[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]
Jacob, Margaret C. and Larry Stewart, Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687-1851, Harvard University Press, 2004. 201pp.
This book is a small gem. Well-written, modest in size, and tightly focused for the general reader, it describes the deep ties between Anglosphere civic culture and the development of modern science and industry. I stumbled on the title, as occasionally happens, when browsing through the bibliographies of other books, looking for interesting titles.
Professor Larry Stewart (Univ. Saskatchewan) wrote a book in 1992 called “The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750“. Regretably, even a second-hand copy is well nigh impossible to nab. Professor Margaret C. Jacob (UCLA) wrote “Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West” in 1997. Both books were referenced in Joel Mokyr’s Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (reviewed recently here) because they discussed the way that public interest in scientific concepts was influential in the initial development of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.
And it is that public angle that intrigued me and suggested a good Anglosphere fit. As an alternative to hunting down those older books, I decided to buy a more recent book co-authored by Jacob and Stewart, and get a sense of the authors’ arguments. If “Practical Matter” is any gauge, these authors deserve addition to a “watch list.” This little book has a premise that is both fascinating yet powerfully straightforward.
What was the impact of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica on the course of European social and economic history, from its publication in the late 1600s until the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition in London?
Published in 1687, and known ever since simply as the Principia, Newton’s masterwork was immediately recognized as extraordinary, covering subjects as diverse as astronomy, the tides, hydrodynamics and hydrostatics, and using Euclidean geometry as the underpinning for a new theory of local and celestial motion … of universal gravitation … of “action at a distance.” At a stroke, Newton had literally linked heaven and earth. Few could follow his argument in detail but the scope and potential impact of his themes were clear to all.
The most brilliant scholars of the day struggled just to cope with the mathematics used, an early variant of what would become calculus. The book set Newton in opposition to the prevailing theories of motion and causation of the time (those of Aristotle and Descartes), and it stirred up interest in the practical implications of Newton’s ideas amongst theologians, scholars, and English men of commerce — simultaneously. The Principia inadvertently reified Sir Francis Bacon’s vision of science (promulgated 75 years earlier) and set the Anglosphere and Continental worlds on profoundly different but ultimately complementary roads to scientific and technological achievement. Whether it’s a mechanical rover toodling around the surface of Mars, or the granting procedures of the US National Science Foundation, Isaac Newton’s book, published 320 years ago, provided the seeds of development.
Jacob and Stewart have selected the Great London Exhibition of 1851 as a convenient coda for their book, and for summing up 150 years of Newtonian change. The Exhibition was a mammoth display of technological prowess, meant to illustrate the superiority of British enterprise with 100,000 exhibits drawn from across the industrialized world, documented and vetted carefully in an official catalog by Fellows of the Royal Society. The exhibits formed a vivid demonstration of how ordinary citizens from across the industrial world had become active participants in natural philosophy — science and technology, how the “wisdom of crowds” was turned in strong support of technological change, and how one relatively small nation moved itself from waterwheels to steam locomotives in a century and a half. The world was never quite the same after the publication of the Principia. Without any conscious intent by its eccentric author, the book released forces of history, culture, economics, and technology to work in entirely new ways.
By focusing on the relatively tight historical thread of the reception and use of the Principia, the authors of “Practical Matter” manage a narrower set of historical actors, countries, and social influences, and can carry the general reader’s concentration and interest as they criss-cross generations of dramatic social, economic, and technical change.
First off, let’s consider the physics (or as it was then known “natural philosophy”) that guided Newton’s era. Newton was born just as Galileo died (1642). As Isaac grew up, two major theories of causation or motion were prevalent. The first was promulgated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (carefully sanitized by Western Church tradition in the 1200s). Aristotle felt that the motion of objects was a reflection of their inherent qualities. In other words, a stone fell to earth because of its property or quality of heaviness, while a feather floated to earth because of the different qualities which it possessed. Aristotle’s views seem self-evident and were successfully used as an explanatory model of motion until the 17th century when the French mathematician Descartes proposed a different model of motion, which we might call (over-simplifying) the “billiard ball” model. Objects move or cease to move because they impact each other in time and space. Objects move through a fine ether or flux and their motion can be influenced by that substrate.
Aristotelian theory was the default explanatory tool of the Church scholastics for many decades. Descartes’ ideas were supported much more narrowly by elite scholars and some religious orders (such as the Jesuits). At the time of the English Civil War, there was marked concern that Descartes theory was “materialistic,” offering no role for God, and therefore dangerously likely to lead one to atheism of one sort or another.
Newton’s insights were drawn, as best we can determine, from his long and careful consideration of celestial motion, including the elliptical orbit of comets. From a geometric perspective, it appeared that the relationship and relative motion of objects was consistent from the celestial down to the local scale. Objects behaved as though some force of mutual attraction was acting upon them. The outcome of that attraction could be described mathematically, geometrically, through calculation of curves. No fine liquid, or constraining substrate, was needed. The movement of bodies through space, through the air, in trajectory, were related to the relative influence of such bodies on each other. No inherent property was involved (except that of matter itself). No direct “ping-pong ball” interaction of objects was needed to create and sustain motion.
Newton, it has been claimed, was the last of the Alchemists … deeply knowledgeable about arcane matters both theological and alchemical. He was entirely comfortable with a role for the Deity in creating the relationship between matter, and since his measurements and calculations, and that of other scholars, best fit a “immaterialist” view, he simply presented his evidence without elaborate explanation of the “why” of how things moved. Newton knew he had a problem, however. His main opponent in describing motion was the long dead Descartes. How does one compete with another theory that has the real advantage of appearing more practical to the ordinary eye because of its material focus?
Newton’s response was to be profoundly influential. “I feign no hypotheses,” he said, ” because hypotheses have no place in experimental philosophy. …In this philosophy, particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena and afterward rendered general by induction … And to use it is enough that gravity does really exist and act according to the laws which we have explained.” For English readers, these words were a direct echo of the inductive method recommended 70 years earlier by Sir Francis Bacon. Like all “scientists,” then and later, Newton’s claims of inductive and deductive reasoning were honored more in the breach than in the observance but Newton’s rhetorical quandry was to have major implications.
In later decades, as Continental scholars were to confirm with increasing rapidity that Newton’s laws of motion were both accurate and useful, a rush took place to identify why it was that an Englishman should have been so successful. As these scholars cast back and forth across the works of English natural philosophy before Newton, they identified men like Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and John Locke as the most influential of the time. More than anyone else, however, it was in the works of Sir Francis Bacon they found a particular “method” of experimental discovery, matched with an emphasis on the utility of knowledge, the collection of all relevant data (without constraining hypothesis), and above all, the role of the State in encouraging discovery of value to all citizens. When Newton claimed Bacon as authority, Bacon became the blueprint that the Continent would adopt to create more Newtons.
As John Henry outlines with great elegance in his little book “Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science,” Bacon was convinced that observation, experiment, and data collection, were key elements of dependable discovery. It was to be the Continentals however, not the English, who took Bacon as their guiding light in the creation of national scientific academies, technical institutes, and a system of professorial stipends and grants. Today, in the EU and across the industrialized world, we can see a Baconian model of scientific discovery in full flower. Only in the Anglosphere, however, do we still see higher educational institutions with substantial independence from central authority.
At the time of the Principia‘s publication however, Newton had no grand visions of scientific achievement. He merely used Bacon as a foil for explaining the motion of objects, with little to say about the whys (let alone the “whos”) of celestial motion. In addition, Newton drew on Bacon’s views on experiment, quite likely reflecting their shared interest in alchemy (which had a strong experimental component). It should also be remembered that Newton was a private heretic (Arianism) and was very careful to live his life quietly in the shifting sands of post-Restoration Protestant England without arousing suspicion. Bacon, by the late 17th century, was the politically safe touchstone that any natural philosopher could cite as acceptable authority and claim as intellectual mentor. Bacon’s convenient utility to Newton was one of those twists of history that shaped our world.
Though Newton’s friends and antagonists at the Royal Society were immediately taken by the grand scope of his book, it fell to an Anglican cleric, Samuel Clarke, to make the first philosophical defense of the Principia. Clarke was one of Newton’s few friends and made the theological case for the Newtonian model based on its role for a Deity. By 1704, Clarke’s lectures had been assembled into a book and ironically it was Newtonians in the Church of England that brought Newton’s science into service against atheism, and sheltered it from an official disapproval. Wider enthusiasm from the English philosophical elite was based partly, and not surprisingly, on chauvinism. The Principia was an English work by an English savant, and therefore inherently better … an attitude widely noted, and thoroughly discounted, by earlier and contemporaneous Continental visitors!
And over on the Continent, scholars were necessarily more hesitant in their enthusiasm though no less interested in evaluating the book. Mathematicians such as the German Leibniz, who had independently invented calculus, were concerned that the underlying principles of Newton’s ideas (space as a vacuum rather than an ether), were deeply mistaken. In any area of Europe where the Inquisition still held sway, however, there was no public discussion of either Descartes or Newton. Aristotle was still the foundation. Reception and inspection of the Principia could be mapped politically and culturally across Europe … with implications for economies and polities that carry through to the 20th century.
Science Goes Public
Ironically, it was the Continent that was to become fascinated with Newton’s most elaborate theoretical premises, and with proving their utility for calculating celestial mechanics. France was to be the nation that took the Newtonian (and therefore English) challenge most seriously and its elite, before the French Revolution, were involved in refining, testing, and proving many elements of the Newtonian worldview at a “macroscopic” level — planetary and celestial.
In London of the time, howver, a new generation of lecturers and demonstrators were just beginning to make money giving pubic lectures in mathematics and chemistry. When the principles of motion in Newton’s book were translated into practical demonstrations of wedges, levers, and pulleys, an new era of theoretical mechanics and “public science” began. There was a demand in merchant and marine circles for philosophers who could sort through the chaff of good technical ideas and identify those that were feasible. Thus it was that the Royal Society lost its monopoly over the practice and demonstration of natural philosophy. The Royal Exchange now also became a source of funding and intelligence in the selection and promotion of new ideas. Experiments and demonstrations were no longer the exclusive realm of the select members of the Royal Society. Anyone of modest means could follow the arguments, debates and experiments of the nation’s discoveries, blow by blow, in the magazines, coffee houses, and lecture rooms of the day.
The huge prestige of Newton’s work cast a further golden glow over any derivative, whether mathematical, technological, or methodological. Referring back again to Sir Francis Bacon, it became respectable for natural philosophers to become consultants to those with engineering or technological quandries. The idea that technology should be practical and valuable to everyone was born in this era. It was therefore in mechanics (what was possible, probable, or impossible) that the English were to make Newton’s vision come alive, not only for the elite of the Royal Society but for a broader society that was fascinating by machines, and by public experiments with prisms, optics, vacuum chambers, and the wonderfully exciting electricity.
It should be noted, for the sake of context, that the first Newcomen steam engines were put in place to drain water from mines roughly by 1715. The timing couldn’t have been better for the acceptance of Newton’s ideas. All of a sudden, across the English landscape, new devices appeared, needing maintenance, explication, and optimization. Because Newton spent his later years up until his death in 1727 primarily as a government employee, he was alive to witness the spreading success of his ideas but took virtually no part in their popular (or “vulgar”) explanation. It was left to an intermediate group of scholars (some with Royal Society status, others with far more hardscrabble origins) to expand the Newtonian principles into as many practical and money-making realms as possible. The Huguenot refugee Jean Desaguliers was to become powerfully influential in this regard as he translated Newton’s works into French (and then created a role for himself as popularizer of, and ambassador for, Newtonian mechanical principles in industry). Think of him as the bilingual Steven Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins of his time. Lecturing outside of London, he was to spread Newton’s influence to a new, increasingly ambitious segment of British society.
Radical, But Not Too Radical
As the 18th century proceeded, the initial protection afforded Newtonianism by Anglican clerics and English nobility became unnecessary. The burgeoning literacy of the era in Great Britian meant that a wider audience was learning about both Newton and the methods of experiment and industry. Magazines, textbooks, dictionaries, and now encyclopedias, appeared summarizing what was known, what might be speculated, and the specific language that individuals needed to participate in discovering new information. The era of global exploration which began in the 16th and 17th centuries now took hold with a vengeance and British interests overseas drove a new openness and interest in the “different” and what might be of practical use. Trade, settlement, and investment opportunities abroad fitted nicely with the trade, industrial, and investement opportunities at home. Everywhere was change. But some rigourous way to judge things was needed. New centres of both industry and scholarship developed. Edinburgh became a centre for the mathematical investigation of Newtonian principles. And the harnessing of mechanical power for the manufacture of cloth (cotton/linen) created new sources of expertise and wealth in places like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow. These industrial centres lead Europe in their innovations, yet maintained an isolation from the seats of political power in London. Scotland’s great intellectual contributions to the modern world came to full flower at this period.
Expertise, competition, and relative wealth were to generate a dynamic civic culture among the lower middle class that was less seen in the port cities of London and Liverpool, though by no means absent. A new era of religious free-thinking appeared with newly confident spokesmen quite willing to think much farther outside the box than the governmental authorities would allow. America became the refuge of many of the more radical. Though absolutism ended in 1688 in England, Parliament and the levers of national power were by no means democratized. Dissenting citizens were restricted in their access to political and educational institutions. They set about making their own.
As engineers and merchants struggled to keep up with the mechanical discoveries of the era, Newtonianism needed a new narrative “home” to avoid suppression. The evolution of Freemasonry and its imagery and associations (citing God and ancient wisdom as the source of knowledge) were one way (among many) to reassure authorities that the rapid changes underway were simply a reinvigoration of the “good old days.” The increasing familiarity with the architectural efforts of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans now cast the industrial arts as simply an extrapolation from ancient times. British military engineers, for example, excavated Roman roads in Britain to learn how to make their own more durable. The rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666 had offered new possibilities for classical proportion in construction. It’s also worth briefly noting that this Masonic intellectual sleight-of-hand, accommodating materialism and religiosity, was to make its way very rapidly back to America via the first “Scientific American” — Benjamin Franklin. The American Philosphical Society (in Philadelphia) was to become the “poste restante” for scientific enquiries regarding the New World, and occasionally an underground railway for Newtonians whose religious beliefs were a bit too outrageous. The Great Seal of the United States remains as small relict of a time when the mechanic and artisan sought legitimacy and political safety in the Masonic creed as technological change gathered force in the English-speaking world. The mathematical rigour and Masonic focus on practicality would have appealed to both Sir Isaac and Lord Verulam (Francis Bacon) but the “riffraff” involved, we can assume, wouldn’t have.
As one reads of the exciting developments of 18th century Great Britain, and the growing technological response and participation of Continental countries, it’s easy to forget the political and military events of the era. The English in the 18th century were struggling with the new balance of power between Parliament and government, with the turmoil and uncertainty of Queen Anne’s death, with economic oscillation and bubbles, with colonial resentment, an American Revolution, and ultimately a French Revolution and the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte. Political change was constant. Military success, especially for the Royal Navy, was by no means assured. And yet simultaneously, Great Britain was a society struggling to adapt to the shift from cottage industry to urban industrial manufacturing set loose by the tools and theoretical guidelines laid out by Sir Isaac Newton.
The recurring theme in “Practical Matter” is that Newton’s principles of motion (and methods of discovery) were so fundamental that a constant kaleidoscope of special interests were called into play in support of, or in temporary antagonism to, the changes which technology wrought. Allies became enemies. Enemies became inadvertent allies. The ignored and peripheral and accidental became influential. In contrast to continental Europe, it’s worth remembering that by the mid 19th century, Great Britain had the most dynamic domestic economy (greater annual turnover of capital per capita) of any European nation. The social cost of such economic hurry however was substantial. A great deal of effort was made, largely unsuccessful, in applying the new discoveries of the 18th century to solving medical problems — lung problems and infectious disease were particularly rampant in the century.
Geography and Destiny
As Manchester, Leeds, Birminghan and Glasgow developed into great centres of manufacturing and engineering excellence, it became clear to Continental authorities that they were falling behind. The absolutist monarchies of the 18th century slowly gave way to absolutist states. And in the areas of mining technology and military science, where Britain’s developments could be most quickly adapted, European state sponsorship of academies and institutes began. While regional centres of industrial development appeared on the Continent (often fueled with equipment and thousands of artisans imported from England), control over the financing and development of these centres was always under central control. The Continent never saw an equivalent of the industrial gentry of the English Midlands, left to fend for themselves by central government, snubbed by genteel society, and ultimately to have such dramatic effects on industrial might.
The new industrialists of France, the Lowlands, and Germany, were the carefully nurtured and sponsored result of new educational systems and capital deployment. In many cases, however, decades of educational errors were made in deciding how young technologists should be trained, and why. The tendency to let curricula drift into stagnation had to be overcome, time and again. Mathematics education in Britain was seen as superior at the turn of the 19th century, and mathematics had become the gateway to practical mechanics. An ambitious literate artisan could self-educate with books of the time, much as James Watt had done in the 18th century.
It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that French and German education was on par with the less formalized educational system of the British. And from then on, the elite ecoles and institutes of the Continent were able to leverage the theoretical grounding of their students into substantial industrial advantage. In Germany especially, breakthroughs in chemistry were to place it in the lead of industrial discovery during the second half of the 19th century. The tide had turned and now the British were to become concerned about their educational system and its ability to generate the right workforce for industrial discovery. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, British dominance was unquestionable but new challengers from America and Europe were already in sight and gaining rapidly.
Great Britain’s decentralized educational system and dissenting literate middle class had fueled an amazing burst of technological development for 150 years. Other countries were to step forward, with systems of industrial development harkening back to Sir Francis Bacon’s late Elizabethan bureaucratic dreams.
“Practical Matter” should most of all be seen as an excellent window into the social underpinnings of technological change in Great Britain, from Newton’s time to Victorian. It’s a quick and interesting read, and if you have any interest in the science, or technology, or industry, or society of the time, the book will offer a great introduction to personalities and events which you’ll want to investigate further.
Standing by itself, it’s a testament to how profoundly Isaac Newton influenced the 18th and 19th century, and how fortuitous it was that he was an Englishman, surrounded by new generations of literate, ambitious, Englishmen from humble origins.
Table of Contents
The Newtonian Revolution 
The Western Paradigm Decisively Shifts 
Popular Audiences and Public Experiments 
Practicality and the Radicalism of Experiment 
Putting Science to Work: European Strategies