Tilting at Windmills

As you drive through East Devon towards Dorset on the A 30 in the west of England, there is plenty to see.  Near the junctions for Ottery St Mary, the road descends to a broad valley in a patchwork of green fields and trees.   This view has probably changed little for many years although the road, the railway, the phone masts and, if you look carefully, two small wind turbines, provide clear evidence of the effects of technology.   For me, the wind turbines do little to detract from the natural view.  I find wind turbines rather magnificent to look at and they also reassure me that we are doing something to generate renewable energy.  But that is, of course, my opinion and it is not shared by everybody.

Wind turbines have become a contentious topic.  There are several proposals to erect large wind turbines in Dorset and Devon and these have attracted furious local opposition and strong local support, sometimes in equal measure.  Some of these proposals have proceeded, some have not.  There is a proposal to build a huge wind farm in the Channel, visible from the Dorset Coast.  This is also attracting adverse comment.  Do we now “object” more or is this a natural human reaction to change? Is it our comfortable life style that allows us the luxury of objecting?  How did previous generations react to technological change?

One of the best examples of the effect of technological advance on human lives occurred exactly 300 years ago.   In 1712, Thomas Newcomen, an ironmonger from Dartmouth in Devon, installed the first steam-driven water pump at a coal mine in Dudley Castle in Tipton, Staffordshire.   Let’s try to imagine how people might have reacted to this new machine by taking ourselves back to the early 1700’s.  It was only a century since Elizabeth 1st was on the throne and life was fairly primitive.  Transport on land depended on walking or on horse drawn vehicles.  When power was needed this came from muscle (humans or animals) or the elements (wind or water).   The economy was largely rural and windmills were the most complex machines people encountered.    So, how would Newcomen’s steam pump have seemed to people at that time.   It looked like a great dragon; the long wooden beam nodded twelve times a minute pumping water from a depth of 50 metres.   As it nodded, steam spewed out with a fearsome hissing.  The countryside was changed forever by this noisy beast.  To some, it signalled the end of the world?  It certainly signalled a new world and major change. 

Necomen’s steam pump

Newcomen’s pump enabled mining at greater depths so that coal could be obtained more easily.  Cheap coal lead to increased industrial activity that accelerated the Industrial Revolution.  Newcomen’s invention underpinned this and it has been said that “In the whole history of technology it would be difficult to find a greater single advance than this, nor one with a greater significance for all humanity”.  As these Newcomen engines sprung up throughout the mining parts of the UK, there must have been considerable disquiet and nobody could have foreseen the change that it brought.  James Watt improved on Newcomen’s design and later Trevithick made a small lightweight version enabling the eventual development of steam railways.  Newcomen’s invention brought disruption and change but also huge benefits; nobody could have predicted its effects.

Now let’s move forward 150 years to the heyday of Victorian railway building.  Today, we take railways for granted, they are part of our landscape, but how did people react to the coming of the railways in the 1800s?   Don’t forget that, before the railways, travel still depended on horses or horse-drawn vehicles.  Whereas some quickly saw the potential of the railways to bring prosperity, others were strongly opposed.  Opposition came from those who objected to encroachment on their land or those such as canal owners whose livelihoods were threatened.    There were also fears that the human body would not withstand travel at speed or that farm animals would be frightened by the passing trains.  Some talked of “railway vandalism”.  In Dorchester (Dorset) there was local opposition to the destruction of Maumbury Rings by a proposed railway and the route was changed.  This was the first antiquity saved by local opposition and lead in 1846 to the establishment of the Dorset Museum with the express aim of preserving local natural history and archaeology.  Overall, the railways brought major change to people’s lives.   Some of this change was negative but much was positive; the railways brought prosperity to towns linked by rail and gave people freedom to move about more easily.

These two examples from history tell us that when technological change occurs, people’s lives are affected.  There are both positive and negative effects of the change and many are hard to predict.  So what about the 21st century, when we face great challenges, one of the greatest being climate change.  We need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in order to cut carbon emissions so that irreversible, damaging climate change is averted.  Renewable energy sources will be very important here and we need to employ a mixture of different renewable technologies including solar, wind and wave power.   Technological change on this scale will have some negative consequences but there will be positive effects, some of which we can easily see and some that we cannot begin to predict.

 This article appeared in the May 2012 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.  The magazine is published in Dorset and so all articles have a Dorset focus.  The topics covered often have relevance outside of Dorset.

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