What if… Electric motors pre-dated steam engines

  • 20 August 2005
  • NewScientist.com news service
  • A. Bowdoin Van Riper

What if…the Nazis had won; Newton had abandoned science; electric motors had pre-dated steam engines; Darwin had not sailed on the Beagle; Charles II had no interest in science and a young Einstein had been ignored?

EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY scientists thought of electricity and magnetism as substances, "imponderable fluids" whose particles were too small and subtle to be detected by ordinary instruments. In their eyes the two fluids were utterly separate and distinct. It was no more possible to transform electricity into magnetism than turn water into wine (without divine assistance, anyway).

English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday saw it differently. Early in the 1820s, Hans Christian Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère had shown that an electric current moving through a wire generated a magnetic field around the wire. Building on their work, Faraday showed in 1831 that the reverse was also true: moving a wire through a magnetic field creates an electric current in the wire. It was Faraday who drew the revolutionary conclusion that electricity and magnetism were two manifestations of a single phenomenon, and it was also Faraday who 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.

Faraday's conceptual breakthrough happened when it did for identifiable reasons. One was the invention of the battery, which could provide a steady flow of electricity. Another was the Romantic movement, which promoted a holistic view of the world that encouraged scientists to consider that seemingly discrete phenomena might be connected. Suppose, however, that a similar set of causes had come together a century earlier. What if some Enlightenment-era Faraday in a powdered wig had made the crucial breakthrough a century earlier? What if electric generators and motors had been on hand before the industrial revolution began?

In this alternate timeline, the first electric motors would probably have arrived on the market sometime in the 1740s - a time when the still-new steam engine was used only in a few niche applications like mine drainage. Potential users would, therefore, have judged electric motors not against steam engines but against the power sources that had served for centuries: wind and water for heavy-duty work, human and animal muscle for everything else. Especially when judged against muscle power, electric motors would offer obvious advantages - compactness, quiet operation and the ability to work steadily for hours with no need for food, water or rest. In the 1740s and for decades afterwards, steam engines had none of those virtues and were more expensive to boot. Electric motors would, therefore, have been adopted more widely and more quickly than steam.

The electric motors of the 1740s would have been small and quiet enough to operate in a modest-sized workshop. Opportunities to apply them there would have abounded. In the textile industry alone, their rotating shafts could have driven spinning wheels, yarn winders and knitting machines. Elsewhere, they could have powered blacksmiths' blowers, cabinet-makers' drills, potters' wheels or rope-makers' hemp-twisting cranks. The means to drive generators to power the motors was already at hand: waterwheels or windmills. The principal difference between a "generating mill", designed to turn a light electricity generator's shaft rapidly, and a traditional grinding mill, designed to turn a heavy stone slowly, would have involved new gear ratios that, once worked out, could have been replicated easily by any experienced millwright. Once operating, a single generating mill could have served many customers who located, or relocated, their workshops nearby.

The steam-driven industrial revolution that actually took place in the final third of the 18th century emphasised centralisation. Even the most sophisticated steam engines of the time were so large, expensive and fuel-hungry that to use them efficiently, you needed large factories. The electrically driven industrial revolution that might have taken place in the late 18th century would, at least at first, have been inherently decentralised. Small, inexpensive electric motors could have been readily integrated into existing workshops. Larger factories would doubtless have followed, but they would have been an option rather than a technological and economic necessity.

An industrial revolution rooted in electric power rather than steam would also have had effects beyond the workshop. In our world, the electricity distribution system developed after, and in imitation of, the distribution system for natural gas. Electric power was produced at large centralised facilities and distributed to homes and businesses through a branching network of wires. However, had electricity come into widespread use in the mid-18th century, there would have been no such model to emulate.

The provision of electricity might have been organised more like the provision of heat, with those in the countryside opting for self-sufficiency (a waterwheel, windmill or small boiler-and-turbine unit to run a generator, say) while those in cities could have chosen their supplier from one of several competing neighbourhood sources, as they did for coal deliveries. Small, localised power grids might have become the rule, and large, city-spanning ones the rare exception.

The longer-term effects of an electrified industrial revolution would have been profound. The lateral sprawl of the world's major cities and the rise of the suburb - driven by the electric subway and tram - would have begun far earlier and possibly progressed further than in our world. The spread of electric lighting and, in its wake, electrical home appliances would also have begun earlier. The electric automobile as personal transportation would have prospered and maybe even evolved into a mature technology before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Gas lamps and gas stoves might well have been stillborn - why build an expensive and potentially explosive system of gasworks and mains if existing electrical systems could do the job? Cities built without networks of gas pipes would have been less prone to burn in the event of catastrophic damage, as San Francisco did after the 1906 earthquake. The absence of a city-wide electrical grid would, in turn, make massive power outages a virtual impossibility.

Would it all have produced a better world? Perhaps not, but it is tantalising to contemplate an industrial revolution whose hallmarks were not smoke, grime and the hiss of steam power but the quiet whirr of electric motors and the glow of pure, bright light.

From issue 2513 of New Scientist magazine, 20 August 2005, page 40
Printed on Tue Sep 26 08:41:18 BST 2006