All Commentary
Saturday, October 1, 1983

From Caves to Computers

To many, computers appear human, perhaps even super-human, “miracle” workers. Certainly, they can help with many difficult and time-consuming tasks—keeping records, making mathematical calculations, drafting manuscripts, designing charts and diagrams, compiling statistical tables, and so on and on. They are remarkable “productivity-raising devices.” Yet they are neither human nor super-human. They are only inanimate, man-made contrivances. If “miracles” are involved in making computers, they stem from the thoughts and the accomplishments of countless individuals throughout the ages, individuals who conceived of new ideas, were free to try them out and dared to experiment.

Computers, however, are only one of the many impressive devices we enjoy today, for which we are indebted to our innovative ancestors. To appreciate the extent of our debt and the many contributions their originality, experiments and exertions have made to everyday phenomena, we should think back to the time before modern tools existed.

In the Beginning

Imagine, if you can, Planet Earth as it appeared before there were people—nothing but rocks, mountains, deserts, plains, jungles, rivers, lakes, oceans. The large land masses and bodies of water have shifted over the ages, to be sure. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, erosion, alluvial deposits, and the like, have caused many changes. However, Planet Earth’s natural resources are still essentially the same, physically and chemically, as they always were. And if it hadn’t been for the appearance on earth of people, there would still be only rocks, mountains, deserts, plains, jungles, rivers, lakes and oceans.

As we look around today, we are impressed by what people have wrought. We see many remarkable things—magnificent highways, vast acres under cultivation, huge factories, gigantic skyscrapers, mighty ocean freighters, airplanes overhead, trucks and automobiles, heavy earth movers, countless homes and apartments, shopping centers, electronic computers, radios, TVs, movies, man-made textiles, “miracle drugs,” and so on. All these have been brought into existence by the efforts of people. Yet they were not created in the physical sense. People cannot create something out of nothing. They cannot even imagine how something may be created out of nothing. Thus, we must ask, how did all these remarkable things come about?

Freedom to Experiment, Freedom to Improve

In the beginning, men, like animals, had to struggle to survive. They had only their own hands and wits to help them in trying to satisfy their most pressing wants, aims and goals. They could do little but forage for food, shelter and for things to wear, then carry or drag what they found to wherever they wanted to use it. Long hours had to be spent almost every day in acquiring the barest essentials. Yet step by step, men brought about improvements. The changes that made all these improvements possible depended on four factors—the freedom of men to pursue personal values and goals, their ability to conceive of new ideas, the opportunity to acquire property and to use that property as they chose, and their willingness to experiment in the attempt to implement their new ideas. Whenever men have enjoyed such freedom and opportunity, they have been able to improve their situation.

Over the centuries, as men were free to try, free to experiment, they transformed Planet Earth into our world of modern machines, structures and appliances. Each step along the way was taken by an individual, choosing and acting according to his or her own best judgment. The action of a single individual may seem insignificant, but the accumulated actions of countless individuals over the ages have led from the cave to the modern computer. The process was long and slow. It was uneven. Men encountered many obstacles and setbacks due to natural catastrophes and the violent interventions (war, pillage, theft, and the like) of other people. However, they did make progress in time, thanks to the contributions of unknown ideamen and experimenters.

People recognized rather early that it was to their advantage to cooperate with other people on some projects. Two or more persons could push or drag heavier loads than could one man alone. Two or more men could forage or hunt over a wider territory than could one man alone. Two or more men could protect more women and children in a larger shelter or refuge area than could one man alone. Cooperative pushing, dragging, foraging, hunting, and protecting meant that there would be more food to share, more and better shelter per person, and more safety and security for everyone in the community. Cooperation helped everyone concerned.

Specialization and Trade

As time went by, more and more persons came to appreciate the benefits of cooperation. Cooperation enabled them to specialize and to exchange their output with others. It was no longer necessary that each person be a “jack of all trades.” Each could spend more time on what he preferred to do and what he could do well. Out of cooperation there developed specialization and trade. Communities, towns and eventually cities evolved as centers for communication and trade.

To cooperate, specialize and trade successfully, however, men had to communicate. This called for some kind of language. We know little about the origin of language, except that it must have been a product of prolonged and continuing cooperation. Words may have originated as simple sounds, expressions of pain or joy combined with gestures and signals, or perhaps in imitation of the calls and cries of animals. In any event, as a result of countless contacts among individuals who wanted to express ideas, words were developed in time for many familiar objects—man, woman, child, baby, danger, fire, home, hearth, and the like.

Eventually, words were adopted also for abstract concepts until we now have terms to express fine shades of emotion, complex scientific theories and even profound philosophical concepts. Yet no one set out to develop a full-fledged language. It developed simply out of countless attempts on the part of many individuals, on many occasions, to convey ideas and transmit messages to other persons. Moreover, men have developed not just one single language over the ages, but hundreds, each with its own unique vocabulary and its own dis tinct grammatical structure.

A Medium of Exchange

Money was also developed as a result of countless actions on the part of many private individuals who took advantage of freedom and opportunity to pursue their various personal goals. Specialization and exchange, which came with cooperation and communication, made it possible to produce more goods and services. However, they also made most trades more complicated. Buyers and sellers of specific items were not always easy to locate so it was seldom easy to match them with one another. What one would-be seller was offering might not be what any available would-be buyer wanted at the time. And would-be buyers might not then be ready to offer in exchange, for the items they wanted, the precise combination or quantities of goods and services anyone else in their community was seeking. Faced with this dilemma, someone must have asked himself one day: “Why not accept in trade something other people might want? Even though I might have no use for it now, I could use it later to trade for things I will be wanting then.”

This reasoning led buyers and sellers step by step to intermediate exchange. Rather than waiting for trading partners with precisely what they wanted, they traded their goods and services for more generally accepted commodities. They expected a supplier of what they really wanted would be more willing to take this generally accepted commodity than the good or service originally offered in trade. Thus, different commodities—cows, wampum, shells, tobacco, and so on—gained general acceptance as “media of exchange” or “moneys.” In time, as a result of countless separate trades among individuals, the choice gradually narrowed until by the end of the 19th century gold had become recognized almost worldwide as the most generally accepted “medium of exchange” or “money.”

People, not governments, were responsible for money; governments only took advantage of the money which evolved over centuries from the ideas and voluntary transactions of private persons. The paper and credit money we use today is not market money, but rather a perver sion of market money, dependent on the force and coercion of governments which hampered individual actions and choices. But that is another long story.

Few nowadays give thought to how such common everyday phenomena as cooperation, communication and money developed from the ideas and the voluntary choices and actions of private persons. Yet they did. All arose out of persistent and repeated efforts on the part of unknown numbers of our ancestors who conceived of new ideas and used what freedom and opportunity they had to experiment. It is only thanks to them that we can cooperate, communicate and trade with ease today. Without widespread cooperation, languages for far- reaching communication and a widely accepted money, it would be absolutely impossible for our complex market economy to function today.


Men cannot create anything in the physical sense. However, if there are no insurmountable obstacles in their path, they can move already existing things around. They can alter natural resources in various ways. They can transport, reshape, adapt, and combine them with one another. By moving specific quantities of natural resources around, at crucial times and under controlled conditions, men can form new shapes and new structures. As a matter of fact, when men have been free to experiment, their ingenuity and inventiveness leads to a kind of “creativity.” This “creativity” is productivity, which stems simply from the ideas men have about how to move natural resources around, when to combine them with other resources and under what specific conditions.

Whenever a person with a new idea transforms a natural resource in some way to develop a new tool or production method, he sparks an “industrial revolution” of sorts. Occasionally an individual who introduces a significant innovation—a Gutenberg, a Ford or an Edison—will be recognized and remembered. However, most of the innovators who have contributed to our remarkably productive economy, with its “miraculous” tools and products, have been unknown, unheralded and unrecorded. For instance, we know nothing about the specific individuals who introduced the wheel, the axe or the arrow, thus sparking the first “industrial revolutions.” But we do know that they had some purpose in mind. They used mind and reason to try, to experiment and to improve their situations. We know also that all who came after, all who chose voluntarily to use the wheel, the axe or the arrow, did so because they ex pected it to help them accomplish their own goals.

Some ideas for new tools were sparked by observation, others by thought or action. “Lucky accidents” undoubtedly played a role. But it takes mind and reason to turn a “lucky accident” into a good idea. Some new tools were intended to make it easier, or quicker, to accomplish specific tasks, others to improve or increase output. Men learned in time that they could accomplish more, more easily and more quickly, with tools than they could with only hands, muscles and elbow grease. Thus, they chose voluntarily to adopt these “productivity-in- creasing” tools. With every “industrial revolution” that succeeded, the struggle for survival became a little easier.

The development and improvement of tools has been a continual process from the cave to the present day computer. Whenever men were free to try, their urge to improve conditions induced them to move resources around. They couldn’t create a fire or heat. However, they discovered how to build a fire that produced heat by rearranging natural resources. They learned to twirl two sticks together to make sparks from which they could light a fire. Later they discovered how to put phosphorus on a small stick, strike that stick against a rock to produce a flame that could set dry leaves, twigs or wood shavings on fire. They were not creating anything. They were just rearranging natural resources in line with their ideas in the hope of achieving a purpose.

Rearranging Resources

This process of rearranging resources, revising, adapting and combining them with others, is production. The many things we have today—our too]s, machines, equipment, appliances, commodities and conveniences—were all produced by shifting natural resources from place to place, in certain quantities, at crucial times and under prescribed conditions. The “creativity” of human beings, their productive genius, stems simply from the ideas they have about how to move natural resources around, when to combine them with other resources and under what conditions. The computer, as well as the many other sophisticated tools, commodities, ap pliances and conveniences we enjoy today, were all developed and produced in this way—by individuals who were free to act, conceive of ideas, and dare to experiment by moving natural resources from place to place under controlled conditions.

Let’s consider a specific example—steel. Iron is dug from the ground and shipped to a foundry. There it is combined with carbon and other minerals at extremely high temperatures. The steel that results is then compressed, stamped, cut and shaped into many products—rails, trains, ships, automobiles, toasters, computers, and countless other familiar and unfamiliar products—all this without benefit of miracles, simply by rearranging natural resources.

Millions of small “industrial revolutions” have occurred since the days of the caveman, each sparked by some individual’s idea and action. The “Industrial Revolution” from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century was the outcome of a cluster of newly-developed tools and methods of production—the steam engine, the factory system, the spinning jenny, large-scale agriculture, assembly-line production and new trade channels. John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith, among others, had argued in their writings, published over several decades, that the powers of the British monarch should be limited and the lives, property and freedom of British citizens should be better protected. As such ideas gained acceptance the British Parliament repealed many controls and regulations on production. Then persons with new ideas no longer encountered such serious obstacles from government. They were no longer prevented by the old Mercantilist government rules and regulations from embarking on new projects. Individual ingenuity was challenged and new ideas and inventions proliferated.

Responding to Opportunities

The effects of the relatively greater freedom enjoyed by British citizens to act and experiment were felt in almost every field of endeavor—transportation, shipping, commerce, communication, mining, iron and steel, farming, construction, textiles, clothing, medicine, and so on. Production expanded and the country’s population increased. Individuals were better able to acquire property, save and invest their property to further increase production. People moved from localities where their families had been attached to the land for generations, to places where opportunities looked brighter. Many migrated to the United States, South Africa and Australia. New trade channels were opened, new sources of raw materials and new markets for factory products were developed. The groundwork was being laid for today’s industrial production and the “Computer Age.”

Great things are accomplished step by step. A magnificent church is constructed stone upon stone. The tallest skyscraper is built floor upon floor. New factories are constructed brick upon brick. New highways are extended mile by mile. New trading patterns are developed bit by bit. Similarly, the vast accumulations of wealth, the stocks of goods, the many tools, machines, pieces of sophisticated equipment, appliances and modern conveniences, were all developed over the ages, without the benefit of miracles, as entrepreneurs explored and experimented to discover new resources and new ways to revise and combine them. The progress of men from the cave to the computer has been step by step, as a result of individual choices and actions.

The famed economist, Ludwig von Mises, often described the automobile of today as “the automobile of 1900, with hundreds of minor improvements.” Thus the modern computer is the calculator and/or the typewriter of decades ago “with hundreds of minor improvements.” Each improvement came about as some individual had an idea, had the freedom to act and dared to experiment with property he could call his own.

  • Contributing editor Bettina Bien Greaves was a longtime FEE staff member, resident scholar, and trustee. She attended Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminar for many years and is a translator, editor, and bibliographer of his works.