In school, you might have heard that the Industrial Revolution was preceded by the Scientific Revolution, when Newton uncovered the mechanical laws underlying motion and Galileo learned the true shape of the cosmos. Armed with this newfound knowledge and the scientific method, the inventors of the Industrial Revolution created machines – from watches to steam engines – that would change everything.
But was science really the key? Most of the significant inventions of the Industrial Revolution were not undergirded by a deep scientific understanding, and their inventors were not scientists.
The standard chronology ignores many of the important events of the previous 500 years. Widespread trade expanded throughout Europe. Artists began using linear perspective and mathematicians learned to use derivatives. Financiers started joint stock corporations and ships navigated the open seas. Fiscally powerful states were conducting warfare on a global scale.
There is an intellectual thread that runs through all of these advances: measurement and calculation. Geometric calculations led to breakthroughs in painting, astronomy, cartography, surveying, and physics. The introduction of mathematics in human affairs led to advancements in accounting, finance, fiscal affairs, demography, and economics – a kind of social mathematics. All reflect an underlying ‘calculating paradigm’ – the idea that measurement, calculation, and mathematics can be successfully applied to virtually every domain. This paradigm spread across Europe through education, which we can observe by the proliferation of mathematics textbooks and schools. It was this paradigm, more than science itself, that drove progress. It was this mathematical revolution that created modernity. [Continue reading…]