Engineering in an Age of Limits

Discusses the role of engineers as society enters an Age of Limits — particularly with oil supplies.

3. The Mechanical World View

Engineering in an Age of Limits
3. The Mechanical World View


Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented engineers.

What will a post-oil society invent?

This is the third post in the series “Engineering in an Age of Limits”. We are facing limits in natural resources, particularly oil; there are limits to our finances (money seems to be increasingly disconnected from actual goods and services); and there are limits to how much we can continue dumping waste products into the air, the sea and on to land.

We are also facing a transition as the Oil Age comes to an end. This is not the first time that society has faced such a transition. At the beginning of the 18th century the principal source of energy in northern Europe was wood. However the forests were mostly depleted so a new source of energy, coal, had to be developed and exploited. The extraction of coal from underground mines posed new technical challenges particularly with regard to removing the water that flooded those mines. So new technologies, particularly the steam engine, had to be developed. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention. These technological developments led to many changes in society, including the creation of the profession of engineering. The transitions that we are currently experiencing as we look for alternatives to oil are likely to generate equally profound paradigm shifts. How this will impact the engineering profession remains to be seen.

These posts are published at our blog site. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join.

Previous Posts

The posts in this series so far are:

  1. Reverse Engineering
  2. Peak Forests
  3. The Mechanical World View (this one)

We have also, during the course of the last two years, published other posts to do with these topics. They are listed at our Welcome page.

From Wood to Coal

Early steam train hauling coal

Early steam train hauling coal

The previous post in this series was entitled Peak Forests. The message of that post was.

  1. In Europe from classical times until the end of the Middle Ages wood was pretty much the only source of external energy. Wood was also used in the fabrication of virtually all equipment, vehicles and agricultural tools.
  2. The wood came from the ancient forests that spread across northern Europe. The wood was used much more quickly than new trees could grow so it was, in effect, a non-renewable resource.
  3. By the end of the seventeenth century many parts of Europe were effectively deforested — a new source of energy was needed. The choice was straightforward — coal was widely available and provided more energy per unit of weight than did wood.
  4. But most coal was located in underground mines which were subject to flooding. Hence a means of pumping the water out was needed.
  5. In response to this need Thomas Newcomen developed the first industrial steam engine. It was crude and inefficient by modern standards, but it worked.
  6. The key point in this sequence is that Newcomen and the men like him did not invent the steam engine for fun (the Greeks had done that two thousand years earlier). They invented their machines in order to meet a specific challenge. And in doing so they happened to invent the profession of engineering.
  7. His invention had enormous unforeseen follow-on effects. For example, the newly mined coal was  denser than wood. Hence it could not be transported in bulk on the unpaved, muddy roads of the time. So they took the newly-invented boiler, put it on a frame, put the frame on wheels, put the wheels on steel rails, and — lo and behold — the railroad, with all its follow-on consequences was invented.

Within a hundred years of Newcomen’s invention the Industrial Revolution was well underway.

The Hubbert Curve

We will have many occasions in this series of posts to discuss in detail the Hubbert Curve, developed by Dr. M. King Hubbert in the year 1956. For now, it is sufficient to say that, although he developed his curve for onshore oil production in the United States, it can be applied to the extraction rate of virtually any natural resource: forest timber, coal, oil, even the fish that can be taken from the ocean. Basically he said that the extraction rate for any newly-discovered resource would follow a profile such as that shown below.

Hubbert Curve

Initially the extraction rate rises steeply, then a peak or plateau is reached, then the extraction rate declines until it reaches a steady level of about 10% of the peak value. Given that all natural resources tend to follow a Hubbert profile there will always be a need to invent new technology to develop new sources of energy. The process of invention did not stop with Newcomen. But the central challenge of our age is that we don’t have an obvious replacement source of energy so the people of the early 18th century had coal, in the first part of the 20th century oil was a natural replacement for coal, but we, in our time, do not know how to complete the following sequence.

Wood → Coal → Oil → ?

There are many suggestions floating around: solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels all come to mind. But none of them show the potential to scale up sufficiently to replace oil and to do so in the time available to us. Consequently we do not appear to have any modern-day Thomas Newcomens to take us to the next stage.

If we cannot find a replacement for oil, then a new way of thinking will be needed and fundamental reorganizations will be called for. Which means that it is useful to look at the way of thinking that developed at the same time as the steam engine, three hundred years ago.

The Mechanical World View

Jacques Turgot

Jacques Turgot

The move from wood to coal as a principal source of energy affected not just technological innovation. It built on and helped create a new way of thinking.

In his book Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World (1989) the author Jeremy Rifkin starts one chapter with an overview of a two-part lecture given by Jacques Turgot in the University of Paris in the year 1750. Turgot argued that history proceeds in a straight line and that each stage of history represents an advance over the previous one. He developed the idea of what we now call “progress”, which is often stated in the form, “I want my children to have a better standard of living than I have”. To quote Rifkin,

Though we are largely unaware of it, much of the way we think, act, and feel can be traced back to the . . . historical paradigm that took shape and form during those centuries of transition. It is ironic indeed that only now as that tapestry begins to fray and unwind is it possible to really see the stuff we and our modern world are made of.

Our current paradigm can be called the Mechanical World View. It is based largely on the writings of three men: Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton. Each one of these gentlemen deserve a post all to themselves. For now we will summarize their works as follows.

  • Bacon (1561-1626) worked out the scientific method — he separated the observer from the observed and thus came up with “objective knowledge”.
  • Descartes (1596-1650) created the mathematical world, the world that engineers inhabit now. In that world everything is completely predictable.
  • Newton (1643-1727) put Descartes’ mathematical principles into action. He created his three laws of motion — laws that accurately described and predicted planetary motions.

To summarize, the Mechanical World View, at least as it described the material universe, was very appealing because it explained the world and it gave results. It provided the basis for never-ending “progress”.

There was one huge limitation in this World View, however. It could not explain the messy, disorganized irrational behavior of human beings. Attempts have been made, with very little success, to incorporate this way of thinking into disciplines such as sociology and economics. But, most of the time, our society is still a mess and we can’t explain what is going on or why people do what they do most of the time.

Also, what the Mechanical World View does not consider is that progress requires ever-increasing quantities of free energy. But, as we hit the Age of Limits, their model of an orderly and progressive universe is no longer working. We are running out of energy supplies that can be extracted economically, we are running out of space (air, land and sea) to dump all our waste and we have an economic system that seems to be increasingly wobbly because money has become detached from underlying material values. And the human side of things, which was always messy and inexplicable, seems to be getting worse.

To summarize: the Mechanical World View worked for three hundred years, but has stopped working for us. Our natural response is to adjust the machinery of our society, for example by making a transition from gasoline-powered to electric cars. But these response aren’t working all that well. We don’t know what to do because we have not yet realized that we cannot solve these new problems with the old solutions. need to replace the Mechanical World View with an Entropic World View.

The Entropic World View


As we enter the Age of Limits the Mechanical World View will no longer hold water. Rather than seeing ourselves as “progressing” in a straight line onward and upward we will need to develop a way of thinking that incorporates an understanding of a world where resources are finite, increasingly expensive and/or inaccessible, and where recycling will be fundamental to our way of life.

As we develop this series of posts (and the book that will come out of them) we will spend some more time trying to understand the decline of the Mechanical World View. But a more positive action is to try to figure out what kind of society will replace what we have now and — more specifically — how the engineering professions will be affected, and how engineers can help make the transition to whatever new ways of thinking may be developing.

What this new way of thinking will look like is anyone’s guess. Could Thomas Newcomen have foreseen the Industrial Revolution as he was tinkering with his steam engine?

But it appears as if we can draw four very tentative conclusions as to where we might be going.

  1. The first is that any activity that draws down our energy supplies will have to be stopped, or at least slowed down. Currently the latest technologies are mostly to do with computer technology: mobile phones, the Internet, tablets are examples. But, as discussed in the The Cloud, these machines consume energy, lots of energy.
  2. The second thought is that engineers in particular can apply rigorous thinking to much of the thoughtless chatter that goes on. For example, people talk about “Energy-Saving Projects”. There are no such things; energy can neither be created nor destroyed — the First Law tells us so. Hence energy cannot be saved. And people talk about “Sustainability”. Nothing is sustainable, entropy always increases — the Second Law tells us so.
  3. The third item to consider is the possibility that somewhere out there is an engineer, a modern-day Thomas Newcomen, developing systems based on an “Entropic World View”. I have absolutely no idea what that invention will look like but I am pretty sure that it will have nothing to do with computers.
  4. The final thought is probably the least palatable. There is no guarantee that we will be able to maintain our current life style in the Age of Limits. History books are full of the corpses of dead nations, empires and good ideas. There is no reason to believe that we are any different. Indeed, given our almost total reliance on declining resources, our impact on the planet and given that the population of the world has increased from about 0.5 billion in Newcomen’s day to 7.5 billion, most of whom eat food that is grown through the use of artificial chemicals made from oil, we can conclude that we are heading into very turbulent waters.

5 responses to “3. The Mechanical World View

  1. Etienne Bayenet April 29, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    Good ideas, but the earth is not a closed system. It receives energy, mainly from the sun, and gives energy mainly through infra-red radiations. So you can not say that entropy on earth always increased since plants can reduce entropy using solar energy. If you limit yourself to the mechanical world, this is true because we use more energy than what plants can absorb (this is the reason of the greenhouse effect).

    Lets change the name “energy saving projects” into “projects reducing the increase of entropy”, so it will be correct.

    As an engineer, the question of the future could be easy, instead of creating more wealth with more energy and raw materials, the idea would be to do the same with less.
    – Since raw material and energy is more difficult to find, price should increase and producers could live with less output.
    – Since production reduces it’s need for energy and raw materials, cost could stay similar.
    The only problem is that this is mechanical thinking and doesn’t apply to our new world, or maybe we were too good at that game and prices dropped to the bottom.

    Engineer can bring technical solutions, but maybe in an Entropic World, you also need to manage the incoherent behavior of the humans. I’m not sure that this is possible. Maybe we engineers don’t have the full solution anymore because the fuel is missing to make it work. I am an optimistic and believe that we will find it, but it might be a difficult way to go.

    I thank you for the time you spend sharing your thoughts. I think this is important.


    • suttonbooks April 29, 2015 at 5:43 pm


      Thanks for your comments. Indeed the earth is not a closed system. Sunlight creates the low entropy needed for solar panels, wind power and the fossil fuels that we are taking from the ground.

      I agree with your approach, “projects reducing the increase of entropy”, but I doubt whether many people would understand what you mean. And entropy always increases.

      Regarding engineers having the “full solution” — they never did. The failure of economics and sociology to create a Newtonian model is the evidence. So maybe engineering of the future will have to incorporate human messiness.


  2. Liam Moran April 30, 2015 at 3:49 am

    Enjoyed your article Ian. Thought provoking as always. And, whether by accident or design, you seem to have hit upon a similar idea, albeit from a different perspective, to Ian McGilchrist:

    Great minds think alike perhaps? Wouldn’t bother with the second half of this book though (editor was over indulgent in my opinion).


    • suttonbooks April 30, 2015 at 4:36 am

      Thanks for the link. My next post — Four Strands — follows the same line of thought. Engineers such as myself have trouble understanding why others seem to avoid the obvious.

      On the same lines did you see the article “Programmed to Ignore?” at

      He ran a survey of people who follow his line of thinking. Here is what he found.

      “The result was pretty stunning. Of the 114 responses, site visitors were dominated by INTJ types (43 in number, or 38%), even though this group constitutes about 2–3% of the population.”


  3. Pingback: 10. Denying Blackbeard – Part 1 | Engineering in an Age of Limits

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