In fact let’s start with the Big Thinks- consider the rise of civilization. There we were, naked in the woods, eating grubs & berries… then all of a sudden we have video games & hybrid cars. Life has changed very dramatically! Well okay, it wasn’t all of a sudden. In fact it happened in a long series of stages that are easy to identify. Along the way, somebody had to domesticate animals, discover how to control & use fire, invent the wheel, and all that.
The development of canals for large scale freight was a key stage in mankind's transition from huddling in caves to using cell phones. Canals were the single biggest factor in changing the way most people live, a far bigger factor than the wheel. This may sound like a stretch, but it’s true: prior to the development of railroads (not to mention inflatable tires and Macadam roads), the tonnage carried by wheeled transport was insignificant compared to the tonnage carried by water…. including canals.
This photo shows a perfectly straight stretch of the canal west of Chicago linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois and ultimately the Mississippi Rivers. I apologize for the non-photogenic nature of this post.
History blah blah blah- canals go way back. They were built by the ancient Egyptians & Mesopotamians for irrigation. But that fits into the “Rise of Civilization: Agriculture” Big Think more than the transportation/canals Big Think. Canals for freight transport were built by the Romans and Chinese, which is still pretty far back. The Romans used barges & flatboats to carry construction stone, which made reduced the time & labor required to build bridges & roads…. sort of bootstrapping their transport network…. more on this later.
But if the river & canal transportation was so good, why did they bother to build roads & bridges in the first place? That’s obvious, it’s difficult to make water go up & over hills. As time went along however, man’s technology progressed to the point of being able to construct a waterway that went up hills! Several ancient & medieval canals had dams & single gates to allow boats to pass. But this was not such a good solution, since the change in water level meant that the boat had to go up or down a small waterfall… better than going up or down a large waterfall, it’s true. Around 1400AD Dutch built some canals which used double gates at changes in water level, but the gates were difficult to control, they leaked, and they built large pools between the gates that flushed excessive amounts of water out of the system with each level change.
As a couple hundred years went by… medieval times gave way to the Renaissance, and new ideas with new technology are flourishing. More than that, trade & commerce are growing fast. People are using paper money and the world of finance is growing increasingly sophisticated.
One of the new ideas which is being applied is ‘economy of scale.’ This is a basic economic concept, familiar to most of us, that says it is more efficient to do large amounts of the same type of work…. and it was beginning to occur to people that this applies to transportation as well. Port cities were spending lots of money improving their harbors & docks, and King Louis XIV built the first modern canal across southern
This bring us forward from the Renaissance into the times of the Industrial Revolution. Many new ideas had been born and caught on widely. The ideas of using machines to do work that men & horses could not do, of large factories to crank out mass quantities of consumer goods, of applying new scientific principles to build things, and most importantly, the idea that man can change the world around him, are pretty much accepted now.
Sometimes the grand irresistible forces that move the broad sweep of history are focused on single incidents that occur to individual people. For example, when an apple dropped from a tree onto Isaac Newton’s head… or when Francis Egerton was jilted by his Irish girlfriend…
Francis Egerton, better known as the Duke of Bridgewater, when he lost out in a love affair, decided he would apply himself to his career. Since he was a wealthy nobleman who owned several coal mines, this led to his building a remarkable canal to get his coal to market faster & cheaper. The
Canals of the Industrial Revolution (link)
So now we are well into the Industrial Revolution, with large factories making consumer goods in mass quantities; and a wide spread interest in making & delivering yet more mass quantities... especially delivering, because it doesn't do much good to make them if you can't take them somewhere to sell. Somewhere in this stretch, the American colonies became the
By the 1790s there were several canals operating or being built in the
But soon, another funny thing happened. Iron was extremely important, a crucial strategic material (actually, it still is, but we tend to take it for granted in this era of titanium & carbon fiber… plus we already have a lot of it just laying around in scrap form). Iron is also very heavy, and it takes a lot of heavy fuel brought to the mill or furnace. This makes the Duke of
Here's a second funny thing that increases the importance of canals to bootstrapping an economy into the Industrial Age; however it's a bit beyond the scope of this simple blog post. The main method of iron production prior to the mid-1700s was a method called the "bloom furnace." Trying to be brief, we can describe this as putting a couple of shovel-loads of iron ore (chips of iron-bearing rock) into a closed furnace. This is the earliest form of obtaining metal from ore, going back to prehistoric times. The impurities have a lower melting point and tend to rise as the whole mass melts into a puddle, and the slag form a glassy bloom which is then hammered free of the iron. This is labor intensive and slow.
Another early method of iron production is the blast furnace, in which a continuous stream of iron ore, fuel (coal or charcoal), and limestone, is tipped into the chimney of an already-hot furnace. This dates back to the 1500s at least. With a good supply of fuel and strong combustion air (such as a water-mill powered bellows), this method could produce far more iron in a shorter time. Not only that, the iron was much more likely to be of consistantly higher quality... fewer impurities, more consistant carbon content.
However, when the iron-master's coal supply is a few wagon loads now & then, it is obviously not a paying proposition to begin firing a blast furnace. OTOH if you can count on several barge loads of coal a day, the balance tips heavily towards blast-furnace production.
So this combination of coal & iron mines, with the inspiration to link them with canals, literally handed
The same thing happened in the
Unfortunately for the canal business, this made possible the building of a tremendous railroad network…. And railroads can carry loads faster, more easily up hill, and during periods of flood or drought or ice… thus the canals of
Back to the "Big Think." Man is a tool user. To use tools, he has to make tools. We started with rocks and sticks, and very slowly learned to use metals. But metals were expensive and difficult to obtain, enough so that the use of stone & wood tools did not disappear until well after the dawn of the industrial age. ... still used in some places, in fact. But with advent of the canal, man acquired the ability to mass-produce not only goods but the tools to make them; and to distribute them nation wide... and beyond that, since most canal networks eventually led to ocean-front harbors, to facilitate shipping world-wide.
On the Winnie W. we have travelled many canals and will travel many more... some famous, like the Erie Canal, and some almost unknown. In New York City harbor, we moored in the Morris Canal Basin) although the Morris Canal itself is long gone). We've had a first hand look... and had a lot of fun... on the historic remnants of a crucial stage of mankind's development. Without canals, we would never have gotten past a low level of industrial & technological development... we would never have the Internet!
For those few serious history and/or economics buffs... or those who are simply suffering from extreme insomnia.... here are web links to go a little further exploring the topic.
And thank you for listening to what I've been thinking about-
A General Canal Chronology
New Jersey Canals-Morris
New Jersey Canals- Delaware & Raritan
James & Kanahwa (link)
Tenn-Tom Waterway (a modern canal)
Illinois & Michigan Canal- a predecessor of the Chicago S&S Canal
General canal link, lots & lots of short articles on many many canals