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Reflections: Harnessing new technology a continuing challenge for humankind

A sketch of a hydraulic-powered trip hammer at a mill, dated 1637.
A sketch of a hydraulic-powered trip hammer at a mill, dated 1637.

When Czech science fiction writer and playwright Karel Capek used the word robot (its root goes back to a term for “serf labor”), invented by his brother Josef, he had in mind human-shaped machines that would do man’s bidding, for good or ill.

Today, millions of robots are going about their business but, alas, few of them look like the classic robot of science fiction literature. Instead, robotic wagons deliver parts in factories all over the world; robotic arms help build most kinds of autos these days; deep-space robots land on distant planets, tool around for years on the surface or dig around a bit and then return their finds to Earth; and even mow our lawns and vacuum our living rooms.

In short, robots are replacing people in jobs that are either too dangerous or too costly, or too repetitive for humans to perform if industry, government, or ourselves are to be freed up to do other things – or make even bigger profits.

Machines have made humanity’s physical burden lighter from the time the first cave man found a long enough lever to move a giant boulder. At the same time, those same machines have sometimes caused huge workforce dislocations.

No one knows what the first machine really was. It could have been that lever noted above. It could have been the inclined plane used to help a group of Paleolithic hunters move the carcass of a large animal up to their cave.

The simple machine that probably had the most impact on the earliest civilizations was the wheel, which allowed all manner of things to happen, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. Even as the first crude wagon led to the automobile, the first war chariot led to today’s tanks, effects I am sure the inventor of the wheel could not imagine.

But far from being only a troublemaker, the wheel also has, over the course of history, been the greatest labor-saving device ever invented, and probably helped lead to the invention of civilization itself. Wheels allowed larger cargoes to be carried from the countryside to the cities that grew into the Urs, Babylons, Romes and other great capitals of the ancient world.

And, when put to work properly, wheels made large-scale manufacturing possible for the first time.

The water wheel probably was invented in the Far East, but it eventually became the foundation on which the West’s Industrial Revolution was built. Once the power of water was harnessed and put to productive work, all manner of things became practical.

Gears and pulleys – also wheels – allowed the power of falling or flowing water to turn millstones to grind grain into flour, and to make saw blades first travel up and down, then round and round to saw lumber.

At some time, a clever person invented the trip hammer, a particularly useful machine. Trip hammers are lifted by a cam – basically a bulge – attached to a shaft turned by water power. As the bulge of the cam passes, the hammer falls. Of what use is an endlessly falling hammer? Let us count the ways.

In olden times, dye was made from vegetable substances that had to be pulverized, and that pulverization was all done by hand hammering. With a water-powered trip hammer, dye stock could be made much more cheaply because machines did not get tired and cranky. They just went on pounding and pounding all day every day without complaint. As a result, dye prices fell, and even common folks were able to afford colorful clothing.

Water-powered hammers also were useful to folks who wanted to make a lot of metal items. Blacksmithing was an art, and a hard one at that. But trip hammers could be used to automate some of the processes of hammering larger pieces of steel or iron, making workers more productive.

In addition, falling or flowing water could power all manner of other things, from textile mills and elaborate looms to irrigation pumps to saw blades.

Indeed, when the first settlers began arriving here in Kendall County, pioneer millwrights were among the first arrivals. Ebenezer Morgan, John Schneider, Merrit Clark, Nathaniel Rising and the others found sites along the county’s creeks and Fox River to build their dams and mills.

Gristmills usually were the first mills to be built to allow farmers to grind their corn, barley, oats and wheat into flour for food. But sawmills were built soon after, and lumber for homes in the growing county was soon available.

All manner of water-powered factories followed, and, soon, even the water behind the numerous mill dams itself was sold in the form of ice, harvested during the winter and stored for sale in the warm months of the year.

The steam engine – which also relies on wheels to operate – gradually put the county’s water-powered mills out of business, since steam engines require no expensive, maintenance-intensive dams, they aren’t affected by low water levels and they don’t freeze up in the winter.

Besides revolutionizing milling, steam engine-powered boats opened the Midwest’s extensive river system to trade, while other steam engines equipped with wheels and pulling cars over a network of rails changed the nation forever by revolutionizing transportation.

Today, we are facing another revolution almost as great as the one occasioned by the invention of the wheel. The combination of powerful computers and a worldwide communications network brought people together as nothing else ever had. The old totalitarian nations were unable to stand against the communications revolution as fax machines and computer networks spread the truths they had been suppressing for generations.

Now, however, the social media that toppled dictators is being used more and more to promote dictatorial and hateful propaganda to a credulous citizenry. As we face the same messy ethnic and territorial problems the world has been dealing with since civilizations arose, our immediate challenge is trying to figure out how to use all this new technology in the service of rights and freedom before it destroys both.

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