[OPE-L] Adam Smith's "knowledge economy" ?

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Wed Aug 30 2006 - 06:56:00 EDT

Lesley B. Cormack, The "Knowledge Economy" of the Eighteenth Century

The "Knowledge Economy" of the Eighteenth Century:
Newtonian Science and the Growth of British Capitalism
Lesley B. Cormack, H-Albion

Practical Matter: Newton's Science in the Service of Industry and Empire,
1687-1851 Margaret C. Jacob and Larry Stewart
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 201 pp. Illustrations, notes,
index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-674-01497-9.

University presidents are fond of proclaiming the importance of the
"knowledge economy" in ensuring economic success in the twenty-first
century. That is, they argue that the intellectual work of university
scholars is really the basis for future prosperity, rather than natural
resources, entrepreneurial spirit, or seat-of-the-pants trial and error.

Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart move this argument back two centuries,
arguing that it was precisely the existence of a knowledge economy in the
century and a half after Isaac Newton that made possible the huge
technological and economic explosion that we now call the Industrial
Revolution (or the "industrial revolution," for those less comfortable
with the heroic label).

Jacob and Stewart set out to explain, as they tell us in their
introduction, why science wins, why between 1687 (the publication of
Newton's Principia Mathematica) and 1851 (the Crystal Palace exhibition)
science - and especially mechanics - becomes central to western thought,
and economic and technological development. They trace a line from the
acceptance of Newton, through the burgeoning of public experimentation,
through the development of scientific curricula in schools, to scientific
interest on the part of capitalists and entrepreneurs, and state interest
in using science to advance understanding. In the process, Britain first,
and other European countries and America later became industrialized. In
other words, Jacob and Stewart argue, science was a major factor in the
burgeoning of enterprise that was the Industrial Revolution.

The authors begin with Newton and ask a very important question: given
that his great work, the Principia Mathematica, was such a difficult book
to understand, why did it become so famous and so important? There were
several reasons. First, while we tend to privilege books 1 and 3, since
they contain the astronomical work most commonly now associated with
Newton, the authors argue that, at the time, book 2, on mechanics, was
much more significant. Thus, the practical elements of this important
natural philosophical text struck the contemporary readers almost
immediately. Equally, Newton's mechanics demonstrated God's rationality
and as such proved very attractive to Whig Anglicans in the first
generation after Newton, and to virtuosi and Masons thereafter. This
section, then, is reminiscent of Jacob's earlier arguments in The
Newtonians and the English Revolution, 1689-1720 (1976).

Practical Matter next examines the flourishing of mechanical
demonstrations, lectures, and popular experimentation, using material
first developed in detail by Stewart in his book, The Rise of Public
Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian
Britain, 1660-1750 (1992). The authors show that at the same time that the
Royal Society became increasingly more interested in mechanical questions,
more exciting mechanical spectacles took place outside those privileged
halls, in more entrepreneurial, radical, and democratic venues. Informal
clubs sprang up, scientific education became more sought, and all this
flourishing of scientific interest happened at the same time - and often
with the same people - as the development of mechanical manufacturing and
the growth of factories. While Jacob and Stewart do not demonstrate
explicit connections between Newtonianism and the Industrial Revolution
here, the inference is clear.

The interplay of science and industry is also evident in the growth of the
"Lit. and Phil." movement and by the participation of manufacturers in
such organizations. Jacob and Stewart discuss the careers of two such
manufacturers, who were largely self-educated, but saw the importance of
scientific study and themselves delivered papers at their local Literary
and Philosophical societies. Unfortunately, it is not clear in this
telling whether the science aided the industry - or rather, as seems more
likely, that these men saw science as a path to social mobility and

Likewise, the relationship between scientific education - especially as
sponsored by the state - and industrial progress, is not as clear cut as
the authors imply. While scientific education expanded greatly in the
eighteenth century, especially in the French context, the ends of that
education were not the manufacturing of better goods. The authors describe
the changing curricula of French lycee and the Ecole Polytechnique, which
is very interesting, but the Ecole Polytechnique's move to ever greater
scientific complexity often seemed to mitigate against practical
application, rather than to aid it. The story of the interaction of
science and technology in this period, as in others, is a very complex
one, without a simple one way influence.

Historians have debated the relationship between science and technology
for many years. At times, scholars have argued for a strong cause and
effect (either from technology to science, or science to technology),
while at other times, they have denied any connection whatsoever. There is
now, I would argue, a growing understanding of just how complex a
relationship this is. That is, just as we would no longer accept the
Hessen thesis (named after Marxist scholar, Boris Hessen) that Newtonian
physics owed all to practical technology, neither would we be satisfied by
a bald claim that Newtonianism "caused" the Industrial Revolution. While
Jacob and Stewart do not make such a claim, they do want to suggest that
the creation of a knowledge economy, through the widespread permeation of
Newtonians, mechanics, and experimentalism, provided impetus, ideas, and
principles for the growing industrial sector. This is intriguing, and I am
sympathetic to the enterprise, but I do not think they have proven their

The arguments in this book are suggestive rather than rigorously proven.
There is little evidence brought forward to demonstrate the links -
between Newtonianism and Anglicanism, between this alliance and
manufacturing. We see the impressive rise in popular science, but is there
a clear link (except coincidence) between this and the Industrial
Revolution? Some of these are links the authors have demonstrated
elsewhere, but it would still have been useful to provide a more
convincing analysis, especially as this book is designed for a wider
audience, potentially meeting these issues for the first time. While
suggestive, this book would have been more powerful with clearer arguments
defended with more explicit data. Otherwise, the knowledge economy of the
eighteenth century seems every bit as elusive as that of the twenty-first.



  1.. "H-Albion" - H-Albion@h-net.msu.edu">http://info.interactivist.net/H-Albion@h-net.msu.edu
       Lesley B. Cormack, The "Knowledge Economy" of the Eighteenth Century

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