Backstory to the industrial revolution: part 3

In the last post, we traced the origins of colonialism, first with the Portuguese mapping a route around the tip of Africa to Asia, rapidly followed by the Spanish discovering and colonizing America. Drawn to the east by trade, and to the west by the appetite for land and resources, Europeans spread across the globe.


In this part, I want to cover what went down within Europe over the same time period.

Thing is, a lot went down. On the cultural side, there was the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, just to name the major watersheds.

On the political side, European supremacy was contested by a shifting cast of major powers, alongside a multitude of smaller political entities. In the 1600s and 1700s, conflicts within Europe were increasingly mirrored by wars in the colonies in America and Asia.

To compress the story into a single blog post, and at the risk of committing the sin of teleology, I’m going to emphasise a single cultural development that seems crucial as a precursor to the Industrial Revolution: the so-called ‘scientific revolution.’ This was the transformation of the natural sciences, over a century or so, from a medieval framework into more or less the form we know today.

As I noted in a previous post, the IR was in large part a technological phenomenon. The rapid technological change that took place is inexplicable without the knowledge and the techniques that were introduced by the scientific revolution.


But first


Let’s summarise everything else very quickly.


To capture the essence of European cultural developments from 1400 to 1800 it suffices to say: Europe got richer, and more urban.


Cities have always been engines of culture. Gather a critical mass of people in a small area, and all sorts of interesting interactions occur. From 1100 onwards, these culture-engines popped up all over Europe. Cities are also centres for commercial activity, which creates a demand for scribes and record-keepers, which in turn creates a basis for secular literate culure.


A key development in literate culture was Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press in the mid-15th century. The printing press democratized knowledge by making books affordable for a much wider fraction of society.


On the political front, the shortest summary is, ‘everybody fought, and nobody won.’ Although powerful dynasties like the Habsburgs or the Bourbons enjoyed periods of ascendancy, the entire cultural catchment area of western Europe never came anywhere close to being united as a single empire. People often make a big deal of this, on the grounds that it created a fertile field for innovation: if a new idea was rejected in one place for any reason, it could find a home somewhere else, and prosper. Contrast the case in, say, the Qing Empire, which encompassed practically the entirety of Chinese culture: if an innovation was rejected by the imperial establishment, it had nowhere else to go.


So that’s the high-altitude view.


Science: the early years


Modern science has deep roots. The basic tenets of open-minded, rational inquiry and critical examination stretch back to Classical Greece.


In the classical era, the Greek city-states produced an intellectual outpouring which basically formed the gold standard of knowledge in the western world for more than a millenium. Beginning around the 2nd century AD with the administrative division of the Roman empire into a Latin-speaking western half and a Greek-speaking eastern half, fluency in Greek in western Europe substantially declined. Scholars interested in the natural world were left with a reduced Latin corpus. The recovery of the original Greek texts beginning around the 12th century, mainly via Islamic sources, caused great excitement and was one of the triggers for the Renaissance.


Paradoxically, the period of the Greeks (and their successors, the Romans) was relatively stagnant in terms of technology. The Middle Ages saw a greater amount of technological change in Europe, despite the overall reduced state of knowledge. This disconnect between knowledge and progress seems strange, but it stems from the radically different character of ‘science’ at the time. The intellectuals of medieval Europe, like their Greek and Muslim forebears, were largely uninterested in the predictive powers of their theories. Apart from one or two notable exceptions like astronomy (where quantitative accuracy was prized because it gave the dates on which important events in the sacred calendar would fall), the yardstick of a good theory was its ability to satisfy human reason and aesthetic sense.


What classical intellectuals didn’t care about was technology. That was the domain of artisans. Philosophers like Aristotle took positive pride in not sullying their hands with practical crafts, which were considered ignoble and detrimental to moral character. (And awfully lower-class.)


This bigotry seems to have eased in the Middle Ages, probably thanks to the rising status of the bourgeoisie, perhaps also helped by the influence of Christianity, which proclaimed a greater respect for manual labour (exemplified by such groups as the Cistercian Order). But the key breakthroughs in thinking that made modern science possible came all in a rush, beginning in the 17th century.


The scientific revolution


The scientific revolution was a combination of a shift in mindset, a shift in methodology, and a large influx of new knowledge. The first science to be revolutionized was astronomy.


Copernicus was the first to provocatively claim, in the middle of the 1500s, that the sun stood at the centre of the universe, rather than the earth. But his ideas attracted little attention at the time. Apart from flying in the face of established wisdom, Copernicus’ was actually a poorer fit for astronomical measurements than the best geocentric models.


It was a new generation of astronomers such as Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, armed with improved measurements and better mathematical models, who showed that Copernicus’ heliocentric description of the universe could surpass geocentric descriptions in combined elegance and accuracy. Galileo was persecuted for his position (mainly at the instigation of the established university system, which was absolutely committed to a geocentric, Aristotelian worldview), but the intellectual appeal of heliocentrism was irrepressible, and by the middle of the 1600s it was widely supported.


A heliocentric cosmological model posed a major challenge to existing theories of motion. If the earth is in constant motion around the sun, why don’t we feel it? A major aid to establishing new theories was the ‘mechanistic’ worldview championed by René Descartes.


Descartes’ name is associated today with ‘mind-body dualism’: the notion that the mind, or soul, is an immaterial entity bound by its own rules, whereas the body is a ‘machine,’ a material entity bound by laws of cause and effect. The idea seems a touch anachronistic by the lights of modern science, which holds that the seat of thought is the brain and that it, too, is bound by physical laws. But the big breakthrough here is the idea that any matter, let alone that of a living body, can be sharply divided from the realm of thought. This is a sharp break from the medieval perspective, which saw a natural world infused with psychic propensities. When a 21st-century physics professor describes a physical process in the language of agency, saying that the iron filing ‘wants’ to be near the magnet, her students know (hopefully) that she’s using a figure of speech. Iron filings don’t ‘want’ anything – we know that. But medieval philosophers didn’t know that. They saw a natural world rich in occult tendencies.


Descartes and his disciples insisted on ‘mechanisms’: explanations for natural phenomena couched in the language of cause and effect, of mechanical interactions. The Cartesian “mechanical philosophy” was conducive not only to new theories of motion, but to new ideas in other areas of physics too.


Science would probably have degenerated into abstract squabbles over different mechanisms, but for another great insight. If you want to know what mechanisms nature actually uses, why not ask nature? The insight was that such a question could indeed be posed, and answered, by a carefully designed experiment.


The use of experiments to test hypotheses and to push nature to give up its secrets forms the heart of the scientific method. It was championed rhetorically by the philosopher Francis Bacon, and more importantly put into practise by scientists all over Europe. For instance, Blaise Pascal argued for the existence of vacuum, considered impossible by Aristotelian science. He devised an ingenious series of experiments with columns of liquid, taking advantage of the advanced glass manufacture in Rouen where he lived, which decisively supported the predictions of vacuum theory. To every objection of his opponents, Pascal came up with a clever countervailing experiment.


The final component was a new network of scientific communication, crystallising out of the wider culture of letters of the time. The model was the Royal Society, born in London in the 1640s. The cash-strapped King Charles II gave little to the society beyond its adjective; thus, unlike its generously funded cross-Channel rival, the Académie des sciences, it did not directly conduct or commission research. The Royal Society was ‘all talk,’ in the best possible way. Both face-to-face and through the pages of its journal, the Philosophical Transactions, the society fostered a lively and egalitarian discussion amongst all interested parties on all imaginable topics of natural science.


By no means all of this output was groundbreaking or even particularly interesting. The 1669 Transactions record, for instance, An Extract of M. Dela Quintiny’s Letter, Written to the Publisher in French Sometime Agoe, Concerning His Way of Ordering Melons; Now Communicated in English for the Satisfaction of Several Curious Melonists in England.[1]


But the same issue has A Summary Account of the Laws of Motion by the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens. Isaac Newton published much of his revolutionary work in the Philosophical Transactions. Interestingly, Newton’s ideas were refined by an acerbic correspondence with the Royal Society’s ‘Curator of Experiments,’ Robert Hooke. According to Richard Westfall in his book on that era of science, Newton acknowledged that Hooke’s criticisms stimulated him to discover the law of universal gravitation.


So that was the scientific revolution: a new way of gaining knowledge, spawned from a new way of viewing the natural world.


In the next and final part of this long series, I’ll sum up and try to explain how everything I’ve covered relates to the Industrial Revolution.




[1] I may be grossly calumnizing M. de La Quintinie here in my ignorance; perhaps this was a major breakthrough in the taxonomy of melons.


One thought on “Backstory to the industrial revolution: part 3

  1. Pingback: Backstory to the industrial revolution: conclusion | David Oliver's blog

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