A Cultural Interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution

Aaron Fung
This essay explores the role the Enlightenment played in the British Industrial Revolution, specifically the Industrial Enlightenment, as described by Professor Joel Mokyr. Central to the Industrial Enlightenment is Francis Bacon’s philosophy of understanding nature to harness its power for human progress. However, in order for this knowledge to be of use, it had to be spread to those that could make use of it for economic and technological progress; the knowledge had to be popularized and spread. This implies the formation of links between the discoverers of knowledge, such as scientists, and more practical men, like inventors and businessmen: links were formed between savants and fabricants. Finally, Professor Robert Allen’s opposition to the cultural interpretation of the Industrial Revolution is addressed. Allen offers an alternative thesis that cheap coal and high real wages of English laborers are the relevant metric, which led to the creation of labor-saving devices, leading to the Industrial Revolution; this thesis is addressed as well.

Joel Mokyr believes that at the heart of British economic growth of the Industrial Revolution is a set of beliefs formed out of the Enlightenment, which he terms the “Industrial Enlightenment” which he defines as “... the part of the Enlightenment which believed that material progress and economic growth could be achieved through increasing human knowledge of natural phenomena and making this knowledge accessible to those who could make use of it in production” (Mokyr, 40). Mokyr argues that it is this set of beliefs, the Industrial Enlightenment, that both led to and sustained the economic growth of the British Industrial Revolution.

Important to the Industrial Enlightenment is the figure of Francis Bacon. Bacon’s thoughts would play only an ancillary role in the story of economic history were it not for his influence on Enlightenment thought: “...the influence of Francis Bacon was central to the Industrial Enlightenment” (Mokyr, 40). Francis Bacon was particularly interested in acquiring knowledge of nature, through observation. “Man, being the servant and interpreter of nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature; beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.” (Bacon, Novum Organum aphorism I). For Bacon, only empirical knowledge gained through measurement and observation could be of any use, and this data was to be used to understand the natural world. “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed....”(Bacon, Novum Organum aphorism III) Bacons seeks to understand nature, to obey natural laws, in order to harness the power of nature.

Mokyr argues that Bacon’s agenda, by the Industrial Revolution, had become widespread. “It was believed that social progress could be attained through the ‘useful arts,’ what we today call science and technology, which should inform and reinforce one another. This belief spawned what has been called ‘the Baconian program.’” (Mokyr, 40) Important to “the Baconian program” is the utility of the knowledge, for in the use of this knowledge one could positively affect society. Bacon himself betrays this bias for utility in the fifth aphorism of the “Preparative Toward a Natural and Experimental History” where he states, “Among the parts of history which I have mentioned, the history of arts is of most use because it exhibits things in motion and leads more directly to practice.” (Bacon, Preparative Toward a Natural and Experimental History aphorism V). The reader gathers from reading the first paragraph of this work that Bacon is concerned with the preservation and safekeeping of knowledge, knowledge that had been painstakingly gathered. It even has categories to be filled by future knowledge gatherers; one would think that Bacon would protect and save gathered knowledge equally. And yet in the quoted text Bacon seems to betray a bias toward the arts, which Bacon defines as “nature as changed and altered by man” (Bacon, Preparative Toward a Natural and Experimental History aphorism IV). Although Bacon is trying to initiate a program of empirical data collection, he does so with its utility to society in mind. Put another way, “‘The major purpose of Baconian natural philosophy is to produce innovations of which nature unaided is not capable’ (Zagorin, 1998, p. 97)” (Mokyr, ,41). Rather than try to go with the flow of nature, like a Daoist, or wax poetic about the sublime power of nature, like a Pantheist, the Baconian program sought to control nature, to harness the power of nature to improve human life.

Just as important as scientific discovery to the Industrial Enlightenment program was the popularization of knowledge. Mokyr describes this as “...making this knowledge accessible to those who could make use of it in production”(Mokyr, 40). This is the forging of links between savants and fabricants, between those who do the discovery and those who could make use of those discoveries. It is one thing to explore the laws of nature in the proverbial ivory tower, far from the concerns of the average citizen. It is often quite a different task to utilize this knowledge for technological invention.

Allen is not convinced that this link existed, and questions the relevance of Enlightenment ideas in the process of invention during the Industrial Revolution. “The biographies of the seventy-nine important inventors show that there were links between the Enlightenment and the inventors, but the connections were sometimes tenuous” (Allen, 252). However, Mokyr is not claiming that these inventors are versed in the intricacies of the debate between Cartesian Rationalism and Baconian Empiricism, just that they are influenced by Enlightenment ideas, even if watered down by cultural diffusion. “The mechanics, ironmongers, and chemists who were responsible for the technological advances of the age were by no means all intellectuals, much less ‘enlightened,’ but they moved in a milieu in which the effects of the Enlightenment were pervasive” (Mokyr, 61). For this reason, a “tenuous” link with the Enlightenment is enough; the individual inventors need not even be conscious of their link to the Enlightenment, much less have these links documented; merely being influenced by the Enlightenment zeitgeist is enough to be a part of an Industrial Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, the cultural diffusion of the Enlightenment through the inventive class is nearly impossible to define, much less quantify. This is precisely Robert Allen’s issue with Mokyr’s Industrial Enlightenment; as a result, he sees the Industrial Enlightenment explanation as meretricious at best. Allen sees such cultural arguments as meretric unnecessary and ambiguous. Instead, Allen chooses to focus on the invention and adoption of labor saving devices in Britain, specifically why they were invented in the first place. He thinks that these labor saving devices “... were adopted in Britain because labour was expensive and coal was cheap” (Allen, 2). These are the two vital metrics in Allen’s thesis, and unlike Mokyr’s Industrial Enlightenment with its beliefs and links, real wages and the price of coal can be both quantified and recorded. According to Allen, English labor had become expensive, so English entrepreneurs sought ways of replacing this expensive human labor with mechanical devices run on cheap coal. “The Industrial Revolution, in short, was invented in Britain in the eighteenth century because it paid to invent it there, while it would not have been profitable in other times and places”(Allen, 2). Higher wages in Britain, Mokyr argues, are indicators of societal trends, rather than muses for innovation. “Higher wages in Britain may have reflected the higher level of skills and competence, due to better training, more able supervision, and a relatively high level of capital per worker.” (Mokyr, 272). As for the beauteous muse of cheap coal, “The early steam engines, presented by Allen as a labor-saving device, actually replaced horses used to power pumps.... This hardly counts as labor-saving”(Mokyr, 269). Mokyr argues that businesses, on the quest to improve profit margins, are interested in cutting expenses, whether they are employees’ wages, inventory, or animals. Indeed, rather than labor-saving, “...after the development of the Newcomen engine the main efforts went into making the engines more energy-efficient and saving fuel..., which would be capital-saving” (Mokyr, 269). Rather than substituting mechanical gadgets for expensive labor, the so-called labor saving devices are invented to save fuel and to make existing processes more efficient.

The promise of the vital metrics of coal price and real wages to explain the Industrial Revolution proves meretricious; though they may be an important part of the story of the Industrial Revolution, they only describe and indicate; these two metrics do not explain. A more comprehensive explanation of the Industrial Revolution remains the cultural explanation, particularly the influence, as defined by Mokyr’s Industrial Enlightenment. As has been shown, central to the Industrial Enlightenment was the Baconian program of harnessing natures power to the betterment of humanity.. In order for this acquired knowledge to significantly progress society, it had to be popularized to those who could best utilize it for economic and technological advancement. In order for this to occur, links had to be made between the discoverers of knowledge and the implementers of this knowledge: links needed to be made between savants and fabricants. Finally, in spite of the impossibility of empirically measuring the Industrial Enlightenment in any meaningful way, it is still more successful than Allen’s attempt at establishing wages and coal prices as the relevant metrics of economic innovation.

Bacon, Francis. "Novum Organum (Aphorisms 1-68)." An Authorship Analysis. Web. 05 Apr. 2011. .

Bacon, Francis. "Francis Bacon: Preparative toward a Natural and Experimental History (1620)." Constitution Society. Web. 05 Apr. 2011. .