USS Clueless - Why did Europe dominate?

Stardate 20011228.2152

(On Screen via long range sensors): So why was it that Europe and its culture dominated the world for so long, and its child American now dominates? There have been many theories, which often owe as much to the political philosophy of the writer as to reality (with them trying to use their view of "the lessons of the past" to preach what we should do next).

Other theories have been based on chauvinism (we dominated because we or some aspect of our culture was better). The actuality is that it was a complex sequence of events which was to some extent self-reinforcing and we probably will never fully understand it. But there's one factor which I never see mentioned in any of the analyses of it I've read. Perhaps it's it is the kind of thing an engineer would think of rather than a social scientist, because it's not really a factor of culture at all: it's technological.

So here is my proposal: there is a very close correlation historically between the power and wealth of a nation and the efficiency with which it is capable of moving soldiers, information and bulk cargo. The reason the West came to dominate the world was primarily because it had better transportation technology, which supported other factors in such a way as to permit them to dominate the world.

You can see it all the way back into early history. Why did Egypt become powerful? Because of the Nile River. There are many ways in which it was an asset to the classical Egyptian civilization, but the biggest reason was because prevailing winds were to the south and the current was to the north. So it was a highway: to go south you use a sail, to go north you let the current carry you. It's no accident that the Egyptian empire ended at the bend in the river where the current runs south for a distance, because that trick stops working there, and the ships used by the Egyptians could not travel beyond that point.

The Phoenicians become a major power when they develop ships capable of operating throughout the Mediterranean; the Greeks become powerful when they develop better, faster ships. Athens was a major power because of its navy. Rome rises and becomes powerful initially because of its martial might, but remains powerful because of its engineering. It dominates Italy because of the Roman roads, the triumph of Roman Civil Engineering. It begins to conquer the Mediterranean basin with its own development of a navy. And whenever it conquered an area, it instantly put in more roads, and built more ships. This meant that it could move troops rapidly to where they were needed, much more rapidly than could its opponents.

You occasionally get nations which dominate for a brief period for other reasons, such as Sparta, but those never last. The nations which become powerful for long periods do so because of this factor.

And it's not just military mobility that gains from this, there's another reason: reliable transportation increases economic activity. It always has. What you find is that affluence always correlates to efficiency of transportation. (I'll discuss why in a moment when I talk about the Industrial Revolution.) And the way to gauge it is to see what is being moved around. The proof of the high efficiency of Phoenician and Roman shipping was that they were moving such things as wine and oil around, which could only be valuable in large quantities.

The Roman Roads did not disappear with the fall of the Roman Empire. (Indeed, some of them are still in use today.) But they became unsafe to use routinely because of bandits, which means they could no longer be used for bulk movement of cargo. So with the fall of the Empire, transportation decreases in efficiency and you get the Dark Ages. Europe didn't climb out of that until it finally reattained the same level of transportation that the Romans had.

So what was the key development which set off the Industrial Revolution? Bill Lazar thinks it was coal; I think it was the canals. For the first time it became possible to move bulk cargo efficiently along routes that you chose, rather than on routes you were given by nature's rivers. You could connect major cities together, and you could move hundreds of tons of cargo reliably over hundreds of miles.

The problem with coal as a fuel is that it exists in huge quantities in places not really near cities where all the economic activity is going on -- and it doesn't appear near the ores you'd like to use it to smelt. In order to utilize it you have to have the ability to move hundreds of tons of it from where it's mined to where it's used. That's what the canals permitted. It became economically feasible to move coal to where the iron ore was.

It's true that you could move a factory to out where the coal was located, but then whatever you made in the factory still had to be moved to where the markets were. If you only have the ability to move your goods efficiently 50 miles, then there is no point in producing more of your product than can be sold within that market. But if you can sell in a 500 mile radius, then you can reasonably build larger factories -- which means you can gain the multiplier from economy of scale, so economic efficiency kicks in and you get a rise in affluence and economic power.

And it means that a given area is not left to the mercy of the resources which are only available locally. One of the great Roman

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004