It is generally agreed that the Industrial Revolution began somewhere in the early 18th century. There are historians and economists that argue that it occurred much earlier in the Middle Ages, claiming the printing press and the mechanical clock were early indicators of its presence. The steam engine was actually working in the late seventeenth century. However, it is agreed by all that the Industrial Revolution was one of the most important events in human history.
The Industrial Revolution is generally spoken of as an economic and social event with the conversion from simple to sophisticated machines, but upon closer examination, it was and is fundamentally characterized by how energy is distributed to perform physical or electronic tasks. Today, we add to that list, intellectual tasks.
Mankind has used machines from the earliest recorded history. Such devices as water wheels, windmills, crowbars, block, and tackle pulleys, et al, have been employed by man throughout the world in the varied societies that make up our world. The key tipping point was, and remains, energy distribution. The never-ending theme of energy distribution has always been centralization moving on to decentralization.
Examine what occurred to a common machine, the water wheel. The use of water-driven wheels may date back to Sumerian times in Mesopotamia – 4,000 to 1,000BC. In the 18th century, water wheels were commonly used to mill flour and a host of similar foodstuffs, a process referred to as grist milling. The main shaft of the water wheel drove, either directly or through a geared assembly, the grindstone face which was mounted extremely close to the face of a stationary stone surface. The grains were fed into the very small space between the two stones, forcing the grains to be crushed – ground – into the desired powder form we refer to as flour. Somewhere in time, it occurred to one of the gristmill operators that if the main shaft of the water wheel could be extended, so that it could drive more than one grindstone opposing another stationery stone surface, production could be increased from the same water wheel. This could provide doubling, tripling, or more production for the operator using the one water wheel. Two fundamental things were occurring that had never occurred before. One, energy was being distributed from one common source to more than one machine at the same time, and two, decentralization – although primitive – was occurring by virtue of the fact that the operator had found a way to distribute energy from the first water wheel to a second water wheel - more than one machine from the same energy source. The benefit to the operator was economic.
As the revolution advanced, reciprocating machines were developed. The first was steam-driven devices that burned coal or wood to heat water into steam. The steam drove pistons that in turn drove a shaft that could turn a grinding wheel or a multitude of applications, such as a wood sawmill blade. With the advent of steam-driven machines, gristmills and other kinds of machines no longer had to be located near running water. The machines could be located at more advantageous locations providing better economics for both the user and the operator. This significantly improved productivity and is a classic example of true decentralization. As the design and understanding of reciprocating steam engines improved, they became more powerful and lighter and therefore could be transported to locations where they were needed for only short periods of time to perform a given required task, and when the task was finished, moved to the next location requiring the same task – even greater decentralization.
Eventually, liquid fuel-driven reciprocating engines were invented and developed. These engines weighed significantly less and were more efficient providing greater decentralization and mobility. The energy source for these devices – hydrocarbons – provided dramatically more energy per pound and volume. Therefore, very modest volumes for storage (fuel tanks) were required as compared to the same energy storage capacity required for hydrocarbons i.e., wood or coal bins.
Further, and most significant, liquid fuels were more easily transported from their sources to the locale of use, which also decreased costs. Greater decentralization was becoming the cornerstone of great economies. Improvements and applications abounded, and with the development of the electric motor came greater efficiency and a further reduction in size. Electric motors were first driven by batteries and/or nearby generators – centralization. At the turn of the century, electricity was starting to become available over long-distance power lines making it possible to locate generators hundreds of miles from their end users – energy decentralization – i.e., hydroelectric plants conveniently located at water sources.
Today millions of machines are run by electrical energy being supplied from small batteries. They can go anywhere from under the sea to earth to space. For example, smartphones work just about anywhere and are truly portable devices; LED flashlights have almost no limitations on where they can operate; organic LEDs make huge displays possible everywhere. This is only possible because we have developed better and more efficient ways to distribute energy.
Could there be a greater example of decentralization? Yes, the internet! The internet is decentralization at a level that science could not have imagined even a few decades ago. It distributes intellectual energy through extremely efficient electronic mechanisms for anybody who wishes to participate. This could be one of the most profound events in human history. Everybody can be connected to everybody in real-time. This has geopolitical and economic implications beyond any constraints ever imagined.
The sun is the ultimate example of physical energy centralization. It is responsible for all our energy one way or another. We are starting to use the sun’s energy “children”, light and wind, very abundant elements to create usable energy at a local level, either solar water heaters for hot water to solar photovoltaic panels and windmills to make electricity. The future of decentralization is at a profound moment with the development and implementation of renewable energy.
The Windessa Group is involved with companies that are in the business of not only making structures energy self-sufficient, but also supply excess power to the electric grid. The writing is on the wall, our work and living structures will become their own decentralized power utilities, using both AC and DC energy, storing energy when it is abundant, and transferring power to others that require it, i.e. the west coast sending power to the east because the sun shines later in the day when it is dark on the east and the east coast wind at night generating power when the west coast needs it three hours earlier in the day. With decentralization, our country’s electric grid will behave in a symbiotic relationship with every structure.
The cycle of centralization to decentralization and the distribution of all physical and intellectual energy is the continuous theme of the Industrial Revolution. To anticipate what will next be evolving will require observing the direction of the cycle and its rate of change. When the change is slowing down – the current technical deployment has reached saturation – it won’t be long before it changes direction, and the cycle begins all over again.