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. .


  1. Your last essay was outside my knowledge, this one only skirts the edges. But I think your reasoning is sound. At least, in the literature I've read, the cultural emphasis on nature performing at man's behest is a common theme. And only gets stronger, the further into the modern era you go.

    This is a much tighter piece, too, I thought.

  2. Thank you, Shanna!

    To be honest, this paper is a little more within my own set of knowledge than my other essay.

    This is a much simpler essay, and less ambitious, hence why it is tighter.

    On the other hand, I was unable to give Robert Allen's argument about coal and high wages sufficient credit, in part because it really is outside the scope of this essay, in part because Allen's writing is dense, and because I prefer to concentrate on the cultural component.

    Still, Allen does make a good counterargument to Mokyr's; indeed, in the works I cited they mention, and criticize, each other by name,

    Not certain I'd agree about the sentiment of nature performing at man's behest getting stronger the further into the modern era you go. I'd say it was strongest during the Enlightenment, especially with Baconianism, and Utilitarianism as part of the zeitgeist, as I describe above.

    And the Enlightenment had so many different views of nature itself, that it would take an entire volume to discuss that. Again, this interests me deeply, but falls outside this paper's scope.

    Some saw nature as a model for humans to emulate (like the "natural, inalienable rights" of the U.S constitution), many were Pantheists and saw God's work in Nature (Deus Sive Natura as Spinoza said).

    It seems to me that after a certain point, after technology has provided sufficient comfort to humans, people begin to notice the disappearing nature around them, being replaced with smokestacks.

    This is one of the legacies of the Industrial Revolution: nostalgia for simpler times.

    As Joni Mitchell said, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

    Actually, this is important, because before the Industrial Revolution, the average person could expect to live a life very similar to her ancestors; after the Industrial Revolution, the world of even my own grandparents seems quite alien to me.

    This was certainly the case with much of the Romantic literature.

    In the modern era, there arises the sentiment that perhaps technology has given humans more power than we are ready for.

    This was certainly a powerful sentiment during the Cold War, after the explosion of the atom bomb.

    Certainly a powerful sentiment even today.

  3. Oh, I think the simpler time sentiment was present, especially where people were not especially educated in the sciences (in the Romantic era, it was artists and women, if I may be so crass as to generalize)

    Everywhere else, amidst commerce, manufacturing, and scientific progress, people (men) were generally excited by and confident about their ability to eventually bring all nature to heel. This continued until the Sixties, until the threat of nuclear warfare became too close to ignore.

    Sure, the pendulum has swung backwards a few times (chlorine gas springs to mind) but I think on the whole, the unapologetic drive of almost anyone with economic power has been towards conquering the natural world.

  4. The conquest of nature for the betterment of humankind is a particularly Enlightenment idea that only makes sense in an industrialized economy.

    Preindustrial economies were ruled by landlords, military elite or otherwise, whose wealth was based on land. Preindustrial science had little to no benefit to preindustrial economics, therefore was of no interest to these landlord economic elite.

    Indeed, W.W Rostow defines preindustrial economies as "pre-Newtonian." (Spoiler, I have an essay that discusses this)

    Rostow means by this a particular scientific mode of thought that was unavailable to preindustrial who explain their world either by gods and goddesses, God, or other superstitions.

    See Bacon's 4 Idols to see the beginnings of this scientific mode of thought in Europe.

    First, we must agree to limit this discussion to European intellectual history, as Asia opens up a whole new can of worms that I am not particularly qualified to comment on. In general, Asian philosophy emphasizes going with the flow of nature; going against nature has bad consequences.Obviously this changes with certain modern ideologies, but I think this is a fair generalization,

    As for Western intellectual history, I would think it depends on the era. For example, I'm not so certain ancient Greeks would have seen their endeavors as a conquest of nature.

    In any event, if we limit ourselves to the modern era, then I think that you are right on the whole during and after the Enlightenment.

    However, the program of actively conquering nature FOR THE PURPOSES OF IMPROVING THE LOT OF HUMANITY (this last part is important; this isn't conquest for its own sake necessarily) is a particularly Enlightenment sentiment.

    Even more, this "Industrial Enlightenment," as I refer to this program in my essay, is strongest in Britain.

    I believe this is because of the tradition of Empiricism in the Anglophone world, traceable back to Bacon's work. The continent had, and still has, a more rationalist bias (such as your own study of Semiotics, which strikes me as being particularly rationalists as opposed to empiricist).

    Also, those with economic power has changed. A simple example is that in the Middle Ages, the military class held the economic power. These lords and aristocrats had little to no interest at all in scientific discovery.

    For that matter, even until the 19th century, this program of scientific progress was dubious in Europe, as very little progress had been made for the average European, despite all the scientific discovery.

    Newton's calculus is amusing, but as a starving, illiterate peasant (or ambitious military general bent on military conquest) the immediate value of scientific discovery would have been a hard sell.

    Indeed, Newton's theory of gravitation was not widely accepted in France until Mopartuis's data verified it in 1730; France had its own gravitation theory in Cartesian vortices.

    In conclusion (or perhaps where I should have started) the conquest of nature for the betterment of humankind is a particularly Enlightenment idea that only makes sense in an industrialized economy.

    Preindustrial economies were ruled by landlords, military elite or otherwise, whose wealth was based on land. Preindustrial science had little to no benefit to preindustrial economics, therefore was of no interest to these landlord economic elite.

  5. It turns out we're not arguing after all. Dang it. ;)Of course it makes no sense before the modern era. There was such a huge host of factors smothering it. I would have pointed towards the deathgrip of the church over the sciences, but economic power works as well.

    Interesting you should see me as more rationalist. I would have said I was more of an empiricist, but it is true that I distrust sensory data, by and large. Thanks to the reticular activating system, nothing that you experience can be accepted as objectively true; it has already been weighted and filtered against your own experiences.

    Plus, I also find the argument "for the good of humanity" to be peculiarly self-serving.

    So you're right. I suppose I reason for reason's sake, simply because I enjoy the challenge-- not because I think there's any capital-T Truth to be garnered from the exercise

  6. Glad to hear we agree.


    "I suppose I reason for reason's sake, simply because I enjoy the challenge-- not because I think there's any capital-T Truth to be garnered from the exercise "

    Somehow, I think this is a good way to approach much of life.

    With a bit of distance, objectivity.

    To fight the good fight for the fight itself.

    "Thanks to the reticular activating system, nothing that you experience can be accepted as objectively true; it has already been weighted and filtered against your own experiences."


    Reminds me of Kant; you could also add the a priori filters of time, space, and causality.

  7. Are you up early, or late?
    It's been nice to see you around TOTB

  8. Late

    I think I may be a vampire.



Please email me at aaronfung.contact@gmail.com