Mokyr – The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy

Mokyr, Joel, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, Princeton University Press, 2002. 359 pp.

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

I first became aware of Professor Mokyr (Northwestern University) when I stumbled across his book The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (1992) during a period of economic history reading late last year. The book was quite strong on the details of technology in the ancient world and Industrial Revolution but virtually skipped the period that Professor Alfred Crosby had considered crucial to the change in mentality in the West (1275-1325 AD in northern Italy) in his book The Measure of Reality. My reading program at the time was meant to fill in the details of the period after the peak of the Italian republics. Instead, it highlighted the fact that science and industry were a rather murky transnational undertaking that didn’t, by itself, lend much assistance to sorting out Anglosphere history. Was England unique, merely lucky, or simply the first? Lever of Riches was fascinating but steered clear of many of the social and political questions that might explain why the economics of the period were so unusual. Economic historians now believe that, before 1850, the contribution of “formal” science to technology remained modest. There was a long period of very modest economic growth in England before Industrial Revolution allowing a rising population between 1760 and 1815 without a decline in per capita income. Income per capita edged up very slowly before 1830. Real wages barely nudged up before mid-1840s. And the switch to mineral economy (as an industrial power source) had been proceeding for centuries before 1750. What was the source of the evident dramatic change that people quite naturally want to call a Revolution?

Mokyr’s older book was very readable and provided a wealth of additional recent citations on the period but definitely left an appetite for something more visionary. A quick search on Amazon uncovered his latest book and it seemed worth the effort to buy and review it. The effort, it turns out, was worth it. As a source and summary of recent scholarship, it can’t be beat. The award-winning Gifts of Athena is an excellent review of the question of how the “scientific revolution” and the “industrial revolution” relate to each other. In loyalty to the duties of an economic historian however, Mokyr does begin with rather technical definitions, since terms like knowledge, science, and scientific revolution have led to the slaughter of large forests in aid of academic careers to no particular benefit of the public. He wants to present his argument on his own terms. General readers may find themselves befuddled when the formulas and Greek symbols appear, but plowing onward is worth it. Skip the stuff that is clearly meant for colleagues rather than mortals. There’s plenty of value left over.

Like Lever of Riches, Gifts of Athena appears to be a number of academic papers retrofitted into a book, purged of tangents by copious but still comprehensible footnotes, and bridged with some pretty good writing. The result, as can be gathered from glancing at the Table of Contents below, is occasionally choppy. We get entire chapters on the factory and the role of knowledge on the management of health and domestic households. Fine stuff, I’m sure, but probably less critical to the overall tale of knowledge and economic development if they hadn’t been the author’s intellectual children. By way of illustration, though, these topics are quite useful but one will need to be particularly interested to find them a compelling part of the story.

The title of the book is also slightly misleading because the focus again is the Industrial Revolution and the period slightly before it. Enthusiasts of our current era must look elsewhere for a book which links the 18th century past and 21st century present. A great trilogy of books by Daniel Headrick (The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940, and When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850) will take you down into the weeds as far as your appetite drives you. Where Mokyr really shines is in surveying the work of his colleagues. He appears to have read everything and sorted through most of the arguments regarding the Industrial Revolution and Renaissance. Not with a mind to making conclusions necessarily, but with the view to fairly organizing the various academic parties and the key facts they bring to the table. One can only hope that Professor Mokyr is as good a teacher in the lecture hall as he is a writer of academic summaries. Gifts of Athena would be my first stop in identifying the key academics (past and present) working on the question of the 18th and 19th century influences on economic and industrial development. Some familiar names in the Anglosphere pantheon make their appearance: Macfarlane (re: the importance of glass in the West), Crosby (re: the importance of math) and Pomeranz (re: the divergence of East and West). Jenny Uglow’s book on the The Lunar Men (a society of scientists and industrialists in 18th century Birmingham), however, does not appear, likely because it was published in the same year as Gifts.

Mokyr’s first challenge is to sort out what we are talking about when it comes to knowledge. For his purposes, it is worth distinguishing between propositional knowledge (omega) and prescriptive knowledge (lambda) — “all that we know about the world” versus “what we know about doing things.” As he points out, the accuracy of propositional knowledge is not the central issue. Much practical work can be done without knowing that the earth orbits the sun, much as our own day is prosperous and scientifically successful despite the fact that much of what we know is certainly incomplete, and most likely incorrect. But the more accurate the propositional knowledge, the more potential prescriptive knowledge can be discovered.

In the search for a theory of “useful knowledge,” Mokyr is looking for a way to tie together the ideas, processes and people that link our “epistemic base” (what we know about the world) with the practical techniques for making and doing things. As it turns out, a major theme in Mokyr’s book becomes the importance of that epistemic base. In earlier periods of economic or industrial innovation in classical or medieval times, the limitation on how much people knew “why” particular techniques or methods worked, cast a limit on how much innovation in industry and technology was possible. The bursts of creativity, sometimes lasting decades, eventually entered doldrums. The Industrial Revolution was unique, however, because the long-standing negative feedback loop between propositional and prescriptive knowledge was altered. In the 1820s, the innovations of the late 18th century in mechanics and chemistry didn’t dwindle. They accelerated. And the early 19th century began to see a dramatic increase in fundamental understanding of the physical world … the chemists and physicists were making practical contributions to industrialization.

To quote Mokyr:

A century ago, historians of technology felt that individual inventors were the main actors that brought about the Industrial Revolution. Such heroic interpretations were discarded in favor of views that emphasized deeper economic and social factors such as institutions, incentives, demand and factor prices. It seems, however, that the crucial elements were neither brilliant individuals nor the impersonal forces governing the masses, but a small group of at most a few thousand people who formed a creative community based on the exchange of knowledge. Engineers, mechanics, chemists, physicians, and natural philosophers formed circles in which access to knowledge was the primary objective. Paired with the appreciation that such knowledge could be the base of ever-expanding prosperity, these elite networks were indispensable, even if individual members were not. Theories that link education and human capital to technological progress need to stress the importance of these small creative communities jointly with wider phenomena such as literacy rates and universal schooling. (p.66)

And that, in a nutshell, is Mokyr’s contribution. It is in the communities, or “Cortesian armies” to quote Robert Hooke’s phrase (referring to Hernan Cortes), that the heavy lifting of practical discovery and epistemic diffusion take place. England’s unique politics and social structure in the 18th and 19th century seemed to have inadvertently broadened both discovery and diffusion to new ambitious social classes. England created its own technocratic middle class out of regular folk, often of Dissenting or Radical mien. The Continental nations however, responding with trepidation to the British advance in the late 18th century, were to spend the first half of the 19th century manufacturing their technocracy in elite schools that are with us to this day. And after 1850, it was the Germans, French, and Americans who were to take the lead in broadening the “epistemic base” for technological and industrial benefit. A wonderful book on that very subject (the unexpected role of the public in early science) was reviewed on chicagoboyz back in July here.

The tool which Mokyr ultimately uses to explain how the early Scientific Revolution (or general Renaissance) became Industrial Revolution is “Industrial Enlightenment.”

I choose the term “Industrial Enlightenment” with some care. The Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century was of course a multifaceted and complex phenomenon, aimed at least as much at changing the existing political power structure and the distribution of income it implied as at increasing wealth by making production more rational. Its effect on creating a “public sphere” and a belief in the perfectionability of people and their institutions may well have been a watershed in social and intellectual history. The notion I am proposing is more narrow and more focused. It concerns only that part of rationality that involves observing, understanding, and manipulating natural forces. (p.35)

The Industrial Enlightenment’s debt to the scientific revolution consisted of three closely interrelated phenomena: scientific method, scientific mentality, and scientific culture. (p.36)

With concept in hand, Mokyr is able to show how the social environment of Europe variously interacted with method, mentality, and culture. For Great Britain, repository of wave after wave of religious refugees, very often bringing with them extraordinary artisanal skills, the blending of practical arts and commercial freedom meant that new ideas with economic value were always in demand. Much as Macfarlane has shown us with his description of the key scientific role of English lead glass, the importance of Huguenot clockmakers as the foundation for England’s lead in precision instrumentation is a underappreciated element in why Great Britain made great strides in “doing” without always fully understanding the “why” of any given event. Sir Francis Bacon, writing early in the 17th century, had provided a vision of nature revealing its secrets, under duress, for the benefit of mankind. The great scientific works of the latter 17th century (such as Newton’s Principia) were then to make explicit the importance (and unimpeachable social acceptability) of practical illustration with public witness … of experimentation as central to argumentation.

The Industrial Enlightenment learned from the natural philosophers — especially from Newton, who stated it explicitly in the famous opening pages of Book Three of the Principia — that the phenomena produced by nature and the artificial works of mankind were subject to the same laws. That view squarely contradicted orthodox Aristotelianism. (p.39 )

The Industrial Enlightenment placed a great deal of trust in the idea of experimentation, a concept inherited directly from seventeenth century science. (p.38)

Experimental philosophy became the rhetorical tool that connected the scientific revolution of the seventeenth-century to the industrial transformations of the eighteenth. (p.38)

Mokyr relates the fascinating tale, during the 18th century, of the widening acceptance (at all levels of society) of the importance of useful knowledge. Public demonstration of the principles of science (whether through elaborate mechanical creations, or the whiz-bangs of the early chemists, or the bell jars and air pumps of the disciples of Boyle) were open to a fee-paying public at modest cost, brought out from the cabinets and meeting rooms of the Royal Society. In a sense, knowledge “got away” from its elite keepers … and amidst the social, religious, and political ferment of 18th century England, such knowledge spread to the margins of the realm and took firm hold. As the use of mechanical power (wind, water, and finally steam) was converted to industrial use, great fortunes were made by young men who’d educated themselves at public lectures, and in the literary and philosophical societies that sprung up even in the smallest towns. On the continent, elite scholars in state-sponsored academies made substantial contributions to scientific theory and were in constant contact with the Royal Society, but they were only modestly interested in the application of their theories, and very uninterested in communicating their discoveries to the “masses.”

Unsurprisingly, it was the Dutch who were the bring much British discovery to wider Continental consciousness. Like England, a broadly literate and educated populace allowed the Dutch to replicate the social environment of “natural philosophy” … of magazines, private tutors, courses of public lectures, societies and publications, and salons. The path of European innovation, especially before 1820, is therefore a tale of extraordinary individuals in situations of greater or lesser social constraint. The place where that constraint was least felt was England, north to lowland Scotland. Many individuals made contributions. Knowledge, people, and equipment moved back and forth across the Channel. But up until 1800, the British seemed to have the best of the exchange.

Summarizing Mokyr, two events affected Europe’s handling of useful knowledge (as “open science” took hold in the public realm). Firstly, the scientific revolution of the 17th century and secondly, the “Industrial Enlightenment.” The latter allowed (1) diffusion of knowledge through review, as researchers slowly identified (2) why techniques worked. With each such “epistemic” success after 1750, the cross-fertilization and leverage for new practical knowledge leaped forward, and (3) cooperation between philosophes and artisans (the Baconian initiative) became not only acceptable but seen as a national imperative.

It was a change in attitudes toward omega (propositional knowledge) and a change in access to lambda (prescriptive knowledge), on the part of artisans, businesspeople, politicians, and the general populace that was to have a lasting effect on science, technology, and English culture. The idea, widely held by most literate people of the time, that natural phenomena were orderly, rational, predictable, must surely indicate a historically unique shift in political and intellectual awareness. Note also how that attitude is now three hundreds years old in the Anglosphere, yet as recently reviewed in Harrison’s book The Central Liberal Truth this view of causality is still a rarity in the less prosperous parts of the world.

After 1820 and through the 19th century, we come to a Second Industrial Revolution and it is here that the initiative and momentum turn away from the British Isles. By the early 1800s, chemistry in particular had moved forward enough that the theoreticians were making increasing contributions to industrial process. While mechanics continued to evolve, it was metallurgy and industrial activity in dye-making and food processing that were to usher in a new era. The Europeans (first Revolutionary France, then Napoleonic France and its wide European holdings) responded first to the British challenge by creating a series of engineering schools (specifically for the training of military engineers) and then to the widening base of propositional knowledge by adding institutes for chemistry, physics, agriculture, etc. etc.

The funding and organization of these establishments were an open admission that national economic and military performance were dependent on the new science and technology. The nature of the response, however, was clearly distinct from the rather more haphazard and arm’s-length engagement of the British government and upper classes with the First Industrial Revolution. It took most of the first half of the 19th century for these continental schools to make enough progress that their theoreticians were contributing to industrial change. During that period, wholesale importation of British equipment (especially steam engines) and British engineers and artisans was underway. One wonders if the so-called “golden era” of peace in the early 19th century was simply a reflection of how much the Continental nations were focused on catching up, rather than preying on their neighbours.

While the 18th century had Continentals proclaiming the amazing ingenuity and artisanal skills of the British, by the mid-19th century it was the turn of the British to become worried that their educational system (based primarily around the apprentice system) wasn’t up to the task of educating a new generation of industrial scientists. The Continent had taken over the generation of Mokyr’s propositional knowledge and Britain’s lead in the generation of prescriptive knowledge was dwindling. During the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition, it was Manchester, Glasgow, and Birmingham that were major contributors to the industrial displays … the British colonies were all but absent. And it was the Continentals and America that were to provide the novelty and potential competition for domestic industry. Within another 40 years, the Japanese were to join the club of nations that had found a way to explicitly link their scientific thinkers with their industrial doers. Mokyr is a firm believer in “Cardwell’s Law” — that the torch of innovation never dwells too long in any one place. It is perhaps part of the lucky history of the Anglosphere that the torch which passed out of the hands of Great Britain in the latter part of the 19th century came to rest, at least partially, in the hands of the English-speaking Americans, who were to act as counterbalance to the state-sponsored industrial machines of the Germans, French, and Japanese, and ultimately the Russians. The American response to the industrial productivity crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, with a burst of service industry innovation, is perhaps a sign that modern history allows Cardwell’s Law to execute at Singularity speeds. Innovation and economic expansion can strike twice in the same place if social circumstances permit.

It’s impossible to do justice in a review to a text that is effectively the historical sourcebook for 150 years of European history. I discovered over twenty book citations in Mokyr’s Bibliography that warranted annotation and potential purchase. As mentioned, I found him particularly strong, and apparently even-handed, in his discussion of early and current scholars of the period so I would strongly recommend Gifts of Athena for readers looking to brief themselves on the history of the Industrial Revolution from a social and economic standpoint. Mokyr does his best to take advantage of evolutionary theory (i.e., mutation/variation, selection) to understand the era. It’s an approach which has much to recommend it though I’m not sure that an evolutionary biologist would find the application entirely kosher. Gifts of Athena is well-written, if occasionally off on an academic tangent, but it repays the reader handsomely with an overview of events that seem even more amazing on reflection than they must have been for the participants.

For Anglosphere readers, there is one potential “klang” in the text:

At the same time, however, measuring these changes is highly subjective and it is hard to find something uniquely European (let alone British) about such attitudes, and the exact nature of what set the process [the Industrial Enlightenment] in motion will remain a topic of debate for many generations. (p.41)

It would be wonderful to get Mokyr and Alan Macfarlane to sit down over coffee for a chat about the latter’s historical research into individuality and civic culture in medieval England! I think a bit of reflection on the role of European republics on technological and scientific development over the last millenium would provide greater underpinning for Mokyr’s “Industrial Enlightenment.”

Further Reading

Review of Gifts of Athena by an Economic Historian.

175K PDF Why Was the Industrial Revolution A European Phenomenon? — an article by Mokyr that encapsulates much of Gifts of Athena.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Technology and the Problem of Human Knowledge [1]
Chapter 2: The Industrial Enlightenment: The Taproot of Economic Progress [28]
Chapter 3: The Industrial Revolution and Beyond [78]
Chapter 4: Technology and the Factory System [119]
Chapter 5: Knowledge, Health, and the Household [163]
Chapter 6: The Political Economy of Knowledge: Innovation and Resistance in Economic History [218]
Chapter 7: Institutions, Knowledge, and Economic Growth [284]

11 thoughts on “Mokyr – The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy”

  1. Sounds like a worthwhile book. I think it’s important to note that much industrial development predated the period called “the industrial revolution”–indeed, considerable development occurred in the medieval period, too often viewed as technologically static. Water-powered blast furnaces, for example, were in use by 1400. Dams erected by joint-stock companies, and serving multiple milling operations, were operating in Toulouse about the same period.

    Even the invention often considered to have kicked off the industrial revolution, the power loom, was originally called the “water frame”, reflecting the inventor’s intent that it be run by waterpower.

  2. “The idea, widely held by most literate people of the time, that national phenomena were orderly, rational, predictable, must surely”

    I think “national” should be “natural”.

  3. James, is there much in there about the evolution and expansion of the initial “Cortesian army” of a few thousand, into the vast apparatus of scientific and engineering experiment and education and publication that now exists? I suppose that must be the case. So, yet another vast swathe of the modern world arising from a voluntary aggregation of persons in England, who no doubt had clubs and societies organized with trustees, giving rise like acorns to mighty oaks. Wherever we turn, we see this sort of thing. As Prof. Veliz said, we live in a world made in England.

  4. Lex, I trace my scientific pedigree back to Laviosier, so I don’t exactly agree that the roots of the Cortesian (Cartesian? ;-) ) Army to which I belong lie only in England. That’s a mistake that mirrors the one I saw at the height of the Cold War, where Western scientists assumed that Soviet Science would never equal the West because of its direction from above. It is true that over the long term, when resources are plentiful, spontaneous action is superior. But in times of dearth (as was the case for most of the World’s history) and over the short term, directed research sponsored by powerful men or interests, can equal, or even outperform spontaneous research methods over the short term.

    Sponteneity requires time to achieve results. Directed research can really get faster results for a defined objective that needs to be reached in a definite period of time. One good example I have touched on before (and plan to hit again) is the Chemical Rubber project of WWII. The Manhattan Project is another.

    The roots of modern science lie all over Europe, and not a few of them lie in extremely autocratic systems, such as Peter the Great’s. However, I do agree with you that the English system produces better results when given enough resources and left to its own devices over time. We are going to see that hypothesis come closer to being proven as the EU research establishments ossify futher under increasing regulation and decresing ties with entrepreneurial industry.

  5. John, what I need to do is resd this here book by Mokyr. My knowledge of this area is spotty. My comment was based solely on what I took James’s review to be saying. No dispute that science in the early stages existed all over Europe. Questions which arise then are: (1) how critical was science per se to economic advance, at least in the early stages, and (2) if the French, Dutch, Germans (in various German states) all had pretty good scientists, why did the Industrial Revolution start in England, not elsewhere?

  6. I think that the beginning of the science was actually a Anglo-Dutch enterprise. During the time when science evolved, England and Holland were joined at the hip politically, economically and culturally. (Even when they fought.)

    What the two societies possessed in common was a high degree of ordered-disorder. Organization arose largely from the bottom up in an evolutionary organic manner. Their societies and cultures possessed no critical nodes, the disruption of which could create chaos. As a result, both societies functioned well even during times of invasion or civil war. They automatically maintained a high level of functional order while at the same so distributing decision making across so many different individuals and institutions that no central authority controlled everything. In the rest of Europe, the opposite pattern arose.

    The idea of what would become to be called science took hold and flourished even against strong opposition from many elites in the Anglo-Dutch realm because those elites simply could not muster the power necessary to kill them off.

    Once the Anglo-Dutch proved the worth of science, however, continental Europe was able to in effect mass-produce large cadres of scientific and technical minds. England could never escape cozy, small scale organic system that served the so well for so long. So, even though it unquestionable began the industrial revolution, England never really got the hang of mass-producing anything. Throughout the 1800’s, English called mass-production “The American System”. Napoleons conquest absorbed Holland into the Continental model.

    I think the Anglo-Dutch fell into the “early adopter trap.” The early adopter trap occurs when the adoption of new idea creates such enormous advantages short-term that it creates a great deal of inertia against changing to another idea. The classic example being the very early widespread adoption of ideographic writing by the Chinese in ancient times. The system became so widespread and so much information was stored in it that it became virtually impossible for the Chinese to switch to a more advanced phonetic system latter.

    The Anglo-Dutch created virtually all the first generation institutions that run the modern world. That creation made them rich and powerful for a time but that very success slowed their adoption of even newer institutions.

  7. ” England never really got the hang of mass-producing anything.” Quite so. England never had the kind of market that made mass-production profitable in the early days. The Americans had an enormous market that was widely dispersed and composed of people with middling incomes, who could afford decent goods that were cheap enough to bear the cost of transit. The British had a much more handcraft and batch-production economy, at the high, middle and low end. British shotguns in the 19th century were magnificent luxury items, made in tiny lots. American shotguns were cheap tools for everyday use, no more fancy than a shovel. Americans had a reason to make mass-produced shoes in Brockton, Massachusetts. England had a vast proportion of its economy lodged in London where armies of handcraft shoemakers served all parts of the market, and they had local shoemakers asembling shoes to order from patterns sent out from London. There was no real need for the British to do true, modern mass production ala Henry Ford, either. The division of labor is limited to the extent of the market. There was no market for massive numbers of cheap cars. Americans had a vast middle class, or wealthy working class. Britain was much more stratified. Even with protectionism, such as the USA had in the 19th C, the continental market was so vast that mass production to the maximum technological extent was economical.

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