The Roots of Progress

Science and the Industrial Revolution

June 29, 2019 · 4 min read

In my last post I looked at the importance of the science of chemistry to the Bessemer steel refining process. In this I’m still pursuing a question I asked over a year ago: What was the relationship of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions?.

Let’s step back now and review some of the key industrial developments since the 1700s; which relied on scientific knowledge vs. purely trial-and-error tinkering or simple mechanical know-how?

1700s

1800s

Those are the ones I know the best right now. To briefly indicate a few others: On the science side, there was an entire chemical industry, beginning with synthetic dyes, that started around the 1860s and that I’m pretty sure was strongly dependent on chemistry. This was also the century in which real advances in health and medicine began (such as antiseptics, pasteurization, and vaccines), which to my understanding depended on the germ theory of disease. On the tinkering side, there was a whole slew of mechanical inventions, including for manufacturing, for agriculture, and for calculating and recording (the precursors of modern computers).

In general, then, mechanical inventions were perhaps based on pure or mostly tinkering, but anything dependent on chemistry (including metallurgy), electricity, or biology needed science. (One exception to this rule might be Portland cement, which is more of a chemical development, but which I think was discovered by accident or at least through trial and error.)

1900s

I won’t go into detail on all the major industrial developments of the twentieth century, but suffice it to say that pretty much all of them seem to depend moderately or strongly on science. Just at a high level, consider:

Perhaps you could argue that, say, the invention of the automobile was “tinkering”, but certainly by the time of the airplane, we were pretty dependent on at least Newtonian mechanics? And at some point basic concepts of force, torque, etc. had to be applied to improve the efficiency of mechanical inventions, even if those concepts weren’t needed for the initial versions of those inventions.

The one major twentieth-century development I know of that did not depend on science at all was the containerization of the shipping industry, as told in The Box.


There seems to be a progression here. In the 1700s, there was a lot of tinkering, and a little bit of scientific knowledge about atmospheric pressure that (together with more tinkering) gave us the steam engine. In the early 1800s, there were some trial-and-error developments that were informed by science and might not have been possible without it. By the late 1800s, there are entire fields (electricity, medicine) that could only have been started after the relevant scientific theory had been discovered. And by the 1900s, almost everything clearly depends on science.

Consider what we could have had, at most, without the Scientific Revolution: a bunch of machines to automate manufacturing and agricultural processes—still powered by hand, wind, water, or animals. Iron, made with coke, but no cheap steel. No electricity, no oil, not even the steam engine. No trains, cars, or airplanes; we’d still be sailing ships. No telegraph, telephone, radio, television, or computers. And definitely no medicine, plastics, or modern agriculture.

So I think it’s pretty clear that the Industrial Revolution was dependent on the Scientific, even if some of the most famous early inventions were mostly or completely “tinkering”.

Social media link image credit: CERN, CC BY 4.0

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