“The Revolutionary Evolution of the Media”: How the Steam Engine Contributed to Media Developments

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Cover image for  article: “The Revolutionary Evolution of the Media”: How the Steam Engine Contributed to Media Developments

Chapter 8, Part 2 Or, how technological innovations began changing the media landscape as the 1700s dawned and the birth of the modern came in the 1800s.

This is a book in progress. Go here to read the previous chapters.

Up until the 1700s only two “new” technologies made much of an impact on media. First, the arrival of the printing press and moveable type shook things up by making media available to the masses (and mightily annoying existing power structures consequently losing control over information until they could grab it back). Somewhat later, the development of better roads with real centralized postal services boosted both the efficiency and speed of getting news and information to wider publics. But it wasn’t until the advent of a truly usable steam engine for marine and land movement that change in media kicked into high gear as the Industrial Revolution swept across the globe.

Of course, steam had been around for centuries. It actually dates back to the famous Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria and his aeolipile, a rudimentary pumping engine. Development lagged until a Spanish soldier named Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont filed for 50 patents in 1606 for steam-powered inventions like a water pump for draining inundated mines. The first commercial steam-powered engine was a water pump invented in 1698 by Thomas Savery. Cheap and easy to operate, this water pump was still in use in 1820.

But it took Thomas Newcomen working on making Savery’s and other’s improvements to build a truly useful engine capable of generating power and transmitting it to a machine. Newcomen’s engines pumped water from mines and powered waterwheels alongside streams beginning in 1712.

The next big breakthrough would come in 1775 when James Watt made significant modifications allowing rotary steam engines that could be located away from water sources. It was just nine year later when Scotsman William Murdoch built a working steam “road locomotive.” Around the same time, Richard Trevithick built the first full-scale working railway steam locomotive, which hauled ironworks along a tramway in Wales. After that, innovation in locomotion exploded as tracks began being laid almost everywhere. At the same time, marine transportation gained speed with the advent of steam turbine power.

So what did all this have to do with media? Think of it as an explosion of both reach and penetration as newspapers, pamphlets and books sped across the landscape reaching previously untouched areas.

So, what was there to spread? While inventors were improving the steam engine, magazines had appeared in 1741. Shortly after that, the first novel was written and printed – The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding – on February 22, 1749 in England. The book was popular and set off a number of different manners of eating at table (oh, wait, that wasn’t until the movie in 1963!).

Meanwhile, the American Revolution was brewing as Colonialists chafed under Great Britain’s demand for taxes. The Boston Tea Party became a news sensation throughout the Colonies. England retaliated with the Coercive Acts on Massachusetts (to pay for the tea) but the other Colonies rallied around Massachusetts. That eventually resulted in armed rebellion.

The revolution created an explosion of political discourse. Pamphlets produced by men such as Thomas Paine the the Federalist Papers gained significant distribution. Paine’s Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, on the Following Interesting Subjects was said to have sold the highest percentage of copies compared to the US population at any time (perhaps except the Bible). It stayed that way at least until 2006 (according to Harvey J. Kaye in a book about Paine). The book was so popular that General George Washington had the book read to his troops while holed up in Boston, surrounded by the British.

By September 1787, the Federal Convention sent the proposed Constitution of the United States to the states for ratification. Shortly thereafter, articles by “Cato” and “Brutus” appeared in New York City newspapers criticizing the Constitution and the growing centralization of the nation. The articles became known as the “Anti-Federalist Papers.”

Alexander Hamilton decided they needed a counterpoint and began writing in three New York newspapers (The Independent Journal, the New-York Packet, and the Daily Advertiser, beginning on October 27, 1787) along with John Jay and James Madison creating what became the “Federalist Papers.” All wrote with pseudonyms, though. The arguments from both sides were reprinted in many other cities. Local writers often weighed in on both sides of the issues.

The Constitution was ratified and in 1791 the Bill of Rights – with, of course, the 1st Amendment – was ratified. And in the US, the Post Office was created with Benjamin Franklin in charge.

Steam was on its way across the US and the pond shared with Europe. The Industrial Revolution hits its stride in the next 20 years.

Next week: Chapter 8 Part 3 – Telegraphing the Future

In an almost 50-year career writing and reporting on media, Paul S. Maxwell started and/or ran some 45-plus publications ranging from CATV Newsweekly to Colorado Magazine to CableVision to Multichannel News to CableFAX and The BRIDGE Suite of daily newsletters and research publications. In between publishing stints, Maxwell served as an advisor and/or consultant to a number of major media companies and media start-ups including running a unit of MCI and managing a partnership of TCI and McGraw-Hill.

Send any and all criticisms, suggestions, rants, threats, corrections, etc. to him at cablemax@mac.com. He has a new Web site coming soon!

 

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