Of DENIS PAPIN, The REAL Inventor Of The Steam Engine and The Steam Boat… Because  His Nature Got Steamed Up, When Fiercely Protesting Against The Powers that Be!


An ancient silliness condemns philosophers for making commoners feel bad. Yet it’s the mark of any new philosophy worth its salt to do such a thing. Hurting warns of danger or damage, it’s a good thing, most of the time. New philosophy informs us that our old thinking  leaves something to be desired, and opportunities exist, that had been left unexploited.

Also, new thoughts are about constructing new brain geometry, while demolishing erroneous structures. As all demolition and construction require energy, this demands pain and effort. To be as brainy a human as can be, one has to learn, that means, one has to learn to love pain and effort. Philosophers hold the whip, when they go to the public, and they talk.

To preserve civilization, having a sustainable philosophy is more important than having the right engineering. Not that the latter is not necessary too, but the philosophy leads the engineering. Moreover, philosophy is harder to come by, because it’s less tangible, harder to demonstrate, more iconoclast thus more irritating! The case of steam power demonstrates this best.

Why Then? Philosophy Empowers Engineering

Why Then? Philosophy Empowers Engineering

Philosophy’s importance in engineering is why two different French protestants, having fled France’s religious intolerance, developed the steam powered piston engine in the Seventeenth Century, and applied it to boats. It was not a coincidence that individuals of the same rebellious mental (protestant protesting) background did so. After twenty centuries of stasis with steam power (both ancient Egyptians and Greeks used steam power in their temples, to move large objects magically, mesmerizing the vulgum).

The Romans could have developed steam power, 17 centuries earlier. Both the power of steam and paddles were known. Extremely intricate wheeled and teethed mechanisms were in common usage. Paddle mechanisms counted the distance a boat covered. But, after a few decades of fascist plutocracy, Greco-Romans did not see the point of steam power, or, more generally technological progress. They waited like sitting ducks until the exhaustion of their world was upon them.

The attitude was very different in the 17C. Brains were active, so were the armies, and mental diversity was of the essence. even the rabid Louis XIV financed Dutch savant (for example Huyghens, the wave master).

England’s Cromwell, the “Lord Protector“, was alerted on the “incredible strength and swiftness” of a French steam boat built in… the Netherlands.

In Roman times, the same tyranny reigned over “Britannia” (now the UK), Lower Germany (Netherlands), and Gallia (France), and that tyranny was globally hostile to spectacular technological progress. The inventor of a steam boat would have been paid by the Greco-Roman emperor NOT to develop it (that may well have happened, from allusions in the records we have).

The ascent of the Roman republic had been the ascent of the right engineering. Yet, when Rome became uncontrollably fascist and plutocratic, all things of the mind went down, including engineering. This was directly related to the emperors’ anti-progress mood. Hey, progress in engineering could reverse engineer itself into philosophical progress!… Emperors understood that much.

Emperors forbade to use advanced engineering… as it would augment unemployment, they claimed meekly. The Romans could have made steam ships: they had all the ingredients. But not the right philosophy.

The first maker of a steam boat mysteriously disappeared from the records. French engineer and German academic Denis Papin built the first piston engine that is still documented today in 1690 [1].

As a protestant, Papin had to flee the horrendous criminal activities of the self described sun tyrant, Louis XIV, the superstition fanatic. DENIS PAPIN, with the apparent collaboration of the great Leibnitz, operated a fully functional steamship more than one hundred kilometers down a German river in 1707. Papin died destitute, but several of his steam devices came to be used a century after he invented them.

Some will say progress is neither necessary, nor welcome. And indeed Papin’s steamship was destroyed by (German) opponents of progress.

Roman plutocracy already tried to stop progress. And succeeded. What happened? The Romans ran out of economy, finance, army, military superiority resources, finally bringing the quasi-collapse of civilization. Even before serious invasions started. The fact that advanced double curvature composite bows from Central Asia could penetrate legionaries’ armor did not help. Ultimately the Franks took over, not just because they had better weapons, but a better, less plutocratic philosophy. (As demonstrated by Charles Martel’s nationalization of the church, to pay for the largest army since the heydays of Rome, circa 720 CE.)

Having read PLUTOCRACY: New World Order, Oakwood, a hydrologist from Britain, opined that: There is nothing new in saying ‘our civilisation will collapse because of our evil and selfish ways’. Mankind has been predicting that since the dawn of Man. You may well respond: ‘but this time it’s different’. They all said that too.”

Sorry to break the bad news, but everything is new about this world. The reason they said that ‘but this time its different’, is it was true, it is true, and it is more true than ever. Contrarily to what Nietzsche and much antique mythology, Greek or Indian, believed, the world is not an eternal return of the same. The world NEVER returns to the same.

The concept of “sustainable” has to be caveat that it is valid ONLY IN DYNAMIC sense.  Ever since there are men, and they ravage.

It is precisely because mankind has been (correctly) predicting that “our civilization will collapse because of our evil and selfish ways” that civilizations have kept improving, as they had to, due to out increasingly more powerful technologies. How did they improve? By becoming ever more moral. However horrendous exactions in the last century or so, the level of mayhem has been much less than was common in the past (we know this from many paleontological and anthropological studies; life in the Amazon had a very high probability to end with murder, for example). This is not just a factoid, but a warning…

For example, we keep on pumping CO2, we modify the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. This never happened before, ever since there were dinosaurs, and they disappeared (this is an allusion to Dekkan Super Traps, when the world reeled under a massive core eruption, with probable massive CO2 releases, followed by backlashes:

Oakwood: If there are/were any societies in history that did not have a wealthy/privileged elite, they are/were very very rare. This seems to be the norm of human society.”

To complain about the principle leadership was not my point in “PLUTOCRACY“. Philosophers have always been, in some sense, a privileged elite, the ultimate luxury of the top societies. Wisdom itself is privilege. So I aspire to belong to the maximally privileged elite.

The plutocratic phenomenon happens when an elite takes control, basically to lead a maximum number of people down, the Dark Side (this is the exact opposite of wisdom uses the Dark Side to blast a mess clean).

Besides, once again, there is nothing as a typical “human society“. There is no eternal return of the same. All civilization is un-natural, and the more technological, the less natural.

The present rule of increasing plutocracy is increasingly exasperating. Hopefully, by finding out what is going on in the darker corners of the human mind, and acting in a timely manner, to prevent further deterioration, the future will not be dire.

Most of us will prefer to live now, rather than in any prior period. Even common people presently live better than the greatest lords.

The question is not whether the situation is more dire now rather than before. It obviously is, because of the very success of our species. We are now trying to fly a new vehicle, the latest version of spaceship Earth. That version of this spaceship never existed before. And thus it may crash, as all new prototypes tend to do. We don’t want to crash. It’s a very primordial urge.

So we should not sequester civilization. Tax the rich before they get total control. Remember that not taxing the rich is a self fulfilling non linear effect. As happened to the Greco-Roman empire.

So progress and tax, but don’t sequester, be it only for the children. Not just that we love them, and they deserve to be loved. But also because they sustain us, as we hope, weaken, and give away all we had dear, satisfying our primordial urge to the utmost.


Patrice Ayme


P/S: And how do we avoid a civilizational crash? The question of energy is central. Not just by making it sustainable, but also making our mastery of energy great enough to address the problems we have (that is what the Romans did not do enough of, in the end).

One of the problems being that, having run out of planet (we consume already much more than the planet can sustain), we need to expand in the solar system. This is not utopia, but a clear and present necessity. But using the same basic technique as prehistoric man, or Denis Papin, that is, making a big pile of chemicals and combining them with oxygen, is not good enough for doing so. So fusion research for space propulsion ought to be financed much more than it presently is!


[1] Denis Papin had studied under the great physicist Huyghens (who was financed by Louis XIV early on!). He worked on vacuum pumps and a device to “digest” bones (early pressure cooker, so he invented that too!)

At the University of Marburg in Germany, Papin revisited an idea that Huygens had suggested — using gunpowder to drive an engine. But Papin soon realized that was impractical. It left a piston full of non-condensable gas after each explosion.

Papin Steam Engine
Papin’s sketch of his first steam engine.

But if he used steam, the gas would condense to almost nothing. Then a piston stroke could be fully completed. Instead of exploding gunpowder to create pressure, he could do it with steam, and then condense steam to create a vacuum. Air pressure could drive the working stroke. That is how the first real steam engines worked.

Papin published the design of such an engine in 1690 — the one he holds proudly at the Louvre, today, among a gallery of better known French thinkers. A puddle of water in the cylinder would be alternately boiled and condensed. Boiling filled the cylinder with steam. Work got done when the atmospheric drove the piston downward during condensation. Later English blacksmiths improved the welded seals. Steam engine became common by 1712, and were used in mines to pump water out. They delivered 6 horsepower. Only then did Watt enter the picture! I mean Watt’s mom and dad would soon meet and procreate… Watt was born in 1736, when the early steam engineers were… dead.

Watt improved on Thomas Newcomen‘s 1712 Newcomen steam engine with his Watt steam engine in 1776, a full century after Pain’s original work. In other words, attributing posthumous power to Watt is a misattribution which obscures the real evolution of… man-made power. And that, the misattribution of how a major invention happened is… immoral. (Because it misleads the youth, and then everybody on the nature of invention…)

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24 Responses to “PHILOSOPHY FEEDS ENGINEERING, And Reciprocally”

  1. Paul Handover Says:

    As you wrote elsewhere, we are often unaware of how unaware we are! Essays such as this decrease the degree of blindness. Certainly for this old fella’.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks Paul! I actually learn things, when I write the essays. For example, long ago, I used to believe that Papin was just a destitute assistant to the more famous physicist Boyle. As it turns out Papin informed Boyle of his own work, and had his own academic position in Germany. Also I did not know that Papin actually had a predecessor!

      Also I had no idea Papin and Leibnitz collaborated. But it makes lots of sense to me now. Leibnitz was the first one to try to define energy (Voltaire’s girlfriend built, considerably on Leibnitz’s work, although Wikipedia was in the habit to erase my reminding them of that!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Like they don’t like women or something equally ugly…)

      Or I was thinking of writing an article on (problems with) cosmic inflation, when I realized that there was a flaw in the logic (even the logic behind the 2011 Physics Nobel; not that their observations are wrong: they are what they are, but they have a possible different interpretation…) A case of being collectively unaware of how unaware we are, indeed…

      Anyway Paul, thanks for reading and commenting!


  2. GMax Says:

    So Patrice, you tell us we need to develop fusion for propulsion so that we won’t go like the Romans? Fascinating advice. NASA gave only $600,000 for fusion in 2013… What about the space elevator?


  3. EugenR Says:

    Dear Patrice, thanks for focusing my attention on Papin. He is almost forgotten, even if, one of the propagators of a process, that brought us where we are now.
    As to my opinion, today the production quantity of the world economy is most probably very close to its upper limits. From here on the economic development will have to be based on increased quality, or in other words improved technology and efficiency mainly in transportation, energy and food production. Additional increase in the quantity of production, without improved quality, will bring necessary depletion of world resources, namely environmental sustainability and basic raw materials price stability and will cause necessary decline or breakdown in the economy. Economic brake down always threatens the civilization.
    Plutocracy, even if a negative factor on the scene, is not the only and not even the main threat to civilization in these days. Lately they were stricken(very justly) a big blow with the last economic crisis. Time of payment for their arrogance is far from over. On the other hand the countries, that try to advance their tribal agenda, and try to export and impose their ignorance on all, are far bigger threat.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Eugen: Sorry to be so slow in my answer, my 3 year old daughter passed me one more cold, striaght from pre-school. Yes, the forgetting of Papin is, no doubt, another conspiracy. Indeed:
      1) Papin help remind us what a monster Louis XIV was. He may have erected the invalides, and Versailles, two good things, but, overall he struck a blow to civilization by doing what NO french leader had ever contemplated before, but for the despicable Louis IX (Saint Louis, a famous barbarian catholic tyrant).
      If the judges in La Hague run out of work (unlikely), I would propose they try Louis XIV in absentia. For ethnic cleansing and various crimes against mankind.

      2) Papin helps us remember that there was a time when Germany had not been Prussified and Napoleonized, yet, and was a wealth of diversity. Although Pain’s boat was destroyed by enraged german monks, it’s other Germans who made his long academic career and engineering possible.

      Speaking of de-tribalization, I would propose to send an ultimatum to Saudi Arabia. De-fundamentalize yourself, stop financing Wahhabism (“Qaeda”, “Moslem Brotherhood”), or face invasion, retaliation.


  4. old geezer pilot Says:

    Fusion is just 20 years away.

    And it always has been.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      An old joke, always good to hear. However, the JET achieved, with its Tomahak design, break-even (or so). That was in the 1990s. ITER is supposed to achieve ten times the energy put in.

      Tomahak designs aim to put the sun in a box. Have the sun turn around in a torus, as a magnetically controlled plasma, never touching the walls. It’s ambitious. Maybe too ambitious. The first problem is to confine the plasma. Initially, plasma could be confined for only a fraction of a second. But, in the last decade, a Tomahak in France achieved around ten minutes of confinment.

      However, other designs are imaginable, or have been achieved.

      Electrostatic fusion machines do exist and are for sale. They generate copious amounts of neutrons (that’s why people buy them).
      A few years back, the confinement of the Tomahak at Princeton failed catastrophically for a second, or so. The plasma touched the wall, or something. The machine is 10,000 metric tons (heavier than the Eifel Tower). It jerked up by a foot.

      Fusion is mighty.

      The scheme for fusion as propulsion is a variant of a system long proposed to achieve energy production. However, the main problem was, with that energy production scheme, what do you do with the crushing mechanism, once it has become some sort of obnoxious plasma?

      In a fusion bomb, the crushing mechanism, which is crucial, can either be made of lead (to reduce yield), or U238 (to augment yield, by supplementary fission). In the rocket engine, the crushing mechanism becomes ejected fuel. So I think it should work.


  5. old geezer pilot Says:

    Fusion works well in a bomb.

    That is about it for fusion.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Old Geezer! There are several companies that actually SELL thermonuclear fusion devices. Have a look at:

      The lack of success of the presently governmentally financed fusion efforts has been caused from their very ambition, and the necessity to avoid contact with plama… something that is irrelevant in space… as a plasma jet beaming out of the machine is what one looks for…. ;-)!

      I am going to write a short post about fusion. There are larger issues with it. By the way, most H bomb get MOST of their power from… fission. Specialist don’t call them fusion bombs. Reciprocally most “fission” bombs actually use FUSION; the cavity inside the plutonium pit is stuffed with thermonuclear fuel, to generate more neutrons during implosion.

      Although Tzar Bomba, the most powerful bomb, was nearly full thermonuclear fusion… It was bridled down, with a LEAD tamper, lest it destroyed too much of the north…


  6. Nuclear Fusion Or Civilization Fission | Some of Patrice Ayme's Thoughts Says:

    […] Intelligence at the core of humanism. « Philosophy Feeds Engineering […]


  7. TomAlex Says:

    “Fusion works well in a bomb”
    Yes, but an H-bomb it needs a fission bomb to detonate(e.g. heat and compress to fusion parameters). Or… lasers, which is inertial fusion. The difference is that fission needs a critical mass and hence the smallest ‘container’ or the energy can be no smaller than … a large city, while in principle fusion can be as small scale as you want. Although my experience is with inertial fusion and hence I may well be biased, I believe that inertial is the furthest advanced of the two, although we are nowhere near breakeven yet. And btw there are many different inertial fusion designs&concepts, such as fast ignition, not all equally tested. Magnetic fusion last time I checked had still not solved the containment problem. I may have to recheck. At any rate it is completely irrelevant to bombs. Inertial is a **small** bomb, except that lasers instead of an A-bomb is used to ignite it.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      dear TomAlex: as far as I know, inertial attempts at fusion have NOT achived ignition yet, contrarily to expectations, whereas the beam machines (for sale!) and plasma machines (many tokamaks) have.

      As I tried to explain, the reason the so called fusion bombs work is the tamper. Even in a boosted fission bomb, the imploding Plutonium pit act as a tamper, thus forcing the thermonuclear fuel inside to fuse.

      Inertial fusion have tampers that are too small (“holraums” not massive enough). I am all for research on “Inertial” to go on. The French are building a similar machine to the one at LLL…

      Proposed propulsion thermonuclear fusion has large tampers, the imploding rings of fuel themselves (maybe with other materials added). That’s why that should work better than pure Inertial “Fusion”.


  8. TomAlex Says:

    Dear Patrice,
    I think we both described the H-bomb adequately-I tried to avoid technical terminology.
    Yes, we are still far with inertial, as I mentioned(and in contrast to sellers). Indirect drive designs as you mentioned are one of several approaches-including fast ignition(i.e. “roast from inside” by drilling a hole and depositing the energy). Too complex to discuss here-the point is we are nowhere near yet; I am unaware of any magnetic fusion breakthrough in the central issue, which is confinement. Maybe you have a link if there is such a breakthrough. That said, I think it’s wise to have both approaches, although it looks expensive.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Well, Tom. Who cares about expense? Science is the most productive activity. All approaches to fusion have led to increased knowledge…even in mathematics! Feinstein’s attempt at fissioning thermonuclear spending makes me want to fusion her. One more austerity too far.

      The fact that the laser inertial approach did not bring ignition was a big surprise to me (and not just me!). Now I understand better (photons are bosons, etc.). That’s why the tamper is so important. The tamper creates pressure (as in a bomb).

      Tokamak have achieved ignition, it’s a matter of efficiency now, not of proof of principle. Although ITER is HALF size, it’s still supposed to achieve 10,000% efficiency… We will see: lots of new science has to be developed before that happens.

      In truth there are three approaches, it seems to me: the laser one (ultra light tamper), the magnetic confinement one (no tamper, sun in bottle), and the ones (including for propulsion) using a heavy tamper…


  9. TomAlex Says:

    “It looks expensive”
    I meant for people who waste zillions in nonsense projects, so yes, we agree, although nowadays I think nobody would subscribe to fermi’s “why use lead when gold will do”.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Enrico Fermi said THAT? A thoroughly idiotic declaration, if he did (it was bound, some day, to be used against scientific spending!).

      The American Superconducting Super Collider got cancelled after an infuriated Congress learned about a lavish party at taxpayers’ expense… Curiously, nowadays the president “fundraises” in his big jet with his big army of Secret Service, and everybody thinks, or is supposed to feel, that pandering to the hyper rich at taxpayers’ expense is just fine…


  10. TomAlex Says:

    Yes, Fermi said that, but those were different times. He did apparently not imagine that major projects like the NIF would be managed by private corporations. With regard to the SSC, the “lavish party” or paying for graduate student’s cofee was a joke. The real issue of course at the time would be whether advances in plasma accelerators could result in much cheaper SSC(e.g. of the size of a room), which was never considered(if one was to scap the SSC for that, that could be a scientific reason, whether right or not). As usual politics was an issue, science was not.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      NIF is managed by a private corporation? Wow! Sounds crazy to me, but typical of this plutocratizing time. How are they supposed to make a profit? By gouging taxpayers, or researchers? Sell the helium at Wall Mart? ;-)!


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    […] the French refugee + built the second steam boat, and went down a river one hundred kilometers, enraged conservatives destroyed the ship. That set back steam power by nearly a century (well the Roman emperors had set it back by 16 […]


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