Today, we resist change. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I have two books here: Volume
eighteen of the modern McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of
Science and Technology has an eight-page article on
textiles. The other, a large book from the 1906
International Library of Technology, is completely
devoted to textiles.
Textiles dominated our industrial world a century ago.
And this old book quite literally took me to a different
planet -- one where craft and industry were still (may I
The section on animal, vegetable and mineral yarns alone
is 84 pages long -- mostly definitions. The word
shoddy is the term for reprocessed wool. Shoddy
fibers have been broken up, but they can be mixed with
new wool to make a cheaper fabric. The section on mineral
fibers recommends asbestos for fire-retarding fabric, and
it calls glass fibers a curiosity with no application.
What catches my eye is the section on Mill Engineering.
Here we watch as the authors, trying to enter the
twentieth century, keep their allegiance to the
nineteenth. They devote fifty-four pages to the old
technologies of erecting the textile-mill building -- to
footings and foundations, masonry, brickwork, and so
As for the power plant, they say flatly that two kinds of
power might be used: steam engines or water power -- no
mention of electric motors. Electric motors had been
around for some time by then. They were now powering
electric lighting systems, elevators, and trolley cars.
The book does recommend light bulbs over other kinds of
illumination. Yet it's clear that we're reading what
practitioners of an old and conservative technology have
is one of the oldest technologies. We've made cloth for
at least nine thousand years --
maybe much longer. Textiles
were one of the first industries in North America. The
Pilgrims set up a wool-fulling mill in Massachusetts only
twenty-three years after they'd landed on Plymouth Rock.
It was powered by a wooden water wheel.
Now this 1906 book includes a beautifully-illustrated
twelve-page section on water power. It recommends metal
water turbines of the mixed-flow Francis-type -- small
turbines, which, like water wheels, were to serve
individual mills along a river. The textile mills stayed
in their old sites and simply replaced wooden water wheels with their more
efficient cousins. Using the output of a large central
power plant was not yet on anyone's radar screen.
When my wife and I fly East to see our children, we land
in Manchester, New Hampshire. Near the airport the old
textile mills line the Merrimack River. They sit (no longer used as mills) in
their final form -- just as this old book describes
The most famous technical encyclopedia of all was
Diderot's, published just before
the French Revolution. The government called him a rebel,
but he fell into the same trap. His section on textiles
describes technologies about to be blown away by the
Industrial Revolution. But then, no technical handbook
has ever predicted the future. That, after all, is not
for us to know.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology.
7th ed., Vol. 18, New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1992, pp.
259-268 (Authors are named for each of the component
Yarns, Cloth Rooms, Mill Engineering, Reeling and
Baling, Winding. International Library of Technology: A
Series of Textbooks for Persons Engaged in ...
Scranton: International Textbook Co., 1906. (No authors
are named. The five articles are all dated either 1902 or
A flyball-controlled Corliss-type steam engine
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-2001 by John H. Lienhard.