The pace of technological progress

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From David S. Landes's The Unbound Prometheus:
No field saw greater gains in this respect than metalworking and engineering. Not only were machine tools more powerful and convenient, but the development of hard steel alloys put in the hands of the workman cutting edges worthy of the mechanical force at his disposal. The earliest of these special materials was simple high-carbon steel; it could work economically at cutting speeds of about 40 feet a minute. In the 1850's and 1860's, Koeller in Austria and Mushet in England developed tungsten, vanadium, and manganese alloys that were self-cooling, outlasted regular tool steel five or six times, and could cut 60 feet a minute. This, moreover, was under unfavourable circumstances: machines of the day were not strong enough to support the speed that the steel made possible. The discrepancy was quickly corrected, however, and by the 1890's tools had been developed that could cut 150 feet of mild steel a minute without lubricants. Finally, in 1900 F.W. Taylor and Maunsel White demonstrated their high-speed chromium-tungsten steel at the Paris Exhibition. The metal ran red-hot, yet did not soften or dull. Again, it was the machine that lagged, and heavier models had to be built, four to six times as powerful as those using carbon steel, before the possibiliites of the new metal could be exploited. By the First World War, speeds of 300 and 400 feet per minute had been achieved on light cuts, and it was common for a single tool to remove twenty pounds of waste a minute. Little wonder now, this innovation was one of the wonders of its day. One senses, reading contemporary acounts, the near incredulity of observers at seeing steel pierced and cut like butter.

In an era where practically every product you buy depends on the ability to machine precise components, it's easy to forget that modern machine tools are less than two hundred years old.

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