Sunday, October 14, 2012

Canals vs. the Cotton Gin

[the 1751 Fry-Jefferson Map of Virginia; this early survey shows the number of major waterways that were used for navigation just in the colony of Virginia including the New, the Roanoke, the James, the Rappahanock, the Potomac and the York; a more complete list can be found here]

The Industrial Revolution is often talked about in terms of technological advancements, new strategies for processes of production, or the reorganization of social relations.  However, in the United States it is possible that the changes occurring during this period are best understood through a robust landscape history.  More than the advent of the steam engine, the spreading of the railroad network, the organization of the mill town, or Taylorism, the American industrial revolution is best understood as widespread access to navigable waterways and the concomitant rise in cheap and fast transportation of bulk materials.

The difficult thing about defining the industrial revolution through technology and social relations is that they cannot explain the revolution itself- it remains a rather vague notion when any historical account is pressed for specifics and we are left only with knowing that something changed.  But the order-of-magnitude jump in the economy of materials transportation affected a massive scale jump in industrial activity.  If you had a technology or organized a new labor system that could make a thousand widgets a day, up from 20, that didn’t matter very much unless you could get them to markets cheaply and quickly (especially in the case of agricultural products).  The railroads affected a similar change in what has been theorized by technological historian WW Rostow as the takeoff thesis (part of his largely debunked theory of economic development).  However, as Fogel noted in his excellent work Railroads and Economic Growth canals precipitated a far greater jump in economy of scale over the preexisting conditions (wagon roads) than did railroads over canals.  And this massive scale jump, something like a phase change, is perhaps a better indicator of the American industrial revolution than is the invention of the cotton gin.

Of course the point could easily be argued around in circles, and many great historians and critics have taken up positions on different sides of the fight.  However, the fact that it is a discussion suggests that by considering canals (as well as railroad easements and interstate corridors) as landscape typologies, landscape architects might be able to contribute substantially to the field of the history of technology, and that we would benefit from turning away from our devotion to art-history.  And it suggests to me that the relationship between landscapes and instruments is deeper than it seems.


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