It happened today - July 2, 2016

What is that puffing noise? Why, it’s a steam engine. And a pretty useless one, with no pistons. But that’s how it always starts.

I’m referring to the device patented on July 2, way back in 1698, by one Thomas Savery, “A new invention for raising of water and occasioning motion to all sorts of mill work by the impellent force of fire, which will be of great use and advantage for drayning mines, serveing townes with water, and for the working of all sorts of mills where they have not the benefitt of water nor constant windes.” If nothing else, you have to admit they could turn a phrase back then.

Now I have to admit that Savery could turn a phrase but not much else. His device was weak and dangerous; it wasted energy, needed constant repairs due to fairly low pressure busting the soldered joints, and was liable to explode dramatically unless kept small and feeble. Nevertheless he got his patent, a remarkably broad one lasting 14 and later 22 years, outliving him in fact and requiring others to go into business with him to make “fire engines” while he lasted. Including one Thomas Newcomen, who added the piston so the thing would actually pump water out of mines in an economically useful way, and away they went. Especially after Watt came up with the crucial concept of a separate condenser, dramatically improving energy efficiency.

Then came rotary motion, also from Watt, and you got powered looms and other machines. And people kept tinkering and fussing and saying what if and before you knew it we had cars and suburbia and tins of spam and Facebook.

OK, OK. It’s not all Savery’s fault. And if he hadn’t, someone else would have. The “Industrial Revolution” customarily and reasonably dates from the later 18th century. But the kind of mucking about in workshops that led to it was nearly a century older, and its roots lie further back still. But his engines, so dramatically exciting despite their uselessness, remind us that we tend to overestimate the power of new inventions in the short run but underestimate it in the long run. And whatever people can do with a concept they will do, sooner or later.

Indeed, the sorts of uses Savery imagined as the cutting edge of industrial dynamism now seem for the most part terribly quaint, including “working of all sorts of mills”. If you’ve seen a mill, you’ve seen a museum. But as the world has grown richer, it has also grown dirtier and in many ways scarier and certainly a lot noisier.

Quite a ruckus to arise from that small, innocuous if weird puffing sound back in 1698.