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Industry and Technology

The Meaning of New Technology
By Bruce McCowan, P.Eng.

New technology is being invented every day -- the term "new technology" is often applied to the latest gizmo to come into the household or workplace. But the essence of "new technology" is actually much deeper than that.

About twenty years ago, a professor mentioned that the amount of knowledge in the world doubles every 7 years. Certainly in 2002 -- as we approach the zenith of the PC age -- the amount of raw "data" in the world probably doubles every few seconds. The amount of "Information" or "data with context" probably doubles every few minutes.  But what the professor was really talking about was our capacity to actually make use of information -- to get some results. This of course implies a higher order -- an actual "understanding" of the information, to the extent that the information can be applied to a practical problem. Knowing what to do with information is "knowledge".

As an algebra professor, he was probably thinking more in terms of the available body of information that the scientific and engineering community was capable of using intelligently to produce things -- in general, to expand the economy and improve life on the planet. Our capability to successfully apply information in an organized fashion -- such as by using the scientific method  -- is the true essence of "technology".

So, "new technology" does not refer so much to the new gizmo itself -- as to the strategic application of information in some newer or enhanced manner or protocol. Such a new protocol for getting results from information may be viewed as enlightening or, perhaps even as, "new knowledge". The purposeful application of incremental bits of knowledge will continue to deliver "better mousetraps".

Many of those new gizmos that come along are a bit overwhelming and can rather take you aback when you're not ready.  Uncle Jack McCowan had been an aircraft despatcher during the war. He phoned one day a few years ago and left a short message on our new "answering machine". 

"Hi Bruce. It's Jack calling. I'd like to get another one of your books... Over."

   The Scarboro Heights Record V10 #3

Two Lesmahagow inventors took their steam powered parade float to the Great Reform Procession in 1832. The McCowan Society booklet, To Sustene the Personis: The Agricultural Revolution places several very important Scottish inventions -- steam navigation, gas lighting and the bicycle -- within the context of economic change in late 18th century Ayrshire.  


Dawn of a New Economic Order

We have presented a mere smattering of data relating to Robert Burns' Ayrshire. The famous poet -- and exciseman -- was often critical of the late eighteenth century establishment:

Ye men of wit and wealth, why all this sneering
'Gainst poor Excisemen? Give the cause a hearing:
What are your Landlord's rent-rolls? -- taxing ledgers!
What Premiers? -- what ev'n Monarchs? -- mighty Gaugers!
Nay, what are Priests? -- (those seeming godly wise-men),
What are they, pray, but Spiritual Excisemen!

Of course, Burns recognized that the changing and expanding economy of the burgeoning industrial revolution had to be financed -- just as he needed to supplement his own faltering farming income.

Agriculture had been Scotland's backbone and (by far) her largest employer for many centuries. But, in the midst of radical economic change, could the soil maintain that status? Could agriculture at home singlehandedly finance the colonial ambitions of the central government? Just what was it that would build the Empire in the years to come? Coal had been a critical force in the agricultural revolution -- and coal would be crucial to the industrial revolution that followed.

By the end of the eighteenth century, coal (as processed into coke) was fueling the blast furnaces of the rapidly developing iron smelting industry. Coal-driven stationary steam engines had already arrived and rail transport by steam was only a few decades away. The ship and bridge building industries were to soon come into their own -- again, energized by coal. Coal was also to beget the gas lighting industry.

Two relatively well-known Cumnock area men were among the great pioneers in these new industries. Experimenting on Dalswinton Loch in Dumfriesshire in 1788, James Taylor was co-inventor of the first successful steam-driven paddle boat. Four years later he was signed on as the manager of Lord Dumfries' coal and industrial operations about Cumnock. From Taylor, James McCowan probably learned a good deal about mining and marketing coal, (not to mention steam-power).

The "Cannel Coal" of New Cumnock Parish was to eventually become "much in demand for making gas" for lighting. William Murdoch, the inventor of gas lighting, was a near-neighbour of Robert, father of James McCowan. Murdoch was born in 1754 in Auchinleck Parish at Bello Mill just a few yards from the boundary with Old Cumnock. It is interesting to suppose that, sitting in the kitchen by the hearth, Murdoch and Robert had perhaps once observed together and marvelled at the illuminating effects of the New Cumnock cannel coal burning in an earthenware pot. Some-time around 1770, Murdoch's father "made a wooden horse on wheels, on which, by the assistance of propelling poles, he used to visit Cumnock" -- quite probably one of the first "cycles" in the western world.

Doubtless, Robert and James McCowan were influenced by such inventive Ayrshire minds around them. But, like practically all others in the Parish, their lot was neither fame nor fortune but, rather, honest toil on and below the ground. For every success story like William Murdoch, there were a hundred near-success stories.

James McCowan, the coalminer turned Coalmaster, was one of those energetic -- but unrecognized -- Scottish entrepreneurs who ushered in a new economic era. The agriculturally-based subsistence economy that had lasted for several thousand years was to be rapidly superseded by a market-driven economy fueled by the great resources, coal and iron -- and people like James McCowan.

From the Concluding Remarks in To Sustene the Personis: The Agricultural Revolution

The Scarboro Heights Record V10 #3