Category Archives: industry

Death of Venice’s Stato da Mar, c. 1500

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 5454-5511:

Vasco da Gama returned from India in September 1499, having rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The Republic dispatched an ambassador to the court of Lisbon to investigate; it was not until July 1501 that his report came in. The reality of it fell on the lagoon like a thunderclap. Terrible foreboding gripped the city. For the Venetians, who lived with a particularly intense awareness of physical geography, the implications were obvious. Priuli poured his gloomiest predictions into his diary. It was a marvel, incredible, the most momentous news of the time:

… which will take a greater intelligence than mine to comprehend. At the receipt of this news, the whole city … was dumbfounded, and the wisest thought it was the worst news ever heard. They understood that Venice had ascended to such fame and wealth only through trading by sea, by means of which a large quantity of spices were brought in, which foreigners came from everywhere to buy. From their presence and the trade [Venice] acquired great benefits. Now from this new route, the spices of India will be transported to Lisbon, where Hungarians, Germans, the Flemish, and the French will look to buy, being able to get them at a better price. Because the spices that come to Venice pass through Syria and the sultan’s lands, paying exorbitant taxes at every stage of the way, when they get to Venice the prices have increased so much that something originally worth a ducat costs a ducat seventy or even two. From these obstacles, via the sea route, it will come about that Portugal can give much lower prices.

Cutting out hundreds of small middlemen, snubbing the avaricious, unstable Mamluks, buying in bulk, shipping directly: To Venetian merchants, such advantages were self-evident.

There were countering voices; some pointed out the difficulties of the voyage:

… the king of Portugal could not continue to use the new route to Calicut, since of the thirteen caravels which he had dispatched only six had returned safely; that the losses outweighed the advantages; that few sailors would be prepared to risk their lives on such a long and dangerous voyage.

But Priuli was certain: “From this news, spices of all sorts will decrease enormously in Venice, because the usual buyers, understanding the news, will decline, being reluctant to buy.” He ended with an apology to future readers for having written at such length. “These new facts are of such importance to our city that I have been carried away with anxiety.”

In a visionary flash, Priuli foresaw, and much of Venice with him, the end of a whole system, a paradigm shift: not just Venice, but a whole network of long-distance commerce doomed to decline. All the old trade routes and their burgeoning cities that had flourished since antiquity were suddenly glimpsed as backwaters—Cairo, the Black Sea, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Smyrna, the ports of the Red Sea, and the great cities of the Levant, Constantinople itself—all these threatened to be cut out from the cycles of world trade by oceangoing galleons. The Mediterranean would be bypassed; the Adriatic would no longer be the route to anywhere; important outstations such as Cyprus and Crete would sink into decline.

The Portuguese rubbed this in. The king invited Venetian merchants to buy their spices in Lisbon; they would no longer need to treat with the fickle infidel. Some were tempted, but the Republic had too much invested in the Levant to withdraw easily; their merchants there would be soft targets for the sultan’s wrath if they bought elsewhere. Nor, from the eastern Mediterranean, was sending their own ships to India readily practical. The whole business model of the Venetian state appeared, at a stroke, obsolete.

The effects were felt almost immediately. In 1502, the Beirut galleys brought back only four bales of pepper; prices in Venice steepled; the Germans reduced their purchases; many decamped to Lisbon. In 1502, the Republic dispatched a secret embassy to Cairo to point out the dangers. It was essential to destroy the Portuguese maritime threat now. They offered financial support. They proposed digging a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. But the Mamluk dynasty, hated by its subjects, was also in decline. It proved powerless to see off the intruders. In 1500, the Mamluk chronicler Ibn Iyas recorded an extraordinary event. The balsam gardens outside Cairo, which had existed since remote antiquity, produced an oil with miraculous properties highly prized by the Venetians. Its trade symbolized the centuries-old commercial relationship between Islamic countries and the West. That year, the balsam trees withered away and vanished forever. Seventeen years later, the Ottomans strung up the last Mamluk sultan from a Cairo gate.

Tome Pires, a Portuguese adventurer, gleefully spelled out the implications for Venice. In 1511, the Portuguese conquered Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, the market for the produce of the Spice Islands. “Whoever is lord of Malacca,” he wrote, “has his hand on the throat of Venice.” It would be a slow and uneven pressure, but the Portuguese and their successors would eventually squeeze the life out of the Venetian trade with the Orient. The fears that Priuli expressed would in time prove well-founded; and the Ottomans meanwhile would systematically strip away the Stato da Mar.

The classical allusions of de’ Barbari’s map already contain a backward-looking note; they hint at nostalgia, a remaking of the tough, energetic realities of the Stato da Mar into something ornamental. They perhaps reflected structural changes within Venetian society. The recurrent bouts of plague meant that the city’s population was never self-replenishing; it relied on immigrants, and many of those from mainland Italy came without knowledge of the seafaring life. It was already noticeable during the Chioggia crisis that the volunteer citizens had to be given rowing lessons. In 1201, at the time of the adventure of the Fourth Crusade, the majority of Venice’s male population were seafarers; by 1500, they were not. The emotional attachment to the sea, expressed in the Senza, would last until the death of the Republic, but by 1500, Venice was turning increasingly to the land; within four years, it would be engaged in a disastrous Italian war that would again bring enemies to the edge of the lagoon. There was a crisis in shipbuilding, a greater emphasis on industry. The patriotic solidarity that had been the hallmark of Venetian destiny had been seen to fray: A sizable part of the ruling elite had demonstrated that, though still keen to recoup the profits of maritime trade, they were not prepared to fight for the bases and sea-lanes on which it depended. Others, who had made fortunes in the rich fifteenth century, stopped sending their sons to sea as apprentice bowmen. Increasingly, a wealthy man might look to reinvest in estates on the terra firma, to own a country mansion with escutcheons over the door; these were respectable hallmarks of nobility to which all self-made men might aspire.

It was Priuli again, acute and regretful, who caught this impulse and pinpointed the declining glory it seemed to imply. “The Venetians,” he wrote in 1505, “are much more inclined to the Terra Firma, which has become more attractive and pleasing, than to the sea, the ancient root cause of all their glory, wealth, and honor.”

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“New Spain’s Century of Depression”

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 4988-5028:

The imperialism of Philip II’s reign had been based on a Spanish-Atlantic economy, in that it was financed out of the resources of America and of a Castile which itself received regular injections of silver from the silver-mines of the New World. During the last decade of the sixteenth century American silver was still reaching Spain in very large quantities, and the port of Seville had an undeniable air of prosperity; but the comforting appearances masked the beginning of a radical change in the structure of the entire Spanish-Atlantic system.

This change was, in part, a direct result of Spain’s war with the Protestant powers of the north. In the first two decades after the outbreak of the Netherlands revolt, the Dutch had continued to trade with the Iberian peninsula. Spain was dependent on northern and eastern Europe for its supplies of grain, timber, and naval stores, a large proportion of which were transported in Dutch vessels. Irked by Spain’s continuing dependence on the Dutch, and anxious to strike a blow at the Dutch economy, Philip II placed an embargo on Dutch ships in Spanish and Portuguese ports in 1585, and again in 1595. The Dutch appreciated as well as Philip II that any interference with their peninsular trade threatened them with disaster. They needed Spanish silver and colonial produce, just as they also needed the salt of Setúbal for their herring industry. Faced with embargoes on their peninsular trade, they therefore reacted in the only possible way, by going direct to the producing areas for the goods they needed – to the Caribbean and Spanish America. From 1594 they were making regular voyages to the Caribbean; in 1599 they seized the salt island of Araya. This intrusion of the Dutch into the Caribbean disrupted the pearl fisheries of Santa Margarita and dislocated the system of maritime communications between Spain’s colonial possessions. For the first time, Spain found itself heavily on the defensive in the western hemisphere, its overseas monopoly threatened by increasingly audacious Dutch and English attacks.

The presence of northern interlopers in the American seas was a serious danger to the Spanish commercial system; but potentially even more serious was the simultaneous transformation in the character of the American economy. During the 1590s the boom conditions of the preceding decades came to an end. The principal reason for the change of economic climate is to be found in a demographic catastrophe. While the white and the mixed population of the New World had continued to grow, the Indian population of Mexico, scourged by terrible epidemics in 1545–6 and again in 1576–9, had shrunk from some 11,000,000 at the time of the conquest in 1519 to little more than 2,000,000 by the end of the century; and it is probable that a similar fate overtook the native population of Peru. The labour force on which the settlers depended was therefore dramatically reduced. In the absence of any significant technological advance, a contracting labour force meant a contracting economy. The great building projects were abruptly halted; it became increasingly difficult to find labour for the mines, especially as the negroes imported to replace the Indians proved to be vulnerable to the same diseases as those which had wiped out the native population; and the problem of feeding the cities could only be met by a drastic agrarian reorganization, which entailed the creation of vast latifundios where Indian labour could be more effectively exploited than in the dwindling Indian villages.

The century that followed the great Indian epidemic of 1576–9 has been called ‘New Spain’s century of depression’ – a century of economic contraction, during the course of which the New World closed in on itself. During this century it had less to offer Europe: less silver, as it became increasingly expensive to work the mines, and fewer opportunities for the emigrants – the 800 or more men and women who were still arriving in the 1590s in each flota from Seville. At the same time, it also came to require less of Europe – or at least of Spain. European luxury products found themselves competing with the products of the Far East carried to America in the Manila galleon. But much more serious from the point of view of Spain was the establishment in its American possessions of an economy dangerously similar to its own. Mexico had developed a coarse cloth industry, and Peru was now producing grain, wine, and oil. These were exactly the products which had bulked so large in the cargoes from Seville during the preceding decades. In fact, the staple Spanish exports to America were ceasing to be indispensable to the settlers, and in 1597 Spanish merchants found it impossible to dispose of all their goods: the American market, the source of Andalusia’s prosperity, was for the first time overstocked.

From the 1590s, therefore, the economies of Spain and of its American possessions began to move apart, while Dutch and English interlopers were squeezing themselves into a widening gap. It was true that Seville still retained its official monopoly of New World trade, and that Sevillan commerce with America reached an all-time record in 1608, to be followed by a further twelve years in which trade figures, while fluctuating, remained at a high level. But, as an index to national prosperity, the figures are deprived of much of their significance by the fact that the cargoes were increasingly of foreign provenance. The goods which Spain produced were not wanted by America; and the goods that America wanted were not produced by Spain.

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Odessa, a “Russian Chicago”

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 109-112:

Until the 1860s, Odessa was the breadbasket for much of the Western world, feeding a hungry European and, increasingly, global market. Foreign consuls sent breathless dispatches to European capitals about fluctuations in the prices of wheat and barley. Foreign ministers contemplated the effects of diplomatic squabbles on the supply of foodstuffs. Only with the discovery of oil farther to the east, in the Russian Caucasus and the Caspian seaport of Baku, was Odessa’s chief cash export exceeded by that of a rival Russian city.

Odessa’s commercial success lay in its position at the intersection of flatlands and seascape, where the produce of the former could be sent to markets across the latter. But a series of fortunate accidents allowed the city to enhance this natural gift. Talented administrators such as Vorontsov argued for maintaining the freeport status, which was a considerable inducement to foreign and local entrepreneurs. Improvements in the harbor allowed larger ships to enter and lie safely at anchor. The fall-off in plague outbreaks around the Black Sea reduced much of the time that ships, goods, and passengers spent in quarantine. When the Peace of Adrianople was signed between the sultan and tsar in 1829, ending nearly a decade of diplomatic bickering, trade squabbles, and outright war, Russian secured a historic set of concessions from the Ottomans, including an end to the Ottoman practice of boarding and searching Russian merchant ships. The period of relative peace that followed—from the late 1820s to the early 1850s—provided ease of shipping through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.

The economic results were immense. Grain exports from all the Russian Black Sea ports stood at a yearly average of under two million chetverts (a unit of Russian dry measurement equal to 5.77 U.S. bushels) before 1813, but by the 1860s that figure had risen to over sixteen million chetverts. Over half those exports were coming solely from Odessa. Between the 1840s and 1850s, the annual volume of grain exports to Italian ports more than doubled, while the French were importing ten times as much Odessa grain at the end of that period as at the beginning. After the late 1840s, the easing of restrictive import laws in England the introduction of hardier wheat varieties in Russia opened new markets for Odessa’s produce, well beyond the traditional Mediterranean destinations. By the middle of the century, well over a thousand ships were leaving Odessa each year. The number of British ships sailing into the Black Sea increased sevenfold between the mid-1840s and the early 1850s, with Britain accounting for a third or more of all destinations of vessels exiting the port. Wheat, barley, rye, and other grains filled the holds of long-haul sea vessels flying flags of most major European powers.

Of all these goods, the queen was wheat. Ninety percent of Russian wheat exports flowed out of the empire’s Black Sea ports, and many of the sights, sounds, and smells of Odessa derived from its production and sale. Immense herds of cattle provided manure for fertilizer in the countryside and pulled the thousands of wooden carts that bore the harvested grain from field to storage centers….

Some carters would return north with cloth, wine, or other imported goods offloaded from merchant vessels in the harbor, while others chose to transform their infrastructure into capital. The dried dung could be collected and sold as fuel to poor families, and the animals could then be given up to slaughter for meat and hides. The sweet smoke of burning, grass-rich manure mingled in the air with the reek of tallow vats and the sharp odor of tanneries, the factories that produced the bricks of processed fat and bundles of unworked leather destined for Turkey, Italy, or France.

With hundreds of thousands of head of livestock coming through the city each harvest season, dust and mud were constant features of Odessan life. Choking, white-yellow clouds, stirred up by hooves and swirled about by the prevailing winds, powdered residents like talcum. Rain turned inches of accumulated limestone grime into impassable sloughs….

An open, brick-lined drainage system, about two feet deep, ran alongside the major thoroughfares, crossed by occasional footbridges and wooden planks. But the rivulets they contained—the wastewater runoff and solid offal of houses and hotels, as well as animal dung and mud from the streets—could gag even the toughest pedestrian. The blooms of acacia trees and oleander fought back with their perfume, but it usually took a change in wind direction, blowing off the plains and toward the sea, to unburden the city of its own stench.

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Odessa, a “Russian Cincinnati”

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 107-108:

When foreign travelers ventured across the Eurasian steppe, it was difficult to know which was worse: bouncing along rutted roads in a hired wagon careering along at breakneck speed, or stopping in a fly-blown inn where a meal was little more than moldy bread and rough wine, and one’s bed a straw mat covered by a ragged blanket.

It was all the more surprising, then, when travelers came across a small slice of Germany that had been transplanted to the windy flatlands. Small wooden houses were gathered in neat rows around a plain stone church. Doorposts were painted with simple but elegant flower motifs. Blooming flowerboxes decorated the street-facing windows. A visitor was greeted with a friendly but wary “Guten tag,” and if he asked for onward directions to another village or city, he should be sure to know its name in German rather than in Russian. “How agreeably was I surprised to see the advanced state of agriculture as we travelled southwards,” wrote the wife of a Russian officer not long after Odessa’s founding, “and to find this mighty empire, which, I own, judging from its vast extent, I supposed to be thinly peopled, covered with populous villages and waving corn [wheat].” Germans, especially members of the reclusive Mennonite Christian denomination, had been invited by Catherine the Great to set up farms across New Russia shortly after her acquisition of the territory from the Ottomans. Germans brought agricultural skills that were lacking in a frontier peopled mainly by nomads and Cossacks. In turn, they received land, exemption from military service, and ready outlets for their produce in the burgeoning Russian ports along the Black Sea.

Odessa was founded by foreigners in Russian service, and that heritage reproduced itself generation after generation. Niche industries abounded. If you were a well-to-do merchant, your barber was likely to be an Armenian, your gardener a Bulgarian, your plasterer a Pole, your carriage driver a Russian, and your nursemaid a Ukrainian. “There is nothing national about Odessa,” recalled one visitor disapprovingly. Some could describe it only by analogy—as a Russian Florence, a Russian Naples, a Russian Paris, a Russian Chicago, even a Russian Cincinnati.

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Two Separate Spanish Economies c. 1500

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2149-2165:

Two separate economic systems continued to exist side by side: the Atlantic system of Castile, and the Mediterranean system of the Crown of Aragon. As a result of the expansion of the wool trade and the discovery of America, the first of these was flourishing. The Crown of Aragon’s Mediterranean system, on the other hand, had been gravely impaired by the collapse of Catalonia, although there was some compensation for Catalonia’s losses in the increased economic activity of late fifteenth-century Valencia. Ferdinand’s pacification and reorganization of Catalonia, however, enabled the Principality at the end of the century to recover a little of its lost ground. Catalan fleets began to sail again to Egypt; Catalan merchants appeared once more in North Africa; and, most important of all, a preferential position was obtained for Catalan cloths in the markets of Sicily, Sardinia, and Naples. But it is significant that this recovery represented a return to old markets, rather than the opening up of new ones. The Catalans were excluded from direct commerce with America by the Sevillian monopoly, and they failed, for reasons that are not entirely clear, to break into the Castilian market on a large scale. They may have shown a lack of enterprise, but they also seem to have suffered from discrimination, for as late as 1565 they were arguing that the Union of the Crowns of 1479 made it unreasonable that Catalan merchants should still be treated as aliens in Castilian towns. As a result of this kind of treatment, it is scarcely surprising that Catalonia and the Crown of Aragon as a whole should have continued to look eastwards to the Mediterranean, instead of turning their attention towards the Castilian hinterland and the broad spaces of the Atlantic.

Castile and the Crown of Aragon, nominally united, thus continued to remain apart – in their political systems, their economic systems, and even in their coinage. The inhabitants of the Crown of Aragon reckoned, and continued to reckon, in pounds, shillings, and pence (libras, sueldos, and dineros). The Castilians reckoned in a money of account – the maravedí [named after the Moorish Almoravid dynasty]. At the time of the accession of Ferdinand and Isabella the monetary system in Castile was particularly chaotic.

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Castilian Economy, 1501: All for Wool

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2057-2076:

In spite of the increasingly grave problem of the national food supply, Ferdinand and Isabella adopted no vigorous measures to stimulate corn production. On the contrary, it was in their reign that the long-continuing struggle between sheep and corn was decisively resolved in favour of the sheep. The great expansion of the mediaeval wool trade had revitalized the economic life of Castile, but there inevitably came a point at which further encouragement of Castilian wool production could only be given at the expense of sacrificing agriculture. This point was reached in the reign of the Catholic Kings. The importance of the wool trade to the Castilian economy, and the value to the royal treasury of the servicio y montazgo, the tax paid the Crown by the sheep-farmers, naturally prompted Ferdinand and Isabella to pursue the policies of their predecessors and to take the Mesta under their special protection. As a result, a whole series of ordinances conferred upon it wide privileges and enormous favours, culminating in the famous law of 1501 by which all land on which the migrant flocks had even once been pastured was reserved in perpetuity for pasturage, and could not be put to any other uses by its owner. This meant that great tracts of land in Andalusia and Estremadura were deprived of all chance of agricultural development and subjected to the whim of the sheepowners. The aims of this policy were obvious enough. The wool trade was easily subjected to monopolistic control, and, as a result, it constituted a fruitful source of revenue to a Crown which, since 1484, had found itself in increasing financial difficulties, exacerbated by the flight of Jewish capital. An alliance between Crown and sheepowners was thus mutually beneficial for both: the Mesta, with its 2½ to 3 million sheep, basked in the warm sunshine of royal favours while the Crown, whose control of the Military Orders gave it some of the best pasturing lands in Spain, could draw a regular income from it, and turn to it for special contributions in emergencies.

There were no doubt certain unintended advantages to Castile, in the intense royal encouragement of the wool industry. Sheep-farming requires less labour than arable farming, and the vast extent of the pasture-lands helped to produce a surplus of manpower which made it easier for Castile to raise armies and to colonize the New World. But on the whole the favouring of sheep-farming at the expense of tillage can only appear as a wilful sacrifice of Castile’s long-term requirements to considerations of immediate convenience. It was in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella that agriculture was confirmed in its unhappy position as the Cinderella of the Castilian economy, and the price which was eventually to be paid for this was frighteningly high.

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Congo’s War for Mining or Peace for Mining?

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 5014-5042 (pp. 288-289):

The Congo is often referred to as a geological scandal. This is not an exaggeration. In the late 1980s, it was the world’s largest producer of cobalt, third largest producer of industrial diamonds, and fifth largest producer of copper. It has significant uranium reserves—infamous for having contributed to the Hiroshima bombs—as well as large gold, zinc, tungsten, and tin deposits.

Like so many of the country’s problems, the mismanagement of these assets dates back to colonial times. In 1906 already, the Belgian government gave the Société générale de Belgique, a powerful trust affiliated to the state, a mining tract of 13,000 square miles in Katanga, the size of Belgium. Under the exceedingly favorable terms of the deal, the company would get a ninety-nine-year monopoly over any mineral deposits it could identify in the next six years. It was also granted the management of the state railroad line that would help export the copper and cobalt ore, for which the colonial state would provide local labor. Société générale set about creating the three most powerful companies in the Belgian Congo: the Upper Katanga Mining Union, the Bas-Congo to Katanga Railroad Company, and the International Forest and Mining Company. Mineral and agricultural exports from the Congo fueled the creation of some of the biggest Belgian conglomerates and personal fortunes, developing the Antwerp port and creating a copper smelting industry.

Mobutu nationalized the Upper Katanga Mining Union in 1967 and rebranded it Gécamines, while other mining companies in the Kivus and Katanga were also converted into state-owned enterprises. The government proceeded to use the mining company as a cash cow, systematically milking it for money to fund Mobutu’s patronage network instead of reinvesting earnings in infrastructure and development. In order to carry out this scheme, the autocrat forced all mineral exports to be sold through a state mineral board, which would then hand over its revenues to the state treasury. Nonetheless, thanks to rising world copper prices, Gécamines remained the country’s largest source of employment and income, providing over 37,000 jobs at its peak, running thirteen hospitals and clinics, and contributing to between 20 and 30 percent of state revenues.

A confluence of factors brought about Gécamines’ demise in the 1990s. Copper prices plunged as low-cost producers such as Chile stepped up production and world demand dipped. The army pillages of 1991 and 1993, along with the ethnic purging of Kasaians from Katanga in 1993, drove much of the experienced expatriate staff out of Gécamines and contributed to the cutting of foreign development aid that had helped prop up the ailing mining sector. Finally, the years of mismanagement took their toll. In 1990, the huge underground Kamoto mine collapsed, leading to an abrupt drop in production of 23 percent. Exports declined from a high of 465,000 tons in 1988 to 38,000 tons just before the war, while cobalt production slipped from 10,000 to 4,000 tons in the same period. Similar trends affected all other mineral exports, leading to a vertiginous contraction of the country’s GDP by 40 percent between 1990 and 1994.

Pressured by donors to relinquish the state’s grip on the economy and desperate for revenues, Mobutu allowed his prime minister, Kengo wa Dondo, to begin gradually privatizing the mining sector in 1995. Most of the contracts that were later negotiated with the AFDL, including the American Mineral Fields and Lundin agreements, were amendments to and confirmations of deals that had already been struck with Mobutu’s government in 1996. The notion that the war was fueled by international mining capital eager to get its hands on the Congo’s wealth does not hold water; the war slowed down privatization of the sector by a decade, as insecurity and administrative chaos prevented large corporations from investing. It was not until 2005 that major new contracts in Katanga were approved and investors began to invest significant funds.

I hadn’t realized the extent to which Canadian companies have dominated mining in the Congo.

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Railroads and Other Baffling Innovations

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), pp. 253-254:

Why do our clothes not fit so well? It results from a chain of circumstances the origins of which are obscure to most and the direction of which was partially accidental. Early in the nineteenth century, inventors came up with an automated loom, and businesspeople put these to work in England and in such American industrial cities as Lowell, Massachusetts, turning out cheap cotton cloth. This, along with the application of the cotton gin to cotton production, revitalized slavery as well as creating an incentive for inexpensive ready-made and therefore not specifically tailored clothing.

Such long-range deep impacts of technological and business developments have long been studied. Lynn White, in Medieval Technology and Social Change, documented the enormous impact of clocks, heavy harness and stirrups on population growth, shock warfare, and the age of exploration. Siegfried Giedion wrote in his Mechanization Takes Command of what he called “anonymous history.” Who can estimate the impact of the invention of the toilet, or the assembly line in food production, or household machinery on the status of women? Langdon Winner observed “Developments in the technical sphere continually outpace the capacity of individuals and social systems to adapt. As the rate of technological innovation quickens, it becomes increasingly important and increasingly difficult to predict the range of effects that a given innovation will have.”

A recent touring art exhibit called “The Railway: Art in the Age of Steam” reaffirmed the impact of that technology on perceptions of life and landscape. “The application of steam power to motion,” the catalog noted, “came as a startling turn of events.” Some found it wondrous, but “for others it heralded a frightening, almost demonic energy.” There was something supernatural about it, even extraterrestrial. It made middle-class people “physically and psychologically susceptible to impersonal and potentially lethal industrial machines.”…

Think of the social and psychological changes wrought by the telegraph, electricity, the phonograph, the automobile, the airplane, radio, television, the computer, the Internet, the long-playing record, video games, the cell phone, fast food, the shopping mall, and the iPod. And think of how “baffled,” in many ways, we are by them and how they should fit in with the rest of our existence. These devices have become ubiquitous parts of modern life. An age when they did not exist is nearly unimaginable to many, while an age where they do exist is unendurable to others.

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Railroad Depot Architecture, 1830–1860

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), p. 92:

Railroad depots came to dominate urban architecture, and their size brought much comment. The Boston & Maine depot in Boston, constructed in 1846, was 200 feet long and 80 feet wide. It had Corinthian columns, and on its upper story was the largest meeting hall in the city. Behind it was a freight depot 500 feet long and 50 feet wide. The Union depot at Troy, New York constructed in 1853, was 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. The distance from the top of the roof arch to the floor was 65 feet. The roof was made entirely of iron supported by twenty trusses.

Former B&O Camden Station

Former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Camden Station, built in 1856, now the Babe Ruth/Sports Legends Museum next to Camden Yards

Time only increased the impressiveness of these structures. A reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune visited the new buildings constructed by the Illinois Central Railroad along the lakeshore in 1854. The passenger depot at the foot of Water Street was all of stone. It was 500 feet long, 166 feet wide and 60 feet high to the top of its towers. Its windows were 16 feet high. The walls looked like they would “remain in all their strength when the final ‘wreck of matter and the crash of worlds’ shall come. The turntable there would hold eighteen locomotives.

The depots were the entry to a new world of travel, every aspect of which became a subject for travelogue comments. John Daggett riding the B&O in 1834, thought the beginning of his rail journey was its highlight:

One of the happiest effects of traveling on railroads is the freedom it gives you from the impertinence and impositions of porters, cartmen, et omne id genus, who infest common steamboat landings. A long and solitary row of carriages was standing on the shore awaiting our arrival; not a shout was heard, scarcely any thing was seen to move except the locomotive, and the arms of the man who caught the rope from our boat. The passengers were filed off along a planked walk to the carriages through one gangway, while their luggage, which had already been stowed safely away, was rolled on shore by another, in two light wagons; and almost without speaking a word, the seats were occupied, the wagons attached behind, the half-locomotive began to snort, and the whole retinue was on the way with as little ado and as little loss of time as I have been guilty of in telling the story.

Others, however, were not so impressed with the stressful experience of boarding a train. A Frenchman, Michel Chevalier, thought that the pandemonium at the railroad station reflected the nervousness and disorder of American society itself. The American, he wrote, was “devoured with a passion for locomotion” and could not stay still.

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Railroad vs. U.S. Army Jobs, 1854

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), p. 188:

Similarly elaborate was a great excursion celebrating the completion of the Rock Island in 1854. Two trains of twelve cars each left Chicago loaded with 1,300 people to the cheers of a vast crowd. They proceeded through the prairie and stopped for people to gather wildflowers and grasses and to observe the substantial stone houses and gardens already established along the line. The prairie, a traveler on that train said, “was in its way as grand as the White Mountains, or Niagara Falls.” Arriving at Rock Island and the Mississippi to a cannonade, there was a banner at the depot reading- “The Mississippi and the Atlantic Shake Hands.” Drawn up to the wharf were six of the largest Mississippi River steamboats—War Eagle, Galena, Lady Franklin, Sparhawk, Golden Era, and Jenny Lind. Each had a band playing on the upper deck.

The “Conquests of Civilization” looked especially impressive that day comparing favorably with any military conquests of old. Wrote a man celebrating the excursion opening the Rock Island: “Our invasions, instead of desolating and laying waste the regions into which they are carried, spread fertility and abundance on their track, and they bring us back, instead of weeping captives to minister to our ostentation and pride, the fruits and riches of the earth, garnered from the most distant climes and kingdoms.” The Illinois Central Company was bigger than the U.S. Army. That army had 10,000 in 1854. The Illinois Central railroad employed 19,000 who earned a total in wages of nearly $4 million per year. In three years it would build 700 miles of railroad, whereas in thirty years the federal government had spent $200 million on the army “for which they have nothing to show but some old forts, guns, battered uniforms, and demoralized veterans.” Soon enough, in 1856, trains passed over the Mississippi on the great Rock Island Bridge, 1,581 feet long with a draw in the center. “Yes, the Mississippi is practically no more. It is spanned by the mighty artery of commerce and enterprise—the railroad.”

The uninhabited prairie might be sublime and a “solemn” sight, but seeing the plains of Illinois divided into farms was more exciting still The fields would “drop fatness” when in time “the old fogy sod, matted conservatism of centuries, is overturned by the revolutionists, the ploughshares, and penetrated by those radicals, the grain roots, and the wheat fields stretch out green and wavy as the seas.”

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