Steven Stoll

 

On his book The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth

Cover Interview of December 30, 2008

A close-up

Start at Chapter One and read about the Satellite, Etzler’s mysterious machine, a cross between a plow and the Batmobile.  The Satellite encompasses Etzler’s entire scheme, all his knowledge of physics and geology, and the hope that the physical forces of the Earth could be captured, liberating industrial workers from poverty wages and factory discipline.  Etzler styled himself a utopian socialist like the many others who wrote and lectured during the 1840s, but he rejected politics.  Instead, he believed that technology—in the form of his Satellite and other inventions—along with the inherent resources and energies of Earth (wind, sun, and ocean tides) would bring about a revolution beyond the imaginations of Robert Owen, the English utopian, and François Marie Charles Fourier, the French socialist who exerted the greatest influence on Etzler.  All would happen without social conflict.  In effect, Etzler spoke the same line as Jack Kempt—doubling the economy would create wealth, eliminating the need for its redistribution.

All of these hopes took the odd form of the Satellite, a machine that Etzler claimed could perform every landed task—digging mines, planting seeds, cutting trees, and more.  It did this while generating all its own power and could be operated by two people.  The leaders of the Tropical Emigration Society hosted a trial for the Satellite in 1845, in which 800 people gathered in a field outside Oxford, England.  The much anticipated colony in Venezuela, the trust and hopes of thousands of working-class members, and Etzler’s authority all depended on the machine.