American Creation: Ben Franklin Quotation that Typifies the Zeitgeist that Caused the Great Enrichment


Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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29 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Our technical progress continues apace, just not in obvious, sudden, macro ways.

    It’s smaller things, with much deeper impacts, but stretched across much longer time horizons.Report

    • Avatar Jon Rowe says:

      What do you think about my larger thesis that it’s people who thought like members of The Club of Honest Whigs did who are responsible for planting the seeds that caused the Great Enrichment. I disagree with Jack Goldstone in that it’s more than just about “engineering.”Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        I think people not trained in engineering or the hard sciences have strange ideas regarding the breadth of knowledge and thought which scientists & engineers command & engage in.

        For some reason, the perception that we are all introverted techno-savants focused on a narrow band of knowledge persists. Those ‘philosophers & thinkers’ Franklin talks about are modern scientists & engineers. Our work is too tied up with solving looming social issues as much as it is with technical ones (we just tend to grapple with possible technical solutions to those problems).

        We don’t strive for lighter & stronger materials just because it is the next frontier to pursue, but because such materials will save lives, and energy, and help make the world a better place. There is always an undercurrent of, “How can this make the world better?” running parallel to the pursuit of knowledge and financial benefit.Report

      • Avatar J_A says:


        I think I’m on the same vein as @oscar-gordon.

        Your article reminded me (I’m sure unintentionally) of the thought current that starts with the Romantic poets and encompassed all the way to the Edwardian gentility, that industry is base, and that the True World of Ideas belongs to the refined dilettante that had been exposed to all that great and beautiful, and can quote Plato in the original.

        Either that, or you are channeling your inner Sheldon Cooper dissing Howard Wolowitz for being an engineer.

        Engineering has a bad rep in the USA, perhaps because it’s not taught in the Ivy League, but engineering done right includes a mental attitude that comes directly all the way from the Enlightment. We might be more speacialized now, given the breadth and depth of the corpus of knowledge compared to the days of Franklin, but we follow the same precepts: How does it work; and, can it be made better?Report

        • Avatar Jon Rowe says:

          “Either that, or you are channeling your inner Sheldon Cooper dissing Howard Wolowitz for being an engineer.”

          Probably that.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    Interestingly, many analysts use 1800 to mark the point when energy consumption began its modern exponential growth period (Watt’s patents on improved steam engines expired in 1800), enabled particularly by cheap fossil fuels. 1969, conveniently, is the point where the developed countries began seriously regulating the externalities associated with producing useful energy in those quantities — in the US, the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act(1973).Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      Clearly it’s the fault of the regulatory state.

      Joking aside, it makes sense to a degree. When you have to consider how to seriously deal with externalities, things will slow down a bit*. Of course, we can spend all day talking about the effectiveness of those regulations, and how adversely they impact development because the regs are poorly crafted to address advances in technology, how badly the precautionary principle stymies developments, etc. But yeah, they matter.

      *Even space travel has slowed down thanks in part to all the junk still floating about in orbit. Launch windows aren’t just about weather and orbital insertion dynamics, but also avoiding the objects we are tracking. Spacecraft have to be more robust so small impacts from things we can’t track won’t kill everyone and turn a vehicle into a debris cloud, etc.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        I think we’re going to end up putting solar powered lasers into orbit to shoot down* the tiny stuff.

        *Where “shoot down” generally means “rob of orbital momentum so their orbit decays faster”.Report

        • Avatar Don Zeko says:

          How does that solve the problem of them being too small to track? The lasers need to target the offending space junk, right?Report

          • Avatar Morat20 says:

            Tracking means ground-based sensors that can positively identify a specific piece and it’s orbit. So, you know, radar, lidar, optical sensors, etc trying to track 1mm pieces of junk from 60 miles away through atmosphere….

            Which is different then a targeting criteria that says “Anything that comes within my targeting range smaller than X gets zapped in such a way as to rob it of orbital momentum or push it into a decaying orbit”. You’re talking the range of whatever sensor is strapped onto the laser, which is probably just a few miles.

            Which isn’t an easy problem (I can think of a half a dozen serious engineering issues on it), but it doesn’t require ground-based identification.Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

              @morat20 has the right of it.

              And you use lasers to avoid having to deal with having to constantly correct your orbit every time you deal with a chunk of mass.Report

            • Avatar Don Zeko says:

              Ah, I see. Thanks for the clarification. I’ve played enough Kerbal space program to feel like I kind of understand orbital mechanics, but I still need to ask dumb questions from time to time.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:


          It’d be a hell of an engineering challenge, but absent some healthy laser platforms like Morat20 suggests, the next best option might be kamikaze micro-satellites that can vector to known junk, dock, and apply enough delta V to de-orbit.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 says:

            There’s a ground-based laser platform that’s been suggested (does help with the computations and power requirements), probably piggy-backing off the Navy’s own research into pulse lasers for anti-missile defense.

            Which, as I understand it, uses what someone referred to as “third-degree quantum black belt stuff” to work. It requires a great deal of tricky fun-time engineering at the quantum level to make a laser beam that packs as much of it’s punch at the instant of contact as possible. Nobody has time or the ability to keep a laser on target for a second or two to burn through a missile (which assumed it wasn’t, you know, rotating) so you pack all the power into the first instance of contact.

            Which is not how lasers want to act. Which is one reason the Navy has been playing with this for ages, and it’s possible it’ll work sometime after we get a commercial fusion plant. (Although hey, MIT just broke a new plasma pressure record. I think energy out scales to the square of pressure, so that’s always fun news).

            Now orbiting debris is easier, as you don’t want to burn through and you want constant contact. You’re trying to transfer energy, to slow the thing down. Being able to keep the laser on target for longer is great. The last thing you want is to make it break into MORE pieces.

            I’ve seen some giant net ideas (big net, single engine to deorbit) that basically just grabs a chunk of stuff then suicides into the atmosphere.Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

              Although hey, MIT just broke a new plasma pressure record. I think energy out scales to the square of pressure, so that’s always fun news

              And then the project promptly shut down because their government funding came to an end.

              Surface lasers also have the problem that they don’t really want to shoot straight up to de-orbit something, but want to hit it as it approaches, which means punching through even more atmo.

              Is as gnarly a problem as they come. The one reason I like suicide satellites is that we are getting good at making small, short lifecycle satellites cheap as hell (relatively speaking). A handful of these with a barebones guidance package and you have the start of something useful.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                Suicide satellites do run the risk of more debris. You need some way to ‘attach’ to the junk and deorbit, and any collision runs a high risk of making more debris.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                I was thinking more of “dock as an external thruster”, rather than ramming speed.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                Which means a bigger micro-satellite with more delta-v compared to a high-speed impact, correct?Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:


                A satellite that will de-orbit by collision has to have enough mass & delta V to get the job done in one hit.

                A satellite that will de-orbit by constant application of small delta V can attach & just push, ever so slightly, until the orbit decays enough for atmospheric drag to take care of the rest.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                Overall, as you mention, a really tough problem. I suspect that the trickiest bits will be things no one seems to be writing about. How big is the sensor package (including power) to find, track, and rendezvous with a one-pound chunk of aluminum? How much delta-v will the typical rendezvous require? Will there be sufficient delta-v remaining after rendezvous to deorbit quickly? If not, is the tracking/warning problem made worse because there’s a bigger mass in an unstable orbit?Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                That’s why I like lasers. You put a handful of big satellites up there with big solar panels and a big sensors and let it track the junk it can find in the range of it’s laser. Let ground control crunch the numbers, then give the laser it’s commands.

                Only fire on the ones you can force into decaying orbits (even if it takes several passes). Heck, you probably have enough juice for an orbit change or two before it deorbits itself.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                I wonder where the dividing line is between lasers powerful enough to do the job, and the rest of the world objecting to the US orbiting what is “obviously” an anti-satellite weapons system…Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                It’s a pretty big line. You could put a satellite killer in orbit & claim it was for junk removal, but would be pretty obvious from the word go what you just did. A laser big enough to punch a satellite out of orbit in short order is gonna be big.

                Of course, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t use it to make spy satellites useless. If you can get a good angle on one, a short laser burst could blind it. You could also have it make a few hits to put an unwanted satellite in an unstable, or just useless orbit, forcing the owner to expend precious reaction mass to fix the orbit, or write the satellite off.

                Still, anything put up there to do junk removal could be turned toward killing active satellites, so that will be an issue no matter what.

                Thing is, junk removal has to happen at some point, so people are just going to have to suck it up, or we get to play MAD with orbiting garbage scows.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                Non-existent, in practical terms. As Oscar notes, any laser sufficiently powerful to deorbit small junk could blind the more sensitive stuff.

                You’d need to run it as a multi-country operation to finesse the various treaties on space-based weaponry. (In short, if nobody important complains, you can do it without worries).

                In general, laser cleanup is for really small stuff — not enough power to damage more than the sensors of real satellites. For big junk, you’d want things like microsats.

                Which can also, you know, deorbit regular satellites. (well, unless they have more fuel than the microsat, which is likely).

                Again, junk cleanup would probably run through most of the folks that do ISS — Europe, NASA, Japan, Canada, and maybe Russia. No telling what Putin does these days.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Give me a handful of microsats and I don’t care how much reaction mass your satellite has, it’s in trouble. At the very least, I can force it to run down it’s gyros by unbalancing it. Once those are down, I just have to skew it enough that it can’t aim a camera or antenna and that very expensive satellite is now little better than a navigation hazard.Report

  3. Avatar J_A says:

    On a completely different subject

    How can the OP, or the Enlightment, inspire people to quote 1984?Report