Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial Revolution

by Margaret C. Jacob

In 2007 Gregory Clark, an economics professor at my alma mater, UC Davis, published A Farewell to Alms, in which he presented a startling hypothesis regarding the causes of the Industrial Revolution. He proposed that an important causal agent was the genetic changes in the English population due to higher reproduction rates of commercially successful individuals. He documented his case with an extensive study of wills, demonstrating that successful entrepreneurs had higher reproduction rates than landed aristocracy. Adding to this the presumption that commercial success must be due to greater intelligence, Mr. Clark suggest that the Industrial Revolution took place because the English economy favored smart people.

I read and reviewed that book in 2009; I must confess that my brief review failed to discuss the most salient thesis offered by the book; since Mr. Clark refused to hang his hat on the genetic hypothesis, I decided to treat it lightly. In the years since, however, that genetic hypothesis has attracted a large following, who perhaps overstate Mr. Clark’s case.

Now, “the cause of the Industrial Revolution” is to modern historians as “the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire” was to historians of a century ago: it’s a hot topic that everybody loves to talk about and for which there are dozens of hypotheses. Mr. Clark’s hypothesis doesn’t stand up well compared with other hypotheses. And the book I review here, published 15 years before Mr. Clark’s book, would have served him well had he taken the time to read it; it doesn’t show up in his lengthy bibliography.

Ms. Jacob’s research is just as extensive as Mr. Clark’s, but she zeroed in on a different class of historical evidence and came to a different conclusion. She agrees with Mr. Clark that the Industrial Revolution was a genuinely English phenomenon, but she differs from Mr. Clark in that she doesn’t make any wild assumptions about the hidden causes of the event; instead, she looked very closely at the half-century from 1750 to 1800, the nascence of the Industrial Revolution. What she found was a strong convergence of science and business on the part of both businessmen and scientists. That is, the men with the money were surprisingly well-versed in the science of the day, and the technical people were surprisingly cognizant of the business requirements for utilization of their inventions.

To demonstrate this, Ms. Jacob provides a partial transcript of testimony before Parliament regarding a big public works project. What’s truly astounding is the technical detail of the questions offered by the MPs. These guys asked detailed technical questions revealing a strong grasp of the underlying scientific principles; their technical expertise would certainly put a modern American legislator to shame.

In preceding chapters, Ms. Jacob lays down the background for that technical expertise. I’ll start the narrative with my own prelude. When Isaac Newton published the Principia in 1687, English society went into a swoon over its implications. The Principia laid down the foundations of physics; suddenly a world that looked arbitrary seemed predictable. It appeared that, once Newton’s ideas were fully developed, the entire universe and all its phenomena were within the grasp of humanity. The English poet Alexander Pope wrote this epitaph for Newton in 1727:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

That couplet says more about English society than Isaac Newton. Newtonian science became almost a fad; a corps of traveling lecturers crisscrossed the country explaining it to eager (and paying) audiences. New scientific developments in , hydraulics, electricity and astronomy stimulated further public interest. If they had held cocktail parties, people would have talked about science at those parties.

At this point I desist my own speculation and rejoin Ms. Jacob. She documents the traveling lecturers and the public fascination with science. She describes the curricula at English universities, showing how quickly Newtonian mechanics was assimilated into those universities.

More tellingly, she explains in detail the reactions of other countries to the new sciences. France was still taken with Cartesianism and so embraced Newtonian mechanics tardily. The Netherlands were quicker to pick up on Newtonianism than the French, but still lagged the English. And of course the countries domination by the Catholic Church never joined the Industrial Revolution until much later, largely because of the Church’s antipathy towards science.

The Newcomen steam engine was invented in 1712, but it was so inefficient that it was cost-effective only in rare circumstances. But when James Watt began selling his much improved design in the 1760s, English society was receptive, and the technology was rapidly adopted for draining mines all over the country, lowering the costs of coal, iron, and other metals. When the steam engine was applied to other industrial processes, such as the manufacture of paper and cloth, well, things took off and the Industrial Revolution was in full swing by 1800.

The key factor, according to Ms. Jacob, was the technical awareness of the English population, permitting them to appreciate the revolutionary potential of the steam engine to a degree that no other nation could. Mr. Clark should read this book.