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

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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].



Sutton vs. Jacob: Was John Desaguliers a Prophet of Industrialization? February 1, 2015

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Jacob and Stewart, Practical MatterIt’s a serious question. We come to it from my earlier look at Simon Schaffer’s “Enlightened Automata” (1999), in which he claimed that “Some historians still deny that natural philosophies ‘fed the fires of the industrial revolution.’ Others more convincingly indicate the intimate connections between the machinery of natural philosophers’ concerns and that of the new entrepreneurs and projects.” He specifically identified Geoffrey Sutton in the first camp, and Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart in the second.

Since the 1980s Jacob and Stewart have both consistently argued that the intellectual development of the sciences, the technical development of machines, and the economic development of industry were closely intertwined phenomena, particularly in Britain where the Industrial Revolution commenced. In 2004 they jointly published Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire, 1687–1851, which offered an overview of their general argument. Jacob’s new book, The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850 continues her multi-decadal mission.

Sutton, Science for a Polite SocietyGeoffrey Sutton’s Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment was published in 1995, but it is based on a dissertation he finished at Princeton in 1982. By the time it came out, Sutton was already operating on the fringes of academic history, and would not (to the best of my knowledge) produce further research.

Sutton allowed, “Enlightened thinkers believed that the application of the methods and techniques of science theory could reform political and economic thought, just as the applied fruits of scientific physics and chemistry could improve the human condition” (5). But the focus of his book was on how natural philosophical demonstration and disputation had their primary influence in polite, rather than practical, environments in 17th and 18th-century France.

There is no necessary conflict between at least the rudiments of the Jacob-Stewart and Sutton points of view. It is perfectly possible for the sciences to have been integrated into both practical and polite cultures. And, in fact, if we follow Schaffer’s specific citation in Sutton, we find that, in this instance, we are actually dealing with a more specific disagreement concerning how best to interpret the significance of certain lectures offered by John Desaguliers (1683–1744).

However, as we will see, this disagreement is one that points to larger historiographical problems.


Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 4: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — Historiography August 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999)

Maelzel Turk

“Enlightened Automata” is one of Schaffer’s few pieces that is especially forthright about the overarching scholarly project of which it is a part. It is certainly the centerpiece — and his clearest exposition — of his work on what he occasionally referred to as “machine philosophy,” a concept that interrelates several historical developments:

  1. The rising use of mechanisms in philosophical experiments, which have the virtue of preventing human fallibility and prejudice from influencing their outcomes.
  2. The use of mechanisms as explanatory metaphors in natural, moral, and political philosophy.
  3. The replication of natural phenomena and human behavior in mechanisms, i.e. automata.
  4. Industrialization, i.e., the replacement of craft processes with machinery, and the concomitant regulation and control of human action, especially manual labor, through managerial regimes.

Schaffer takes these four developments (but especially 2 and 4) to characterize the ideological ambitions of the Enlightenment.  In “Enlightened Automata,” he leverages the history of the construction and display of automata (3), and commentary on such automata, as a means of probing these ambitions.


Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 2: Atwood’s Machine and the Status of Newtonian Philosophy September 15, 2013

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John Smeaton’s experiment to estimate the efficiency of waterwheels. Philosophical Transactions 51 (1759).

This post continues our examination of Simon Schaffer’s “Machine Philosophy: Demonstration Devices in Georgian Mechanics” (1994).  Last time, we looked at how Atwood’s Machine was used at Cambridge as a dramatic means of convincing mathematics students of the validity of Newton’s laws, which they were expected to use to explain various physical phenomena.  Here we examine how proponents of Isaac Newton’s mechanics tried to use the machine to make points with audiences whose perceptions of the reach and fundamentality of Newton’s laws were varied and unstable.

First, though, let’s revisit some of the themes of Schaffer’s earlier works to see how this piece fits into a larger picture.