Industrial Revolution, Industrious Revolution and Industrial Enlightenment
The pre-industrial era witnessed a number of ground-breaking innovations and improvements, but they were typically generated by learning by doing. Producers learned that things worked, but had limited understanding of why things worked. From the seventeenth century, decisive efforts were directed towards gaining more and better knowledge of the ‘laws of nature’. However, it is wrong to believe that the British Industrial Revolution, the period 1770–1830, was based on scientific discoveries. Decisive steps were taken in that period towards a more profound understanding of nature, but these accomplishments had little immediate impact on production technologies. The iconic invention of the eighteenth century, the steam engine, is the exception that confirms this rule. The steam engine developed by Thomas Newcomen (1663–1729) relied on the results of scientific inquiry from the preceding century by the Italians Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Evangelista Torricelli (1608–97), the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens (1629–95), and Otto von Guericke (1602–86), a German, regarding atmospheric pressure, the weight of air and the nature of a vacuum. Contemporaries of Newcomen made significant contributions, in particular the French inventor Denis Papin (1647–1712?), who invented the piston. In the first generation of steam engines, the steam was condensed in a cylinder, which created a vacuum, and then the piston was pushed into the cylinder by atmospheric pressure.
The massive breakthrough of technologies, which sprang out of abstract theoretical inquiry coupled with empirical testing, did not arrive until the second half of the nineteenth century and mostly in the closing decades of that century. There is no denying, however, that systematic experiments, often combined with limited or flawed theoretical knowledge, became more common before and during the Industrial Revolution.
These misconceptions regarding the role of science contributed to very optimistic assessments of economic growth in the traditional historical narrative of what made Britain ‘the first industrial nation’.