What Has a Water Mill to Do with Modern Business?

I recently visited the water mill at Mill Green, near Hatfield. If you don’t know it (and if not I can recommend it), this is a still-working mill that’s thought to have been there for over a thousand years. I had a long chat with the current miller/curator about the history of milling and grain cultivation.

It’s a fascinating subject, but one thing that struck me is, though the technology has changed radically over the ten thousand years or so since humans first started harvesting grain, the basic principle has remained remarkably similar. All milling, from the first Mesolithic attempts to modern industrial-scale milling, has been based on grinding the grain between two stones or other abrasive surfaces.

Everything else has changed, of course. Mesolithic man (or, more likely, Mesolithic woman) came up with the idea of rolling a round stone over a flat one. Eventually, that evolved into the rotary quern, and enlarging that and adding hydraulic power created the water mill. And today, of course, sophisticated industrial plant is used on a vast scale, but the grinding remains the same.

So what has this to do with modern business? Well, we’re living in times when the methods we use to deliver or goods or services are changing on an almost monthly basis. It could be the technology. In just a couple of decades, we’ve gone from the first awkward stirrings of the internet to AI, 3D printing and the Internet of Things looming over the horizon.

Or it could be standards and working practices. GDPR is a symptom rather than a change, but it shows that our whole attitude to privacy and confidentiality has shifted. Other changes in practice, such as online accounting and tax returns, are going to alter the way we do business.

My own sector has certainly been radically transformed. If I’d been a freelance copywriter thirty years ago (assuming the role would have been viable) I’d have typed the copy manually, and then retyped it with any corrections needed. I’d have put it into an envelope and posted it to the client, hoping the Royal Mail wouldn’t let me down. And I certainly wouldn’t have had social media allowing me to make contacts I couldn’t physically meet.

But, just like the grinding, good writing is still good writing, and first-class service is still first-class service. They might be delivered in radically different ways, but a copywriter would have been delivering the same quality and service thirty years ago. Or a hundred. Or even two thousand.

Exactly like milling.

Image of Mill Green Water Mill by Alexander Curtis, used under Creative Commons Licence.

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