The Roots of Progress

What was the relationship of the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial?

October 29, 2017

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:

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.

Relevant books

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention