Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization - Steven Solomon (2010)
Part II. Water and the Ascendancy of the West
Chapter 9. Steam Power, Industry, and the Age of the British Empire
The Industrial Revolution completed the transformation of English sea power and colonial wealth in the age of wood and sail into history’s first globally dominant economy and hegemonic political empire. An ongoing process that amassed spontaneous, critical takeoff in Britain’s private market economy during the sixty-year reign from 1760 of King George III, the Industrial Revolution wrought such thorough changes in every aspect of human society, from daily life, social organization, and demographics to political relations, that it compared in historical significance to the irrigated Agriculture Revolution at the start of civilization some 5,000 years earlier. At the catalytic fulcrum of the Industrial Revolution were innovative applications of waterpower. This featured not merely new uses for traditional waterwheels, but above all the breakthrough use of water in a previously unexploited form—steam.
Geographically, Britain had been richly endowed with both sea and inland water resources that could be propitiously exploited by the technology cluster of the age. Thus while its naval and merchant fleets were taking advantage of the island-nation’s many excellent harbors, long indented coastlines, defensive sea moat, and the favorable direction of the currents and winds in the English Channel, early industrial entrepreneurs were starting to exploit the rural interior’s many fast-running, perennial, small rivers and streams that were both easily navigable and capable of generating substantial power by waterwheels. Indeed, Britain in its nineteenth-century glory may have commanded the globe by its rule of the ocean waves, but the economic might upon which its empire rested flourished principally upon its inland waterways.
England’s Industrial Revolution was born in two, overlapping phases in the small industries that developed alongside the small rivers of Britain’s rural Midlands region. Centered in Lancashire, the first phase was driven by the emergence of the waterwheel, and then steam-powered, cotton textile factories in which traditional home handicraft work was reorganized into a standardized, mechanized manufacturing system of specialized functions performed at a central location. The second phase, which gathered momentum later and depended entirely on the energy outputs achievable only by steam, was centered in Shropshire on the production of cast iron from which the heavy industries of the late nineteenth century derived. By combining the power of steam and iron with its superior navy, British sea power became invincible and extended its dominance from coastlines up into the waterway interiors of foreign states. Britain’s accelerating industrial productivity, economic wealth, and widening distribution of income to the middle classes became a self-propagating, dynamic phenomenon that completed the free market’s historical migration from the seafaring trade periphery to the very center of world economic society.
As so often in history, necessity was the mother of the great innovations that sparked the Industrial Revolution. For nearly two centuries from the days of Shakespeare, Drake, and Queen Elizabeth to the eve of the American colonies’ War of Independence, even while its navy was vanquishing its foes on the high seas, England suffered at home from an acute fuel famine caused by the early depletion of British forests. Thus while France and its continental rivals enjoyed ample wood resources, England struggled with shortages that steadily drove up the cost of wood charcoal and timber needed to heat English homes, fire its cannon-producing iron foundries, and construct ships for its navy. The fuel famine was exacerbated by the fact that Europe was still in the throes of the Little Ice Age (mid-fifteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries) when English temperatures were 1-2º centigrade colder than in the early twentieth century, cropland and woodlands were receding, and the Thames often froze over.
As a substitute for costly firewood, Britain intensively mined the plentiful seams of coal that lay near the surface of many parts of the Midlands and Northern England. Although coal could provide heat, only wood charcoal burned hot enough to reduce iron ore in blast furnaces to make iron. Thus when Abraham Darby, an ironmaster at Coalbrookedale on the Severn River, in 1709 independently reinvented a process long ago discovered in China for converting coal into coke that could be used to fire blast furnaces, it raised hopes that coal would also deliver England from the fuel bottleneck causing the nation’s chronic iron shortage.
Yet two mundane obstacles continued to impede England’s relief from the fuel famine. First was simply the difficulty of transporting huge volumes of coal from the mining districts. Packhorses and carts moved slowly, unreliably and expensively on the poor, muddy roads. Some coal near coastal cities moved by sea for use in the coal burning hearths of London and other seaports. But to meet the great demand from the nation’s growing interior industrial regions, another transportation solution was needed. The second obstacle was that as miners dug deeper shafts to extract more coal, their excavations hit the water tables. To remove water they dug drains into the hillside and used lift pumps powered by horses or, if a suitable source of running water was available, by waterwheel. But the deeper they mined below the water table, the greater volumes of floodwater made it ever harder for them to excavate enough coal reserves to fulfill even the country’s most basic, rising demand.
Thus Britain’s fuel famine continued unabated. As late as 1760, the high cost and shortage of coal and timber was forcing the country to import half its iron from foundries in virgin forests of Sweden and Russia. One-third of its new shipbuilding was being outsourced to shipyards on the timber-rich eastern seaboard of its American colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. Unless relief came soon, Britain’s incipient Industrial Revolution faced premature stultification. The endurance of its still modest empire would be in doubt. The fuel famine was leaving “many domestic hearths cold,” comments English historian Trevelyan and “if the old economic system had continued unchanged after 1760, it is doubtful whether the existing seven millions could have continued much longer to inhabit the island in the same degree of comfort as before.”
England’s Industrial Revolution was rescued by two catalytic water engineering breakthroughs. The first was an unforeseen inland transport canal building boom, spontaneously generated and financed entirely by England’s burgeoning private sector, which swiftly created a national waterway network unique in the world outside China that greatly stimulated economic expansion. The pioneer of Britain’s canal age was a youthful aristocrat, Francis Egerton, the Duke of Bridgewater, who financed and built the short, but influential Bridgewater Canal between 1759 and 1761. Bridgewater’s inherited estates had included a large coal mine, from which he earned a contentedly handsome income. However, when Bridgewater lost his much-beloved wife to another man, he rechanneled his ardor to the personal dream of building a transport canal from his colliery to the growing industrial mills of Manchester. He calculated that such a canal would enable him to slash the price of his coal in half and thereby garner him a much-larger share of the local coal market.
Although Manchester was only 10 miles distant, the landscape posed complicated hydraulic challenges for the construction of a canal. The terrain was hilly. There were few local streams to provide enough water to float barges. But he had little doubt as to the canal’s technical feasibility because as a young man on his continental Grand Tour, Bridgewater had visited France’s Languedoc region and witnessed firsthand the most wondrous canal in European history, the Canal du Midi. Built between 1666 and 1681 with the endorsement of King Louis XIV, who was then trying to expand the French navy, the 150-mile-long Canal du Midi created a secure, domestic inland waterway shortcut that united France’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts without any need to sail through Gibraltar and around Spain. The interior region it crossed soon throbbed with new economic activity. The canal was an engineering marvel, later hailed by Voltaire as a glorious achievement, that ascended and descended a summit elevation of 620 feet above sea level; accomplishing this feat required some 328 structures, including 103 locks, dams to furnish water for the channel, the bridges, and a 500-yard canal tunnel, Europe’s first. Bridgewater thus knew that his more modest canal, although difficult, could be built. Moreover, he was ready to risk his entire fortune to accomplish it.
One main challenge of building any canal was to maintain slow water current so that barges could be towed along easily in either direction. One engineering approach was to follow nature’s topographical contours, as China’s founding Ch’in dynasty had done 2,000 years earlier with the Magic Canal. But that required an accommodatingly gentle landscape and a much longer canal. The ancient Assyrians and Romans had devised aqueducts to maintain steady, gravity-flow gradients across hilly landscapes. A more modern solution, widely used in hilly regions, was to artificially divide the canal into a series of stepped segments with an adjustment mechanism to raise or lower canal barges between the differing water levels of each segment. Through early medieval times, societies had often erected single, flat gates—flash locks—between canal segments. As a downstream canal barge approached, the lock gate was opened and the boat flashed through the resulting rapids. Travel upstream was much harder, requiring manual hauling of barges with ropes and windlasses by labor gangs of men and animals; often the barge was dragged up a slipway from the waterway below the level of the lock and returned to water at the higher level. China’s monumental Grand Canal had originally relied wholly on simple flash locks and massive amounts of brute manpower to lift boats, dredge channels, and maintain embankments until the 984 innovation of the double-gated pound lock which exploited water’s buoyancy properties to lift or lower barges as water filled or was released within the two gates. In Europe, navigation canals with locks had been built in the Low Countries in the fourteenth century. Leonardo da Vinci took a keen interest in Milan’s extensive network of canals, including the 18-lock Berguardo Canal of 1485 that ascended 80 feet, and designed a version of the modern chamber lock with efficient, upstream-facing gates that closed in a V shape so that the water pressure from the downstream current helped seal the lock against wasteful leakage. Leonardo’s design facilitated the building of a stairway of successive chamber locks capable of climbing and descending long, steep hillsides. By the seventeenth century, canal engineering leadership had passed to France, which was still confident enough of its hydraulic skills in the nineteenth century to take on the building of the Canal du Midi’s historical heir, the Suez Canal.
Thus when the Duke of Bridgewater embarked on his canal, native English know-how still lagged far behind. As a chief engineer Bridgewater selected James Brindley, a self-taught expert who learned his skills by wit and experience garnered at various jobs since youth, including as a machinery maintenance man at regional water mills. Brindley and Bridgewater opted for a no-lock design with an aqueduct bridge to maintain the steady gradient. To supply the water needed to fill the canal, they also tapped the troublesome, high water tables that often flooded the coal mine and had to be drained anyway. Through his ultimate success on the Bridgewater Canal, Brindley would come to epitomize the new, self-made man of the era and eventually be renowned as Britain’s leading canal engineer. Yet while the 400 laborers were toiling on the pioneering canal, faith in its success at times sank so low that it seemed as if Bridgewater would run through his personal fortune before the technical challenges were overcome. Many whispered that he had gone mad. At the lowest moment, banks in Manchester and Liverpool refused to honor the Duke’s £500 check. In the end, however, the success of the Bridgewater Canal became one of the inspiring marvels of the age. People traveled long distances to see it, especially its three-arched, elevated segment that transported 12-ton coal barges 200 yards above the River Irwell. Out of public view was another of the canal’s marvels—many miles of underground channels dug deep into the mine itself to expedite the loading of freshly excavated coal at source onto barges. In the end Bridgewater’s coal was delivered to Manchester even more inexpensively than the Duke had originally calculated. Soaring coal sales made the Duke of Bridgewater one of England’s richest men.
The Bridgewater Canal ignited a frenzy of English canal building. Within a mere few decades, the private-canal boom created an extensive, economical inland waterway network to move coal by barge among all the mining and industrial districts of the Midlands, North, Thames Valley, and the nation’s seaports. Bridgewater and Brindley themselves went on to finance and construct a canal from Manchester to Liverpool and one from the Trent River to the Mersey, which cut a waterway across Britain’s middle from the North Sea to the Irish Sea. In all, the canal frenzy added 3,000 miles of navigable inland waterways to Britain’s existing 1,000-mile network.
That the canal boom was driven by private barge and toll operating companies that raised capital from London’s growing financial markets helped excite the capitalist “animal spirits” across Britain’s burgeoning laissez-faire economy, whose still unfamiliar, self-regulating “invisible hand” and wealth-creating mechanisms were just beginning to be expounded, most famously by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. The canal boom whet the risk appetite of London’s financiers to underwrite further industrial investments, which in turn stimulated greater capital accumulation and a new cycle of low-cost lending and investment. A half century later Britain’s canal boom would be replicated—with remarkably similar, stimulating effects—across the Atlantic in the eastern United States with the completion in 1825 of the 363-mile-long Erie Canal.
The first rapid improvement in British transport since Roman times provided by the new canal network was a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for overcoming the country’s fuel famine and launching its Industrial Revolution. Britain first needed an antidote for the mine flooding that constrained the volume of coal that could be excavated. Removing floodwater was a problem that had long vexed mine operators in the tin regions of Cornwall as well as the coal fields of the Midlands and the North. Among the many methods tried, the most effective was the application of waterwheel-powered pumps. Yet waterwheels required a dependable nearby source of swift running water, something lacking at most British mines. Thus another solution was needed. In the event, the invention of the steam engine, spurred by profit-seeking market forces, would deliver the seminal breakthrough that unlocked Britain’s natural resource wealth and propel the creation of a radically new society based on mass industrial power and production.
Although water was the only common substance on Earth to exist in nature as a liquid, a gas, and a solid over a wide temperature range, civilizations heretofore had utilized it primarily in its liquid state. The expansive force of steam—water in its heated, gaseous form—had been understood in antiquity going back to Hero of Alexandria nearly two millennia earlier. Leonardo da Vinci had drawn sketches of a theoretical steam-powered bellows and cannon. Yet no one had actually tried to apply the scientific knowledge about steam to a practical technology. Only in the late seventeenth century, following new scientific discoveries about atmospheric pressure, did Denis Papin, a French-born physicist who had worked in London with physicist Robert Boyle, invent a practical steam pressure cooker and write conceptually about some of the basic designs upon which the first steam engines would be based. In 1698, a British military engineer, Thomas Savery, built the first functioning steam pumps to remove water from the Cornish tin mines, although they were highly unstable and tended to explode.
Credit for building history’s first successful atmospheric steam engine belonged to Thomas Newcomen, a Dartmouth blacksmith who worked for a time forging Savery’s pump. Installed at a coal mine in 1712, the Newcomen engine lifted about 10 gallons of water 153 feet at each stroke. The Newcomen steam engine, however, had many drawbacks that limited its usefulness. It was huge—requiring its own two-story-tall building to house it—and it generated little more horsepower than a good waterwheel. Moreover, it burned prodigious amounts of coal to heat the water into steam, and thus could be profitably used only at a coal mine. It was also thermally very inefficient. With the coal market still impeded by the pre-canal-boom transport bottleneck, Newcomen’s engines diffused too slowly to overcome the coal shortage and Britain’s fuel famine. By 1734, there were less than a hundred pumping water from English coal mines.
The historic breakthrough that would power the takeoff of the Industrial Revolution awaited the invention of a steam engine superior to Newcomen’s. That steam engine was first patented in 1769 by a thirty-three-year-old Scotsman, James Watt, and began to be installed commercially in 1776. One of the first ways it was put to use was pumping water from a coal mine, where in its first hour it emptied a pit containing 57 feet of water. About the same time, another was put to work powering the bellows that forced air into the iron furnaces of prominent ironmaster John Wilkinson, foreshadowing the momentous impact it was soon to have on iron casting. The surpassing historical import of his steam engine made Watt one of the most celebrated luminaries of the remarkable eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment that included philosopher David Hume, political economist Adam Smith, geologist James Hutton, chemist James Black, and poet Robert Burns. Watt also became the object of an adulatory biography by no less than late nineteenth-century industrial-age U.S. steel baron (and Scottish emigrant) Andrew Carnegie, and was immortalized for all posterity by the naming of a common measure of electrical energy after him—the watt.
A mathematical instrument maker and land surveyor with a scientific mind and conversant with many scientists at the University of Glasgow, Watt was the son of a shipbuilder, architect, and maker of nautical devices. By his midteens Watt was making models of instruments, and soon went off to London as an apprentice instrument-maker. He returned to Glasgow and in 1757 opened his own instrument-making shop at the university. In 1763, he was asked to repair the university’s lab-scale model of the Newcomen engine. Struck by the engine’s wasteful loss of four-fifths of its heat, Watt began to investigate how to improve its efficiency. The heart of the Newcomen steam engine was a cylinder, which when filled with steam pushed out an attached piston. Cooling the cylinder condensed the steam into water, creating a vacuum. The piston was pushed back into the cylinder by atmospheric pressure. Anything attached to the piston, such as a pump, could thus move up and down to perform useful work. Through trial and error experimentation, Watt discovered that the main source of the Newcomen engine’s inefficient waste of steam was the need to directly cool the heated cylinder between each stroke. His inspirational breakthrough came in 1765: using a separate condenser for the steam allowed the cylinder to remain continuously hot, more than doubling the efficiency of the engine. He soon had a design that quadrupled the Newcomen engine’s output. Watt’s design was also far more compact, and therefore maneuverable, than Newcomen’s behemoth.
Watt’s revolutionary modern steam engine accelerated mining of British coal and tin by removing floodwater, while the discharged mine water was put to productive use as a supplemental source of supply for the new transport network of canals. Indeed, Watt’s decade-long delay from design to installing his first commercial steam engine was due, in part, to his being frequently called away to work as a land surveyor during the canal boom that had just begun. He had commercial and technical problems too. His first business partner, John Roebuck, who had commissioned him to build a steam engine to help pump water from his coal mine but never got much benefit from it because the iron workmanship available in Scotland at the time proved inadequate to the precision, quality machining required by its large cylinder and tightly fitting pistons, went bankrupt. Eventually, Roebuck sold his partnership interest in 1775 to Matthew Boulton, a well-to-do buckle and button maker from Birmingham to where Watt had relocated in search of more skillful iron making. Watt soon found the necessary quality in the shop of ironmaster John Wilkinson, who produced Watt’s precision cylinder with the new boring machine tool he used to make cannons for the British navy. Armed with a twenty-five-year patent extension granted by an act of Parliament, Boulton and Watt began business in 1775.
The partnership of Boulton and Watt was one of the most remarkable in business history. Boulton’s business acumen complemented Watt’s technical ingenuity. Boulton’s integrity allowed both to prosper, without the rapacious exploitation of the inventor by the entrepreneur so common in early business history. Indeed, Boulton went to great pains to shield his easily distressed and risk averse partner from the many financial stresses of the business, especially in its first dozen years. Both became active members of Birmingham’s famous arts and sciences Lunar Society, and in 1785 were elected fellows in the Royal Society.
Boulton brilliantly promoted their steam engines with the flair of a natural-born pitchman: “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have: Power.” In a foreshadowing of the organizational science-industrial systemization of the innovation process, the scientist Watt devised new steam engine designs to meet market opportunities identified by Boulton. On June 21, 1781, Boulton exhorted Watt to devise what would become the second great development in the Watt engine—rotary motion. Urgently, he wrote to Watt: “The people in London, Manchester and Birmingham, are Steam Mill Mad…I dont mean to hurry you into any determination, but I think in the course of a Month or two we should determine to take out a patent for certain methods of producing Rotative Motions.” The original engine’s up and down motion was fine for pumping water out of mines or from rivers to deliver larger volumes of freshwater to growing cities. But Boulton saw a much larger market arising among the new waterwheel-driven cotton and other manufactories springing up around crowded waterwheel sites on England’s small rivers. The convergence of Watt’s 1782 rotary steam engine with the independently arising factory system of mechanized production hurtled England’s Industrial Revolution into accelerated gear.
The factory system was the direct descendant of the water-powered, medieval Mechanical Revolution. History’s first modern factory was the water frame cotton spinning machine mill opened in 1771 at Nottingham by Richard Arkwright. Its nine horsepower waterwheel drove 1,000 spindles and turned out cotton thread of superior quality, and in far greater volume and productivity than any traditional, home-based handicraft producer. It was an immediate success. Arkwright was not an inventor, but a guileful entrepreneur with a genius for organizing production and sales and in raising capital. As an enterprising Lancashire wigmaker and traveling barber in the textile districts where small batch work was still done from cottages, he had spotted his main chance with the water frame—and was not about to miss it. The textile industry had been undergoing rapid growth from the combined stimulus of design improvements in hand-powered spinning machines and the availability of cheap raw cotton from India. Arkwright’s water frame was inspired by the model of an early eighteenth-century Darby silk-stocking factory powered by a 13-foot-diameter waterwheel and spinning machines whose design had been pirated from Italy. The water frame was the brainchild of an obscure inventor whom Arkwright promptly discarded and severed from any share of his ample rewards, which included becoming one of England’s wealthiest men and the honor of knighthood.
Once established in business, Arkwright moved adroitly to dominate the booming early English cotton industry. Within a decade, his water-powered factories were running day and night with several thousand mechanically driven spindles and over 300 workers, most of whom were docile, low wage women and children performing specialized functions overseen by a few male supervisors. Despite aggressive sanctions against British technology exports, the early Arkwright water frame mill design was soon smuggled into the United States in the lucid memory of a fortune-seeking English textile employee where it became the technology backbone for launching New England’s vibrant waterwheel-powered textile industry. The steam power threshold in textiles manufacturing was crossed in 1785 when Arkwright installed a Boulton and Watt engine to open the world’s first steam-powered cotton mill. In 1790 Samuel Crompton’s even more powerful, larger, hybrid-function spinning mule was adapted for steam power, and became the new standard for cotton spinning factories.
The transition from flowing waterwheel to steam-driven factories wrought a fundamental change in the way society was organized. Early water-flow-powered factories had been located at remote, rural sites where waterpower could most easily be exploited year-round—indeed, English streams had a comparative advantage over would-be competitors in southern Europe where similar-sized streams tended to run low or dry in summers. Labor came to these rural factories, often in the form of live-in child workers from foundling homes and workhouses. With the application of steam, everything changed. Factories moved out of the rural stream valleys and relocated in towns and cities, closer to their markets and where the key inputs of wage labor and coal were abundant and cheap. Steam, in short, brought industrial urbanization. Huge textile factories sprang up. Manchester, which had only two factories in 1782, had 52 two decades later. English cotton output surged, while its production costs and selling prices plunged.
Cotton exporters soon gained a stranglehold on markets throughout the world. Thanks to factory production, by 1789 British factories using Indian cotton were able to produce goods less expensively than Indian hand weavers themselves. In this manner, the rise of Britain’s steam-powered factory system became interlinked with the political economy and militant expansion of British colonialism. The voracious intensity of the manufacturing expansion and its impact on local and distant societies can be apprehended in the fact that in a mere thirteen years between 1789 and 1802, British raw cotton imports for spinning accelerated twelvefold, from 5 million pounds to 60 million pounds, versus a fivefold growth over the preceding ninety years. The need to secure overseas raw material supplies and end-markets for the tide of British-made goods inexorably became a central focus of official British government policy and motivation for many nineteenth-century British naval missions.
The steam engine’s catalytic effect on the expansion of the factory system of production was spectacular. Almost overnight, the production of goods was transformed from a centuries-old handicraft industry performed largely by individuals at home into a collaborative, standardized and mechanized system performed at a common factory location by large employee teams on precise time schedules. From about 1780, industrial growth in Britain startlingly quadrupled from an average 1 percent to 4 percent per year, and remained at that elevated level for about a century.
Watt worked continuously to improve the steam engine, experimenting with steam pressures, valves, and cylinder designs—and trying to stay one step ahead of patent infringers, including John Wilkinson, who pirated around the edges of Boulton and Watt’s design. In 1788, at Boulton’s suggestion, Watt added a governor to automatically regulate engine speed, and in 1790, a pressure gauge. By the end of the eighteenth century, Watt’s steam engine was far more powerful and fuel efficient, as well as smaller and more portable, than the one they had begun selling less than a quarter century earlier. The average engine generated about 25 horsepower, although many were capable of up to 100 horsepower. Watt, sixty-four, retired as contented, healthy, wealthy, and celebrated in his own time as any man could reasonably hope to be when Boulton and Watt’s original twenty-five-year partnership disbanded in 1800. He died in 1819, at age eighty-three.
In all nearly 500 Boulton and Watt steam engines were sold by 1800. The uses to which they were put provided a time capsule snapshot of the era’s most dynamic activities. A large number were used to pump water out of coal and tin mines. Others were used to drive the bellows in blast furnaces that were producing Britain’s fast rising output of high-quality cast iron. Most frequently, by the end of the century, they directly powered factories for cotton, wool, beer, flour, and china. In 1786, all London came to marvel at the spectacle of two steam engines driving fifty pairs of millstones at the world’s largest flour mill. Many of the original Boulton and Watt engines were used to raise ever larger volumes of river water for delivery to expanding urban water supply systems.
The delivery of freshwater for drinking, sanitation, and other domestic uses had been an increasingly critical challenge as cities grew in population size and density. Waterwheel pumps installed upon urban rivers in the seventeenth century represented the first advance in domestic water supply provision in Europe since the aqueducts of ancient Rome, even though polluted water and insufficient pumping power remained constant problems. The Seine at Paris had a single undershot-waterwheel-powered pump below the recently built Pont Neuf as early as 1608, and added another at the Pont Notre Dame in 1670. The largest and most famous waterworks of the seventeenth century was installed in 1684 on the Seine to serve Louis XIV’s royal fountains and gardens at Versailles. It featured 14 undershot wheels, each nearly 40 feet in diameter, turned by water derived from a dam in the Seine and powering 259 pumps that raised 800,000 gallons of water per day more than 500 feet in three stages. The Thames had a waterwheel pump under the London Bridge as early as 1582. But it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666—disastrous fires being another constant peril of urban life until the application of steam pumps to firefighting.
Steam power first had been applied in 1726 on both the Thames and the Seine with the placement of early Newcomen engines. Much larger Newcomen engines were added in London after 1752. Yet the engine’s inefficiency goaded John Smeaton, the father of modern civil engineering, to conduct methodical scientific investigations into ways to enhance it—in much the same spirit of the age that impelled Watt soon thereafter to explore ways to improve the Newcomen engine. One of the earliest Boulton and Watt steam engines was installed at London in 1778 and pumped water through the city’s network of wooden pipes for distribution to households three times per week. Watt steam engines tripled the average daily water supply of water-starved Paris from about one to three gallons per person after the Périer brothers, Jacques and Auguste, installed powerful steam pumps at two locations on the river in 1782 that lifted the river water 110 feet. Reflecting a repetitive pattern of history, first served was the wealthy Saint-Honoré district, while Paris’s 20,000 omnipresent water carriers, who toted two buckets per delivery 30 times per day were left to anxiously contemplate the inevitable demise of their long-lived profession and livelihood. In America, Philadelphia earned admiration from visitors for its Fairmount Waterworks on the Schuylkill River, opened in 1815 in response to the public clamor against the city’s industrially polluted, fetid, and insufficient water supply. Fairmount soon became the most profitable enterprise in Philadelphia. Its steam-powered pumps were designed by native son engineer Oliver Evans, based on a high-pressure system that Watt himself had eschewed as too dangerous. Water was pumped up to a hilltop reservoir and distributed by gravity flow throughout the city in log and cast-iron pipes. Evans’s steam engines remained in use only until 1822, however. Due to explosions that shut down the water system, they were replaced by a battery of lower-tech, but more reliable, waterwheels, and after 1860 by water turbines.
Just as revolutionary as the application of steam power to factories was its use in powering the bellows that heated Britain’s blast furnaces. Steam power facilitated the mass production of high-quality, inexpensive cast iron—which quickly became the great building material of the industrial age. Until then, limited forged iron supplies had been reserved mainly for making British naval cannons and other vital equipment. Steam power and iron had a dynamic synergy that galvanized a virtuous circle of self-reinforcing economic expansion that made them the core technology cluster of the second, mass production phase of the Industrial Revolution. Steam power helped cast more iron; more iron produced durable devices and applications to which steam power could be applied. With its blast furnaces working at full capacity, England’s iron production soared more than twentyfold to nearly 1.4 million tons in the half century from 1788 to 1839.
The synergy between steam and iron was displayed in Boulton and Watt’s interrelationship with iron master Wilkinson, who both fabricated key precision parts for Watt engines and used one engine to drive his own influential iron bellows. Wilkinson also employed a 20 pound, steam-powered hammer to pound his cast iron at 150 strokes per minute. Wilkinson’s many innovative iron applications included the first iron-hulled river barge in 1787, which carried coal and iron along the Severn River. He built the first iron bridge across a river—the Severn at Coalbrookdale—and a steam-powered threshing machine. His major client was the British military, which depended upon his large furnaces for building the cannon and artillery used by Horatio Nelson and others to defeat Napoléon. Wilkinson kept experimenting with iron right to the very end of his life—he even designed the iron coffin in which he was buried.
Paradoxically, another of the important early uses of the steam engine, including by Boulton himself at his small metal goods factory at Birmingham, was to lift water to accelerate the turning rate of conventional waterwheels. The power output of waterwheels was vastly enhanced by the supplemental flows lifted by steam-power and the design of large, all-iron wheels. By the early nineteenth century, the most powerful waterwheels generated a stunning 250 horsepower—and remained more cost effective than coal burning steam engines. In the 1830s, the power generated by falling water was significantly augmented by the French invention of the hydraulic turbine. In latter nineteenth-century America, for example, the Mastodon Mill on New York’s Mohawk River generated 1,200 horsepower by taking water into its giant turbines through 102-inch-diameter pipes to drive 10 miles of belts, 70,000 spindles, and 1,500 looms. which produced 60,000 yards of cotton per day. Thus the use of waterpower continued to grow alongside steam. Only after the mid-nineteenth century did steam visibly supersede waterpower.
The harnessing of steam energy shattered the waterwheel-power barrier that for 2,000 years had been the ceiling of mankind’s command over Earth’s inanimate energy resources. Steam utterly transformed the speed, scale, mobility, and intensity of man’s material existence. The fundamental nature of human society was reshaped, and propelled history in entirely new, previously inconceivable directions. The overwhelming benefits accrued first to the West, whose economic trajectory took off with seemingly magical force.
Within a few decades, steam power was propelling iron locomotives, riverboats, oceangoing gunboats, large dredgers, and earthmoving equipment. The face of Earth was literally resculpted by immense hydraulic civil engineering undertakings. Mass production factories swallowed handicraft trade. Small cities first born in the ancient, irrigated agricultural civilizations became giant metropolises. The most amazing transformation of all was that for the first time in human history the prodigious wealth created by the intensified uses of water and other productive resources outstripped the record-shattering eruption in human population—causing individual living standards, as well as individual health and longevity, to perceptibly rise from one generation to the next.
Except for relatively short-lived, localized spurts, nothing like it had ever before happened in human history. All previous economic gains had been so slowly accrued that they were visible in retrospect only as a gentle increase in the supportable level of a society’s population. Changelessness had been the enduring condition of daily life, from birth to death, century after century. As recently as the three centuries from 1500 to 1820, for instance, average world economic production per person rose a mere 1.7 percent per century. Over the next eighty years of early industrialization, by comparison, it nearly doubled, then quadrupled again in the late twentieth century. This unprecedented leap forward in individual living standards from 1820 to 2000 occurred even as overall world population was soaring from 1 to 6 billion. With the sudden explosion of economic wealth, a revolutionary new social concept infiltrated human politics, economics, and society—an expectation of progress.
That the stupendous break from all previous growth trend lines itself was accompanied by a stunning enlargement in the accessible supply of freshwater was no historical anomaly: in every age from the advent of irrigated agriculture, rising civilizations seem to have experienced contemporaneous, quantum leaps in the availability or exploitability of their water resources. The Industrial Revolution intensified this pattern. From 1700 to 2000, freshwater use grew more than twice as fast as human population. In the twentieth century alone, world water use would multiply ninefold—comparable in impact on society to the thirteenfold increase in energy use. Indeed, the unprecedented prosperity and population growth of the industrial age was driven as much by voluminous use of freshwater as it was by cheap fossil fuel energy. The augmented supply, in turn, stimulated still greater demand for new and existing uses of water.
As in all great water breakthroughs, steam transformed water’s extraordinary, latent catalytic energy potential into productive use. But steam power’s impact was exceptionally seismic because it leveraged further innovations throughout all man’s primary realms of water use—economic production in industry, agriculture and mining; domestic uses for drinking, cooking, and cleanliness; transportation and strategic advantage in commerce, communication and naval power; and not least in energy generation itself, where it set in motion a cascade of advances that exponentially multiplied mankind’s ability to tap nature’s energy for his purposes.
Just as river irrigation came to be the defining fulcrum of ancient hydraulic states, steam power stamped an indelible imprint on the essential character of modern industrial society. The mobility of steam power freed man for the first time in history to deploy significant power anywhere and anytime. Paradoxically, this both democratized society and deepened fundamental pillars of hierarchical control. On the one hand, small-scale steam power promoted decentralization, diversity of activity, and pluralism of interests. On the other, within established sectors, it enabled steam power Haves to better exploit economies of scale and amass oligopolistic concentrations of economic power and wealth. In warfare, the cost-benefits of steam power were less ambiguous. It fostered greater state control over organized violence and the rise to preeminence of more solidly entrenched nation-states.
Thanks to steam people moved much faster and farther than ever before imagined. The farthest distance a man could cover in a single day from antiquity to the mid-nineteenth century by sail, oar, or horseback had been 100 miles per day; suddenly, steam power enabled him to traverse 400 miles per day by ship or rail. The pace of communication, trade, and large-scale human movement between places accelerated. Thus began the historic defeat of distance that marked the transportation and communication revolutions and evolved into the oceanic, intermodal sea-to-rail, containerized shipping and telecommunications web of the twenty-first century, cornerstones of the integrated information age society.
Richard Trevithick built the first steam locomotive, or “Iron Horse,” in 1802 in Shropshire. When long iron bridges were engineered to carry trains over rivers and other landscape barriers, steam engine railroads superseded canal and barge transport systems in transporting coal, other freight, and people across continents. The U.S. transcontinental steam railroad drove its final, golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869. The fabled Orient Express made its debut run from London to Paris to Istanbul in 1888.
In water transport, wood and sail was superseded by a more tightly interlinked oceanic era of iron and steam. American Robert Fulton ordered a Boulton and Watt steam engine to power the maiden voyage of his 100-ton steamboat, the paddle-wheel driven Clermont, up the Hudson River in 1807, which opened the era of commercially successful river steamboats. Fulton’s was not the first river steamboat, nor even the first in America. In 1778, the eccentric, ill-starred American inventor John Fitch sailed a ship named after himself on the Delaware, but failed to establish a successful business model. Soon steamboats were servicing America’s Great Lakes and Mississippi; Europe’s wide rivers like the Rhine, Danube, Rhone, and Seine; and appeared in the Mediterranean, the English Channel, and the Baltic Sea. In 1819 the Savannah, powered by a 90-horsepower engine that turned a collapsible paddle wheel, became the first steam-power-assisted ship to cross the Atlantic, covering the distance in twenty-seven and a half days, though using her engine only eighty-five hours. Regular transatlantic service started in 1838. A journey that routinely took sailing ships two months required only nine days by fast steamer in 1857. By 1866, after ten years of effort, Cyrus W. Field successfully laid a communications cable under the Atlantic; by 1900 there were 15 cables on the Atlantic floor, facilitating intercontinental exchanges. Without such developments it was inconceivable that 55 to 70 million Europeans could have emigrated to the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere from 1830 to 1920, relieving the chronic labor shortages that threatened to choke off America’s westward frontier expansion and Europe of its excess industrial unemployed who threatened domestic uprisings such as those of 1848.
The great age of the ocean steamer arrived after 1870 with the development of the screw propeller in the 1840s, compound engines in the 1850s, steel hulls in the 1860s—and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Steamships between China and Europe, for example, shipped three times as much cargo in half the time taken by a sailing ship. A worldwide steamship network evolved that regularly carried grain to Europe from America’s Great Plains, Argentina and Australia, while wheat, indigo, rice and rubber moved into Europe through Suez from India and Southeast Asia.
As with previous water transportation innovations, the cheaper cost of steam power helped realign geopolitical world balances. Steam made every society on Earth a potential raw material supplier, as well as a potential market, for Europe’s fast-growing industries. A relationship of subservient interdependence evolved between colonial satellites and their European masters. Outside Europe, diverse, self-sufficient subsistence economies driven by land-owning peasant farmers gave way to large, specialized single crop plantations manned by sharecropper labor producing chiefly for export to Europe and economies dependent upon imports of previously self-made goods. In the new world economic order that came into being, an ever more dominant and richer Western industrialized manufacturing center was supplied by a colonial periphery with unskilled labor and few developmental paths to garner a growing, relative share of the world’s increasing wealth.
The revolutionary effects of the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, with its main channel reserved for steamships and only a small freshwater side channel for sailing vessels, intensified the interlinking of this colonial world order. British steamboats using the canal could travel to India in only three weeks compared to the three months it took a generation earlier to sail around Africa’s Cape. As a result, within a year of the canal’s opening, Indian wheat was being exported in large volumes to England. British manipulation of land tax policies in India helped maintain wheat exports even during the acute Indian famine of 1876-1877. By the 1880s, some 10 percent of the world’s grain exports were coming from India. Thanks to Suez and steam railroads, England became the first power in history to unite the entire Indian subcontinent. To consolidate its grip on its export breadbasket, England did as ruling powers have done throughout history by expanding irrigation investments. Old Muslim hydraulic works, such as the Cauvery Dam in South India and the Jumna canals near Delhi were restored, followed by the enlargement of the footprint of irrigable cropland along the Indus River. To defend the Suez Canal, British engineers who had been trained in India transferred their expertise to the Nile after the establishment of unofficial British rule in Egypt in 1882.
The opening of the Suez Canal loosed the full force of Europe’s superior steam and iron navies upon the rest of the world. The ensuing clash of civilizations rendered transparent the West’s rise to dominance that had begun with the Voyages of Discovery. Within Europe, England rose to unchallenged primacy through the wedding of its steam-powered industry and naval leadership. Its global economic, colonial, and naval Pax Britannica lasted nearly a century. As early as 1824-1825, British steam gunboats sailed up the Irrawaddy River to subdue Burma. Design improvements over the following two decades transformed such steamboats into lethal, iron-hulled river armadas that could penetrate deep into the heart of enemy country, where previously sailing ships had been confined to bombarding from the shorelines. Just as China had been rudely awakened to its relative decrepitude after four centuries of somnambulant isolation by the appearance of invincible British gunboats sailing up its rivers to impose free trade in Indian-cultivated and British-transported opium in the first Opium War of 1839-1842, American gunboats forced open long-internationally sealed Japan to free trade on Western terms when Admiral Matthew Perry’s “black ships” steamed into Tokyo Bay in July 1853. Japan’s response to this national trauma was the catch-up industrialization of the Meiji Restoration. The dramatic superiority enabled by Western industrialism posed traumatic, long-term challenges for subordinated Islamic societies, whose leaders were left to ponder whether to respond by trying to imitate Western ways at the one extreme, or to seek renewal by turning inward to religious neofundamentalism at the other.
Maintaining naval superiority was the central focus of British policy throughout the Pax Britannica era. By applying steam and iron innovations to design, warships in the early nineteenth century quickly evolved into speedier, heavily armed carriers for ever-more powerful and accurate long-distance artillery. From a matter of yards at the time of the Armada, English warships’ gun ranges reached three miles by 1900; by World War I, the distance had trebled to nine miles. With the advent of aircraft carriers by World War II, missile ranges were extended to hundreds of miles and guided by mobile bombers. An earlier innovative vessel, the submarine, first used through oar propulsion by the Dutch as early as 1620 in the Thames, became a lethal weapon by World War I from the combination of the invention of the torpedo (1866) by British engineer Robert Whitehead and the design integration of electricity and iron. Torpedo ranges multiplied tenfold to over one mile in the nearly forty years from 1866 to 1905 and nearly tenfold again to almost 11 miles less than a decade later. By the late twentieth century, guided intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from submarines could span several thousand miles—literally crossing oceans—and were capable of delivering civilization-incinerating nuclear warheads.
Through the late nineteenth century, British naval strategy was focused on maintaining superiority over the combined power of the Franco-Russian alliance, while still being able control the key points in the Mediterranean. That changed when newly militarized and industrialized Germany entered the naval armaments race. Britain’s response—its last hurrah as a naval superpower—was the 1906 Dreadnought. Fitted with oil fuel and huge turbine engines and fortified with alloyed steel, the Dreadnought-class battleship set a new world standard with its combination of speed—10 percent faster than any rival—and long-range, accurate, heavy firepower. Although the Dreadnought’s advantages were short-lived, they enabled Britain to control the critical Atlantic sea supply and communication lines that helped it win World War I. At the start of the war in August 1914, for example, British ships hoisted up and cut Germany’s five transatlantic cables, compelling the Germans to revert to wireless telegraph communication that was much easier for the British to intercept. One of those intercepted communications, the famous 1917 Zimmermann Telegram offering an alliance with Mexico, proved pivotal in bringing America into the Great War on Britain’s side. By World War II Germany’s Bismarck set the new leading technical standard in battleship power, armed with radar gunnery control; only an all-out, desperate British hunt in 1941 succeeded in sinking it at painfully high expense before it could tilt the balance of power in the open seas. Yet in World War II, even battleships like the Bismarck were being eclipsed by an altogether new class of naval weapon, the aircraft carrier, and a new superpower on the high seas, the United States.
The shift of naval superiority to America, the propitiously situated, continental-island nation whose navy sat astride Earth’s two largest oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, represented the completion of the slow, fitful migration of history’s central naval axis from the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean in ancient times to the Atlantic in Europe’s heyday, and westward again toward the Atlantic-Pacific bridge in the twentieth century, and finally to a truly world-spanning network in the twenty-first century’s integrated, global era.
History’s great hydraulic projects often heralded turning points of world power. So it was with each of the interoceanic canals built at Suez in 1869 and Panama in 1914. Both strategic waterways were civil engineering tours de force of their day, possible only with steam age machinery. Both had a world-changing impact on global commerce and balances of power. Suez proclaimed the apogee of the Pax Britannica. Panama signaled the transfer of leadership to America. In 1870, Britain accounted for some one-fourth of world commerce and 30 percent of total industrial production. Its wealth was reflected in its population, which had tripled in the century to catch up to its historically larger rivals France and Spain. By 1914, however, the United States and Germany both had caught up economically.
From the moment of its extravagant opening on November 17, 1869, the 101-mile-long Suez Canal directly linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and thence onward to the Indian Ocean, became the strategic aorta of the British colonial empire. Ironically, Britain had originally opposed the private, French-built canal project. After all, a mere three generations had passed since Nelson defeated Napoléon’s Mediterranean fleet at the Nile and with it, France’s bid to undermine Britain’s grip on its vital route to India. The British were still suspicious of French intentions, and they felt well-served by the status quo—travel time to India from London had already been reduced to less than a month by steamship and the steam railway link between Alexandria and Suez.
Napoléon’s engineers who inspected the ruins of Neko’s ancient “Suez” canal links via the Nile had abandoned their plans for a direct canal link between the Red and Mediterranean seas through a technologically simple, open cut channel when they erroneously measured a significant altitude difference between the two seas. In 1832, these old Napoleonic plans came into the hands of an experienced French diplomat in the region, Viscount Ferdinand de Lesseps. He became seized by the vision of building the Suez Canal. More accurate surveys soon revealed that the sea levels were in fact similar and that an open cut channel without locks had been feasible all along.
De Lesseps plan originally got no traction with Egypt’s powerful, ambitious, modernizing, and militaristic-minded ruler, Muhammad Ali, who served as the Ottoman Turks’ viceroy but in reality was all but autonomous of Constantinople. A native Macedonian and small tobacco dealer who liked to boast he was born the same year as Napoléon, to whom he seems to have fancied himself a would-be Muslim counterpart, Muhammad Ali originally came to Egypt as part of the Ottoman force resisting the French general and himself was saved from drowning by British troops after being driven in retreat into the sea. Within a few years he consolidated political power; his signature act was the summoning together and ruthless mass murder of his Mamluk opponents. He schemed and adventured militarily, initially to ingratiate himself to his Ottoman suzerains, and ultimately toward his never-achieved goal of establishing his own sovereign dynasty, and regional empire, in Egypt. Muhammad Ali vehemently opposed de Lesseps’ canal because he foresaw, rightly, that it would entangle Egypt, and his dream of independence, in European great power affairs.
De Lesseps finally got his chance in the mid-1850s when two of Muhammad Ali’s successors, Said and Ismail, inverted their forefather’s political calculus and endorsed the canal as a means to physically and legally separate Egypt from Ottoman overlordship and to relaunch Egypt’s imperial glory. De Lesseps set up a private company to build the canal and operate it for 99 years. English investors were offered shares, but without support from their government, refused to participate, leaving mainly 25,000 French investors with a majority and Egypt itself with 44 percent.
Any British government calculation that it could kill the project politically by its opposition proved erroneous when matched against the extraordinary organizing talents, energies, and determination of de Lesseps. Building the Suez Canal took ten years, nearly twice as long as de Lesseps had projected. The high cost nearly bankrupted the Egyptian government. As in ancient Egypt, coerced peasant labor was employed. Work was delayed by cholera outbreaks that killed over half the workers in the first few years, by labor unrest, and by the sheer inadequacy of the traditional hand tools of pick, shovel, and dirt-removal baskets to do the dry excavation. Only by calling in huge steam-powered dredges and shovels operated by imported, skilled European workers was the job finally brought to completion.
Its opening in November 1869 was one of the great occasions of the nineteenth century. Determined to show that Egypt belonged within modern European civilization, the Viceroy spared no expense from his depleted Treasury. Some 6,000 guests were invited, all expenses paid. The emperor of Austria and other royalty, artists such as Emile Zola and Henrik Ibsen, and other luminaries of the age were among the headline attendees. Thousands lined both sides of the canal to cheer the processional yachts. De Lesseps himself was hailed by all as the great “Engineer”—even though he had no technical background whatsoever and his great achievement was as an enterprising impresario. An opera house in Cairo was constructed and Giuseppe Verdi commissioned to write an opera for the opening—thus Aïda, although not performed until two years later, was conceived; its story of star-crossed love between an Egyptian officer and an Ethiopian princess to whom he betrays Egypt’s plan to invade Ethiopia tugged at the Egyptian nation’s historical nightmare about losing control of the waters of the Nile, some 85 percent of which originated in Ethiopia.
Britain recognized its strategic interest in the canal from the moment it opened. Thus in 1875, when financial burdens induced the Viceroy—who was then engaged in a costly and disastrous war of imperial aggression in Africa in which he would be humiliatingly trounced by Ethiopia—to offer to sell Egypt’s 44 percent stake in the canal company to England for the large sum of £4 million, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli acted swiftly to secure funding from the Rothschild banking family to buy it. Egypt’s financial woes continued, however. Political crises ended in a military coup by anti-European nationalists that seemed to forebode Egyptian foreign loan defaults, and threats to the physical welfare of 37,000 resident Europeans as well as to the control and operation of the canal itself. British prime minister William Gladstone, formerly an ardent critic of Disraeli’s canal shares purchase, ended up doing a total policy about-face. Acting diplomatically with France, and unilaterally by force, in the summer of 1882 he moved under the thin pretext of restoring legitimate order to suppress the nationalists. Alexandria was bombarded by British forces, while a surprise cavalry charge trounced the nationalists’ much larger army in just 35 minutes. The canal was secured. The occupying British forces, however, never left. Despite regular reassurances year after year that its occupation was merely temporary, Britain remained to unofficially rule the country through half the twentieth century.
Britain quickly understood what all previous rulers of Egypt had learned: that to govern the country, one had to control the Nile waters. Accordingly, the British promptly focused on imposing their might over the length of the White Nile from its source near Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean. Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda were all subdued. British engineers were brought in from irrigation projects in India’s Punjab to help design waterworks throughout the Nile basin to maximize river water flow volumes and agriculture in Egypt. Reforms begun by Muhammad Ali in the first half of the 1800s came to fruition by the end of the century in a modernized network of dikes, sluices, and canals to provide Egypt with its first, fully operational system of perennial irrigation that yielded two and sometimes three harvests per year. It was the first significant change to the one crop basin agriculture that had existed since the dawn of Egyptian civilization almost 5,000 years earlier. Egypt’s population surged from four to 10 million, twice as many as its three-millennia ceiling. British engineers had less success in the backbreaking efforts made to augment the White Nile’s flow to Egypt by cutting through or diverting the meandering river through Sudan’s huge Sudd swamps, where so much water was lost to evaporation. All British hydraulic engineering efforts were dwarfed, however, by their momentous achievement in 1902 of the first Aswan Dam, then one of the largest and most sophisticated dams in the world. The low dam, as it is now called, was unique in water history in allowing the passage downstream of the river’s fertile silt during the early floods through low-level sluices. As a result of the dam, irrigated acreage and agricultural production in the Nile Valley and delta soared, feeding political stability and the continuous swell of Egypt’s population.
Britain’s seizure of the Suez Canal and the Nile basin also triggered a new phase of colonialism known as the Scramble for Africa. Across the continent, European powers engaged in a free-for-all military land grab. In 1898, England’s military campaigns in the Nile basin nearly led to comical war with France, known to history as the Fashoda Incident. Its genesis was an 1893 proposal made by a French hydrologist and former schoolmate of the president of France to erect a French dam on the White Nile at Fashoda in Sudan. On paper, the dam promised to deliver, in a single master stroke, control of the Nile and Egypt’s fate into French hands, while checkmating British expansion into East Africa as France completed its own Atlantic to Indian Ocean colonial run. The French establishment was smitten by the diabolical brilliance, and romantic flourish, of what would have been exposed by any realistic assessment as an utterly fanciful quest. For starters, there was hardly a stone within a hundred miles of Fashoda with which to build a dam. For another, also unknown to French hydrologists, the While Nile provides less than one-fifth of the Egyptian Nile’s water and almost none of its precious silt; thus impeding its flow, even if achieved, could not have had the intended dramatic effects. Nevertheless, in June 1896 an expedition was launched from Marseille and a tiny, intrepid band of French officers and Senegalese foot soldiers began their arduous 2,000-mile, two-year trek across Africa, up the Congo, and through the thick Sudd swamps to seize Fashoda. They carried with them 1,300 liters of claret, 50 bottles of Pernod, and a mechanical piano.
The comical became a sublime farce when the British became so alarmed at the Frenchmen’s scheme that they deemed it an importance to conquer Sudan to secure the river. Thus they dispatched an army under General Horatio Herbert Kitchener. In September 1898, two weeks after destroying the Islamist Mahdi state near Khartoum, Kitchener arrived at Fashoda to face off against the Frenchmen. On the French side were a dozen officers and 125 Senegalese colonial soldiers; arrayed against them were no less than 25,000 British troops, artillery, and a fleet of steam gunboats. Kitchener advised the French to leave. No shots were fired. The two opponents fraternized, and even shared some of the French wine. Diplomatically, however, Fashoda ignited an explosive, several-month international incident that nearly triggered a wider war between the nations—a colonial-era Cuban missile crisis—due to the national humiliation France felt over the lopsided confrontation. In the end, the French discretely withdrew—while the British army band played the French national anthem—and with equal discretion the British removed the name Fashoda from African maps. Both sides put renewed cooperative emphasis on their mutual larger national interests, including the welfare of the Suez Canal. As if to symbolize their newfound comity, in 1899 a monumental, more-than-30-foot-tall statue of de Lesseps, with his right arm outstretched in welcome, was erected on a huge pedestal at the entrance of the canal at Port Said—making a towering impression, similar to that of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
The interests of both nations were served in the world wars by the denial of Suez Canal access to German shipping, despite the international convention that designated it an international waterway open to all. But in 1956 the Suez Canal became the instrument that extinguished both nations’ final imperial pretensions and inaugurated the era of Cold War politics in the Middle East. In one of the greatest blunders of American postwar foreign policy, Eisenhower administration secretary of state John Foster Dulles inadvertently opened the door to Soviet Union influence in the region and fanned the flames of anti-Western pan-Arabism.
The “Suez Affair” began in 1952 with the rise to power in Egypt by military coup d’état of the charismatic Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. With tacit approval from the postwar superpower, the United States, Nasser negotiated the British withdrawal of troops from the Canal Zone, which was completed in the summer of 1956. Nasser’s supreme ambition was to build a giant dam on the Nile River at Aswan that would vastly increase irrigation and electrification in impoverished Egypt. It was a project of such monumental economic and symbolic political importance, heralding a renewal of Egyptian control over the Nile like that exerted by the Pharaohs of its bygone ancient civilization, that Nasser himself likened it to a modern pyramid. Concurrent to negotiating the exit of the British from Suez, Nasser thus also sought financing from the West for the enormously expensive Aswan high dam. Dulles, like British and French leaders, deeply distrusted Nasser. He disliked him personally as well. Above all, Dulles could not abide Nasser’s effort to steer a neutral policy in the Cold War, and resented the Egyptian’s efforts to negotiate between the West and the Soviet Union, which was eager to establish itself as a strategic power in the Middle East. In the fall of 1955, Dulles had been both shocked and upset when Nasser, after being stonewalled in a request for American arms, made a massive military purchase from the Soviet bloc, including 200 warplanes and 275 tanks—an alarming action that promptly accelerated war planning in Egypt’s neighbor and enemy, Israel.
In the winter of 1955-1956, Dulles elected to keep Nasser grounded in Western influence by agreeing to a substantial loan and grant package from the World Bank, the United States, and England for the high dam at Aswan. When Nasser bridled that the stringent terms, which included the monitoring of the Egyptian economy by the World Bank, were insulting and patronizing, however, Dulles didn’t budge. He knew the Soviets had offered to build the dam at Aswan. But he didn’t believe they had the technical capability to accomplish it. He thought they, or Nasser, were bluffing. So he waited Nasser out. After several months Nasser indeed capitulated to the terms and dispatched the Egyptian ambassador on July 19, 1956, to Dulles’s office atop the State Department to conclude the deal. But Dulles had been growing increasingly sour toward Nasser in the meantime. In what, at best, was a confused policy, and at worst a blundering miscalculation, Dulles wanted to give Nasser, and the Soviets, a further comeuppance by strongly asserting American dominance in the region. Despite urgings from top British officials to equivocate and “play it long,” Dulles began to inform the Egyptian ambassador why the United States was not able to support the Aswan deal at that moment. The ambassador grew agitated. He pleaded with Dulles not to withdraw the offer, informing him, with a tap on his pocket, that Egypt had an alternative financing offer ready for signing from the Soviets. It was plain he preferred the Western deal. Yet Dulles was irritated at what he viewed as blackmail for better terms. He sniffed, “Well, as you have the money already, you don’t need any from us. My offer is withdrawn!”
An infuriated Nasser not only signed with the Soviets to build the Aswan Dam. One week later, on July 26, he did something wholly unanticipated by Dulles—he unilaterally nationalized the Suez Canal. Tolls, he predicted, would pay for the dam within five years. He secretly gave the signal to begin seizure of the canal in a fiery speech before a large throng in Alexandria by using a prearranged code word—“de Lesseps.”
It was a move that changed the history of the twentieth century. While President Dwight Eisenhower and Dulles equivocated in their response over the fear of igniting a wider Middle Eastern war, to England and France it was an intolerable threat to let Nasser “have his thumb on our windpipe,” as British prime minister Anthony Eden put it. Beyond anger at Nasser’s impudence, England and France feared the economic costs if Egypt used the canal to hold hostage the lifeline of oil shipments transported in tankers from the Middle East to Europe, as well as the imitative repercussions in their other restive colonies. They began colluding to seize back the canal and depose Nasser. To execute their plan, they enlisted Egypt’s archenemy, Israel. Israel, which had fought against Egypt and other Arab states in its war for independence (1948-1949) and in 1956 was still denied use of the canal and was furthermore without shipping access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean due to an Egyptian blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba at the Strait of Tiran, readily cooperated. On October 29 Israeli paratroopers, led by future prime minister Ariel Sharon, dropped into the Sinai peninsula 25 miles from the canal and began advancing upon it, while simultaneously seizing control of the Strait of Tiran at the eastern tip of the Sinai. Following their script, England and France feigned the role of neutral peacemakers interested in safeguarding the integrity of shipping through the canal. They demanded an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal by both sides to 10 miles from the canal. The Israeli troops froze. Egypt, which was the actual target since only its troops were within that proximity, did not. Reminiscent of 1882, England and France bombarded Egyptian air bases and landed “peacekeeper” troops that occupied the northern part of the canal when Nasser refused to withdraw.
But the world was entirely different than in 1882. Cold War politics and postwar independence movements had eclipsed the colonial imperial axis at the center of world power relationships. The Soviet Union threatened to intervene on Egypt’s behalf. Egyptian forces managed to block oil shipments through the canal. Investors around the world began dumping the British pound sterling, driving England into a financial crisis. Dulles and Eisenhower, the ultimate global power broker, felt personally betrayed by the secret Anglo-French collusion. Upon hearing the news of the allied attack, Eisenhower called Eden and said, “Anthony, have you gone out of your mind? You’ve deceived me.”
Fearing a new Cold War blowup—the abortive Hungarian revolution had also just occurred—Eisenhower decided that England and France had to withdraw. He obtained England’s capitulation by threatening to block an emergency International Monetary Fund jumbo financial loan package to save the wobbling sterling. British troops were already halfway down the canal when they were recalled on November 7. France was enraged, but could not stand alone. Concluding from the experience that England would always stand with America ahead of France and continental Europe in a crisis, France became the prime mover of the launch, within months of Suez, of the six-country Continental European Common Market—without England. French leaders managed to deny England membership in the forerunner of the European Union until 1973. A U.S.-led resolution, backed by the Soviet Union, condemning Israel and humiliating England and France, led to the first-ever deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, 6,000 blue helmet soldiers were sent to Suez and Sinai.
The withdrawal of England, France, and Israel put a triumphant Nasser back in charge as the canal reopened, adulated by a suddenly newborn pan-Arabist movement, and gave the Soviets their first important foothold in the Middle East. Before year’s end in 1956, de Lesseps’s statue at the entrance to the Suez Canal was torn down with the incitement of angry Egyptian mobs. The Suez debacle hastened the setting of the sun on the last important vestiges of the global colonial empires of England and France and brought to a close the world political era that had reached its apogee with steam-powered industrialization.
The heyday of the coal-burning steam engine lasted until the end of the nineteenth century. By then it began to be superseded by new forms of energy developed to meet industrial society’s insatiable demand for greater and more manageable power. The technical limit of the classical steam engine peaked out at about 5,000 horsepower. This was inadequate for generating electricity in a fast-spinning dynamo—a versatile, important new form of energy that replaced much steam-powered machinery and created an entire new cluster of technological capability. Oddly enough the electrical age was initially powered by the reengineering of old-fashioned energy derived from falling water. Water turbines, in which water falling from high elevation flowed through fixed channels to turn finlike blades, were more efficient descendants of the waterwheel. Through most of the nineteenth century, turbines simply replaced waterwheels where great horsepower was required. Eventually their power efficiency surpassed that of steam engines. When the electrical age began following Thomas Edison’s 1879 invention of the lightbulb, water turbines were the most effective way of generating electricity. The world’s first big hydroelectric power station, featuring water turbines, was built in 1886 in America at Niagara Falls. Within a decade it was running ten 5,000 horsepower pressure water turbines to produce electricity. By 1936 the Hoover Dam had water turbines generating 134,000 horsepower, or 100,000 kilowatts.
Steam turbines also rapidly gained efficiency and soon became a major source of electrical generation in conjunction with the burning of fossil fuels. Steam turbines that generated a mere 1,600 horsepower in 1900 were producing three times as much a decade later. A series of steam turbines generating 68,000 horsepower powered the transatlantic liner Lusitania in 1906, heralding its wide application in high-speed ships. Gradually, steam turbines in thermal power plants burning coal, natural gas, or oil became viable alternatives to hydroelectric plants.
Hydroelectric power created its own political, economic, and social revolution. Electricity was highly transportable, and it could power cities and factories far from the water site where it was located. Nations poor in coal for steam power but rich in mountain water flows—or “white coal”—suddenly gained access to an energy resource that allowed them to enter the industrial age. This was dramatically illustrated in mountainous Italy, which not only became an industrial power, but also a viable nation-state, thanks to hydroelectricity. Abundant hydroelectricity liberated Italian steam-powered industry from the crippling burden of having to pay up to eight times more for scarce coal than its English counterparts. The newly unified Italian state built its first small hydroelectric plant in 1885. By 1905 it used more hydroelectricity than any other country in Europe. Nearly all of Italy’s electricity came from hydropower as late as 1937. Dams were erected throughout the glacial Italian Alps, and its northern alpine lakes were used as reservoirs for generating hydroelectricity. Milan became the world’s second city with electric street lighting. Hydroelectricity thus added a modern chapter to Italy’s legacy of water history dating back to the large-scale drainage projects and aqueducts of ancient Rome. The hydroelectric boon, as well as earlier land drainage and irrigation projects in Lombardy, came at a timely moment to legitimatize a regionally fractious nation-state that formed in stages around 1870, against the many who doubted that it would hold together.
The diffusion of hydroelectricity helped spread the Industrial Revolution throughout Europe, America, and belatedly to other parts of the world. By 1920 environmentally clean and renewable hydroelectric plants generated some two-fifths of electricity in America; by 2000 hydropower still generated nearly one-fifth of world electricity. As the good hydroelectric water sites grew scarce and steam turbines improved, more electricity was generated in large thermal plants using fossil or nuclear fuels. These power plants used water not just for the steam turbines but also as coolant. As a coolant, massive volumes of river water were sucked in for brief periods to absorb huge amounts of heat, and then, after recooling, were discharged back into the river. As most auto motorists knew, water was similarly used as a coolant in the important innovation of the oil burning internal combustion engine. The exponential growth of power man extracted from water reached astonishing amounts by the late twentieth century. State-of-the-art water turbines installed at large dams were capable of more than 1 million horsepower (750,000 kilowatts); steam turbines were even more powerful, up to 1.7 million horsepower (1.3 million kilowatts).
The progression of water use in energy production—from simple, directly channeled water current to turn waterwheels, to steam engines heated by coal, to spinning turbines that generated electricity from cascading torrents or steam pressure, to coolant for large nuclear and fossil fuel plants—itself highlighted a prominent feature of water’s role in human history: with each new technology cycle, its uses were always evolving and expanding. Starting from the steam engine’s role in extracting coal to overcome the fuel famine, and coal’s provision of the combustive material to generate steam, water, and energy in many of its forms have become symbiotically interlinked partners in the key processes that powered much of the twentieth century’s extraordinary industrial expansion. No nation exploited the water-energy resource nexus so beneficially and on such a large scale as Britain in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century that mantle passed to America.
Before England or America could take full advantage of the beneficial opportunities of their new industrial societies, however, they had to find an effective response to the first of several major environmental challenges created as a by-product of industrialism—urban water pollution.