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The Culture of Mechanism: Margaret Jacob versus “Proto-Industrialization” February 20, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Margaret Jacob

Margaret Jacob’s emphasis on “scientific education” as an essential element of industrialization is best understood in view of her ongoing effort to stem the tide of portraits of industrialization that she characterizes as “mechanistic.” Such portraits, she claims, rely exclusively on “economic and social history” to identify certain “factors” as prerequisites of industrialization, which was a process that then developed more or less spontaneously.

Many of the factors comprising the portraits she opposes will be familiar to those who have taken a Western Civ course: regional population pressures, falling family income, labor availability, resource availability (notably coal), the commercialization of agriculture, access to remote markets, and innovations in socio-economic organization (notably the “putting-out system”). In such contexts, the important machines were mainly scientifically unsophisticated devices devised by artisan “tinkerers,” including such famous inventions as the flying shuttle and spinning jenny.

While such historiography of industrialization was venerable, it flourished within an influential theoretical framework provided by Franklin Mendels (1943–1988) in his article, “Proto-industrialization: The First Phase of the Industrialization Process,” Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 241–261. In The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution (1988), Jacob points us to “Proto-Industrialization: A Concept Too Many,” Economic History Review 36 (1983): 435–448, an oft-cited polemical review by D. C. Coleman (1920–1995), covering the concept’s quick proliferation [ngram].

The search for factors underlying regional industrialization is typical of the methodology of economic history, which often seeks explanations by drawing correlations, and develops insights through comparative analysis. However, Coleman noted that the concept of proto-industrialization had also appealed to “neo-Marxist” historians, concerned with the overarching historical logic governing socioeconomic development. They saw it as an important tool for understanding “the transition from feudalism to capitalism.” The key text was a 1977 volume by Peter Kriedte, Hans Medick, and Jürgen Schlumbohm [KMS], Industrialisierung vor der Industrialisierung.*

For his part, Coleman found the concept of proto-industrialization highly unsatisfactory. Regions that appeared to enter proto-industrialization not only often failed to industrialize, they were apt to undergo “de-industrialization” if they failed to solve certain problems.** Moreover, the conditions describing proto-industrialization did not well predict actual regional patterns of industrialization in Britain, which, it was acknowledged, was the only place to industrialize without the benefit of a model to emulate. In the important cases of the North-East and South Wales, “Neither area had any significant prior experience of what the theory recognizes as proto-industrialization, but both had coal and iron” (443).

Another criticism was that the concept concentrated too heavily on the perceived significance of cottage industry. “Virtually nothing is said about other types of rural industry, notably those involving some sort of centralized activity, e.g. in mines or mills, at furnaces, forges or boiling houses, in short, plant of any description… Nor does either version [Mendels or KMS] take significant heed of urban industry of either domestic or centralized variety, be it textiles, dockyards or soap-boiling” (443).

Likewise, the concept of proto-industrialization had little to say about the necessity for conscious adaptation to the competitive pressures that proto-industrial regions quickly came to face. According to Coleman, “Adaptation was key to the survival of these textile-producing regions. And the mere existence of so-called proto-industrialization in such regions was no guarantee whatever of the appearance of the entrepreneurial skills or of the capital necessary to induce changes in production techniques as an adaptation either to changes in demand or to difficulties in supply.” Indeed, “conservatism of method could almost be described as an endemic disease” of the putting-out system (445).

And this brings us back to Margaret Jacob.

In her view, scientific education was not simply an additional factor underlying industrialization—as the cultural foundation of industrializers’ ability to intelligently build their enterprises and confront the various challenges presented to them, it was the crucial factor (Cultural Meaning, 181):

When we compare the penetration of scientific and mechanical knowledge in Continental Europe with what was occurring in England during the same period…, the question we now pose yields some rather startling insights. Scientific knowledge (i.e., cultural factors) cannot explain the Industrial Revolution in one place or another in the period from 1750 to 1820; but then neither can purely economic or social factors. Real people, not ‘factors,’ made the Industrial Revolution on both sides of the Channel, and in order to mechanize, those people had to be able to think mechanically. The evidence, especially from The Netherlands but also from France—the two countries where industrialization might have occurred prior to 1800—strongly suggests that many of the very men who had access to capital, cheap labor, water, and even steam power could not have industrialized had they wanted to; they simply could not have understood the mechanical principles necessary to implement a sophisticated assault on the hand manufacturing process. By and large … their British counterparts did possess that knowledge, and they put it to effective use from the 1760s onward. From the perspective of scientific knowledge and education of a mechanical sort, the English elite was at least a generation ahead of its European counterpart. That generation of entrepreneurs who flourished from 1760 to 1800 proved critically important in providing Britain with an industrial head start, nothing more, nothing less.

A central point in Jacob’s argument is that education was responsible for making widespread the intellectual “culture” she identifies. Those who embraced that culture adapted and calibrated its mechanical knowledge and outlook to their practical affairs. In the video below on “Enlightenment” culture, she stresses the importance of that culture’s breadth, getting to the consequences for industrialization after the 9:30 mark.

In Jacob’s view, historians had not traditionally recognized this culture and its importance because they drew their expectations concerning how it might function from an unduly strict dichotomy between “pure” or “theoretical” scientific knowledge and practical culture. Consequently, they saw a very weak application of the former to the latter. This prejudice for “pure” science, she claims, was the same prejudice that led to perceptions of the weakness and inconsequentiality of British science in this period, and to condemnations of the lax admission practices of the Royal Society. Such an outlook could only see scientific progress in, for example, the string of fundamental advances in analysis made by elite mathematicians on the Continent.

John Smeaton

John Smeaton

Jacob argues that such a distinction would simply not have been recognized by 18th-century philosophers, engineers, and investors, who often had a common interest in useful knowledge—including in mechanics, which British lecturers clearly linked to fundamental physical principles. She takes John Smeaton (1724-1792) to have been an exemplary figure in this regard.

This leaves us with some fairly concrete questions.

First, to what extent was advanced knowledge actually required for industrial construction? And, for that matter, to what degree did the requisite engineering principles—let alone mechanical thinking in general—actually derive from work in mathematical and mechanical philosophy?

According to Jacob, that intellectual foundation was critical to the ongoing development of the industrialization process. As she puts it in The First Knowledge Economy (2014): “To be sure, making spinning jennies did not necessarily require a working knowledge of mechanical principles derived from science; connecting and maintaining multiple spinning machines to steam power did” (4). Such advanced knowledge was, of course, held by people outside of Britain, such as among the engineers of France’s Corps des Ponts et Chaussées (est. 1716), but, Jacob stresses that it was locked up in state initiatives, and not applied to the production of commercial goods.

Although knowledge of mechanical principles was no doubt useful and expedient, as Jacob ably illustrates across her works, I am not fully convinced that it was crucial. For example, clockwork in this period developed to an extraordinarily sophisticated degree, based on advanced experience in the craft. While the problems of industry are not precisely analogous, it is plausible that similar experience might have served many factory owners and their engineers sufficiently well.

Likewise, Jacob finds it implausible to suppose that a general “mechanical” attitude could arise from anywhere besides mechanical science, noting, “men and women are not born with the ability to conceive of nature mathematically and mechanically, nor with the ability to invent mechanical objects of anything but the most rudimentary simplicity” (Cultural Origins, 221). Of course, as we have seen, in the 1960s Derek Price (1922–1983) had taken the long history of clockwork, and the pervasiveness of automata and simulacra across cultures and periods as evidence that humans have a “strong innate urge toward mechanistic explanation.” We need not accept the proposition to take the point.

In all, I find Jacob’s arguments for the historical importance of a broad, scientific-engineering culture quite convincing. I am not quite convinced it was a crucial element of industrialization. I am much less convinced that we can detect the cultural origins of industrialization in the early 18th-century lectures of John Desaguliers and his allies.

Another of Coleman’s criticisms of the concept of proto-industrialization was that the term “proto” signified something that at least resembled what came later (pp. 447–448). To him, a “proto” factory was an acceptable term, but describing cottage industry as proto-industrialization was not. While Jacob never uses the prefix, her treatment of scientific knowledge—much like Simon Schaffer’s treatment of “machine philosophy”—seems to make a claim that it had just such a “proto” status. I think that claim has fomented opposition to what is otherwise compelling historical research and argument.

*Full title Industrialisierung vor der Industrialisierung: Gewerbliche Warenproduktion auf dem Lande in der Formationsperiode des Kapitalismus, translated in 1981 as Industrialization before Industrialization: Rural Industry in the Genesis of Capitalism.

**Coleman, p. 443: “Incidentally, ‘de-industrialization’ must be the wrong term for this particular experience… in the context of the pre-industrial past the term must logically be ‘de-proto-industrialization’. But presumably even the proponents of the theory boggled at that.”



1. Whewell’s Gazette: Vol: #36 | Whewell's Ghost - February 24, 2015

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