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Five Industrial Revolutions


Tools 2,000,000 B.C.
Metallurgy 3600 B.C.
Steam power 1764  
Mass production 1908  
Automation 1946  

Everybody has their own list of industrial revolutions, and here's mine.

A couple of million years ago we figured out that bashing things with rocks you'd worked into special shapes was better that bonking them with any old random rock you picked up. Suddenly you had tools, craftsmanship, carpentry, weapons, wealth beyond imagining, and global proliferation of a previously obscure critter. This was an information revolution: using knowledge to transform existing materials into useful forms.

All of this was based on natural materials, picked up from the Earth or taken from plants and animals. Then, about 5600 years ago, on a sunny Thursday morning, somebody figured out how to extract copper from yucky looking rocks. Now people had access to new materials--technology was no longer limited by what was lying around; it could make new substances and build with them. This led to bronze, iron, alloys, alchemy, chemistry, and steel. This was a material revolution; enabling new technologies by creating substances not found in nature.

All of industry until the 18th century was powered by the energy of human or animal muscles, or natural energy sources like falling water and the wind. This limited both the scope and scale of what could be done. The advent of practical steam power swept away these limitations, spawning trains, steamboats, satanic mills, and capitalism. This was an energy revolution.

As the scale of industry grew, economies of scale could be realised by standardisation and interchangeability of parts. These trends ultimately led to an entire industrial system focused around mass production of largely identical objects. This is harder to date. I use 1908, the date of the first automobile assembly line, as the milestone of mass production. Mass production was essentially an information revolution: it embodied a uniform set of specifications in huge numbers of objects, thereby reducing their cost so many more people could afford them than ever before.

I consider automation to be the most recent industrial revolution. Until the advent of mechanical, electrical, and electronic computers in the twentieth century, any computation or information processing required the attention of a human being and necessarily proceeded at the pace a human could work. The computer revolution, which I date here from ENIAC in 1946, has been an information revolution that has   transformed not only the mechanics of industry, how we make things, but also the structure of our organisations and societies. Ironically, mass production, an essential precursor of automation, is becoming less important as the introduction of intelligence throughout the manufacturing process allows more flexible forms of production.

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Next: Metre Scale Up: Nanotechnology in Manufacturing Previous: Technological Transitions

Editor: John Walker