In an Alternate Earth timeline, round about 1200 AD, we have the Great Alchemist and Philosopher Bob. Bob, being from a wealthy family has a handful of older brothers, so he's not likely to be an heir. He was raised with a rather eclectic variety of tutors and he did have an indulgent father, so when he came of age, he was allowed to travel extensively.

Bob is unusually open minded and curious, so during his travels he noticed something. Cultures that were more fastidious about hygiene tended to have people who lived longer (as long as they didn't die violently, or from starvation). He also noticed that places that had lots of fast moving water and few swamps also tended to have more people living to old age. He also found that deep wells in mountainous regions had much better tasting water.

Bob has the gift of original thought and comes to the conclusion that cleanliness is a key to longer life. He gets home and demonstrates to his father that water from a fast moving river tastes better and that a good bath feels good. He also shows his mother that the forest smells better than town, and asks if she would be happier if he could help the town smell better.

Bob embarks on a series of public works, funded by his father and enlisting a great number of craftsmen and nearby alchemists. He wants to:

  • scale up a number of alchemical tools to purify and distill water
  • build a centrally located system of water storage
  • find ways to remove waste from the city
  • improve agricultural output

Bob also figures that things that keep people healthy will keep livestock healthy. This is in addition to any sort of plant based agricultural improvements.

So I ask you, how far can Bob get in his lifetime (he's about 27 when he gets back from his travels)? Assuming he's going to live the proverbial 4 score and ten years (70) and he will be resetting the city up to and including demolishing areas of the city as he needs to. Only the main castle needs to remain, but with improvements. The city wall needs to be maintained, but can be altered to fit whatever.

The only real limitation is that methodologies be related to making things cleaner (filtration etc.), healthier, and known somewhere in Europe and Asia by around 1200 AD.

Assume Bob's dad is extremely wealthy, so money is no problem. Bob can also enlist at least one master craftsman from just about any discipline. It's a peaceful time in the region. The city itself is landlocked, near a fairly swift but navigable river, and is pretty sizable for anything other than a major port or capital city.

The goal is to get to industrial revolution within 4 generations. Is this enough?

I'll be happy to add details for specificity or to refine restrictions as necessary.

Quick Edit: It's understood that Sanitation alone isn't going to turn the trick. I'm looking at the increased lifespan and increased agricultural output being the foundation when combined with the increase in knowledge from multiple disciplines working together.

Edit 2: Perhaps this is more about finding underpinnings of technological advancement that are not directly related to massive armed conflict. To work through rough logic: better sanitation means reduced disease. More agriculture output means more base wealth. These both mean longer lifespans. Master craftsmen being encouraged to work together should mean increased and more broadly distributed knowledge and as a side effect, creative thought goes up.

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    $\begingroup$ The pessimist's view: This scheme doesn't make a profit. Bob can struggle all he wants, but it will never become a revolution because nobody else will join in. $\endgroup$ – SPavel Mar 24 '17 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe a bit of a stretch, but increased general lifespan and health, coupled with increased agricultural output and a concentration of learning from the variety of Master Craftsmen working together should increase the wealth of the region quite a bit. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI -Monica come Home Mar 24 '17 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ That's still not revolutionary. $\endgroup$ – SPavel Mar 24 '17 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ The technology of running water and covered sewers existed since ancient Rome. It'd just be another large public works project like a cathedral, castle, aqueduct, or canal. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Mar 24 '17 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ The Industrial Revolution was an indirect product of population, politics, availability of materials...and the Enlightenment. Change the mixture just a little (less credit, for example), and the steam engine becomes a curiosity instead of the heart of industry. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Mar 24 '17 at 18:39

I agree with the other answers that sanitation on its own is not likely to spawn an industrial revolution. However, I'll offer the somewhat divisive opinion that it could create an environment that promotes technological development.

A little context:

For most of human history, cities have been a pretty crappy place to live. Even for developed countries like the US, its only been for the last 100 years or so that city mortality rates have not outpaced the rural. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the big ones is (lack of) sanitation.

This is unfortunate too, because Cities are really good for creative types. It's where they're most likely to find wealthy patrons and investors and being in close proximity to other creative types allows for collaboration. This is the middle ages after all. If you're not within walking distance to someone, the odds of you working together with them are pretty slim. More funding for inventors and more inventors collaborating (or competing) are both pretty big deals.

It is also worth considering the technological advancements that might be made in trying to build a sanitation network in the first place. Even a marginal improvement to building techniques would have a huge impact on a project of this scale. Most of Chicago was raised on Stilts to build its system. Finding methods to move all that sewage, to dispose of it or to clean it, to say nothing of all the other varied waste? What about water delivery? Trash collection? Soap Production?

Well, there's a lot of room for improvement by entrepreneurial inventors.

Now, to play Devil's Advocate somewhat, I'm not totally confident that this is what would happen. This wealthy, well traveled and presumably well-read man has no doubt heard about miasma theory at some point in his life. Bob's observations do not refute it and he would naturally want to study the theory and look for a solution that improves health as informed by its claims. This is not entirely a bad thing. A robust sewer system would be all but a necessity to ward off miasma. But it does mean that you are not addressing every cause that you need to address for the results we're looking for. Sewage is going to seep into someone's water supply and pretty much everyone in the city is downstream from someone.

I suspect that Bob is clever enough to conclude that just become you've covered up a sickening smell does not mean you've fully protected yourself from it, but the theories of his time are ill equipped to deal with transmission vectors other than touch and air. Further compounding issues, just because Bob has had this revelation doesn't mean that the city's inhabitants agree with him. Training and educating the populace is no small feat, as is evidenced by the preventable health disasters that plague us today.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for mentioning the Miasma theory. I was thinking maybe Bob would contemplate the illnesses in places like along the Ganges in India and would at least draw a connection between water and illness and at least have the discharge of the sewers to be well downstream of the town. He could also look at this through the lens of various religions thinking about what is clean and unclean. Alternately He could use solid waste for fertilizers, reducing the total discharge into the river. Bob is an enlightened sort of guy $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI -Monica come Home Mar 24 '17 at 20:39

Sanitation won't spark an industrial revolution. It is neither necessary nor sufficient.

A modern understanding of sanitation is unnecessary to start an industrial revolution. Given that the Industrial Revolution was considered to have ended sometime between 1820 and 1840 and the Broad Street Cholera Outbreak happened 1854 in London we can safely assume that adequate sanitation did not exist throughout the Industrial Revolution.

The capabilities to build a system of piped water and covered sewers existed as far back as Rome. Building the system would promote economic growth and improve the quality of life for the inhabitants of the town but would not lead to any of the innovations iconic to the Industrial Revolution.

  • $\begingroup$ Very fair points. Increases in sanitation won't do it by itself. I'm looking for underpinnings of a revolution that are not based primarily on armed conflict. Will edit to reflect $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI -Monica come Home Mar 24 '17 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ @PaulTIKI The industrial revolution wasn't based primarily on armed conflict. Mostly it was caused by improvements to manufacturing techniques. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Mar 24 '17 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ True, but didn't a lot of those improvements have the end goal of killing people more effectively? I can make more and better swords and pikes... $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI -Monica come Home Mar 24 '17 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ @PaulTIKI Not really. Most 'wars' around the time were fought with guns, and were additionally mostly between empires and natives or were rebellions. Most of the improvements had the end goal of making the people who could afford to scale their business with them filthy rich ("Oh, you're hand-picking that cotton? Well, we're running it through a set of cotton gins and out-producing you by 10x! We'll run you out of business and make a fortune."). $\endgroup$ – Delioth Mar 24 '17 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ @PaulTIKI: The industrial revolution began with textiles (spinning jennies, power looms, etc.) and water power. The next big step were steam engines, then cast iron and steel, then industrial chemistry. The big scary military-industrial complex is a post-WW2 phenomenon; before that weapons industry was quite small. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 25 '17 at 0:01

When the industrial revolution started, the city habitants were still used to leave their leftovers (feces, urines, organic residuals) pretty much in front of their door, then rain or animals (pigs and crows are good at cleaning from organic wastes) would have done something to get rid of it.

So sanitation is not going to start industrial revolution.

Bob can maybe try to investigate why fields enriched with organic waste, like cow dung, are somehow more fertile and come with a way to boost agricolture production. The increase in population following this can increase the demand for goods and so on and so on...


Sanitation no, the sanitation scheme itself may give you some of the underlying ideas and ideals you need though. This scheme is going to be a huge undertaking, it is going to require a vast supply of components many of which need to match up perfectly. This means that you have to have an industrial scale production of interchangeable parts to make the scheme successful and achievable in Bob's lifetime. It sounds like he's also liberating a labour surplus from the fields by creating a greater calorie surplus which will let him throw a lot of unskilled labour into production tasks. He's doing a lot of what the Industrial Revolution did but not widely enough or to great enough degree to get full industrialisation going, the Romans industrialised a good number of the tasks involved in feeding Rome but they didn't have the non-human, non-animal, powered technologies that it took to get true mass production going in the late 18th early 19th century. The most important factor in the Industrial Revolution is a hotly debated topic but most sources agree that without efficient water power, and increasingly steam power, it would have been impossible to get the work per individual ratios that were necessary.


No, it can't. The two are completely separate things. One, the industrial revolution, was focused on mass production of goods by unskilled laborers, which displaced the previous "cottage industries" and skilled workers who produced the same goods at smaller scales. This really has no direct connection to sanitation.

Furthermore, we have at least one very famous counter-point to this idea - the Roman empire. They had public baths, plumbing, running water and were very hygienic compared to Europeans even a thousand years later. Yet, we know the industrial revolution happened in Europe over a thousand years after the fall of the Roman empire.


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