Coke Fueled Blast Furnace / Pig Iron


Abraham Darby used Coke instead of coal to fire blast furnaces, making the production of iron from pig iron (a weak iron), much more economical. Coke burns significantly hotter than coal which, combined with his new design to concentrate the heat, his factory was significantly more efficient than prior methods. He created the Bristol Brass Company to commercialize his method.

Interestingly, Darby initially struggled due to a relatively low demand for iron. However, Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the Newcomen steam engine vastly increased the demand for iron. Along with Newcomen then Watt’s steam engines later, Darby’s furnace is a significant contributor to the first Industrial Revolution.

Working at his plants was terrible. Child labor was common. Workers were often injured or died from burns. Carbon monoxide poisoning was also a common cause of death. It was filthy, hot, dangerous work; few workers lived to 40.

Darby himself died at 38 with his affairs a mess. Creditors took the business. However, his brother eventually regained control and his sons would go on to take over the business.

Over time, Henry Cort improved the efficiency of Darby’s process, using rolling and puddling to more efficiently purify the iron. Before Cort, workers would have to hammer the hot metal with a hammer which was both inefficient, dangerous, and hot work. Cort’s method involved rolling the molten metals which was also dangerous but about 15 times faster. Since less time was required, costs were lower and fewer workers were injured.

Finally, in 1828, James Neilson modified the Darby furnace recycling exhaust heat to preheat incoming air. This required substantially less coke, lowering costs.

The lower-cost iron opened creative uses for the metals. Early uses included tableware. Eventually, iron became vital for steam engines. Finally, the iron was being used to construct bridges. Of course, iron remained useful for making weapons just as it had since ancient times.


Insurance – paying to spread risk – is an ancient practice. Modern insurance, where businesses specifically focus on assuming the risk of loss for a third-party is a more modern practice.

The Hamburger Feuerkasse (Hamburg Fire Office) opened in 1676. Fire insurance spread throughout Europe. Eventually, Lloyd’s of London popularized shipping insurance, where people willing to insure the arrival of ships. Individual insurers, called underwriters, signed their name underneath one another.

Fire insurers ran private fire departments and if a building did not have fire insurance the fire department did not respond.

Life insurance dates to 1706; the first company to offer it was the Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office of London.          

Adding Machine

Image result for pascal

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician who lived in the 1600s. He is most known for his work in geometry and statistics but is included here for building the first non-abacus adding machine.

Going back briefly, the abacus dates back to at least 300BC. Our earliest cutoff date for innovations is the printing press or the abacus would be included. It is so fast that, until modern computers, people claimed it possible to calculate faster on an abacus than a machine.

Despite the abacus, in the 1640s, Pascal invented a machine called the “Pascaline,” one of the earliest known non-abacus adding machines. German mathematician William Schickard is said to have invented a similar machine earlier, in 1623, though the claim is iffy.

By 1652, Pascal built about 50 Pascaline’s but the value of the adding machine never outweighed the cost. It was simply less expensive to have people do the work than the machine. Furthermore, due to a glitch in French currency at the time — which used a different base system — the machine never quite functioned as intended.

Pascal’s interest in arithmetic might be due to his father’s job as a tax collector.

Pascal’s adding machine demonstrated that machines could do work previously done only by people. While the abacus had a similar function, it still relied on people. Pascal’s adding machine was the first of its kind.

It was also extraordinarily expensive and hiring clerks to compute figures cost far less than a Pascaline. Therefore, very few were manufactured or sold but the core idea of a machine that thinks — that can add and subtract — eventually blossomed into first mechanical computers and later electronic computers.

Later in life, Pascal also tried to create a perpetual motion machine, a machine that outputs more energy than is input. That never succeeded — probably because physicists show it is impossible — but, while experimenting, Pascal invented the roulette wheel.

After a life inventing two machines plus geometrical theorems still in use today, Pascal died of stomach cancer in 1662 at the age of 39.


Walter Raleigh popularized tobacco, grown in the America’s, in England. He set sail in South America searching for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Raleigh never found the golden city but he did find tobacco, bringing it back to England. He committed a crime and was pardoned but, on a second journey in search of El Dorado, his people ransacked a Spanish outpost. To keep the peace, Raleigh was executed in 1618.

The English developed a taste for tobacco, the then popular strand which did not grow well in North America. Colonialist John Rolfe smuggled some South American tobacco seeds, cross-pollinated those, and, in 1611, created Nicotiana tabacum, modern sweet tobacco that grew abundantly in Virginia and had a high nicotine content. This became the primary cash crop for North American British colonialists. To secure more land, and keep peace, Rolfe married a native American woman, Pocahontas (who was baptized and renamed Rebecca). Eventually, they had a son, Thomas, and Rolfe returned with Pocahontas to England where she was well treated but died.

Stocking Frame (Mechanical Knitter)

The first automated knitting machine; one of the key pieces of equipment that kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

The Stocking Frame copies the hand movements of a tradesperson, knitting far faster than a person could. The machine worked with both wool, which tended to produce coarse but inexpensive fabric, and also silk. When cotton became more common, the Frame knitted inexpensive cotton stockings.

The stocking frame caused a certain amount of social upheaval, leading to the creation of the anti-automation Luddites. This was a group of people who strongly opposed automation, led by the likely mythical Ned Ludd. Luddites play a recurring role through innovations over time, especially innovations related to automation.

Like many inventors, Lee made little money from his innovation and — despite that it would go down in history as a bedrock of the future — he died with little money.

Postal System


Franz von Taxis
Henry Bishop
Rowland Hill
William Dockwra

Franz von Taxis created the postal system, with regular routes between far-flung cities throughout Europe.

Eventually, von Taxis mail routes included mail delivery between Brussels and:

  • Innsbruck, 5.5 days (6.5 days winter)
  • Paris, 44 hours (54 hours winter)
  • Blois, 2.5 days (3 days winter)
  • Lyon, 4 days (5 days winter)
  • Granada, 15 days (18 days winter)
  • Toledo, 12 days (14 days winter)

Earlier “mail” services were diplomatic couriers, typically used for royalty. In contrast, von Taxis service was the first that regular people could purchase.

In early mail systems, recipients paid to receive the mail. Accordingly, they could and did sometimes refuse delivery. People gamed the system, writing messages on the outside of envelopes so the recipient could see the envelope, read the message, refuse delivery, and neither the sender nor recipient paid.

In 1680, William Dockwra built a better private mail system in the City of London by charging a flat-fee of one cent no matter whether the recipient agreed to accept the mail or not. His system worked so well that it quickly gained popularity not only with ordinary people and businesses — it’s intended recipient — but also royals. However, Dockwra was also the founder of the British Slave Trade and, accordingly, largely written out of history.

In 1788, the United States, as a new country, specifically authorized Congress to establish a national post office to facilitate commerce. Congress shall have the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads” they founding fathers of the country wrote into the US Constitution.

A functional post office was so important the new country appointed the first postmaster general, Samuel Osgood, just four days later. Soon, the young country was served by 75 post offices and 2,400 miles of “post roads” — roads specifically built to facilitate the delivery of mail. Some historians believe the early government-owned affordable postal system was key to the eventual commercial success of the new country.

England eventually took the hint about the need for and benefits of a national postal service. In 1837, Sir Rowland Hill may have invented the adhesive postage stamp that eventually evolved into a government-run postal system (James Chambers is also credited, with a stamp dating to 1834). In any event, Hill is the person who modernized the British postal system by charging rates based on weight rather than size. The US adopted adhesive postage stamps in 1847; before then postage was paid at post offices but not stamps were affixed.

Caravel Oceanic Ship

Before the Caravel, ships were limited to coastal navigation. The Caravel, with its relatively small hull and large sails, enabled long-distance navigation over large bodies of water; it was the jetliner of its era. Invented in the mid-1400s, the Caravel — among other things — enabled Columbus to navigate from Europe to North America. Other famous Caravel explorers include Diogo Cāo, Bartolomeu Dias, and Miguel Corte-Real.

The Caravel had to types of sails, lateen which allowed it to navigate close to shore and Atlantic; heavy sails used for long-distance navigation. This flexibility made the Caravel lower cost than larger, slower ships, affording a substantive trading and military advantage to Portugal and Spain, which both quickly transformed into world powers of their day.

As time went by, sails evolved from triangular to square shapes, that are familiar in medieval drawings. Eventually, the more efficient Carrack ship superseded the Caravel.

Movable Type Printing Press


Gutenberg’s father was a minor royal and his mother came from a merchant family; they lived in Mainz, Germany. His father was in charge of running an ecclesiastical mint; they created coins. Growing up, Guttenberg was essentially a jeweler. Gutenberg’s father died in 1419, leaving an inheritance but also a problem. Guttenberg’s father was a royal, barring him from the trade guilds; he could not make jewery. However, his mother came from a common line so he was not a royal, making him ineligible to run a mint or anything similar to what his father had done.

Since it was impossible to hold a traditional job, Gutenberg left, moving to Strasbourg, to work on a new innovation. During the 1440s, Gutenberg envisioned a better way to produce books, using movable type. Before his innovation, the state-of-the-art was to carve pages in wooden blocks, each page one block. This was a time-intensive process that required extensive refinishing to clean up the text. The few books produced were extremely expensive.

School teachers and University professors would read books aloud to students, explaining the material as they went along, while students took notes. Individual books were not available to students due to the high cost.

Movable Type

To lower the cost of printing, and books, Gutenberg invented movable individual letters. Arranged into a block these were then pressed onto a page, the printing press.

Gutenberg used his entire, sizable inheritance creating his press and, more importantly, the supporting infrastructure. He built a foundry and hired workers to make the individual pieces of metal type that were flat and consistent enough they could be arranged into a sheet for printing. Special paper and inks were created that could withstand the high pressure were developed. Finally, the press itself needed to be a more consistent overall pressure than presses meant grapes or other foods, where the press was meant to destroy whatever was being pressed.

Gutenberg decided to match the look of books from the era, which were artisanal pieces, crafted with beautiful variably spaced typography and multiple fonts. He created three entirely different variable spaced fonts, including one that could print in a different color. The elegant fonts vastly increased the cost and complexity of both developing and using his printing press. Eventually, Gutenberg ran out of funds and borrowed money to continue development.

By 1450, Gutenberg had returned to Mainz and was printing calendars and indulgences. In 1452 he borrowed more money to fund a new project, printing bibles. Due to the complexity of typesetting, it took Gutenberg years to create a relatively small number of bibles. By 1455 his primary creditor, Fust, either tired of the project or wanted what today would be called a liquidity event and sued Gutenberg for a debt that was by then about 20,000 guilders. Gutenberg lost, and his equipment, including his press and typefaces, were taken.


Despite Gutenberg’s loss, other printers saw his methods and rapidly copied using lower-cost, lower-quality equipment. They realized the multiple typefaces added enormous cost. For example, they could produce fonts for more than three entirely separate presses for the price Gutenberg’s fonts cost for one press. These good enough quality presses are what soon produced mass-market books. Gutenberg never meaningfully profited from his press though he was eventually given a small church pension. Gutenberg died poor. The location of the grave, of the greatest inventor in history, is unknown.

Gutenberg’s press vastly expanded access to printed material ushering in the reformation and the modern era. His press, along with the wheel and fire, is widely regarded as one of the three most important inventions in history.