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MachinePix Weekly #61: Jason Crawford, founder, The Roots of Progress
Jason Crawford talks about history, technology, and why some innovations happen years and some over millenia. This week's most popular post was a weird excavator tool 👷♂️🚧
I first learned about The Roots of Progress (and the field of progress studies in general) when one of Jason’s posts, Why did we wait so long for the bicycle?, went viral. I had spent a few years deep in the bowels of the bicycle industry, and it was an eye-opening new way to think about the industry and how innovation happens (or doesn’t). Check out the full interview below the fold.
The most popular post this week was a pretty unique excavator attachment:
I’m always looking for interesting people to interview, have anyone in mind?
Interview with Jason Crawford
I’ve been a fan of The Roots of Progress since I found the viral bicycle article, but you’d been writing since 2017. What prompted you to start writing?
The Roots of Progress started out as a hobby side project. It was just going to be “what book am I going to read next?” or “what theme am I going to read on?”—At some point I decided I wanted to learn about the industrial revolution—and very quickly I broadened that to the entire story of human progress.
Joel Mokyr’s book A Culture of Growth was very influential—he explicitly discusses how important the idea of progress is, how it didn't exist through most of history, and how it sort of arose in the West in the 1500s and 1600s. And so I just read one book after another and a few months in, I decided to start making notes and publishing them on a blog. The blog grew, the audience grew, and I just got more and more obsessed with the topic. A couple of years in, I decided to go full-time on it.
Ok, dumb question: what exactly is “progress studies,” and why is it important?
The term was originally coined to propose an academic field, an interdisciplinary field that would cut across economics and history and related disciplines to better understand the causes of progress—especially technological, industrial, and economic progress—and to answer the question of “how do we get more of it?” An interdisciplinary field that leans prescriptive rather than purely descriptive.
That concept was proposed in a mid-2019 article in The Atlantic by Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison; the article galvanized a community of people who strongly resonated with this concept. The broader idea is just the fact that material progress over the last two or three centuries is one of the—perhaps the most important—fact in all of human history. For thousands, tens of thousands of years life was pretty crappy; it’s only in recent decades that we've gotten anywhere close to the standard of living that we all now enjoy.
So if you care about human life and well-being and health and happiness, then you have to look at that fact and be somewhat in awe of it. You have to ask, “how did we get here?” “Why did it take so long, and how can we keep it going?” So those are the three questions that I identified early on in this project, and those are the central questions of progress studies.
I know there's probably not a simple answer, but to the extent that there are a few agreed upon things that caused that massive recent inflection, what changed?
So this is perhaps the biggest question of an entire field of study, which is economic history. And there are many people who have devoted entire careers to this and are shelves full of books addressing the question. At the highest level, economic growth throughout all of human history is like a super-exponential curve. In specific segments, it’s maybe exponential: certainly since about the beginning of the industrial revolution. But even in the segments before that there is some growth, some progress, so it wasn't totally flat. If it was, the world of 1700 would have looked exactly like the world of 10,000 BC—which is obviously not the case.
So growth was extremely slow in the hunter-gatherer era, right? Major innovations that come along, maybe once a century or something, or less than that: maybe once a millennium. And then growth probably kicked up into a higher rate, but still extremely slow by modern standards when we got the agricultural revolution. I mean the first agricultural revolution back in 8000 BC or so when you got permanent agriculture and settled societies and so forth, and then growth was sort of slow for another 10,000 years or so—then kicked into high gear a few hundred years ago.
At the broadest level, some fundamental technology or societal shift happens, like agriculture or settled societies, or the printing press or the industrial revolution—and each of these things provide some fundamental infrastructure or capability, which not only helps the economy and human living, but also feeds back into the process of progress itself. That's why exponential growth is even possible: these things work on self-reinforcing feedback loops. With that perspective though, we can ask: “all right, what was the big change a few hundred years ago that kicked us into the industrial revolution?”
Joel Mokyr makes a compelling case that a significant part of it was the very idea of progress: for most of human history, even though progress was happening, it was happening so slowly that nobody could really perceive it within their own lifetime.
I am reminded of cathedral projects that used to take multiple generations.
Yes, exactly. And on the one hand, you know, we can look back on those projects and marvel at the longevity of those projects; on the other end, construction productivity was super low if it takes you a hundred years to build. Rivaled only by the New York subway lines (laughs).
Mokyr points out that throughout most of history, people saw history as flat, or maybe cyclical with ups and downs. They didn't see it as an upward progression of any sort. In fact there was this reverence for ancient civilizations and ancestors. A sort of societal ancestor worship, where cultures looked back to people of antiquity as the smartest and greatest people who ever lived: all knowledge that mattered had been revealed to them in ancient times, and their accomplishments were so great that we could never surpass or even equal them.
Throughout the 1500s and 1600s there was a big debate in the West about the ancients versus the moderns. Could we, the moderns, possibly ever equal or even surpass the achievements of the ancients? Some of the first cracks in this wall came about through the Age of Discovery where we started discovering entire new continents that were unknown to the ancients. And so, hey, maybe not all of the knowledge was revealed to them in ancient times. And then finally just to put a pin in it, by the works of Newton and his Principia it was very clear this was better than anything that Ptolemy or anybody had ever thought about before.
We have now surpassed the ancients and maybe we can keep going. So I think there are a number of things, but that idea of progress, that sort of fundamental cultural attitude towards it, is really essential. Going along with that, Francis Bacon promoted the idea of progress, but he also promoted the fundamental method for achieving it, the method of scientific observation and experiment. That underpinning of the scientific revolution was key. It's common for people to look at the early industrial revolution and think that it actually didn't have much to do with science because so much of it was sort of mechanical tinkering, but I think this is wrong— it had a lot to do with the broader scientific culture, the approach to observation and measurement. A lot of what engineers were doing in those days in say the 1700s was careful, systematic observation and measurement using the techniques of science. Even if they were doing engineering rather than science itself.
This is a bit of a meta-question: why has it taken so long for people to start thinking seriously about progress? It’s only shown up in the last second of human history
I don't have a full answer here. I think that a certain amount of progress needs to be made in random fits and starts before people could really get the concept. I think a big part of it is globalization, with increased contact between civilizations. One of the things that Francis Bacon noted was that China had these inventions that were unknown to the West—the compass and paper and gunpowder—Bacon pointed to them as examples of inventions and discoveries that were not just scientific curiosities, but could be applied for useful purposes. That was part of what motivated him to ultimately say “knowledge is power.”
What was the most unexpected thing you’ve learned over the past four years of writing for The Roots of Progress?
I've come across a number of technologies that are not very well known or talked about but have been crucial to progress. The idea of precision in machine tools is one of these. (Editor’s note: Simon Winchester, a previous guest on MachinePix Weekly, wrote The Perfectionists on the history of precision).
When the average consumer thinks about inventions, they might think about things like the light bulb and the microwave and the automobile—things that consumers interact with. But it turns out that you know, producer goods can be just as important to the overall economy, and machine tools were absolutely essential to manufacturing and ultimately to all of mechanization. It turns out that in order to mechanize everything, in order to create home appliances, in order to create agricultural machinery, etc, you really need the precision that advanced tooling can get you or else the machines are just completely unreliable and basically don't work.
Another interesting thing is just how long some of the timelines are: how long it took to go from, for instance, key discoveries and electromagnetism in the 1830s to the practical light bulb in the 1880s—like 50 years. Or for that matter, you got Newcomen’s steam engine in 1712, James Watson’s proved steam engine in 1769, and then you didn't really have a practical working locomotive until about 1815 and locomotives weren't widely adopted for railroads until about 1830 or so.
How much of that is engineering bottlenecks? Where I can prove a concept like locomotives, but to make a hundred thousand miles of high grade reliable steel rails is a whole different ball game. And how much of that is just inherent reactive anti-progress in society in general?
So in the examples I just gave it definitely wasn't a general anti-progress sentiment. Certainly in the late 1800s with electricity, society was generally pro-progress, at least in the west. That doesn't mean that people welcomed every new development, every new development is almost always opposed and fought no matter what people think about progress in general. But I think a significant amount of it is certainly engineering work that needs to be done.
Take the first prototype of a locomotive engine: the first prototypes in the late 1700s and very early 1800s were not ready for prime time. They were not reliable nor efficient, and so more engineering work was required. But what is striking is kind of how little attention was being paid to that engineering work and how little investment was going into it. There were a very small number of engineers experimenting with locomotives for decades. And then it's also remarkable that once a practical locomotive had been invented and was working, it still took like 10 or 15 years for like the rest of the—I was about to say the rest of the world, but even just the rest of England—to be, to be really convinced that railroads were the way to go.
So in the 1820s you have long roads being built and they're not even sure if they're going to work it via engines or via horses, even though there was an example of a locomotive working a coal railway for many years. Part of that I think is just the lack of information technology when people wanted to learn about this locomotive. I mean, they couldn't just Google it obviously, nor could they just see a video of it. They had to literally go there and visit and watch it in action. And repeatedly people would go to these coal fields where George Stevenson had built this working locomotive and they would see it in action and they would come away totally convinced. But they had to actually go make the journey, and that itself was not an easy thing to do because of the lack of the very railways which we're talking about. They had to go there by horse and carriage.
So there's this thing again where progress feeds back onto itself where progress gives you the foundation for more and faster progress. Transportation, information technology, manufacturing: all of these things feed back into our ability to make faster progress. So today, if George Stevenson invented the locomotive, it would be on YouTube immediately and people around the world would know about it instantly.
This reminds me of one of your more popular pieces on why it took so long to invent the bicycle. Is there a name for the concept of the things like the locomotive where you’re not bottlenecked by fundamental science, but just waiting for someone to come up with it?
I think Alex Tabarrok coined the term “ideas behind their time” in contrast to ideas that are ahead of their time. Some ideas seem to be behind their time.
What are some recurring patterns, like “ideas behind their time,” you see across technologies and industries?
So one I already mentioned is the very long timelines. Related to that is the importance of reliability and efficiency. Let me back up: you will often hear this sort of claim that, oh, the famous inventor of X was not the true inventor, because look, there are these other people who invented it first. This is like the light bulb, right? “Oh, Thomas Edison didn't really invent the light bulb because look, there were like 20 light bulb patents before him” or “Cyrus McCormick didn't really invent the reaper” or “Stevenson didn't really invent the locomotive” or whatever.
For all of these different major inventions, usually it's the case that people were trying to invent the thing for decades. There were lots of patents and there were many prototypes and some of the prototypes even kind of worked and or had been demonstrated. But the challenge is always reliability, efficiency, cost, or some combination of those things.
The true inventor is not just the person who creates the first prototype to demonstrate core concepts or a key architecture of a machine. The true inventor, in my opinion, is the person who actually iteratively works through all of the practical problems that are standing in the way of mass adoption.
So this is what Edison did for the light bulb, for instance. Light bulbs before Edison were expensive, short lived, or both. Often expensive because they used materials like platinum for the filament and then they burned out quickly. The idea of having a filament of material and running an electric current through it inside a glass bulb: lots of people had that idea, lots of people experimented with that idea. But it turns out that key to making a practical light bulb that people are actually going to use is one getting a good vacuum inside the glass. There was a new vacuum pump I believe, invented around the 1860s or so that Edison used to get a good vacuum. Even just figuring out how to make the bulb, create the vacuum and then seal it off without losing that vacuum was key. And then of course finding the right filament—famously Edison's lab experiments with thousands of materials before they found something that would actually give off a good glow and last for a long time.
You find similar things with almost every other invention. It's not some flash of insight where you get the key idea for the machine or the architecture of it, and that's all you need. It's actually that plus a whole lot of engineering iteration to make it really work.
Is there a favorite piece to write for The Roots of Progress? Whether because of the topic or you just really liked the way that piece turned out narratively?
Yeah, the bicycle piece was pretty good. That's one of my most popular pieces. Another popular one that I've done is on the history of cement. That was actually one of my most popular Twitter threads.
But one of the ones where I really liked the way the writing turned out is called Progress Studies as a Civic Duty. It was kind of the precursor to another post I wrote called Industrial literacy, but I came up with a lot of lines and paragraphs and passages in the civic duty post I just really like.
Any side projects you’re working on right now?
I am. As I mentioned I’m studying the history of railroads for an upcoming talk about the history of transportation, which I'm doing as part of my series through Interintellect. I have also been researching nuclear power and have only written a couple of things about that publicly.
Nuclear power feels like one of the hot button topics in progress studies.
Yeah, it's the number one example that I point to of technological stagnation in the late 20th century technology that should have grown much farther than it did and was really stunted in its infancy.
In terms of hot buttons: I have never gotten so much pushback and dog piling as when I said that actually the automobile was one of the greatest inventions ever. I thought people were going to come after me when I started saying nice things about nuclear, but God help you if you ever say anything nice about cars.
I saw that one and thought “oh this one's going to be a spicy debate.” Any favorite books or books you’re reading now?
Currently reading Samuel Smiles’s biography of George Stevenson. Smiles is quite good, he was a biographer of the late 19th century who wrote biographies of engineers. He was one of the early ones to do so.
Let’s see, a couple of top book recommendations: Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now. I'm looking forward to his new book on rationality that just came out as well. David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity, which is some of the best philosophy of progress that I've read. And I'll recommend Josh Hall's book, Where Is My Flying Car? as an excellent look at both technological stagnation and the potential for an ambitious technological future. It is coming out in a new edition from Stripe press.
What’s your favorite simple (or not so simple) tool or hack that you think is under-appreciated?
Journaling, writing down your thoughts in full sentences and paragraphs just to yourself alone as a means of clarifying your thoughts. I learned this technique from Jean Moroney who runs a business consulting business called Thinking Directions. She calls it thinking on paper and I've been using it almost every day for the last 20 years.
The Week in Review
I’d love to interview someone that works with animatronics. I interviewed Frank Ippolito of Thingergy, the company behind costumes and props for canons like Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean, in Issue #26.
Chroma keying is colloquial called “green-screening”, but it’s pretty obvious that the background here is blue, not green. Unsurprisingly, it turns out there is no strict “best” option and there are tradeoffs between choices. Interestingly, blue screens predate green screens. I recommend watching behind-the-scenes chroma keying when you can.
My favorite bottle opener by JL Lawson was updated:
I am always looking to connect with interesting people and learn about interesting machines—reach out.