In the yonder years of the Industrial Revolution machines of monstrous proportion dwarfed man in both means of production and thirst of power. The demand for energy was unlike anything called upon before, but inventors of the time powered through to usher in the modern age. It boiled down to two types of generators, the beloved steam engine immortalized in all thermal based energy plants, and the lesser-known Stirling Engine. The Stirling Engine was a fierce competitor against steam power, at least on paper. It was safer, quieter but was also heavier and did not match the power output of steam.
It saw limited use in its time, and the Stirling Engine faded in the wake of less efficient successors, but today, with our newfound energy crisis, its relevance is scathing. Solar, wind, hydroelectric, nuclear, all have their place in combating climate change, but few have heard of the Stirling Engine. It only requires a temperature differential to operate and thus has found its niche in harnessing wasted heat. It doesn’t matter where the gradient comes from; car exhaust, smelting vents, a warm room, a hot cup of tea, anywhere an interior is warmer than and exterior, or vice versa, this generator can hack it. Today it has made a comeback in everything from powering homes to military submarines!
So, what took so long? Why did it take more than 200 years since its conception to catch on? As with most things, there is no one answer, but to put it metaphorically, it wasn’t loud enough. Robert Stirling made two models of the device by 1816, where the sole survivor of which sat abandoned in a dark room until it was dusted off by none other than William Kelvin (inventor of the Kelvin temperature units) in 1847. It served well as a teaching aid for the principles of thermodynamics, but the device wouldn’t amount to much until the 21st century. Its potential just wasn’t seen for its efficiency because the voices of those who attested to it were too meek.
Our facilitators know this problem all too well, though with smaller consequences. Activities like the Escape Case, pictured to the right out of Houston, or Cyberthon require teams to communicate as well as debate. Those loud and in control of the team aren’t always the ones to come up with the best solution. In our programs it is often the soft spoken who see the problem differently that find the solution. Facilitators hear them call it out, but they get talked over and become too timid to repeat themselves for fear of embarrassment. It causes the game to drag, yet they stay quiet until a louder participant calls out the same solution.
This phenomenon happens more often than it should, and with significant consequences. Those reading this might think this about the tragic late bloom of the Stirling Engine, but no, that tragedy is an ant to an anteater compared to the steam engine which was invented almost 2000 years prior! Like Kelvin finding the forgotten Sterling in a dark closet, the Aeolipile was a steam engine tucked away in some dark corner of the library of Alexandria. It came out of the first century AD, simple, yet robust enough to open doors according to record. It is difficult to imagine what today would look like if they realized its potential all those years ago. Chances are, other revolutionary technologies may be dormant today for the same reason, engines weren’t the only idea to be underappreciated.
Germ theory had been proposed since before the Black Death of 1350 but would be trumped by the ludicrous miasmic theory until 1880, when a German had to prove it using by Anthrax on sheep. Plate tectonics were laughed at and ridiculed just as Darwinism was and would not be accepted until a century after they were proposed. In our programs we stress corporate examples of this as a reminder that many great ideas were not appreciated in their time. So please, be loud, let no good idea be silent. You may be wrong, but that’s nothing compared to unrealized potential.