Towner Fellows’ Lounge
“Mud, Ice, and Steam: Technology, Energy, and Municipal Water in Eighteenth-Century London and Philadelphia,” Keith Pluymers
In the year 2000, Nobel laureate atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer began making the case for the Anthropocene—a geological epoch in which humans are the dominant force in shaping the planet’s bio-geo-chemical systems—identifying the late-eighteenth century and James Watt’s invention of the steam engine as likely starting points. The transition from an organic economy to coal-fired steam power in eighteenth-century Britain has long been a topic of considerable interest and intense debate for historians, and this early claim for the Anthropocene’s eighteenth century origins has encouraged new scholarly questions focusing on environmental causes and consequences. Moreover, it has prompted newly invigorated debate on technological innovation, scarcity, and natural limits with ramifications for the period and our dangerously warming present. This paper seeks to reimagine these questions through close study of eighteenth-century efforts to harness steam power to provide water to residents of London and Philadelphia. In London, steam power emerged to combat the deleterious effects of sedimentation in the canals of the Chelsea Waterworks Company. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Latrobe’s belief that only steam could overcome the constraints of the city’s “extreme” climate led him to recommend it for the works at Centre Square. Each case demonstrates a desire to overcome environmental limits but demonstrates that concerns about energy supply were not the only environmental factors in technological change.
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