Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Static South

I just returned from a week's vacation to Charleston, South Carolina. One thing I really wanted to see, but was not able to because of its limited opening hours, was the recovered Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley.  The best I could do was to visit the grave of its builder, Horace L. Hunley, who drowned in trying to make the damned thing work.

Grave of Horace L. Hunley, Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, S.C.. His crew is buried around him, and every stone has a brand new Confederate flag next to it. It's like being in a foreign country.
The Hunley is one of a very few examples of technological innovation that came out of the Old South. In fact, I can't think of another one; can you? I asked my wife and kids for examples and the ones they offered were the Winchester rifle and the cotton gin. Actually, those were both invented in Connecticut!

I also visited the Manigault House of 1803 as part of my admission to the very interesting Charleston Museum. I mentioned to the lady who gave us the guided tour that what struck me was the obvious effort and expense the builders of the house went to in making it aesthetically pleasing, instead of investing in "conveniences". They had bedsteads, sideboards and chairs that would look great in any house today, but of course no indoor plumbing or kitchen.

A few minutes after we left, I realized what a dopey observation that was. They didn't have those kinds of conveniences because they never had to cook, clean or wash their own clothes. They had slaves and servants to do that. I'm sure it occurred to them that it cost money to pay servants or support slaves to do these tasks, but what didn't occur to them is the various ways the tasks could be made more efficient. You have to do the job yourself in order to come up with labor-saving ideas. But if the person paying the bills isn't doing the work, and the person doing the work isn't paying the bills, that connection never happens.

I think this explains a lot about why there was little innovation in the South. At least, it's a better explanation than the common observation that the South was conservative and suspicious of improvements. Everyone likes to save money. Those rich plantation owners didn't get that way by throwing money out the window. They just weren't in a position to see, for example, that by fireproofing the kitchen, they could bring it into the house and save hours of time lost by walking stuff to and from the outdoor oven.

It would seem that the existence of a middle class, in which people mow their own lawns, do their own laundry and change their own oil is a necessity for innovation to happen. If you were paid to mow lawns by the hour, would you be interested in a way to do it in half the time? Not likely. But if you had to mow your own lawn, you would be very interested. The rise of the middle class in Britain probably had a lot to do with why the Industrial Revolution started there. Even then, the big shots in Britain were still the idle rich. That's why being a "boffin" was (and still is) looked down on in a way we have difficulty understanding in America.

Don't leave with the impression that I dislike the South. On the contrary, it's full of fine people, and these days, the South is the only restraint on the Whiggish excesses that will ruin the country if unchecked.

Note added later: What I said above refers to the "old South." A lot has changed in the last 50 years or so. A great deal of the work that got Neil Armstrong to the moon was done in Alabama, Virginia, Texas, Mississippi and of course Florida.

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