Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Science and the industrial revolution

The powerpoint slides for this week's lecture are available here

The slide on Revision Topics is available here

The idea that the factories of the British industrial revolution were powered by the ideas of Galileo and Newton is a seductive one. But is it true? The question is a controversial, with distinguished historians lining up on both sides of the debate. There is a lot at stake: the thesis that science helped to create the modern world by creating modern industry, the idea that the economy of eighteenth-century Britain was the first 'knowledge economy', and the view that scientific theories lead in a straight line to technological innovation.


Read both the essential readings, one of which argues for a major role for science in the industrial revolution, the other of which takes the opposite view. Decide which of these pieces you find most convincing, and be prepared to defend your choice in class.

Essential reading

Jacob, Margaret, 'The Knowledge Economy and Coal,' in The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 2014)

O'Grada, Cormac, ‘Did Science Cause the Industrial Revolution? Review of Margaret Jacob, The First Knowledge Economy’ (Working Paper, School of Economics, University College Dublin, 2014)

Further reading

'Industrial Revolution' and 'Technology,' in Joel Mokyr, ed., The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Economic History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Berg, Maxine, ‘Not What, But How - Review of Joel Mokyr, The Industrial Enlightenment’, Times Literary Supplement, 24 September 2010, pp. 12–13

Hall, A Rupert, ‘What Did the Industrial Revolution in Britain Owe to Science?’, in Historical Perspectives: Studies in English Thought and Society in Honour of J.H. Plumb, ed. by Neil McKendrick and J. H. Plumb (London: Europa, 1974), pp. 129–51

Jacob, Margaret C., Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West (New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

———, The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Jacob, Margaret C., and Larry Stewart, Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire, 1687-1851 (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2006)

Jones, Peter, Industrial Enlightenment: Science, Technology and Culture in Birmingham and the West Midlands, 1760-1820 (Manchester ; New York : New York: Manchester University Press ; distributed in the United States exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

Mathias, Peter, ‘Who Unbound Prometheus?’, in Science and Society 1600-1900, ed. by Piyo Rattansi and Peter Mathias (Cambridge: University Press, 1972)

Mokyr, Joel, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

———, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002)

———, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

Musson, Albert, ed., Science, Technology, and Economic Growth in the Eighteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1972)

Musson, Albert Edward, and Eric Robinson, Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution (Manchester University Press ND, 1969)

Steam engine

Cardwell, D. S. L., The Fontana History of Technology, Fontana History of Science (London: Fontana Press, 1994)

Cohen, H. Floris, ‘The Rise of Modern Science as a Fundamental Pre-Condition for the Industrial Revolution’, ed. by P. Vries, Osterreichische Zeitschrift Fur Geschichtswissenschaften, 20 (2009), 107–32

Dickinson, H. W., A Short History of the Steam Engine, 2d ed. (London: F. Cass, 1963)

Fleming, Donald, ‘Latent Heat and the Invention of the Watt Engine’, Isis, 43 (1952), 3–5