by Jason Crawford · October 29, 2017 · 3 min read
I have been wondering about the question in the title since I began this study.
The Scientific Revolution began in the 1500s; the Industrial Revolution not until the 1700s. Since industrial progress is in large part technological progress, and technology is in large part applied science, it seems that the Industrial Revolution followed from the Scientific, as a consequence, if not necessarily an inevitable one. Certainly the modern world would not be possible without modern science. Computers are completely dependent on our understanding of electricity, modern medicine and agriculture on biology, plastics and metals on chemistry, engine design on thermodynamics.
But how direct is the link? The inventors who kicked off the Industrial Revolution were not scientists, and I have read that they were not even well-educated in the latest science of their day. The steam engine, that singular invention that is taken to mark the beginning of the industrial age, was created well before the science of thermodynamics that would explain it. The great achievement of science prior to that age, Newton’s theory of motion and gravitation, did not lead directly to inventions that I know of, at least not in the late 18th or early 19th century.
Some light was shed on this question in The Most Powerful Idea in the World, by William Rosen, a history of steam power and the early industrial age. Specifically, in reading it, I discovered much more direct links than I was previously aware of.
The first direct link is that, while the steam engine did not depend on Newton’s laws or on thermodynamics, it did depend on understanding, at least qualitatively, the properties of the vacuum and the nature of atmospheric pressure. The first steam engines worked by creating a vacuum inside a piston and allowing atmospheric pressure to push the piston down (it wasn’t until much later that high-pressure steam would do the pushing). That this could happen would not have been obvious to a pre-scientific tinkerer. The properties of the vacuum were investigated by scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the use of vacuum to drive a piston in particular was demonstrated to the Royal Society by Denis Papin in the late 1600s.
The second direct link is that the inventors of the time corresponded with scientists, as a part of the “Republic of Letters.” In particular, Thomas Newcomen, inventor of the first steam engine, corresponded with the great physicist Robert Hooke. They discussed the engine in particular, and Hooke specifically advised Newcomen in 1703 to drive the piston purely by means of vacuum.
I also discovered other, less direct links, that nonetheless help explain why the Industrial Revolution did indeed depend on the Scientific:
Inventors may not always have been directly applying scientific theory, but they were inspired and instructed by the emerging scientific method. James Watt, who greatly improved the efficiency of the Newcomen engine with his separate condenser, approached the problem by making systematic, detailed measurements. John Smeaton did the same thing for waterwheels, systematically experimenting to find the most efficient designs. Rosen writes:
Smeaton’s greatest contribution was methodological and, in a critical sense, social. His example showed a generation of other engineers how to approach a problem by systematically varying parameters through experimentation and so improve a technique, or a mechanism, even if they didn’t fully grasp the underlying theory. He also explicitly linked the scientific perspective of Isaac Newton with his own world of engineering: “In comparing different experiments, as some fall short, and others exceed the maxim … we may, according to the laws of reasoning by induction conclude the maxim true.”
Early inventions may not have been based directly on scientific theories, but they did require general literacy and knowledge of measurement and mathematics. The Scientific Revolution created a market for this kind of knowledge:
By the start of the eighteenth century … mechanics, artisans, and millwrights, who had been taught not only to read but to measure and calculate, started to apply the mathematical and experimental techniques of the sciences to their crafts.
… a market had emerged in which an English ironmonger could learn German forging techniques, and a surveyor could acquire the tools of descriptive geometry. …
The dominoes look something like this: A new enthusiasm for creating knowledge led to the public sharing of experimental methods and results; demand for those results built a network of communication channels among theoretical scientists; those channels eventually carried not just theoretical results but their real-world applications, which spread into the coffeehouses and inns where artisans could purchase access to the new knowledge.
Put another way, those dominoes knocked down walls between theory and practice that had stood for centuries.
The successes of the Scientific Revolution, and Newton’s achievement in particular, provided inspiration to innovators for centuries to come. It was proof that we could advance knowledge, that we could understand the world, that science and mathematics were powerful tools. It was a down payment on Bacon’s promise: that life could be bettered through the discovery of useful knowledge.
Knowledge, method, and inspiration are three key factors making invention possible. The Most Powerful Idea also helped show me that there is at least one more: financing. But that’s a subject for another post.
The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention
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