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Networks of Moonshine and Steam

The Golen Boys

I was working with the Consumer Council for Water this month in the heart of Birmingham. Part of the city centre is a building site at present and consequently one of my favourite statues is missing. It used to stand outside the old Register Office on Broad Street and is a gilded bronze statue of three men, known locally as ‘The Golden Boys’ or ‘The Carpet Salesmen’ after the partially unrolled scrolls they hold between them. They are in fact James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch, and they are examining the plans of a steam engine, which they are famous for improving and developing.

The three men were part of powerful network who lived and worked during the latter half of the 18th century, a crucible for change when the skills of technicians and mechanics were fusing with the observations and knowledge of natural philosophers. In Britain, it became fashionable to be an amateur inventor and form discussion groups in homes and coffee houses. People like James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch were no longer happy to contemplate the world, they wanted to change it. Their curiosity and the new knowledge it spawned was both empowering and subversive, but while politicians feared political revolution they sought the rewards of industrial revolution.

As this year is the bicentenary of James Watt’s death (1736–1819) and the 250th anniversary of his patenting of the separate condenser, which would radically enhance steam power and was fundamental to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, let’s follow his journey into that network.

Watt was a skilled technician and instrument maker, as well as a theoretician, who understood the principles of hydraulics and hydrostatics, and the application of mathematical theory, but above all Watt loved puzzles and was insatiably curious, and that curiosity was fed by a diverse and expanding network of entrepreneurs, manufacturers and academics.

Born in Greenock, Scotland, his father was a shipwright, ship owner and contractor, while his mother came from a distinguished family and was well-educated. He was brought up as a staunch Presbyterian, which encouraged a self-sufficient, questioning approach, in which learning was seen as the key to progress. Like a number of other great thinkers however, he attended school irregularly and was instead educated at home by his mother.

Sadly, in 1753, when he was seventeen, his mother died and his father’s health began to fail. Watt travelled to London to study instrument-making for a year, then returned to Scotland, to Glasgow, intent on setting up his own instrument-making business. However, because he had not served at least seven years as an apprentice, the Glasgow Guild of Hammermen (any artisans who used hammers) blocked his application, despite there being no other mathematical instrument-makers in Scotland.

Watt was saved by the professors of the University of Glasgow, who offered him the opportunity to set up a small workshop within the university. It was here, in 1761, four years after opening his shop, that he began to experiment with steam after his friend and mentor, Professor John Robison, called his attention to it.

The University had a broken model of the Newcomen Engine (the first practical device to use steam to drive a mechanical apparatus) which Watt volunteered to repair. Having fixed it, he found that it still barely worked and so he tinkered some more and after much experimentation he identified the problem: about 80% of the heat of the steam was consumed in heating the cylinder because the steam was condensed by an injected stream of cold water. His critical insight, which came in 1765, was to condense the steam in a separate chamber, apart from the piston, and to maintain the temperature of the cylinder at the same temperature as the injected steam.

He soon had a working model, but the problem then was how to produce a full-scale engine. The principal difficulty was in machining the piston and cylinder, which was beyond the skills of the local iron workers. Strapped for resources, Watt was forced to take up employment as a surveyor for eight years, before finally forming his hugely successful partnership with the manufacturer Matthew Boulton, who owned the Soho Manufactory near Birmingham.

When Watt moved from Glasgow to Birmingham in May 1774, bringing with him his imperfect cylinder, he finally had access to some of the best iron workers in the world and the difficulty of the manufacture of a large cylinder with a tightly fitting piston was solved. Critically, this partnership also brought access to a dinner club and informal learned society of prominent figures in the Midlands, which included industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals.

This group met regularly in Birmingham between 1765 and 1813. At first called the Lunar Circle, the name arising because they met during the full moon, as it made the journey home easier and safer in the absence of street lighting, by 1775 it had become known as the Lunar Society. As well as Boulton and Watt, membership included: Erasmus Darwin, physician, natural philosopher, slave-trade abolitionist, and grandfather of Charles Darwin; Josiah Wedgwood, potter and entrepreneur, who founded the Wedgwood Company, and was also grandfather to Charles Darwin; and Joseph Priestley, natural philosopher, chemist, multi-subject educator, and liberal political theorist.

While members local to Birmingham were in almost daily contact, those more distant were in correspondence at least weekly and therefore a more loosely defined group can also be identified, covering a much wider geographical area. These included James Hutton, the Scottish geologist and physician; Benjamin Franklin, polymath and one of the founding fathers of the United States; and Joseph Banks, botanist and patron of the natural sciences, who famously took part in Captain James Cook’s first voyage.

What set them apart, according to the social historian Jenny Uglow, was that ‘their passionate common exchange was of a type that would never be possible again, until today, with the fast, collaborative intimacy of the Internet.’

There is little doubt that this network of friends and colleagues were an important part of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that encouraged scholars and craftspeople to apply new scientific thinking to mechanical and technological challenges. Like others of their generation they gradually incorporated science and reason into their worldview and contributed to the intellectual shifts that made British culture in particular highly receptive to new mechanical and financial ideas leading ultimately to the Industrial Revolution.

As John Stuart Mill observed in the following century, ‘It is hardly possible to overstate the value in the present state of human improvement of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.’

And that is as true now as it ever was.

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Try a Short Quiz and Learn How to Be More Creative This Christmas!

Creativity and Alcohol

Below is a short Remote Associates Test, or RAT, which is used to measure a person’s ability to see relationships between seemingly remote ideas and is an important part of the creative thinking process. For each set of three words, find a word that is related to all three. For example, if the words were Rock – Times – Cheese, the answer would be Hard. Have a go and see how you get on.

Stick – Maker – Point

Dust – Cereal – Fish

Home – Sea – Bed

If you are struggling, try an alcoholic drink. That’s not a hint or a clue, it’s a suggestion, because researchers at Mississippi State University in the United States have evidence to suggest that having a drink makes you more creative and better able to answer problems like these.

Stories of alcohol induced creativity are not unusual. A number of writers, artists and composers have related how drink helped their creative powers. In 1978, for example, English author Douglas Adams developed a radio comedy series entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It went on to be a huge franchise, including a five-book series which sold over 15 million copies. According to Adams, he got the idea seven years earlier while traveling through Europe. One night in Innsbruck, Austria, he got drunk and wandered into a field. Lying down he gazed at the star-filled sky while clutching a hitchhiker’s guide to Europe, and thought that someone should write one for the whole galaxy. He then fell asleep almost forgetting his drunken revelation.

It was to investigate this phenomena that researchers at Mississippi State University (MSU) ran an experiment. They served vodka-cranberry cocktails to twenty male subjects until their blood alcohol neared US legal intoxication levels (a blood alcohol concentration, or BAC of .08 or above). They then gave them, and a sober control group, fifteen RAT questions, like the ones at the start of this article. Although only a small study, their findings confirmed that drunk people are better at creative problem solving. Not only did the tipsy subjects solve 13% to 20% more problems than the sober subjects did, but they also reported more “Aha!” moments (flashes of insight) than their sober counterparts, and arrived at solutions more quickly.

The latter, in particular, contradicts earlier studies (and personal experience) showing that drinking slows thinking. The MSU researchers conjecture that although drinking does slow down thinking speed it also leads to a loss of focus, which is a distinct benefit when trying to solve problems of this type and make creative connections. In an exercise like the RAT, it’s important not to fixate on one word and alcohol seems to help the brain do this by drawing on a wider range of data and letting seemingly irrelevant stuff creep in. In other words, instead of doing a very focused, goal-directed search for the answer, those under the influence of alcohol engage in what neuroscientists call “spreading activation,” subconsciously activating all the recesses of their brains for the right word associations, rather than focusing narrowly and methodically on one word at a time.

This sounds feasible, but more striking still it highlights three of the four stages of the creative process: preparation, incubation and illumination. Preparation is immersion in the problem, often taking many years, but it also involves engaging with crazy ideas. Creative people tend to be high on impulsivity and low on restraint, just like those who have had a drink or two. Incubation is when we deliberately put the problem aside and allow inchoate imaginings and associations to interweave beneath our consciousness, where they will hopefully generate new and interesting relationships (i.e. spreading activation). This is at the root of advice to forget about the problem and go and do something different, which then leads to that moment of illumination when the solution bursts into our minds with startling clarity. The so called “Aha!” moment.

So, if you need to think creatively an alcoholic drink might be helpful (a perfect excuse – if you needed one), but beware of having too much. Blood alcohol levels much beyond .08 can leave us, like Douglas Adams, struggling to remember our brilliant idea and restrict our ability to screen out a terrible idea. It is worth remembering the old adage to “Write drunk, but edit sober”, which fittingly brings us to the fourth and final stage of the creative process, that of verification or execution, which requires deliberate and sober application, not your latest off-key rendition of “I did it my way”.

The answers to the RAT test, by the way, are: Match, Bowl and Sick.

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