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The Push That Took the World Into the Industrial Age

By Andy Kessler
Saturday, June 3, 2006

The Brits were at war on and off with the French for centuries, but never more so than in the 18th century over territories in the New World, especially in Canada over fur, in the West Indies over sugar, cotton and rum, and over trade routes to central Asia. Add to that those rebellious, thankless colonists from Massachusetts to Georgia.

King George needed cannons for his troops in the American Colonies as well as for his warships to keep the French on their side of the English Channel.

Back to John Wilkinson, the Iron Master of Shropshire, who had a precision cannon-boring tool, which was in essence a big monster lathe. This tool cut true, making highly effective cannons with ever so narrow “windage”, the gap between a cannon’s barrel and the cannon ball. The smaller the windage, the greater the amount the gunpowder’s blast would propel the cannon ball, rather than leak out past it. Wilkinson’s cannons shot cannon balls farther and higher and faster.

Wilkinson chose not to patent the tool, since he didn’t want to generate drawings that others could copy. Based on this tool and his reputation, Wilkinson had a huge backlog of orders from the King for cannons.

But Wilkinson (not to be confused with the sword dude, James Wilkinson as is often the case) had recently moved his foundries from river’s edge to the coalfields. He switched from wood to coal, but lost his source of power: the river.

You see, sulfur-rich charcoal from half-burnt wood and power from water wheels just didn’t cut it for making cannons; the pig iron it produced was too brittle. High-grade coal or coke was plentiful up in the hills of Staffordshire and contained almost no sulfur, so the iron was sturdier. Wilkinson solved one problem but ended up with another: how to operate his bellow, to blow enough air to heat up the coke to an intense enough heat, so he could smelt iron ore, and pour the liquid iron into casts of cannons.

His boring tool also needed a source of power, water wheels were slow and horses expensive to feed.

Wilkinson needed piping hot coals to smelt his iron. He had seen James Watt’s steam engine pumping water out of coalmines, and thought he could use it to run his bellows rather than horses. So Wilkinson went through the hassle of moving it and attaching it to his bellows, but was terribly disappointed. The cylinder was awful. It leaked steam with every stroke, robbing the engine of most of its power.

So just as Watt took apart Newcomen’s engine to figure out how it worked, Wilkinson took Watt’s engine apart, and probably started laughing. Peeling away the wet hemp used as a sealant, he noticed Watt’s cylinder looked as craggy as the coastline of England.

While Watt was proud of his 3/8th of an inch from true cylinders, Wilkinson had his secret boring tool and could make Watt’s cylinders 10 times more true. So he ripped the engine apart, recast the leaky cylinder using his precision boring tool and found it generated 4-5 times more power, enough to run his bellows. This meant 25 to 40 horsepower engines, up from 5 to 8.

And that was the push the world needed to take it into the industrial age. Sometimes it’s that simple, and easy to miss.

Being a reasonable businessman, he told Boulton and Watt that he could improve their crappy little steam engine by a factor of five, in exchange for the exclusive rights to supply precision cylinders to B&W.


Good investing,

Andy Kessler

- An extract from How We Got Here. You can download a free copy of this book in PDF format by clicking here.

Editor’s Note: Andy Kessler is a former Wall Street analyst and hedge fund manager. He has written three books on investing, Wall Street MeatRunning Money and How We Got Here and is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street JournalForbes and other financial publications. He lives with his wife and four sons in the Bay Area.
His latest book, The End of Medicine, is due out in July 2006. You can pre-order a copy by clicking here.

Market Notes


After three years of huge gains, emerging market stocks are causing mass depression.

Take the India’s BSE 30 Sensitive Index. Shares on Asia’s oldest stock exchange have plunged 20% from their highs. This new volatility is freaking out local investors…

Maybe asset manager James Barrow said it best in an interview with Reuters this week: 

No one is saying emerging markets are terrible places to be in the long term, but they can scare the hell out of you in the short run."

Scared yet? The “Sensex” falls 20% from its highs (2006 chart):

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