Saturday 14 September 2019

The Universe Next Door, from New Scientist magazine

I've been reading a non-fiction science-fiction book! It's called The Universe Next Door and it consists of about sixty short "what if?" articles collated from the files of New Scientist magazine, covering a vast range of topics.

Titles such as: What if Earth didn't have a Moon? What if the dinosaurs weren't wiped out? What would a world without fossil fuels look like? What if we could redesign the planet? Could we save the world by going vegetarian? Is there an alternative to countries? Will genetically engineered people conquer the World? What if we don't need bodies?

There are enough ideas in here to fuel scores of SF stories. I'll focus on just one of them, by A. Bowdoin Van Riper, which particularly caught my interest: what if the invention of electric motors had pre-empted  the age of steam, and thereby supplanted it in powering the industrial revolution?

This article starts with a review of scientific knowledge in the 18th century. Scientists thought of electricity and magnetism as totally separate phenomena. It wasn't until the 1820s that Hans Christian Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère had shown that an electric current moving through a wire generated a magnetic field around it. Michael Faraday followed this up in 1831 by demonstrating the reverse effect – that moving a wire through a magnetic field created an electric current in the wire. He went on to draw the conclusion that electricity and magnetism were effectively two aspects of the same phenomenon, and recognised the technological implications. The use of an electric current to generate a magnetic field became the basis of the electric motor, and the use of magnetic fields to create an electric current became the basis of the electric generator.

The author makes the point that these developments occurred when they did for several reasons, one being a search by scientists for connections between phenomena, another being the invention of the battery. However, there was no fundamental reason why these developments could not have happened a century earlier, and he goes on to outline some of the implications.

In the author's alternate timeline, the electric motor would have become available in around 1740, when steam power was in its infancy. Primitive electric motors are so simple, compact, reliable and inexpensive that they would probably have dominated most applications, giving steam power little chance of becoming established. But where would the power to drive generators come from? That was already available in the form of waterwheels or windmills; waterwheels were the principal means of driving textile and other industrial machinery in the pre-steam age. Existing factories were therefore already located close to a reliable supply of fast-flowing water.

A significant implication of electric motors rather than steam power would have been the lack of the need to concentrate industry to the same degree. Steam engines were large and fuel-hungry, requiring a steady flow of coal, and it made economic sense to centralise the coal supply lines and hence build very large factories (leading in due course to large new cities). Electric motors were far more scalable, and could usefully provide power to existing small workshops.

There would also be implications for the electricity distribution system. The one which historically developed, in imitation of the complex coal-based gas supply system developed earlier, was on a similar scale, focused on large centralised power plants. If the electricity supply had developed in isolation a more decentralised system might well have evolved. Clearly, fossil fuel generation plants would have to be used to meet the demand for power, but these would probably be a lot smaller and more local, plugging into existing networks, with wind and water power likely to have remained in use alongside.

Electric road vehicles, which historically were competing with internal combustion-engined rivals early in the 20th century, would have enjoyed a considerable lead, and rail transport would of course have been entirely electric from the start. The internal combustion engine might mainly have prospered as an aircraft power plant, for which there was (and still is) no obvious alternative.

I am reminded of a separate article which appeared some months ago in the New Scientist concerning battery-powered electric buses. These were developed and in service in London in the early 1900s, getting over the range limitation by having interchangeable battery packs, which could be winched into place at the depot. They were much more popular with users than the contemporary noisy, and very smelly, petrol-engined kind, but sadly the organisation which introduced them became mired in legal issues and collapsed. Another "what if"! It is not difficult to imagine that if electric vehicles were fully developed and in use long before the first IC engine appeared, the latter might have failed to "gain traction" (sorry!) and might well have been banned from urban areas due to its noise and air pollution.

Finally, this all dovetails quite well with some thoughts of my own concerning the development of energy supplies in the UK. These would have to be based largely on coal, since that was the one fuel in the country that was available in vast quantities. However, in my alternative world all coal would be processed to produce gas and smokeless solid fuel but, instead of being distributed, the gas would be burned on-site to generate electricity; the gas distribution networks would not be developed. The smokeless fuel would be formed into various shapes depending on its purpose, with small "marbles" being suited to bulk handling by equipment like the Archimedean screw. This would automate fuel handling in ships, instead of having hordes of men heaving sacks of coal on board, followed by shovelling coal by hand into the boiler furnaces. 

The end result of these changes could have been a much cleaner, quieter and healthier environment in place of the "dark satanic mills" and the noise and fumes associated with combustion engines.


mudpuddle said...

i'm hooked! i love this stuff: i'll see if Abe has a copy...

Anthony G Williams said...

The UK amazon site lists it.