Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Message Decoded, Part 1: Climbing the Peak

This week's reflection is part of an extended commentary on a short story I posted a few weeks back. Read on or catch up, if you're curious- it's your choice.

If I walk out the front door of my building and stroll southwest along Queen Street, away from the lively downtown of Kitchener, Ontario, in less than five minutes I come to a beautiful white clapboard house with soft grey shingles and a spacious verandah. A white picket fence surrounds an immaculate lawn, and a beautiful hand-painted sign informs me that this is the Joseph Schneider Haus, a National Historic Site.

As I turn down the shaded footpath that runs alongside the house and yard toward Victoria Park, a cluster of smaller buildings comes into view behind the main residence, their weathered timber, brick, and field stone walls a testament to the labour that set them here so long ago: the spring house, the bakehouse, the woodshed, the latrine. Two plaques indicate that the family of Joseph Schneider arrived here in 1807 from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, then as now one of the largest Mennonite settlements on the continent.

After journeying some four hundred miles to get here, the Schneiders cleared the land and cut a track through the bush toward the surveyors' road that ran up from the village of Preston. War erupted during their first decade in Upper Canada between Britain and the newly formed United States, but as Mennonites they would have refused to bear arms, a stance which then as now did not endear one to one's enlisted neighbours.

By 1816 Joseph had built a sawmill on nearby Schneider's Creek, and by 1820 the family house had been erected. The Schneider family were the first in a wave of German-speaking settlers who created the village of Berlin, Ontario, at the corner of the surveyors' road and Joseph's bush track. Those two thoroughfares are now King and Queen Streets, respectively, and their intersection marks the heart of the present-day city of Kitchener, population 220 000. The name was changed during the First World War to avoid anti-German sentiment; then as now where you came from is less important than who your friends are, and Field Marshall Horatio Herbert Kitchener of the British Army, recently killed in action, became this city's namesake in 1916.

There is so much that is marvelous in my hometown, and the contrast I witness when I stand next to Joseph Schneider's spring house and watch cars passing along Queen Street is one of the greatest. We marvel at the incredible energies of pioneer families who felled mighty trees, squared logs, and raised farmsteads out of the forest, but we think nothing of sending a ton of steel hurtling down the street at our merest whim. The true marvel of our time is that we don't understand how marvelous it truly is.

A lot of people will tell you that the chief difference between the early twenty-first century and the early nineteenth is all the technology kicking around these days, but I disagree. Technology is a distraction, in more than one sense of the word. What has really transformed the way people live, breathe, move, and think in the last two hundred years is the amount of energy available to us.

When the Schneider family wanted to move a rock or a stump from one place to another in order to plant crops on their new homestead, they had to move it using muscle- either their own or that of a well-fed horse. The latter was of course the preferred option, since a horse can sustain an energy output of about 746 watts, while a healthy human labourer can do about 75. In other words, a horse can work approximately ten times as hard as a man.

These days, few people on this continent move rocks and stumps using human or animal muscle; instead we use tractors. A tractor is a really marvelous thing, a fact I didn't appreciate until I spent some time on a small hobby farm in rural Georgia, USA. During my months there I drove the farm truck into impossible mud pits more often than I'd care to admit, and when you need to yank something powerfully stuck, a tractor's diesel-burning, low-torque engine is what you want. The very tiniest of tractors packs a punch worth ten horses, or one hundred men; the most powerful John Deere model listed at tractordata.com comes in at upwards of five hundred horsepower, or roughly five thousand men.

At the time the Schneiders rolled into Upper Canada, the Industrial Revolution, as it's been called, had been at work on Western society for about a century. It consisted of a number of profound social changes, exemplified by the rather odd notion that you could stick a horse in a treadmill, force it to pump water or coal out of a mine shaft for hours on end, and then quantify its exhaustion and use it as a measuring stick for units of work. That's what James Watt did in the latter half of the eighteenth century, although he's more famous for his work developing the steam engine, an interesting little device, if ultimately a distraction.

The Romans, in their day, knew how to quantify labour too. They had large-scale mining, metallurgy, and manufacturing operations, and they left us some very precise directions on how much grain a slave needs to be fed in order to perform at optimum capacity. The later emperor Diocletian, who strong-armed a chaotic Empire into a newer, stricter order during his twenty-year reign at the close of the third century, sent out surveyors to evaluate every acre of land he ruled, grade its productivity, and determine the quantity of grain or gold that could be taxed from it.

It's interesting to speculate as to whether a Roman Industrial Revolution could have taken off if enterprising men like Diocletian had been put in touch with steam power during the years of Rome's decline, or if Augustus' economic strategy during the years of Rome's ascendancy had involved intensification rather than expansion. I doubt it, though. The Romans were aware of the little device described by Hero of Alexandria in the first century which used steam to make a little bronze doohickey rotate on an axle, but they had their own ideas about what life was for and what work meant in relation to it. They made their choices and went their way.

The British Empire, on the other hand, met with some lucky coincidences as it clawed its way upward to world dominance. For one thing, the British Isles themselves were well-endowed with coal, which everyone at the time was using to smelt iron things to hurl at one another. For another, their coal mines kept filling with water beyond a certain depth, and it began to be economically viable to set up treadmill-powered pumps over mine shafts just to keep the mines dry. From there conditions developed to a point such that a coal-fueled pumping machine began to seem like a worthwhile investment, and by 1781 James Watt had figured that he could spin off this little trick in a number of interesting directions. In that year he patented the device that is supposed to have changed history.

Watt's steam engine, which according to his calculations had the power of ten sweating horses, eventually sired the internal combustion engine, which can easily do the work of a hundred. The increases in capacity for work that I've outlined here are what we call orders of magnitude: from a labouring human's 0.1 horsepower to 1 to 10 to 100 horsepower; these achievements are not to be sniffed at. In fact, they mark the milestones on a trend that's been unfolding for the past three hundred years, and which is the truly interesting narrative behind the sideshow of human technological tinkering. For three hundred years, every generation of Western society has had access to more energy than their parents, and the fact that today we can harness the energy of a thousand men simply by turning an ignition and pumping a pedal is one that consistently blows my mind.

But I digress... perhaps it's because I'm unconvinced by the straightforward story of progress. Why did I choose to set my science fiction story of 2213 in this beautiful nineteenth-century pioneer house? It's because, then as now, what's going on in our heads is not as important as what's going on beneath our feet, and right now some very interesting trends are unfolding in the earth itself that are shaping the landscape of the future. And certain aspects of that landscape, if we're paying attention, will look very familiar.

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