Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dodging the wheel

Ancient Mesoamerican cultures reached extraordinary heights in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, art, farming, and writing.  Yet they did not develop the wheel into their means of portage.  Constructors most certainly used logs as rollers on which to move huge pieces of sculpture or stones used in construction.  The Maya used enormous stone cylinders to flatten their roads.  But overland Mesoamerican cargo moved on the backs of porters with tumplines going around their foreheads.

If the load was heavier than a single person could carry, the burden was tied to a pole resting on the shoulders of two or more porters.   In the Palacio Cantón Museum in Merida you can see a three dimensional life-size carving of just such a scene:  two men carrying a deer they have just hunted, hanging upside down from its feet tied to a pole. 

So why didn’t Mesoamericans use carts rather than their backs to transport goods? Probably because unless its wheel and axel were as efficient as a bicycle wheel, it was more energy efficient for people to carry the load than to pull the cart. 

Ivan Illich touched on this topic in his book, "Energy and Equity."  A keen thinker and writer on many subjects but mainly remembered for his writings on education, transportation, and medicine, lllich thought and wrote a lot about how modern society faces the challenges of growing population, limited resources, increasing concentration of wealth and governments' ever expanding control over our lives.  Though he traveled extensively, Cuernavaca was his base of operations from 1959 until his death in Germany in 2002.

In his writings he frequently led his readers off on fascinating tangents to the most unexpected destinations.  One of the more esoteric topics that he explored in the area of transportation is the ball-bearing and how it increased human mobility. In the 1970's he wrote "Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently.  He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. . . . Thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle and most animals.  For his weight, he performs more work in locomotion than rat or oxen, less than horses or sturgeon.  At this rate of efficiency man settled the world and made its history."

With the invention of the ball-bearing in the late 1800's, Illich contends that transportation made a tremendous leap.  "Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process.  . . . Equipped with this tool man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well."

The ball bearing caused a revolution in transportation, one of four revolutions in transportation that Illich identified.  Two others are the invention of the wheel early in our civilization and the simultaneous invention of the stirrup, shoulder harness, and horseshoe in medieval Europe “which increased the thermodynamic efficiency of the horse by a factor of up to five." The fourth revolution was the building of oceangoing vessels by the Portuguese.
"In Mexico, the wheel was well known, but never applied to transport.  It served exclusively for the construction of carriages for toy gods.  The taboo on wheelbarrows in America before Cortes is no more puzzling than the taboo on bicycles in modern traffic."

However equally amazing as it is puzzling, is that Mesoamericans did without all four revolutions in transportation that Illich identifies.  They knew the wheel and axle but only used it for toys.  They had no horses or similar animals for transportation. Their ocean going vessels did not stray far from shore.  And the development of the ball-bearing came long after the conquest.

Illich was a big fan of bicycles because they are cheap, durable, easily stored, and an egalitarian means of transportation. He was not as fond of the other 20th and 21st century means of transportation that the ball-bearing opened the door to.

Unlike the stirrup which "raised the knight onto his horse," or the Portuguese galleon "which enlarged the horizons of the king's captains", the ball-bearing is used by both the egalitarian bicycle as well as the automobile which Illich referred to as "the accelerating individual capsule [that] enabled societies to engage in a ritual of progressively paralyzing speed."

On the tenth anniversary of Ivan Illich's death he would be pleased to see how bicycling is encouraged in Mexico City.  He would be even more delighted to know that Copenhagen, Denmark -- where one third of commuters bike to work or school -- is building a 186-mile (300 km.) network of cycling superhighways linking the city with its suburbs at a cost of one million dollars per mile.  As the US’s National Public Radio reported last Saturday, the superhighway network is "expected to save Copenhagen's health care system some $60 million dollars a year."  

I did the math:  in a little over three years the network will start turning a hefty profit just by keeping people out of the reach of physicians!  That combination would make Illich even happier.  He may be best known for his book "Medical Nemesis" about the dangers of modern medicine.   What a marvelous way to keep people healthy. 

A three-day Illich seminar is being planned in Cuernavaca from December 13 to 15.  I'll let you know the schedule, topics, and location as soon as I receive them.

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