Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wrong Way on a One-Way Street

Wrong way on a one-way street

What if James Watt had been born under French skies, and not in Scotland? Or what if Augustin Mouchot’s invention of the solar-powered steam engine had preceded rather than succeeded Watt’s by 100 years? The history of industrial age energy might have taken a radically different course. As it is, from its beginning its Anglo-centric history projected a trajectory similar to traveling the wrong way on a one-way street. Instead of looking below the Earth’s crust for ever-declining resources to fuel the industrial age’s growing need for energy, it might have been wiser to look above to the sun as Mouchot did for the ever-renewable energy it could provide in limitless quantities.

Today, the 266th day following the planetary disaster at Fukushima, the morning dawns shrouded in fog so dense, the tall redwoods lining the opposite side of the street hover like ghosts, their crowns barely discernible at 40 feet. It reminds me of what Londoners called pea-soup fog, the result of burning coal in all of London’s fireplaces against the winter chill.

What were the Scottish skies like when James Watt made his appearance on earth in 1736? What were the skies like in 1825 when Augustin Monchot was born? Why did one man look below the earth for redemption, while another looked to the sun? Long before the year of Watt’s birth, the so-called “primitives” of the Southwest had thought to orient their cliff dwellings on the north sides of their steep canyon homes to benefit from the sun’s radiation in the winter months. Even proponents of Feng Shui will tell you a front door opening east is always propitious. How did it occur to a Westerner to see with eco-centric eyes and with a sensibility that concerned itself with implications for the future?

Watt and Mouchot were very different men in terms of social class, in culture, and sensibility. While Watt was born into the merchant class, inadept at any scholarship other than mathematics and mechanics, Mouchot was born in the Morvan, a district in the heart of France known for its natural beauty. Except for the year in which the Ministry of Education gave him a grant and a leave of absence to travel to Algeria to perfect his invention of a solar steam engine, he served as a schoolmaster, moving from teaching grammar school in the Morvan, to teaching high school in Tours and later in Rennes.

“One must not believe, despite the silence of modern writings, that the idea of using solar heat for mechanical operations is recent. On the contrary, one must recognize that this idea is very ancient and its slow development across the centuries has given birth to various curious devices.” What curious devices might Mouchot have referred to in his 1880 statement? The small book he published in 1869, the same year he displayed one of his first models, Chaleur Solaire credits the Arabs with their glass-making skills for experiments focusing the sun’s rays to obtain heat and traces their interest to ancient Egypt and later Greece, evidence of Mouchot’s historic sensibility. Even more telling, in another short section he points out the sun’s role in regulating the planet’s wind and ocean currents, and nurturing the life of plants and animals, suggesting a deeply ecological cast of mind. But, unlike Watt, he never succeeded culturally or financially in obtaining support for his invention. He taught school till his retirement. One can only imagine how fortunate were those pupils who studied under him.

By 1869, the year he displayed one of his first prototypes, the price of coal dropped, effectively making his invention all but irrelevant in the eyes of the public.

“Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion... Coal will undoubtedly be used up. What will industry do then?” Mouchot wrote those words in 1878, the year he exhibited at the Universal Exposition in Paris the great axicon he had perfected—essentially a solar dish.

The earlier model he displayed in 1869 disappeared in 1871 during the chaos and destruction of the Franco-Prussian War during which—ironically —France lost its access to cheap coal with the German annexation of the mining district of Alsace-Lorraine—which may in part explain why present-day France is the European country relying most on nuclear energy.

It’s hard to imagine what the consequences to our planet might have been had Mouchot’s timing been otherwise, had the Industrial Revolution not resulted in the growing infrastructure that guaranteed support for Watt’s invention to the exclusion of Mouchot’s: the coal mines in which children and women worked sixteen hours a day stripped to the waist to better withstand the heat, crawling on their knees to push the coal cars in galleries too shallow to allow for mules or machines to do the work, how thousands died of tuberculosis in the crowded cities of newly industrialized Europe whose skies became darkened by carbon pollution, air so thick, at dusk you could see the carbon particles shimmer in the fading light.