What stalled Roman industrialization?

About the first century, Roman society reached some sort of a peak in terms of advance. Their science and literature reached a high point, with Gaius Plinius Secundus’ Naturalis Historia, an encyclopaedia that contained accounts of Roman technology to that point (as well as just about everything else, such as science, medicine, cookery, biology, etc). To the best of my knowledge, there were no significant Roman technology advances following that point. The question is, why not? Furthermore, in response to the question, it should be noted that the concept of the factory was embedded. Roman cloth making, such as dyeing, was carried out in what could be described as chemical processing plants. Such Roman manufacturing was obviously much more primitive than ours, and mainly relied on heat or man-power. However, the concept of the factory was there, but it was never taken further.

One possibility is that imperial control stalled effort. Perhaps there was no observable need. If you do not see the need to find an easier way of doing something, you might be unlikely to do so. In this context, the hard work in Rome was done first by slaves, and then by the poor who were basically uneducated. They might see the need, but they had no ability to do anything about it.  Another possibility is that nobody could see what could be done.

In my trilogy, starting with, Athene’s Prophecy, my protagonist had three quests. The first was to become a military commander and I have covered some of the learning aspects in my previous posts. The second was to develop a steam engine. The concept of the steam engine was developed by Hero of Alexandria, and this aeolipile involved heating a small cauldron over a fire, the steam then being sent to two pipes that entered a ball on a bearing, the ball having two small exit pipes that were bent so that the exit was tangential to the ball, and the plane of the pipes was normal to the axis of the ball. The steam exited and conservation of momentum led to the ball spinning. This, of course, was merely a toy, but it did introduce the concept that you could get steam to do work. So, why was it not taken further?

I think it was a mixture of the above reasons. The main way to advance in Rome from this period was the army. Armies throughout history were not inherently inventive, although the Roman army was adaptive. The educated class tended to be the rich who exploited the poor, so they were not going to get their hands dirty developing new machinery. But perhaps the biggest challenge was that nobody could see why a steam engine would be such an advantage. I also doubt they could see how to do it. If you look at the history of the steam engine, there were a number of attempts that finally came to fruition with Newcomen’s engine, which happened mainly to be a larger and slightly improved version of previous ones. Newcomen’s engine was extremely inefficient, and used huge amounts of coal for the work it did, but since the useful work was to lift water out of coal mines, the coal was available.

So, here is a reader’s question: with your engineering limited to first century technology, how would you design a steam engine? You have the advantages of now knowing the principles, so feel free to comment. My thoughts next week.


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