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Age of Invention: Water World
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We often think of Britain’s Industrial Revolution as the advent of mechanisation. But long before the rise of the water-powered cotton mills of Lancashire, it was the medieval world that saw a dramatic expansion in the use and application of water for mechanical power.
Waterwheels were known to the ancients, of course. But waterwheels had then seemingly been used only on aqueducts or artificial channels, and largely for the purposes of milling flour or raising water for irrigation.
Over the course of the seventh to thirteenth centuries, however, waterwheels were adapted to more and larger natural watercourses. To the banks of wide fast-flowing rivers, people began to moor floating watermills — with either two wheels fastened to either side of a boat hull, or with a single wheel between two hulls. They also soon noticed that water flowed faster through the arches of stone bridges. At first, boat-mills were secured to the banks just beyond the arches, and increasingly floating mills were chained to the bridges themselves. Where even this was impossible, the environment itself was adapted to waterpower, with the building of dams to collect the water into reservoirs, and channels called mill races to divert it to the wheels. By cleverly timing the opening and closing of sluice gates, even the incoming tide of an estuary could be stored up for use at a wheel.
Just as important as these developments, however, was the adaptation of waterpower to uses beyond just milling flour and raising water for irrigation. By 1500 it had been applied to so much more, including even metallurgy and cloth-making. As the historian Terry S. Reynolds, in his 1983 book Stronger than a Hundred Men: A History of the Vertical Water Wheel, so compellingly puts it:
The house medieval man lived in might have been made been made of wood sawed at a hydropowered sawmill; the bowls he ate from, turned on a water-powered lathe; the pipes that his water flowed from, bored by water power. The flour he ate was probably ground at a watermill; the oil he put on his bread could have been crushed from olives by water wheel. The leather of the shoes he put on his feet and the textiles he wore on his back could have been produced, in part, by water-powered tanning and fulling mills. The iron of his tools could have been mined with the aid of water-powered drainage pumps, ventilating fans, and hoisting devices; was probably smelted in a furnace with water-activated bellows; and was probably forged with hydraulic stamps and bellows. If he was a clerk, the paper he wrote on was, most likely, the product of a water-powered mill. If he was a soldier, his armour and weapons might have been polished and sharpened by stones turned by vertical water wheels.
This trend was not just confined to Europe, though Reynolds did note some potential regional differences (too sparsely documented, in my view, to repeat without a grain of salt — and I’ve not yet had a chance to research if there have been subsequent major correctives). Within Christendom, much of the extension of water power seemingly emanated from a core in France, Italy and Germany. And China was separately adapting waterpower to more industries a few centuries earlier, particularly before the eleventh century. In the Islamic world there seems to have been just as much use of dams and mill races as in Christendom (I’ve written before about how by 1600 the seat of Morocco’s Saadi Empire in Fez relied on huge waterwheels). But Reynolds was unable to find as much evidence of extension to applications beyond milling flour and raising water for irrigation.
If such differences existed — and I’m a little sceptical — there are all sorts of plausible explanations. Reynolds notes that the relative abundance of human or animal muscle power could have reduced the incentive to use more capital-intensive waterpower. And, I’d note, waterpower could come at the expense of muscle too. Diverting water from a river for a mill race often affected the navigability of that river by boat, could impact irrigation, and even increase the risks of agricultural land getting flooded. Choosing to use waterpower thus often came at the expense of the transportation and production of grain, which in turn fuelled muscle.
It provides, to my mind, a crucial context to the seventeenth-century rise of river navigations, and the eighteenth century age of canals, which I wrote about last week: the creation of this transportation infrastructure must often have come at waterpower’s expense.
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