Ideas That Propelled the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial revolution can perhaps be characterized as a transition from humanised handicraft to mechanized manufacture, as actuated by a complex structure of successive and interweaving technological innovations. But, what spurred such technological advancement remains contentious. What is it about the 18th Century that made it distinctively amenable to such technical change? And, importantly, what was the role of pure science and scientific thought on influencing such tremendous and manifestable technological improvements?

The English historian Thomas Ashton, in his 1948 book The Industrial Revolution, emphasizes the impact of scientific thought as major driver for the Industrial Revolution. “The stream of English scientific thought, issuing from the teachings of Francis Bacon, and enlarged by the genius of Boyle and Newton, was one of the main tributaries of the industrial revolution.”, he writes. England had already had its fair and perhaps disproportionately large share of scientific luminaries and thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries, prior to the Industrial Revolution. “Newton indeed was too good a philosopher and scholar to care whether or not the ideas he gave to the world were immediately useful, but the belief in the possibility of achieving industrial progress by the method of observation and experiment came into the 18th century largely through him.”

The scientific thinkers of the day were hugely connected to prominent industrial figures.  Charles Darwin’s paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and his maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood are known to have been influential leaders of the Industrial revolution. Erasmus Darwin was a very eminent physician, scientist, and botanist. He gained renown blending arts, science, medicine, physics, and technology. He recognized  the role of heredity in disease, applied scientific principles to medical practice, and wrote extensively on botany, distinguishing himself rather especially in this field. Josiah Wedgwood was an English potter who gained tremendous renown by greatly improving the craft of pottery and ceramics. He is largely credited with industrializing the manufacture of pottery.

In 1766, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, and a number of intellectual Englishmen the likes of which included the metal manufacturer Matthew Boulton and the steam engine builder James Watt, founded the Lunar Society of Birmingham. It started as an informal group of scientists, physicians, philosophers, inventors, and industrialists and it carried such a peculiar name because meetings were conducted monthly at the full moon such that by the end of the meetings, there would be enough light to direct the members back home through the unlit streets of Birmingham. The preacher chemist Joseph Priestley, one of the founding members and discoverer of Oxygen, in describing the Lunar Society’s motives, said: “We were united by a common love of science, which we though sufficient to bring together persons of all distinctions, Christians, Jews, Mohametans, and Heathens, Monarchists, and Republicans.” The Society sought to blend scientific utility with industrial gain by deriving practical benefits from scientific knowledge. It also had certain political aspirations of commitment to political reform and institution of social order. Chiefly, however, the society aimed to improve the natural world through science.

Lunar Society meeting in the 18th century.
joseph wright
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, a 1768 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, who was also a member of the Lunar Society. He made artistic representations of the society’s novel scientific ideas and efforts to unify science, art, and industry. Here is shown a  natural philosopher (scientist) demonstrating a vacuum pump, from which all the air has been removed. The bird is struggling to stay alive and flutters breathlessly. The scientist with hi hand over the stop-cock on the glass bowl seems about to choose whether the bird should survive or die. The scientist’s ingenuity is represented as a divine omnipotence, able to exert control over nature.

By consistently looking for ways to intrude the practical applications of novel scientific ideas into manufacturing, transportation, mining, and medicine, the members of the Lunar Society, energized by innovation and powered by the scientific principles of questioning authority and clearing up new paths, had played an immense role in bringing about the Industrial Revolution. In 1780, Samuel Crompton, a member of the Lunar Society, innovated the spinning mule, a machine which permitted an enormously increased rate of high quality thread manufacture, revolutionizing the spinning of cotton and tremendously easing factory output. James Watt harnessed steam power, designing and building the first practical steam engine which decoupled human labour and provided a reliable source of motive power for factory systems. Steam power essentially powered the Industrial revolution and paved the way for railroad and thus effective land transportation, ushering in an agricultural revolution. Concomitant advances in mechanization led to John Wilkinson’s gun-barreling machine and Henry Maudslay’s screw-cutting lathe.

The first steam engine provided motive power for the Industrial revolution. Source: Library of Congress

It was clear that such synergism of pure science and industry, as mediated by the Lunar Society and as propelled by the resulting cascade of incremental technical advances, was a defining factor in instigating the Industrial Revolution.



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