which fed demand.

Thus from 1830 to 1900, several other of Britain’s industries started to grow just as insanely fast as coal and iron. The new cycles thus pushed Britain’s production straight off the financial charts and into unknown territory. Compared to our previous millennia of near-stasis, it was as if aliens had landed in Britain and started handing our jetpacks.

But then, the rest of the world began to, er, cotton on to how the trick worked. As steam engines got less and less coal-hungry, and spread and spread and spread, and the skills and tools to build them kept spreading and spreading and spreading, those same aliens landed elsewhere. In the United States after 1830 our miles of railroad track doubled every decade—for 60 years straight. By 1850 we already had more rail there than the rest of our nations combined—Britain included. By 1916 we had a quarter million miles of track. Similarly, in Germany we produced 30 million tons of coal in 1871. By 1890, we produced 70 million, and by 1913, 190 million. By 1893 we were making more steel than even Britain did. By 1913 we doubled Britain’s steel production. France, Belgium, and the Netherlands took off, too. So did Japan. But the aliens didn’t touch down everywhere. In an eyeblink, what was once one planet, became two—a superrich one and a poor one.

Nor was the railroad our only new network enabler. Over the next two centuries, steamships, telegraphs, phones, trucks, planes, shipping containers, fiberoptic cables, satellites, computers—and before and during the railroad age, turnpike roads and canals—each welded together similar sorts of networks. They all linked parts that previously weren’t linked, or weren’t quickly linked, or weren’t cheaply linked, letting them feed each other.

Make beer here and bread there and, if transport is fast enough and cheap enough, trading them can pay. Each site can then specialize, doing what it does best. Both beer and bread get cheaper. Cost goes down. Volume goes up. Quality goes up. Production explodes. Trade explodes. Division of labor explodes. Cities explode.

Thus while the steam engine triggered the first wave of our industrial phase change, the railroad triggered the second. It locked itself, the mines, and the factories together so that each part catalyzed all the others. Such a network effect is more than one autocatalytic reaction; that’s just a special case. It’s many co-catalytic reactions linked together. All happen together, with each aiding the others, which together aid it. Thus, all the parts meld together into one giant self-helping reaction network.

That kind of network isn’t unique to us. Biochemists might call it synergetic (‘jointly self-helping’). Similar networks power nearly all life-forms on the planet. Our bodies, like those of all other animals, break down food, then feed the spare parts to our mitochondria, which are like little cells inside our cells—they’re our cells’ power plants. In them, molecules work synergetically with each other to break down those spare parts and so both remake each other, and thus their network, and also make essentially all our body’s energy. A similar network does much the same in plants.

Such self-helping networks are like spinning flywheels (like in gyroscopes). Getting one to spin is hard. Changing its angle of spin is hard. But stopping it from spinning is also hard because once it starts spinning it makes everything that it needs to keep on spinning.

In sum, by about 1830, in a few of our countries, a metronome began to beat that we had never heard before. It was the first thready pulse of an industrial age. That synergy is the heart that still thumps today at the base of all our currently rich nations. It’s why well over a billion of us are now so rich that we can throw away billions of pounds of food a year. It’s also why billions more of us get far more food today than even a few decades ago. All that started because new synergies drove us to abandon our age-old zero-sum path to wealth, which was to pump out as many babies as the land and our tools could support. Over time, we found that we needed fewer and fewer hands on the farm to feed more and more hands in the cities; then, later, we found that we needed fewer and fewer hands even in the cities. But for all that to happen we first had to change our largest, and oldest, division of labor—that between male and female. Had that not happened, in the long run nothing else would have changed.


By about 1840 in some of our countries new synergies started leading to many changes in our labor lives, for both men and women. One of the many reasons for that begins this way: “It is well known how difficult it is for poor inventors to obtain money to aid them in making experiments. People, generally, would much rather invest in lottery tickets.” So said the main investor in Isaac Singer’s invention, the first practical sewing machine. Then he handed over the sum in question—$40.

That money, given to Singer in Boston in 1850, was to make him a multi-millionaire in a time when laborers there earned $1 a day. But that same $40 also went on to trigger changes in the labor lives of millions of women, first in the United States, then Europe, then elsewhere around the globe. Singer’s machine, and many other new tools, restitched the fabric of many women’s lives. However, not all of us would have wished that, least of all Singer. A brash, semi-literate, wife-beating bigamist, he was once sued for alimony by seven women at once. His attitude, and that of many men at the time, whether in the United States, Britain, or anywhere else, was that women were best when supine and silent.

To see something of the changes in women’s labor lives, strap yourself into the corset of a woman in 1800 in the United States. Your man might be the bread-winner, but you’re the bread-maker. You’re also the chief child-rearer, food-maker, and clothing-maker. You make the bread and cornmeal, butter and cheese, cakes and pastries. You salt the pork and make the preserves. You make the clothes and linens, and the soaps and candles. You also do the laundry and housework, and you look after the kids or younger siblings. For none of that are you paid a wage. You also rarely travel, and almost never alone—it’s unsafe. It’s also costly and slow. For instance, a stagecoach trip from Philadelphia to Baltimore (about 100 miles) takes three days and costs $11. So, mostly, you stay home, often spending three months at a time without seeing a new face.

If you live in one the few towns, you might have a wider circle. If you’ve had more schooling than normal, you might become a governess. If you’re a widow and well-to-do, you might keep a shop or a boarding house. If you’re a spinster, you might live with kin, or take in washing, or be a seamstress, cook, or maid. If you live in a port city or border town, you might rent out your body. If you’re a native, you’re either fleeing the invaders, or trying to survive with them. If you’re a slave, you do what your owners tell you to do, which might include hiring yourself out as a laundress or caterer. If your family is rich, your menfolk could afford slaves or servants. Also, you would be taught to read, draw, and sing—but mainly to make yourself more of a catch in the marriage market. You avoid too much schooling as that would scare off suitors.

Wherever you live—whether on the farm or in a town (calling them ‘cities’ stretches today’s meaning of the term)—you live under much the same rules. You can’t vote. If single, you’re a ward of your menfolk—in essence, a reproductive asset to be sold at some point to some man. If married, you’re nearly property. If enslaved, you’re actual property. And black or white, slave or free, young or old, rural or urban, poor or rich, you might get married at 15 or so, then get pregnant every two or so years before you die, exhausted, often before 40.

It’s 1800 not 800, but you mostly live the same rural, home-bound, illiterate, nonsalaried, high-birthrate life that almost all other agrarian women all over the planet have lived since we stumbled into farming. In an agrarian world, land means nothing without labor, which means nothing without babies. Your real job is baby-maker.

It’s now 1820 and your labor life hasn’t changed. But the country as a whole is now changing fast. Europe’s recent hijinks mean that it has ceased supplying guns to the natives, who are now nearly defenseless. The usual farmer and herder expansion—and hunter-gatherer near-extinction—is following. But it’s now happening far faster than in millennia past because, besides cows and numbers, the invaders have guns and smallpox while the natives have bows and arrows and no chance. Settlers are crowding west, killing natives and gobbling land. In just the last nine years, the number of states have jumped by over a third and the cost of virgin land has fallen to $1.25 an acre. With so much cheap land, food is cheap, so settler numbers are surging by an unheard of 33 to 35 percent every decade. Also, as early as 1830, seven factories in Pittsburgh alone are churning out 100 steam engines a year—in a land that just 20 years before had no working steam engines at all.

In the rapidly expanding country, our new attitudes to change astound visitors from Europe. In 1825 a German visitor noted that “Anything new is quickly introduced here, and all the latest inventions. There is no clinging to old ways; the moment an American hears the word ‘invention’ he pricks up his ears.” In 1831 an English visitor wrote that “The whole class of young women, whose bread depends upon their labour, are taught to believe that the most abject poverty is preferable to domestic service. Hundreds of half-naked girls work in the paper mills, or in any other manufactory, for less than half the wages they would receive in service.” In Europe, such attitudes to novelty, machines, labor, and servitude are crazy. There, we’re used to a world teeming with peons who live on a fixed amount of land owned by hereditary aristos. We can’t remember what the (far slower) farmer invasion of Europe must have been like millennia before. We also find it puzzling given that the new country still holds two million slaves—and native blood is still wet on its hands.

But for many of us in the new land, anything old is now suspect. Anything new is now, if not embraced, at least not always smothered in its crib, as it usually was before. Also, if you’re a free-born white, whether rich or poor, male or female, you feel yourself the equal of anybody. So you see being a servant as degrading. Of course, if you’re black, you’re likely still a slave, so your opinion mostly doesn’t count. If you’re a native, your thoughts don’t seem to matter, either.

It’s now 1840 and the growing country’s vast new land surplus plus its new machines have finally led to new labor options for you—if you’re white, single, and urban, that is. Now you can take wage-paying jobs—mostly in sweatshops. In New England, for example, you can work in one of the cloth mills. Women like you make up nine-tenths of their labor pool. And they want you. You aren’t as violent as men are. You won’t complain as men would. You can’t leave town as men could. You also take less—$1.25 a week plus bed and board is normal. (Outside the mill, as a lone seamstress you might expect to earn around 90 cents a week.) Your working day is 12 to 14 hours long, six days a week. Sometimes the job gets so hard that even you go on strike—but you have no leverage. Owners simply replace you from a rising tide of immigrant females from Europe, washed in by the new transatlantic steamship.

As settlers in the rapidly ballooning country, we’ve by now killed, exiled, or absorbed enough natives to discover the vast coal and iron deposits of Pennsylvania. We’ve also discovered the vast wheat-growing capacity of the ‘northwest.’ One day that would come to be known as the ‘midwest,’ but right now it’s the frontier. As natives, we’re still trying to fight, but as we die, and as the steam engines multiply to 5,000, and as the Conestoga wagons rumble farther west, many towns stop bothering to be self-sufficient and start to specialize. For instance, a swampy fort smelling of garlic starts calling itself Chicago. It quickly grows into a transport hub—first by water, then by rail. Whole states, too, begin to specialize. Farming makes off for Ohio. Heavy industry flees to Pennsylvania. Light industry remains in New England—but with cheap food rolling in by rail from the plains, its farms no longer need as much female labor at home, so women and girls there stream to the mills.

It’s now 1860 and cities are inflating like popcorn on a hot griddle. As the railroad puffs them up, its ability to move bulk goods cheaply also means that eastern factories can now supply the entire country’s demand for goods—especially clothes, shoes, and tinware. Singer’s sewing machine is now ten years old and the New York Times booms that this “iron needle-woman” is the “best boon to woman in the nineteenth century.” Wow. But while that might be true for some rich urban women, you probably don’t buy one. Why would you? Suppose you’re a seamstress in New York. There are about 40,000 other seamstresses there just like you. But the previous winter, at most 3,000 had found work. All of you stitch by hand. None of you want sewing machines. Even if you want one, you can’t afford it. Even if you could, you still wouldn’t use it. It’s a machine, so that’s “men’s work.” In any case, even if you want to use it and could afford it, you still have to wheedle your husband or father to buy it; he controls the money. Besides, you know that men would only offer you low-paying work that no machine could yet do. Nor are you wrong to think so. For example, that year in Bridgeport, Connecticut, only 1,131 females work for money. Of them, a thousand sew shirts. Twenty-nine make boots. Nine make lace. Seven help make carriages. Six make hoop-skirts. Three make saddle parts. Not one uses the latest machines.

Singer’s company helps change all that, but not with anything physical. It comes up with a new tool—the installment plan, a piece of financial engineering whose importance most of us today don’t even notice. It can make a sewing machine for $10, yet it sells one for $25. You can’t afford that, but you only need $5 to bring it home—and end up paying $50 for it by the time you’re done. In 1860, the company sells 13,000 machines—and by 1880, it would go on to sell half a million. Other companies take up the idea. As cities explode, and steam-powered factories spread, you start buying other things on credit. In the burgeoning cities, other new ideas whose importance most of us today don’t notice—like the shop window and the mail-order catalog—multiply. Singer, and others like him, make millions. It’s the biggest boom market in the history of the world.

Meanwhile, over 73,000 factory-made mechanical reapers are already cutting 70 percent of the corn in midwestern fields—and factories are pumping out around 20,000 more a year. Also, as the railroad keeps puffing west, bison slaughter steps up. Soon, as plains natives we would have nothing to eat, wear, or live in. So even when we aren’t being killed or exiled, we starve. As the railroads cobweb the continent, dragging the telegraph and a skein of raw new towns behind them, credit markets explode. Also, as harvesting machines spread, grain shipments explode. For example, in 1838 Chicago had shipped 78 bushels of corn. By 1860 it’s shipping 31 million bushels of grain. You no longer need to make as much food and clothing (or soap and candles) by hand. If you can afford it, you can just buy them in the new stores or from the new mail-order catalogs.

As the genocide and the land rush continues, and the new machines spread, massive reproduction plus massive immigration plus cheaper transport mean more cities plus bigger cities. Like you, many women can now leave home to earn money. That helps push more of you to learn to read. In the newly big cities, the new gaslight makes the streets safer at night, which makes evening classes possible. Once many women can read, the telegraph, the newly cheap steam-printed newspapers, and the newly cheap railroad-carried postal system help you organize meetings and protests. The railroad also gives you new, fast, cheap—and safe—transport. It also feeds the cities still more as it makes leaving the farm both easier and cheaper. As the costs and dangers of travel fall, instead of never seeing a strange face for months at a time, you now meet many new women daily. Now that you can read, you also share their lives through the newly cheap books and magazines. You can also share your grievances through the newspapers and pamphlets. You still can’t vote, but your collective female voice now matters more than before.

It’s now 1880 and your labor life has changed a lot. Slavery is now over—well, legally, anyway—and the farm is no longer the center of your world. Half of us are now working off it, earning a wage. Labor-life change is now constant. For instance, the New York branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association is just about to buy six of the new type-writers. It plans to teach eight women to type. Uproar follows. Many males and females alike say that type-writing means both working with a machine and being surrounded by males, so it’s men’s work. Also, females, by keeping out of money matters, are more virtuous than males. Plus, female bodies are too frail to withstand the strain of office work. Besides, letting females into offices would lower male wages. Surely, too, it would lead to lewdness. Anyway, it would displace men—who have families to feed. That would then destroy the family, all of which would obviously mean the end of the world. As a female, you thus belong at home. If you’re a black, you may well already work for wages, but only you seem to notice. Legal slavery is dead, but state-enforced prejudice is still the norm. You can’t get the schooling you need for clerical work, anyway. Even if you do, you likely wouldn’t get hired. If you’re a native, you’re in the same fix.

However, within six years, 60,000 women would become type-writers. The Type-Writer Girl then becomes an icon for white, urban, literate women in the United States (also in Britain, then some of the rest of Europe). The newspapers and magazines use her in ads aimed at daring women—who might also want to smoke, live on their own, and perhaps even—shock, horror—ride a bicycle in a skirt. Then the same thing happens with shorthand schools—then the latest thing, telephone operators. Office work becomes the new thing among the young aspiring women you know. However, aside from a handful of successful writers, singers, and actors, most working white women are still young, single, urban immigrants. Most still see their low-paying jobs merely as ways to mark time until they can get married, stop getting paid, and become baby-makers.

But the new synergetic pressures continue to drive change. Kids are being forced off the farms and into the factories, then even out of the factories. Like their mothers, they need to prepare for the new industrial demands. No longer would sons always do what their fathers did, nor daughters what their mothers did. To gain new skills they now have to learn to read, so they get stuffed into schools. The new cities mean that a flock of kids can sit in one room, tended by just one adult—often female. That then frees many women from daycare and also creates demand for teachers. So white, urban, literate women can now earn money other than through harlotry, domestic service, factory work, and office work—they can become teachers, librarians, nurses.

It’s now 1900 and many women’s labor lives differ a lot from your labor life in 1800. To someone who lived through it: “the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap and a new one created.” The railroad is everywhere. Big cities, too, are everywhere. (For instance, Chicago is now the fifth largest city on the planet.) Whereas in 1800 only about one in 16 of us there lived in cities, now two in five of us do. Further, as new sewers spread in the new cities, death rates fall. From 1890 to 1930, average life expectancy would shoot up by about 16 years, and average heights would shoot up by about 2.4 inches. Also, as urban densities rise, schooling rises with them. With few natives left to kill, and thus little land left to steal, land starts getting dear again. But with labor still unreliable and low-skilled, machines are everywhere. For example, harvesters help the country produce over half a billion bushels of wheat, which is about a quarter of all the wheat we produce in the entire world.

All those machines mean that food there is still cheap, even though land is getting expensive again and our numbers exploded over the century. But as machines cheapen even further, and child deaths fall, and schooling costs rise, the cost of rearing kids rises, while their farm-labor value falls. With many big cities and many machines, unskilled labor now has less value. Skilled labor has more value, but it costs more to create. So making lots of kids stops making sense.

New ways to prevent pregnancy, or to abort, also cheapen and spread—against strong resistance, both male and female. Over the century, white urban women have halved their average number of babies, from about seven to about three. The rates for black and native women also fall, but not as much. In the new country, as in all industrializing countries, our age-old link between land and bodies to work it breaks.

By 2000, the country’s labor phase change continued to bring about an urban, mobile, literate, low-birthrate, wage-earning woman. It had shifted from 94 percent rural in 1800 to 79 percent urban. However, its labor market remained largely dual, with many paid jobs still mainly male and some mainly female. Thus, many doctors were now female, but more surgeons were male, and more pediatricians were female. Women still had to balance baby-making against wage-earning jobs, and most high-pay, high-status fields were still mainly male.

By 2007 our species was still phase changing out of the agrarian world. In the United States, women made up 28 percent of White House senior aides. Of the active federal judiciary, 24 percent were female. In Congress, 15 percent were female. In the Senate, it was 14 percent. Of the active duty force in the uniformed services, 14 percent were female. Of the 39 active duty four-star officers, zero were female. Across the globe in 2007, of our 758 Nobel Prize winners, 33 were female. Of our 793 billionaires with publicly traded fortunes, 78 were female—and of those, six were self-made; all others married or inherited wealth. Of our 500 largest companies, seven had female CEOs. Of our 100 richest nations, three had female elected heads of state. However in 1800, all those numbers were zero. Had Singer, who died in 1875, lived to see how many women’s lives would change, he would have been as surprised as if a butterfly had pulled a knife on him.

In the Grip of a Metal Hand

Given how synergies have helped shape our labor lives over our past two centuries, what might our near future labor lives be?

In 1850 in the United States, the average work week was around 70 hours; by 1900, the population had tripled, yet the work week had dropped to about 60 hours. In 1900, a year’s worth of food cost an average a year’s worth of food cost an average family about 1,700 hours of labor. By 2000, that effort had fallen by over sixfold. In 1945, a year’s worth of housework—preparing meals, doing laundry, cleaning the house, and such—might have cost an average family about 3,120 hours. By 1975, that time had dropped threefold. From 1900 to 2000, the country’s job market switched from one-quarter to three-quarters professional, managerial, clerical, and sales and service. Thus, in 2006 it had about as many barbers and beauticians as farmers. Even its few remaining farmers weren’t really farmers. They lived on farms, but about 89 percent of their income came from outside farming. From 1900 to 2000, in our presently rich countries as a whole, our average amount of leisure time before retirement rose fourfold. Our average amount of time spent retired rose fivefold. The proportion of us who lived long enough to retire rose sevenfold.

In general, over our past couple centuries, as new tools spread, and the new synergies that they gave rise to locked together, millions of us started shifting from land-as-wealth and bodies-as-wealth to coal-as-wealth and trade-as-wealth.

Many of those changes followed from a tiny few of us trying to pump water out of coal mines in Britain in 1700. Was all that change a one-time thing, or is there anything that we’re doing today that might go on to shape our labor lives in our near future just as much? It’s impossible to be sure, but maybe yes, because we may now be beginning to shift into knowledge-as-wealth and brains-as-wealth.

When it comes to planetary-scale forces, like geology or climate, it’s easy for us to see that we’re in the grip of forces that we don’t control. It may be harder for us to accept that we’re also in the grip of forces that we ourselves create—mostly by accident—but that we still don’t control.

That matters today because network forces didn’t only shape our past; they’re still shaping us today. Because of them, less than a century from now, we may look back and call much of the 1800s to early 1900s ‘The Steam Age,’ and much of the mid 1900s to perhaps the mid 2000s ‘The Computer Age.’

Today, just as with the steam engine centuries ago, one large set of labor changes centers around the computer. One day it will be largely forgotten, just as today the steam engine mostly is, but today’s global network is beginning to do what railroads and steamships began to do for steam engines and mines back in the 1830s—it’s linking computers and brains and thus catalyzing their effects. As a result, a new synergetic network may now be seeding itself. As before, we’re the ones doing it, but, just as with the steam engine, we mostly don’t know what we’re doing, because we don’t know what the outcome of what we’re doing will be.

That similarity may not be coincidence. There’s little really new about computers compared to steam engines because what’s really driving them isn’t semiconductors (or vacuums), but our groups. How they act and react doesn’t seem to change very much whether it’s 1810 or 2010.

Just as with the steam engine, for millennia the computer was an unthinkable thought. Then it abruptly left the dream world and became real. Just as with the steam engine, that happened, first, because it became just barely within our reach, and, second, because of a few local and practical needs—in one case: to aim big guns in a big war. Then, just as with the steam engine, after a while, we figured out a little bit about it and so got better at it, so it began to spread into other niches. In the case of the steam engine, those were what we today would call factory jobs; in the case of the computer, those were what we today would call office jobs. Both kinds of jobs had existed before, but neither was anything like what today’s versions would become.

Again, just as with the steam engine, the computer was a new kind of prime mover—but this time, a mental one. Before it, with one or two minor and recent exceptions, we had only ourselves and our aids. In the mental world we didn’t even have analogs of horses or waterwheels. And today, it’s locked into a development spiral, just as the steam engine once was.

Further, like steam engine performance, computer performance must peak. Thus, computer-powered change must one day taper off. But that’s unlikely to happen soon. Steam-powered change started around 1700 but didn’t end when we perfected large ones around 1800. Nor when we made ones small enough to run on rails and stick on ships around 1830. Nor when we made ones that were even less coal-hungry and even higher-pressure around 1850. Even today, small changes continue in their descendants, steam turbines and Stirling engines. Further, whether those descendants are in coal-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, or wherever, today they help generate around 80 percent of all our electrical power. The labor lives that most of us today lead, whether in our rich world or our poor world, would cease to exist without them.

Similarly, in the 1960s a computer chip factory cost around $14 million U.S. By 2010, a new one could cost about $5 billion, or more. And just designing a chip in the first place could cost another couple billion dollars. Such costs can’t keep rising forever. But whenever they peak won’t mean the end of computers. Likely, big ones will then switch to more exotic tech. Instead of using flat chips, maybe they’ll use three-dimensional wafers. Or perhaps they’ll have optical or quantum parts. But whatever tech they use won’t much matter. They’ll still be big and rare and costly. However, by then, small computers will be so tiny and cheap that we’ll weave them into our contact lenses, shoes, clothes, walls, roads, maybe even our food to act as body monitors. They’ll run off of tiny batteries, or solar power, or radio-frequency power, so they won’t need a power plug. And they’ll be dirt cheap—literally. Many of them will also talk to each other. So they could call on the effort of many others, big and small, all around the planet. Pieces of such distributed machines will routinely go dead, but that won’t matter, because other pieces will simply route around them, surviving as a whole as long as they can patch links between themselves. That is almost surely our future.

By then, if not long before, we’ll make our next leap into darkness, just as the steam engine left the world of vacuums and pistons and entered the world of turbines when the electric motor displaced their first prime-mover purpose.

Some of our rich countries already have more computers than people. Billions more are headed our way, far faster than our numbers can grow, even in our fastest growing nations. So, just as with the steam engine, we’re once again producing something far faster than we need to reproduce to keep producing it.

This time, that something isn’t hands, but brains. Of course, we’re far better than our computers at a huge range of mental tasks. But they vastly surpass us at others. And they’re a lot cheaper. And soon they’ll vastly outnumber us.

However, today we still link them about as well as we linked our coal and iron mines back in 1800. Even with today’s orbital comsats and fiberoptics and the like, when pushing data around the planet today mostly we’re still plodding along on the analogs of muddy packhorse trails. We’re still missing two things vital for full synergy: railroads and factories.

By 2015, about three billion of us were linked in a global computer network. But over seven billion of us were alive, so over four billion of us were still out of the loop. However, by 2030, perhaps over eight billion of us will be alive, probably six in ten of us will be urban, and likely all of those will be online—because our computers will by then be vastly cheaper, smaller, far more linked, and they’ll vastly outnumber us. By then, if not before, billions of us will each have at least rentable access to, perhaps, millions of them. By then, asking one of us, even in our poorest countries, about ‘our computer’ would be as nonsensical as asking us about our paint or plastic or concrete. Likely, most of us may be linked. Computers would have multiplied and shrunk and linked so much that they would be everywhere—and thus, nowhere. Probably long before then our computers will finally have their ‘railroad.’

That alone seems likely to trigger a major reboot in our labor lives, just as the railroad triggered vast new synergies. However, even more change may be ahead if we one day get ‘mental factories’ beyond our single selves. Might those arise?

When automation first came to manual labor starting around 1800, it faced huge barriers, but one by one they fell away and huge changes followed, including major disruptions of our old ways of life. Now automation is coming to mental labor, and it, too, faces huge barriers—starting with the fact that we don’t know how to do it.

But we’ve been down that road before. Not that long ago we couldn’t imagine a future where rootless prime movers outside of ourselves (and our draft animals) existed. Before the steam engine, we had to do most everything physical by hand. For most everything mental, that’s mostly still the case today. We don’t yet have mental steam engines.

Maybe we’ll get our first one through machine intellects. Or maybe we’ll get one through enhancing our own brain. But even if we don’t get one either way—or at least, not soon—it seems likely that long-distance, one-time, bespoke, problem-solving networking will come, and perhaps soon. Bits of that are already a little here as the world goes online. But it’s also already a little here in a few software development niches where firms are no longer local entities but world-wide sets of contracts specifying tasks that are then picked up by others around the planet who are talented enough to do them.

Once upon a time, an average company was tiny, limited to one building, and most everyone in it was related, or was part of one small circle of friends—all, or almost all, male. That company might grow anything, make anything, or do almost any other sort of work, yet its people had to cover all the necessary functions. Thus, merely having an idea needn’t mean much. It’s rare to find someone who can be the brain (who thinks something up), the mouth (who sells it), the wallet (who pays for it), the hand (who builds it), the sword (who defends it), and so on, but still the circle usually had to be small. All sorts of barriers forced those limits on us.

Nowadays, faster and longer-range matter- and data-flow (transport and communication), ever larger markets, and thus ever more money, and ever more competition, can splinter having an idea from testing it, finding the money to build it, getting the money to build it, distributing the money to build it, organizing the people and tools needed to build it, building it, defending it, regulating it, managing it, and owning it. Thus giving rise to: inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, contractor, investor, banker, lawyer, shareholder, director, executive, manager, accountant, designer, marketer, and regulator.

Many such parts are integrated, but mostly only vertically, in the form of firms, institutions, or government agencies. But our still limited mental tools may have forced that particular solution on us. Such tools are widening, and smartening, and as they do they might erode some of our age-old geographic, linguistic, credit, and legal barriers. Today we think of those barriers as fixed things, but they needn’t be. In the long run, they might crumble if new mental tools were to make them less important.

Today a company often means idea and money suppliers, energy and materials suppliers, tool suppliers, buildings containing those tools, labor suppliers working in those buildings, perhaps another set of buildings where product is sold, retail staff working in those buildings, and yet other buildings for office staff, designers, advertisers, and possibly shippers. Most of those workers are still human. And even in large multinationals, while most such people may not be related they’re usually still ‘near’ each other, either in location, language, origin, or friendship circle. But if global linkage costs continue to fall, and if the number and power of mental tools continues to rise (although probably not as fast), our need for those kinds of links may fade. It may no longer matter so much where we live, what language we speak, where we’re from, or even that we knew some other particular person before joining.

If so, no matter how small the company, or how esoteric its product or service, its parts might start splintering as more and more company tasks spin off into world-spanning contracts. More of us around the world might compete to sign up for such a contract, then perhaps farm out some of it, which other contractors might compete for, then they might farm out some of that to yet other contractors, and so on. Many such contractors might live anywhere, speak any language, be any age, and be more female than in ages past. If so, only contracts might then bind such a company together.

Of course, just as when the railroad started linking mines and factories and cities and ports and such, many of us will surely throw up all sorts of barriers—particularly those surrounding individual, corporate, and national competition—but if such global contracts do become viable, then after a while, all that may be left of any such company may be the network that glues producers—whether on farms, in factories, or in offices—to consumers.

Further, more and more of those producers, and even some of their consumers, may be robots—more and more of which may be of any size, from city blocks to gnats, so that some ‘factories’ might even fit in bedroom closets. Why not? Establishing, branding, growing, and marketing such networks across national boundaries would then become such a company’s main business, regardless of what it grows, makes, or serves—or to whom, or what, it serves that to. Increasingly, company reputation would become everything. It would be all that defines the company.

If we allow such companies to come to exist, and if we reward them, they would grow in number and size. Then as they compete, they would skeletonize as other companies arise to help them. For instance, writing, insuring, and enforcing distributed contracts so that they can thrive in varied legal domains might grow so important that it might become a new kind of company’s business. Identifying, targeting, and tracking suitable talent might becoming another kind of company’s business. Designing sets of contracts so that they mesh well, or are standardized, or are accredited, might become yet another kind of company’s business, and so on. Then, several such helper companies could themselves skeletonize. The result could be a bouquet of such skeletonized global companies, driving down global wages but driving up global variety.

Another such kind of helper company might arise to solve problems for other such companies—or for any company at all—or for no company at all, for some of them might do some things for the sheer joy of doing it. In any such group, no one of us need necessarily be superfast or supersmart, but with the right tools and links to others, the group might well be—if not compared to other such groups, certainly compared to a lone person, or any number of lone people. That group might have an edge in terms of facility, creativity, curiosity, or tenacity.

Were such groups to become routine, a new term might enter our languages: ‘metaconcert.’ It might denote how we behave when we mass together to solve problems, for we would then have a new kind of power grid—a mental one—because cleverness would then be on tap. Depending on demand, up to a third of us alive might be in constant touch with each other, and, enhanced with ever more powerful and ever cheaper thinking aids, we might attack our problems—at least technical ones in math, science, engineering, medicine, finance, and business—in ever larger, ever more organized metaconcerts across planetary distances.

Further, if the sheltering effects of location, language, origin, and friendship do indeed decline, any profit-motivated skeletonized groups that survive would have to become ever more nimble. With ever fewer tethers to a physical existence, many such groups may then have the lifespans of mayflies—winking into and out of existence in an eyeblink. Change would be constant, rapid, torrential. As with steam engine dispersal two centuries ago, new centers of ‘mental industry’ would then spring up wherever they’re best suited to grow. So mental production might explode, just as physical production once did when rails synergetically linked coal and iron.

None of the above need happen. Maybe it won’t. But if, like the steam engine, we’re enticed to solve one problem after another between here and there, then by around 2030 or so, if not before, we might be nearing the same sort of cusp point that the steam engine took us to by about 1830. If so, we may be headed for the next biggest boom market in the history of the world.

‘Computer Revolution?’ Feh. It probably hasn’t happened yet.