Man, Technology! The Market

By German Museum of Technology

The market is the place where people conduct trade. Peaceful trade in the market is, however, only one possibility for the exchange of goods: armed conflicts over natural resources and trade goods have shaped the relationships of peoples since antiquity and continue to do so.

 

Raw materials can be inherently scarce or they can be made to run short as a result of political or economic interests. This can result in unequal availability of the resources for the various interested parties. Even plastic owes its existence to the hope of finding a replacement for scarce or high value materials. Thanks to the successes of the chemistry industry, such materials have in the meantime developed from surrogates into high-tech materials in their own right.

 

Economical production processes can really drive a market. Replacing manual labour with machines made products cheaper, which in turn resulted in greater sales. Markets expanded as less affluent segments of the population were able to afford more products. A technological edge is only advantageous for as long as it can be sustained.

Earth Treasures for the Industrial Age
It was at first possible to obtain many natural materials without extensive mining activities. Gold could be collected from the rivers, Flints and porphyry were picked up from the scree fields, as were copper ore and ironstone. It was only after these easily accessible deposits had been exhausted that humans began to follow the veins and seams into the mountain itself. The mining cart shown here was used in a 16th century Hungarian gold mine.

Until well into the 16th century, metal formed the basis of power in most countries. It was, however, quite another natural resource whose ascent to its position as the defining currency of the Industrial Age was already underway: coal. In the 17th century, processes were developed for practically all the important energy-intensive branches of production so that the use of wood could be replaced by coal and charcoal.

Mining CartGerman Museum of Technology

Mining as the Basis of National Power
The appetite of the local rulers for gold along with the demand from a multiplicity of trades for a wide variety of metals put pressure on the mining tradesmen to develop ever improving methods for analysing metals. Fire assaying developed into a science, later forming one of the bases of modern chemistry.

By the end of the 17th century, the knowledge gained through scientific analysis had progressed to the point that it could be unified and standardized. The prospectors that were sent out to investigate new deposits carried the so-called blowpipe sets with them. These made it possible for rocks to be analysed for their workability in terms of metal extraction potential.

It was especially in the low mountain mining areas north of the Alps that the understanding of chemical principles gained by the miners and foundry workers developed into a knowledge of pharmaceuticals.

Blowpipe SetGerman Museum of Technology

Brave New Plastic World
At the close of the 19th century the demands of a population growing at an explosive rate could no longer be met with the natural resources at hand. A notable example of this development is the production of billiard balls. These balls had previously been laboriously carved out of ivory by hand. As the United States of America rapidly expanded, an extraordinary number of new cities were established – and they all had saloons with billiard tables. A competition for finding a practical substitute was won by John Wesley Hyatt in 1872 for his celluloid, a composite of cellulose nitrate and camphor.

The next advance to come to market was bakelite around 1910. Because of its excellent insulation properties, this material quickly replaced the hard rubber that till then had been used throughout the electrical industry. Polyethylene, today a widely used mass market plastic, was discovered by chance in the debris of a failed chemical experiment.

Billiard BallsGerman Museum of Technology

A People Spins Some Self-reliance for Itself
The story of this inconspicuous spinning wheel provides deep insights into market mechanisms. The market as a place where equal partners are doing business, was undermined in modern times. Instead, there was a system of dependencies and one-sided exploitation of the colonial populace by the European powers.

In 1920, the Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi called for people to wear only self-made cotton clothing (“Khadi”) as a manifest way to protest against British colonial rule. The previous most important manufacturer of cotton had been initially reduced to being a raw material supplier and ultimately India became an outright customer country for the machine woven and printed products from England.

Although not all of Ghandi’s freedom fighters towed the line on the clothing question, the members of the Indian National Congress have worn Khadi clothing ever since 1921. The wheel on the Indian flag of today harkens back to the spinning wheel.

Indian Portable Spinning WheelGerman Museum of Technology

A Machine as Hand-tool
Very intricate line patterns of this type can be found decorating objects of all kinds and serving as security features and forgery protection on identification documents, securities and stamps. They are referred to as guilloche.

It had its heyday in Switzerland where it was mostly used in the watch industry. Art objects and jewellery were engraved with guilloche patterns as well. Fabergé eggs, which were produced for the Russian Tsars, are the most famous of such objects. They were first engraved with guilloche patterns and then enamelled.

The complicated patterns and fascinating optical effects that are possible when using this technique have been utilized to protect bank notes, stock shares and other official papers from forgery. The first to use the technique for that purpose was the Swiss-Austrian watch maker, inventor and aviation pioneer Jakob Degen , who was the director of the Austrian National Bank’s mechanical workshops from 1825 to 1841.

Guilloching Machine (Rose Engine Machine)German Museum of Technology

Moby Dick in an Oil Can
Whaling on a grand scale commenced at the beginning of the 17th century. 250 years later the animals had been practically hunted to extinction.

The chief product of the whaling industry was blubber which replaced other oils such as linseed oil and sunflower oil. Although it emitted a very dim light, great quantities of blubber were used for lighting until the introduction of petroleum as a fuel in 1860.

However, it was much more effective as a machine lubricant. In fact, without the massive use of blubber to lubricate the machines, the industrialisation of Europe would never have occurred so quickly.

Blubber was also used to make soaps, creams, shoe care products and paints. When margarine became widely popular as a low-cost alternative to butter – it was invented around 1870 and first utilized by the French army as a cheap spreadable fat – the production ingredients also included whale blubber.

A Bottle of Sperm OilGerman Museum of Technology

From Luxury Good to Mass Produced
The level of esteem that sugar enjoyed in Europe until far into the 19th century is evidenced by the containers used to store it. Up until the 16th century, Europe had to make do with vanishingly small amounts of that exotic sweetener sugar. However, in the 17th century an almost worldwide economic system was created that conflated the production of sugar for Europe with the abduction of an estimated 20 million Africans.

Towards the end of the 18th century, a boycott movement emerged in England. The actual downfall of colonial sugar, however, was not a result of an awakened conscience among European consumers, but rather the arrival of a competitor on the scene: the sugar beet. As early as 1747, the Berlin chemist Andreas Sigismund wrote about the success he had had in isolating sugar from the roots of a white chard and a red beet. But it wasn’t until 30 years later that his student Franz Carl Achard began working on the practical use of this discovery.

Sugar BoxGerman Museum of Technology

Industrial Espionage Guarantees Progress
At the end of the 13th century, Venice was the centre of European glassmaking. The resident glassmakers were forbidden under penalty of death to leave their hometown. Great Britain enjoyed a similar technological edge in the 18th and early 19th centuries and also denied his skilled workers to leave the country. This prompted businessmen from all over Europe to travel to the British Isles to pick up on a secret or two.

But there was an even easier way: directly copying foreign technology. Since 1838 August Borsig received repair orders for the locomotives operating in Berlin that had been purchased from England and America. He was thus given the opportunity to study their construction principles. On June 24, 1841, the first locomotive to be built in Prussia left the production hall. But Borsig’s real breakthrough did not occur until the arrival of the “Beuth”, in 1844. It wasn’t long before Borsig developed into the second largest locomotive manufacturer in the world.

Beuth-LocomotiveGerman Museum of Technology

Credits: Story

Volker Koesling/Florian Schülke
"Man, Technology! A Journey of Discovery through the Cultural History of Technology"
Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin
Koehler & Amelang, 2013

Digital Story:
Editor: Bettina Gries, Jörg Rüsewald
Photography: Clemens Kirchner
Technical Support: Jannens Repke

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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