The Smell of History

If we can imagine some citizen of the old Rome being magically plucked up and dropped into the England of 1776, we might be surprised at just how little he would find surprising.  Granted, 1776 was something of a banner year from our perspective, what with the American Declaration of Independence being signed and Tom Paine’s Common Sense and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations being published, but that would hardly have been obvious to a Roman observer, nor terribly impressive had he noticed.

Looking around, our Roman would have found much that was familiar.  Had he been a carpenter, he could have picked up an English claw hammer or a wood plane and found them basically identical to the ones he had used almost two millennia before.  If a traveler, he’d have found the roads unbelievably bad, but the wagons and horses not very different.  If a sailor, he’d  have found the ships bigger and more complex, but pushed by wind in the sails just the same.

In fact, the industry he saw would probably strike him as pretty small scale compared to what he knew.  The Romans had built giant waterwheels for pumping water, bigger than any English ones.  There was a grain factory in France (Gaul) that had 16 waterwheels in a single complex, grinding out enough grain for 12,500 people every day.  The Romans had armories and factories turning out enough weapons, pottery, fish sauce, and what have you to supply a whole empire.

One thing, though, would have struck him as truly new.  Because it was also in that year that Boulton and Watt installed their first steam engine.  To appreciate the importance of that, consider the following:  It was the first introduction of a new power source since the days of the Romans.  To muscle, wind, and water, steam was added.  It would usher in a wave of the greatest technological changes the world has ever known.

All of a sudden (as history goes, anyway), you didn’t need to place your factory next to a river with a good fall of water.  All of a sudden, you didn’t have to worry about shutting your factory down whenever the water level in your stream fell too low.  All of a sudden, the size of your factory and the number of spindles you could drive became a function of your wallet, not Mother Nature.  All of a sudden, the steam railroads would be bringing your raw materials in and taking your products out.  And all of a sudden, steamships would carry your products around the world.

All of a sudden, in other words, you could have an Industrial Revolution.

Very modern, really fantastic stuff.

And yet.

It’s true the industrial revolution’s world ran on steam…and iron…and coal.  But it also ran on suet…and fish…and seeds.

When we think of grease and oil, we think of the vast petroleum industry.  But that industry only really dates from 1859, when the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania.  Prior to that, “rock oils” or “mineral oils” were marginal products derived from seeps and shales.

So here we have a brand new set of industries based on spinning, pumping, reciprocating machines, all hungry for lubrication.  What did they use to keep the machines from eating themselves?

The same things the Romans used:  Suet…and fish…and seeds.

Specifically, they used a variety of traditional natural oils and greases like tallow (beef and mutton), olive oil, neat’s-foot oil, cod liver oil, rape seed oil, whale oil, and the like.  This worked quite well for the new cotton spinning and weaving machines and the like, but for the steam engine…not so much.

Problem here is heat.  Natural oils have a relatively low smoke point and they tend to decay pretty rapidly as the temperature goes up.  And steam engines are nothing if not hot.

By the nineteenth century there were many marvelous recipes for oils and greases: combine a little tallow with some whale oil and voila!  If that doesn’t work, try adding a little olive oil, well mixed, with perhaps a touch of plumbago.  Hmmm.  Still having overheating bearings and your oil is turning gummy, well…

Eventually, of course, they found some combinations that did pretty well…if you ignored the smell.

All of us know what hot animal fats and lards smell like as they get near their smoke point.  Not so nice.  (We are less familiar with mutton tallow, but I doubt it’s any improvement.)  Now imagine we add a substantial portion of whale oil (described as having a “distinctly fishy” aroma) with some olive oil or rape seed oil rapidly going bad.  Heat for many long hours, periodically adding fresh material as the old goes away.  You’ve probably achieved some approximation of the smell of the industrial revolution.

So for all of you who just hated history in school, let me recommend this: Go find yourself the grungiest, hasn’t-been-cleaned-in-a-millennia greasy spoon restaurant you can.  Barge into the kitchen and inhale deeply.

Then you can say:  Ah!  I love the smell of hot oil in the morning.

Smells like…history!

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