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"Mankind's single greatest waste of time and energy"

(No, not a PhD.)

In 300 BC, a new plow was developed in China. It required the effort of only one oxen, where before several were needed for the same work. It had a heavier design, but overall reduced the necessary effort.

The stunning thing is that other parts of the world, and in particular Europe, did not use this better design until the 17th century AD. When it arrived, the adoption of this type of plow was important for Europe’s agricultural revolution.

Although the invention seems obvious and all necessary materials had been around for a long time, people did not come up with it. Maybe technological progress isn’t really as linear and inevitable as it seems in retrospect?

I found this in “1491” by Charles C. Mann. He uses this example of the Europeans failure to invent or adopt the Chinese plow to put into perspective that the Maya’s used the wheel for toys, but not to grind maize or to carry burdens. Mann takes this from Robert Temple’s “The Genius of China” and expanding on Mann’s original citation we find (with added emphasis):

“Of all the advantages which China had for centuries over the rest of the world, the greatest was perhaps the superiority of its plows. Nothing underlines the backwardness of the West more than the fact that for thousands of years, millions of human beings plowed the earth in a manner which was so inefficient, so wasteful of effort, and so utterly exhausting that this deficiency of plowing may rank as mankind’s single greatest waste of time and energy.” (p17)

“For farmers, this was like going from the bow and arrow to the gun.” (p19)

“The increased friction meant that huge multiple teams of oxen were required, whereas Chinese plowmen could make do with a single ox, and rarely more than two. Europeans had to pool their resources, and waste valuable time and money in getting hold of six to eight oxen to plow the simplest field. […] It is no exaggeration to say that China was in the position of America or Western Europe today, and Europe was in the position of, say, Morocco.” (p20)

The following would be interesting to study:

  1. One could first look at why people didn’t adopt the better plow much sooner. Maybe we have records on which cities or regions adopted this plow first. Do places, that adopted first, differ? I might expect larger urban places with more diverse populations that traded heavily to adopt this innovation first. This paper leads me to think that “openness to disruption” might have helped.

  2. And there could be occasions when the arrival of the new technology could be treated as a “quasi-experiment”. Can we see the effects of new technology in action? How did output, wages and profits react?

Apparently it was the Dutch who first brought the plow back from China and then brought it to England as Dutch laborers working there. And from there it next went to America and France. And then:

“By the 1770s it was the cheapest and best plow available. […] There was no single more important element in the European agricultural revolution.” (p20)