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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].


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

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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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.