Today we’re discussing the book Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, by the historian of science Margaret Jacob, published in 1997. Jacob’s major scholarly contribution was in helping us to understand how scientific knowledge first became integrated into the culture of Europe through the 1600s and 1700s, and how the different social and political conditions of different European countries influenced the application of science to material prosperity. Ultimately, this enhances our understanding of the role of science in the Industrial Revolution, and provides deeper insight on why Britain’s distinctive approach to the utility of science enabled it to industrialize generations earlier than any other country.
Now, we inaugurated Context by considering Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which revealed environmental factors supporting Eurasian societies rise to global power. But Diamond’s book was such a big picture view of history that it left us wondering why Europeans in particular, the most backward of Eurasian societies a thousand years ago, raced ahead of everyone else in the centuries since. So, in our second episode, we turned to David Landes’ epic book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, to better understand how Europe’s unique cultural values of curiosity, novelty, and private property, along with its unique political fragmentation, cultivated European discovery and innovation and ultimately established progress, rather than stability, as northwest Europe’s preeminent cultural value. And yet, as much as Landes’ book enlightened us on Eurasia’s shifting patterns of power toward northwest Europe, we were still left wondering how Britain, unlike any other country in history, succeeded in establishing the most important feature of modernity: namely, making the pursuit of knowledge profitable. Here in our third episode, Margaret Jacob’s book attends to this.