Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What Chimneys Teach Us About Entrepreneurship

I couldn't remember where I heard it, but be it a podcast, a blog, a documentary or the radio, a man was speculating why it took so long to build the chimney.  The Romans had the earliest success with "chimney technology," installing flues in bakeries that would channel smoke outside.  This technological advancement was lost with the collapse of the Roman empire and would not return until 1200AD in England.  But whether it was 1200 England or 100BC Rome, humans had already been living in much more northern, and therefore colder, climes millennia before these inventions.

So how'd they keep warm?

Simple.  They'd just have a fire on the dirt floor in the middle of their house with a hole (or holes) poked in the ceiling of the roof to aerate out the smoke.  Of course, only a fraction of the smoke would aerate, leaving a barely breathable room to live and sleep in.  And of course, heat would also escape making winter particularly cold for Vikings and others who lived in northern climes.  And of course, this would make life miserable for anybody living in winter.  But that is what humans endured for tens of thousands of years until the Brits developed the "advanced" technology of putting a pipe over flame in 1200AD.

Surprisingly, chimney technology would not advance seriously for another 500 years until various 18th century philosophers, scientists, and tinkerers (Benjamin Franklin prominently among them) would finally hunker down, put pen to paper, and start to experiment with various forms of heating, ventilation, and flame ultimately resulting in the two modern forms of chimneys we have today - the brick chimney and the wood burning stove. So it wasn't until a short 200 years ago (out of the 2 MILLION years of human existence) did we have effective and efficient chimneys.

My question was, "Why the hell did it take so damn long for humans to develop this basic and NECESSARY thing?"

Not that this wasn't an impressive accomplishment.  If you research it, successfully heating a home with fire AND successfully ventilating the smoke out of a structure is more complicated than you think.  There's heat convection, understanding (or in the olden days, misunderstanding) how fire burns, being able to adjust air/fuel, as well and the creation of a flue.  But even this level of complexity it not that complex, and with heat being a vital necessity for human survival, one would think the chimney would have been developed long ago, along side the creation of inflammable ceramics and/or pottery.

But the historian I was listening to had a theory as to why this was.  And it was so obvious even I had had the same epiphany earlier, but from a different angle:

Humans were too busy staying alive to take the time to sit down, think about it, experiment with it, and develop the chimney.

Between staving off rival tribes, growing food for winter, preparing for winter, cutting and hauling wood, maybe tending to livestock, and all the other demands of pre-historic/ancient life, humans simply did not have the spare time to pursue the luxury of thinking about how to heat a home more efficiently.

We may look at our prehistoric and ancient ancestors with a bit of derision and shame.  How dumb did they all have to be that thousands of years, tens of thousands of years, perhaps even 100,000 years passed by and nobody thought to build a receptacle to hold a fire in and add a pipe outside to it?  Certainly, SOMEBODY out of the past 50 billion humans that existed must have had SOME free time to create the chimney?  Why The Original American Playboy, Benjamin Franklin, so late in the 1790's?  But before we get too condescending realize nearly all of us are guilty of the exact same thing today.

It's just instead of

hunting mammoth,
fighting off raiding tribes,
culling our weak, and
hunkering down in winter

today we,

go to school,
go to college,
suffer a commute,
work mind-destroying jobs,
get married,
have kids,
get debts,
watch TV,
play video games,
and if we're lucky,
wifey lets us go to Vegas for a weekend.

In short, humanity, regardless of the era, and regardless of the technology, has always focused at the tasks at hand and never taken the time to stop what they're doing, step back, look at what they're doing, ask themselves if there's an easier way to do things, and then spend the time actually developing those easier ways.

I came to this realization as I slowly, and accidentally, slipped into the vagabond "author, blogger, professional asshole, Cappy Appleseed" lifestyle I have today.  Between roadtripping across the country, merely only to hike many parks, trails, and mountains by myself, you're forced to be alone with your thoughts for thousands of hours.  Couple this with podcasting technology that gives your brain food for thought, it creates the perfect environment where you're (practically) FORCED to sit down and think about life and how to do things easier.  This has resulted in not only a handful of clever, but profitable businesses I run today, but a surplus of business ideas that I have on my "idea pad" back at home that I can resort to should my current slew of businesses turn unprofitable.  But my portfolio of business ideas set aside, the lesson learned is an important one that cannot be emphasized enough for fellow aspiring minimalists, philosophers, freedom-lovers, and entrepreneurs:

Sitting down and taking the time to think things through is a mandatory ingredient to successful entrepreneurship. 

I am completely convinced that unplugging from The Matrix, quitting the Rat Race, and pulling your nose up from the grind is absolutely necessary to give you the time to survey the world around you, understand the context by which society, the economy, and businesses interact with one another, and therefore give your brain the time to identify ways to capitalize on this environment.  Furthermore, if you are consciously "on the hunt" for entrepreneurial ideas, you will train your brain to recognize these opportunities more frequently, resulting in a "business idea list" like mine that is (in all honesty) a better guarantee of a financial future than social security.

I know "not everybody can be, nor wants to be, an entrepreneur."  But I do know the majority of my readership are freedom-loving, envelop pushing, authority-hating individuals who would be happiest working for themselves (and subsequently telling their former bosses to shove it).  Because of this I cannot emphasize enough you learn a lesson from the inexcusably-long development of chimneys.  Take the time to unplug and think about things in society long and hard.  Combine that with an "on the hunt" mentality for any entrepreneurial opportunity that exists.  This won't guarantee you'll come up with a successful business idea, but it will guarantee you'll stand a better shot than the average wage slave commuting 2 hours to work, whose mind is rotting away in a cube, while being further medicated/impaired with mindless television and Oprah-level societal distractions.
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Anonymous said...

Just a note about chimneys which has just popped up in my head. Recently I watched a documentary about medieval kitchens in castles and chateaux.
And, surprisingly, they had chimneys (in backwards Eastern Europe). What stuck in my mind was one particular, I think, it was a 14th century castle. The only thing left from the castle was a chimney. Tall, symmetrical rocket-like structure (remotely resembling R-7). It was so well built, from a single layer of bricks, that it outlasted whole stone made castle. Medieval people were more sophisticated that many people think, they just did not have means to express themselves.

PS: What id also striking, is stark technological decline in the west after the fall of the western Roman Empire. Like if all technologically capable people died off. Maybe nerds were selected out of gene pool the same way they are being now...

Anonymous said...

I'm going to guess that chimneys were originally a form of miniaturization, where mass production of goods requiring fire needed to be done in as small of an area as possible. Packing as much stuff as possible inside expensive castle walls wasn't important until the stirrup was invented, and the untrained peasants who couldn't afford military grade horses responded by avoiding open field warfare and in its stead adapting to the siege. A long siege meant that efficient storage and use of space became a stronger part of the European mindset than the more open and sprawling days of Roman rule.

Franklin's chimney seems to be geopolitical and mercantile in a sense, because of French control of the fur trade. Furs are an indirect source of heat/food and it was based in Louisiana. Burning wood more efficiently was a way of avoiding foreign influence on the young and vulnerable colony.

In reality, there was plenty of time to screw around in the Middle Ages, especially when it wasn't planting/harvest time. Some of the best years Europe ever had were actually in the dark ages, the first couple centuries after the fall of Rome but before the rise of Islam and the vikings. People were having too much fun to record their gripes or construct military structures.

Anonymous said...

Yep - the "inventions" and advances in philosophy, mathematics and science were made by the noble classes. Not because they were more intelligent than the rest of the population but were wealthy enough to have the leisure time to devote to such non productive pursuits.

Survival always takes a greater priority than blue sky thinking.

Phil B

Anonymous said...

Russian stove /fireplace ie masonry heater. 500 yo tech. If west had adopted would have changed the world

Anonymous said...

Phil B, don't forget that getting official credit for inventions requires legal and financial privilege as well as long term connections to the elite universities. Certain ethnic groups (you can do the math here) have been given extreme unearned recognitions of intellectual merit they wouldn't have had if not for outside aid from powerful corporate interests and control of the government.

The truth is that every culture and class can and does produce geniuses. Even the working class had enough leisure time to invent things like jazz or other creative endeavors that weren't likely to be stolen from them.

I suspect that except for outright slaves, most humans of all classes seem to be wired to do the same amount of "grind-work" and creative work throughout the day.

Anonymous said...

The ancient Romans had central heating too. They called it hypocaust.


blogger said...

Franklin and company were able to perfect the wood stove because the Industrial Revolution cut the price of iron by a factor of 10. Until this happened, it would have been prohibitively expensive to make a stove out of iron.

And it was really only around 1100 AD or so that knowledge (in Europe) was regularly passed around as it was in Roman days. If someone came up with a cool idea in, say, 900 AD, the idea was a lot more likely to die with him. So we can call this the Communications Revolution.

Neither of these points change the thrust of your post, of course.

Anonymous said...

Very intelligent and well-written post and only THREE responses? Ridiculous!

Adam said...

The Romans didn't need chimneys due to the fact that they invented and perfected underfloor heating.

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts:
For a very large part of human history, we were nomadic hunters and gatherers. Little need or incentive to make bricks, mortar, and permanent structures. *
In addition, our early history (apparently) places us in tropical and sub tropical environments...Africa, the Mediterranean, Indian subcontinent, and South East Asia.
I'd guess that most cooking fires were outdoors rather than inside(?).
Perhaps the last Ice Age was the incentive to hunker down in a more permanent structure, at least in the colder regions?

*Before you can build a chimney, you need to invent something to hold the form. Clay would work but mortar (Lime cement?) would be a better solution. The invention then has to spread through civilized territory.

Anonymous said...

"along side the creation of inflammable ceramics and/or pottery."

You might want to change "inflammable" to "nonflammable" since both inflammable and flammable mean the same thing.

Big Momma said...

I love history - it is my understanding that better chimneys were invented during the little Ice Age which happened in the late 1300's (14th C) and their invention was driven by the colder climate change. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin improved these chimneys?? My background is in architecture.

elad sputnik said...

To this day people don't understand why a combustion air intake is a good idea, MPAI.

Anonymous said...

"PS: What id also striking, is stark technological decline in the west after the fall of the western Roman Empire. Like if all technologically capable people died off."


The Phantom said...

Another interesting historical anomaly is the history of screw. Meaning fastener, of course. The accuracy of screws turns out to be one of the limiting factors in the accuracy of metal working machines.

? said...

I was in the MFB for a long time, maybe fifteen years ago when the first African 'refugee/migrants' started to arrive I attended a couple of fires that were different than anything I'd come across before. These 'ref/migrants' were of course give taxpayer benefits which included housing. I was working at Footscray Fire Station at the time and like all good governments they placed these people in undesirable areas such as Dandenong or the western suburbs.
So these African families were given an old house or flat, most of them had children and they came from warm climates. Now Melbourne in winter can be very cold and there was no heating in the bedrooms, so the parents (I saw this twice) would get an old car wheel sans tyre, place it i the kids bedroom, light a fire in the wheel and shut the door. This is true, how dumb do you have to be, nobody died but that was more good luck. These people didn't even have a concept of a chimney. Yet apparently bringing them here is a good thing.

Tucanae Services said...


Your question should be "Why did it take Europeans so long to develop chimneys?" Koreans has such for centuries and later coupled it with under floor radiant heating.