The Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution

Based on Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy (Yale, 2009)

A. C. Grayling considers the seventeenth century to be “the epoch in the history of the mind”:

At the beginning of the seventeenth century the mind — the mentality, the world-view — of our best-educated and most thoughtful forebears was still fundamentally continuous with that of their own antique and medieval predecessors; but by the end of that century it had become modern.1

The Scientific Revolution played a major part in this transformation. The world of 1600 was magical, inhabited by demons and witches, full of portents and promises that only cabalists and astrologers could decipher. The world of 1700 was still mysterious, but not magical — the demons and witches had been banished; the rainbow was evidence of the refraction of light and not a sign from God; the universe was as orderly as the pendulum clock in the hall. The world held mysteries, not because it was innately unknowable, but because the attempt to understand it through disciplined and evidence-constrained reasoning had only recently begun.

Perhaps inspired by the successes of the Scientific Revolution, Europeans began to reimagine commerce, society, governance, religion. Authority and tradition everywhere gave way to human reasoning. Immanuel Kant described this transition as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.”2 David Hume described it as an awakening:

The spirit of the age affects all the arts; and the minds of men, being once roused from their lethargy, and put into a fermentation, turn themselves on all sides, and carry improvements into every art and science.3

This philosophical movement, the Enlightenment, contributed to the eighteenth-century liberalization of business, government, and religion.

Joel Mokyr argues that aspects of the Scientific Revolution merged with elements of the Enlightenment, generating an “Industrial Enlightenment” that gave rise to the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution. Enlightenment philosophy then intensified the Industrial Revolution by changing the British political system and guiding its deliberations. It was responsible, at least in part, for bringing mercantilism to an end and replacing it with a more open and competitive economic system.

The Scientific Revolution and Invention

From about 1870 onwards, new technologies were often based on advances in scientific knowledge (here). Before that time, and in particular during the Industrial Revolution, the connection between science and technology was tenuous:

The first Industrial Revolution — and most technological developments preceding it — had little or no scientific base. It created a chemical industry with no chemistry, an iron industry without metallurgy, power machinery without thermodynamics. Engineering, medical technology, and agriculture until 1850 were pragmatic bodies of applied knowledge in which things were known to work, but rarely was it understood why they worked.4

What science offered in place of knowledge was methodology.

Francis Bacon

At the time of the Industrial Revolution, one of the most respected advocates of scientific methodology was Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon had been a Parliamentarian and a servant of the Crown, and Lord Chancellor of England under James I. His scientific credentials were weak.

He created no science, and was himself a poor scientist: he knew no mathematics and failed to appreciate its importance in the agenda he advocated. He managed to be ignorant of or reject some of the most significant scientific advances of his age: Harvey on the circulation of the blood, Gilbert on magnets, Copernicus on the solar system, and Galileo on physics.5

Bacon had, however, set out a program for the expansion of scientific knowledge. His writings on this subject were still being read by leading scientists and philosophers more than a century after his death. His admirers included John Locke, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Samuel Hartlib, William Petty, and Denis Diderot.

Bacon believed that invention could “overcome the necessities and miseries of humanity”6 but was impeded by a lack of knowledge of the physical world:

Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.7

Bacon proposed a concerted effort to expand scientific knowledge. In opposition to the Aristotelian focus on deduction, Bacon favoured induction: observations would be accumulated, and then hypotheses would be put forward to explain them. The key to this method was a gradual build-up of results, accompanied by cautious theorizing, thereby avoiding highly speculative theories with little factual basis.

Hitherto the proceeding has been to fly at once from the sense and particulars up to the most general propositions…Now my plan is to proceed regularly and gradually from one axiom to another, so that the most general are not reached till the last: but then when you do come to them you find them to be not empty notions, but well defined, and such as nature would really recognize as her first principles.8

Bacon favoured experimentation, but also the study of the work of artisans, as both of these practices were likely to be more revealing than the direct study of nature:

I mean it to be a history not only of nature free and large (when she is left to her own course and does her work her own way), — such as that of the heavenly bodies, meteors, earth and sea, minerals, plants, animals — but much more of nature under constraint and vexed; that is to say, when by art and the hand of man she is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded.9

Bacon viewed the work of artisans and of philosophers as mutually reinforcing: philosophers could learn about nature by observing artisans at work, and the artisans could use that knowledge to improve their technologies. Thomas Sprat took Bacon’s idea one step further: the philosopher and the artisan should be the same person.

Philosophy will attain perfection when either Mechanic Labourers shall have Philosophical heads, or the Philosophers shall have Mechanical Hands.10

Many of the technologies of the Industrial Revolution were developed by exactly this sort of person — James Watt, John Smeaton, Josiah Wedgwood and Isambard Kingdom Brunel being prominent examples.

Bacon argued that the expansion of knowledge would necessarily be a collaborative process, with philosophers pooling their observations and debating their hypotheses. The Royal Society was formed in 1666 to encourage this collaboration. It explicitly endorsed Bacon’s belief that the purpose of scientific knowledge was to improve human welfare.

The Method of Detail

The twin concepts of experimentation and incremental progress rely on a strategy that is so fundamental to modern science that it is easily overlooked. John Stuart Mill called it the “method of detail.” It consisted of identifying and discarding the inessential aspects of a complex problem, dividing what remained into manageable parts, and then separately investigating each of these parts.11

An early instance of its use was Galileo’s study of the problem of scale. Buildings and ships were sometimes found to be unsound, even though they had been patterned on scale models that were structurally sound. Galileo himself noticed that a large boat removed from the water can break under its own weight, but a small boat will not. Scale mattered, but no-one knew why it mattered. Galileo chose to study this issue in the simplest possible context: he imagined a single horizontal beam with one of its ends embedded in a wall, and then asked how much weight the beam could support. He showed that as the size of the beam increased, the weight that it could support declined. If the beam was large enough, it would break under its own weight.

Galileo's study of beam strength
Galileo’s study of beam strength

The method of detail was soon applied to nonscientific matters. William Petty was tasked with surveying Ireland in December 1654, using soldiers who for the most part had no surveying experience. He divided the act of surveying into several parts, most of which were simple and required little skill. He then trained each soldier to do only the part to which he was assigned. The task was completed in March 1656, just fifteen months after the project was conceived. Maurice of Nassau, sometime around 1600, separated the loading of a musket into 42 steps. He taught his soldiers to perform these steps in unison, so that they could fire repeated volleys rather than scattered shots. This tactic was quickly adopted by other European armies. It was so successful that it was still in use in the nineteenth century: the “thin red line” employed it at Balaclava in 1854. Some historians believe that it was instrumental to the British conquest of India, as it enabled British armies to defeat larger but less disciplined native armies.

The method of detail had permeated industry by the time of the Industrial Revolution. It is evident in Smeaton’s piece by piece optimization of Newcomen’s steam engine, which halved its fuel consumption, and in the organization and division of labour of the first cotton mills.

The Coming of the Fact

England had no facts until the middle of the seventeenth century. It had phenomena, observations, and particulars, but no facts.12

Phenomena were subjective and malleable; observations and particulars were bound to the events that produced them. Facts were different. A fact was a precise statement whose truth could be verified by an independent observer. It was grounded in actual events, but it could be separated from those events and understood without reference to them.

The fact appeared when — or because — there were competing approaches to the acquisition of knowledge. One approach was scholasticism, which was based on Aristotle and the classics, and emphasized both logical deduction and classical authority. The other approach was experimental and empirical; it was championed in England by such persons as Francis Bacon, William Gilbert, and Robert Boyle. For them, no authority or abstract argument could stand against a fact. As one contemporary observer put it,

Descartes is not more believed upon his own Word than Aristotle: Matter of Fact is the only Thing appealed to.13

Natural philosophy was in a confused state at this time. Some scholars attested to the existence of a salve that would heal a wound if applied to the weapon that had inflicted the wound. Other scholars believed that rubbing garlic on a magnet robbed it of its magnetism, or that diamonds could be softened by soaking them in goat’s blood, or that a drum covered in sheepskin would fall silent in the presence of a drum covered in wolfskin. Underlying all of these claims was the belief that materials had natural sympathies and antipathies.

Experimentation would eventually show these claims and many others to be false, but it didn’t do so easily or quickly. Imagine the reaction to a seventeenth-century experimentalist’s report that rubbing a magnet with garlic does not reduce its power. How would this single finding be balanced against the contrary claims of numerous established authorities? Garlic’s effect on the magnet followed from the idea of sympathies and antipathies, which had (or so it seemed) many valuable implications. Was it more likely that the single experiment was wrong, or that the whole idea of sympathies and antipathies was false? Could magnets differ in their susceptibility, or garlics differ in their potencies? Was there a way to accept the findings of this particular experiment, while maintaining the antipathy between garlic and magnets as a general rule?

This kind of question could only be resolved by an agreement on how facts were to be established, and how spurious claims were to be extinguished. Part of this agreement involved the replication of experiments, and the communication of their results to a community of scholars, so that an empirical body of knowledge could be developed. Another part had to do with authority. An experiment reveals a result to those who participate in it, but other scholars learn of the result only through the reports of the participants. Do not the participants thereby become authorities? And how does their authority differ from that of, say, Aristotle or Pliny? This issue was clarified by Thomas Hobbes in Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (manuscript dated to 1640).14 Hobbes recognizes only two sources of knowledge: science, which deals with the relationships between ideas and is the product of reasoning, and prudence, which deals with facts. Facts are established through experience, memory, and testimony — but these three methods are not equals. Experience is the only source of new facts, memory retains facts, and testimony allows them to be communicated to others. With regard to testimony, Hobbes argues that there are no authorities whose reports must be accepted unconditionally. There are only witnesses. The reliability of a witness can be questioned and his testimony can be probed for weaknesses, just as they would be in a court of law. This view was readily adopted: Thomas Sprat, in his History of the Royal Society of London (1667), asserts that facts trump authority and that matters of fact are the Society’s sole concern.

Data — quantified facts — soon appeared. National statistics were an early if infrequent innovation. John Graunt estimated the population of London in 1662. He also collected data on deaths in the city, from which he was able to estimate Londoners’ life expectancy by age group. William Petty produced the first national accounts in the 1660s: he recognized that national output and national income are equivalent, and that national income is the sum of the incomes of all factors of production. In 1688 Gregory King estimated the distribution of the British population by employment or social position, and also estimated each group’s average earnings.

Data soon dominated science, technology and demographics:

[The historian John Heilbron] submits that in the seventeenth century most of “learned Europe” was still largely innumerate, but that in the second half of the eighteenth century propositional knowledge, from temperature and rainfall tables, to agricultural inputs and yields, the hardness and softness of materials, and economic and demographic information, was increasingly presented in tables. Readers were expected to be comfortable with that language…A booklet such as John Smeaton’s famous Treaty on Water and Wind Mills used tables lavishly to report his experiments.15

Tables, graphs and mathematical models became the tools of engineers such as James Watt and John Smeaton. Below is Watt’s diagram of the effect of using steam expansively. He concluded that power would be halved but fuel consumption would be quartered, effectively doubling fuel efficiency. Philosophical head, mechanical hands.

Watt's diagram of cylinder pressure when steam injection is ended early
Watt’s diagram of cylinder pressure when steam injection is ended early

Isaac Newton

The substance of Isaac Newton’s work was central to the Scientific Revolution, but it was only incidental to the Industrial Enlightenment:

Concepts critical to machinery, such as momentum, force, work, power and torque were not fully worked out until late in the eighteenth century.16

Instead, Newton served as a role model. His work showed that the gains from scientific methods were potentially huge. His use of mathematics, data, and inductive reasoning demonstrated the value of these tools, for both scientists and engineers.

His work also helped persuade ordinary people that they lived in a predictable and understandable world. Anglican ministers included Newton’s physics in their sermons, as evidence of an order ordained by God. The sense that the world was orderly, that daily events could be explained without recourse to God or the devil, contributed to a more liberal faith that was less concerned with doctrine and more concerned with human welfare.

Useful Knowledge

Mokyr describes the Enlightenment as “a culture of practical improvement, a belief in social progress, and the recognition that useful knowledge was the key to their realization.”17 Useful knowledge included social and political thought, but it also included knowledge of nature that could be applied to practical matters such as manufacturing and navigation.

The growth of useful knowledge was impeded by the lack of scientific foundations for many technologies. Bacon’s system — accumulate empirical evidence first, draw inferences second — was the obvious way forward, and perhaps the only way.

The eighteenth century thus spent an enormous amount of intellectual energy on describing what it could not understand…The three C’s — counting, classifying, cataloguing — were central to the Baconian program that guided much of the growth of useful knowledge in the century before the Industrial Revolution. Heat, energy, chemical affinities, electrical tension, capacitance, resistivity and many other properties of materials from iron to bricks to molasses were measured and tabulated before they were “understood.”18

There was a great deal of variation in the manner in which these investigations were carried out. At one end of the spectrum would be someone like Robert Boyle, who expected his experiments to yield clear inferences: “The pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related.” At the other end of the spectrum were the craftsmen in numerous industries who systematically varied their practices in search of better outcomes. The value of the latter activity is nowhere more evident than in ironmaking. The making of iron involves quite complicated chemical processes, but the relevant chemistry was completely unknown during the Industrial Revolution. The massive expansion of the iron industry, with falling costs and rising quality, was entirely the result of intelligent experimentation.

The exchange of knowledge, another aspect of Bacon’s program, was facilitated by learned societies. The most famous of these societies was London’s Royal Society, which was consciously formed on Baconian principles. Other societies were formed far from London, in the areas where manufacturing was developing. Their membership encompassed scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, and they provided a venue in which scientists and more practical men could exchange information about “pumps, textile machines, chemistry, crop yields, and similar matters.”19 The Birmingham Lunar Society was one example: it included scientists such as Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin, and industrialists such as Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgwood. Its corresponding members included the botanist Joseph Banks and the clockmaker John Whitehurst.

The Industrial Revolution saw the rise of the engineer, who sought to apply scientific knowledge to practical matters. The career of John Smeaton, who is sometimes said to be the first civil engineer, reveals a pragmatic approach to knowledge.

Unlike his more famous colleague and friend James Watt, he never made a spectacular breakthrough that would enshrine his name in high school textbooks. Yet he made contributions to harbor engineering, bridge construction, water mills, steam engines, canals, and lighthouses. Although Smeaton was originally trained as a lawyer and was an empiricist par excellence, he also informed himself of pertinent scientific developments of his age, and read the mathematical works of Colin MacLaurin and Antoine Parent. As soon as he moved to London, in 1750, he started to attend the meetings of the Royal Society. He founded a society of engineers in 1771, eventually named after him. In addition, he personified the transnational nature of the Industrial Enlightenment: he traveled to the Low Countries to study their canal and harbor systems, and taught himself French to be able to read the theoretical papers of French hydraulic theorists despite his conviction that all theoretical predictions had to be tested empirically. He was one of the first to realize that improvements in technological systems can be tested only by varying components one at a time, holding all others constant.20

Engineers would become increasingly important to Britain’s success as useful knowledge deepened.

The Enlightenment and the State

Britain’s Parliament was dominated by wealthy landowners until long after the end of the Industrial Revolution, but in the eighteenth century its decision-making began to reflect views other than their own. The growing commercial class found representation, and so did the Enlightenment philosophers.

In eighteenth-century Britain the political elite consisted, with a few exceptions, of well-to-do landowners. When it is said that the British state of the time of the Glorious Revolution was a government by, of, and for private property, what is meant thereby primarily is “real property” — that is, land. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, however, the concept of property was expanded to include government-issued debt and other financial and commercial assets. The identity of the political elite with the economic elite thus came under pressure… As the nouveaux riches accumulated more economic power, they obviously demanded more influence in the political process, and they found channels through which their money could talk to politicians and change institutions to suit their needs. Yet there was a third elite that began to make its presence felt, namely the intellectual elite of philosophers who proposed new theories about what the state was supposed to do and not to do. Their power came from their prestige and rhetorical skill, and through those their ability to persuade members of the other elites about what a good society should look like.21

The power of the new commercial interests was evident even at the time of the Glorious Revolution. The power of the philosophers, on the other hand, was not clearly established until the last decades of the eighteenth century. David Hume, Adam Smith and Josiah Tucker were among the more influential members of this “third elite.”

There is a sense in which the Enlightenment philosophers were filling an unrecognized need. Parliament was very active in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, but there were no clear principles driving its legislative activity.

The vast bulk of this legislation was a mechanism by which the richest and most powerful families of England manipulated the system to advance their interests. Legislation remained predominantly an affair tailored to specific individuals and localities.22

In the words of the historian F. W. Maitland, Parliament was “afraid to rise to the dignity of a general proposition.”23 The philosophers proposed new ways of thinking about society, and their adoption by Parliamentarians would ultimately give rise to more general and more coherent legislation.


Mercantilism was the ideology that governed trade among European countries at the beginning of the eighteenth century. It held that the opportunities for trade were limited — Europeans wanted only so much pepper from India, or porcelain from China — so that one country’s trade necessarily came at the expense of the remaining countries. Since wealth grew out of trade, each country should attempt to control as much trade as possible, even if the attempt led to war, as it frequently did. In the seventeenth century, for example, the English went to war with the Dutch three times. The English had more in common with the Dutch than they had with any other country, and they would invite a Dutchman to be their king only a few years after the end of the third war. But the Netherlands and England were commercial rivals: they went to war to extend their markets. Likewise, the struggle between Portugal, England and the Netherlands to control the spice trade was both tragic and brutal — with most of the tragedy and brutality befalling the innocent spice islanders.24

Mercantilism aligned the interests of the merchants and the government. Military force increased the merchants’ opportunities for trade, making them wealthier. The government gained a portion of the new wealth, which it used to expand its military power. Wealth built power, and power built wealth. However, mercantilism was sustained by an array of rules — monopolies, tariffs, quotas, import prohibitions, prohibitions on the export of capital goods, prohibitions on the emigration of skilled workers — that were harmful to the majority of the people. If the general population received any benefit from mercantilism, it was in the form of greater employment. Buying domestic goods generated employment, it was claimed, while buying foreign goods did not.

Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, generally opposed restrictions on trade, and was antagonistic to mercantilism. He argued that goods should be purchased wherever they are cheaper.

It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy. The taylor does not attempt to make his own shoes, but buys them of the shoemaker. The shoemaker does not attempt to make his own clothes, but employs a taylor. The farmer attempts to make neither the one nor the other, but employs those different artificers…What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry employed in a way in which we have some advantage.25

But what of the additional employment provided by domestic production? There is none, says Smith. Aggregate employment is determined by society’s productive capacity.

The general industry of the society never can exceed what the capital of the society can employ. As the number of workmen that can be kept in employment by any particular person must bear a certain proportion to his capital, so the number of those that can be continually employed by all the members of a great society must bear a certain proportion to the whole capital of that society, and never can exceed that proportion. No regulation of commerce can increase the quantity of industry in any society beyond what its capital can maintain. It can only divert a part of it into a direction into which it might not otherwise have gone; and it is by no means certain that this artificial direction is likely to be more advantageous to the society than that into which it would have gone of its own accord.26

It follows that buying goods abroad, if that is where they are cheapest, does not reduce employment.

The general industry of the country, being always in proportion to the capital which employs it, will not thereby be diminished, no more than that of the above-mentioned artificers; but only left to find out the way in which it can be employed with the greatest advantage. It is certainly not employed to the greatest advantage when it is thus directed towards an object which it can buy cheaper than it can make.27

Adam Smith set out the most complete argument for free trade, but he was not alone in his opposition to mercantilism. David Hume disputed the central premise of mercantilism, that one country’s wealth must come at the expense of another country’s wealth.

Nothing is more usual, among states which have made some advances in commerce, than to look on the progress of their neighbours with a suspicious eye, to consider all trading states as their rivals, and to suppose that it is impossible for any of them to flourish, but at their expence. In opposition to this narrow and malignant opinion, I will venture to assert, that the encrease of riches and commerce in any one nation, instead of hurting, commonly promotes the riches and commerce of all its neighbours; and that a state can scarcely carry its trade and industry very far, where all the surrounding states are buried in ignorance, sloth, and barbarism.28

Britain can only sell its own goods abroad if its neighbours have the wherewithal to buy them.

Where a great number of commodities are raised and perfected for the home-market, there will always be found some which can be exported with advantage. But if our neighbours have no art or cultivation, they cannot take them; because they will have nothing to give in exchange.29

This point was also made, more colourfully, by Josiah Tucker.

Do you envy the Wealth, or repine at the Prosperity of the Nations around you? If you do,…you wish to keep a Shop, but hope to have only Beggars for Customers.30

Hume had an additional reason for preferring successful neighbours: openness to trade both inspires and challenges domestic manufacturers, making them far more productive than they otherwise would be.

Where an open communication is preserved among nations, it is impossible but the domestic industry of every one must receive an encrease from the improvements of the others. Compare the situation of GREAT BRITAIN at present, with what it was two centuries ago. All the arts both of agriculture and manufactures were then extremely rude and imperfect. Every improvement, which we have since made, has arisen from our imitation of foreigners; and we ought so far to esteem it happy, that they had previously made advances in arts and ingenuity. But this intercourse is still upheld to our great advantage: Notwithstanding the advanced state of our manufactures, we daily adopt, in every art, the inventions and improvements of our neighbours. The commodity is first imported from abroad, to our great discontent, while we imagine that it drains us of our money: Afterwards, the art itself is gradually imported, to our visible advantage: Yet we continue still to repine, that our neighbours should possess any art, industry, and invention; forgetting that, had they not first instructed us, we should have been at present barbarians; and did they not still continue their instructions, the arts must fall into a state of languor, and lose that emulation and novelty, which contribute so much to their advancement.31

Hume also attacked mercantilism from a different direction, arguing that it was self-defeating.32 Its objective was to create a large trade surplus — to sell abroad goods of greater value than were purchased abroad — so that foreigners would need to pay for part of their purchases with gold. This inflow of gold into Britain was the wealth that mercantilism was intended to generate. Hume argued that the additional gold circulating in the home market would raise prices there, making foreign goods more attractive to the British and British goods less attractive to foreigners. Exports would fall and imports would rise, undoing the British trade surplus and bringing the gold inflow to an end.

Restraints on Commerce

Look again at this quotation:

No regulation of commerce can increase the quantity of industry in any society beyond what its capital can maintain. It can only divert a part of it into a direction into which it might not otherwise have gone; and it is by no means certain that this artificial direction is likely to be more advantageous to the society than that into which it would have gone of its own accord.

This quotation appears in Smith’s discussion of international trade, but the word he chooses is not “trade” but “commerce”. He is setting out a general principle: there is no reason to believe that state intervention in the allocation of capital improves social welfare. Indeed, he argues that “artificial direction” is almost certain to worsen it.

What is the species of domestic industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him.  The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.33

The philosophers’ attack on mercantilism was only part — albeit a very large part — of their general opposition to government intervention in the marketplace. The philosophers also opposed the granting of monopolies. These grants had been criticized in the seventeenth century as taxation without the consent of Parliament; now they were criticized for blocking entrepreneurs’ access to markets and for harming consumers. The philosophers also opposed laws that fixed wages or prices, and laws that regulated workers’ access to training and employment. They opposed all actions that made one group better off at the expense of another group.

In the early eighteenth century Britain’s Parliament was not guided by this kind of principle, or indeed, any kind of principle.

Parliament was the target of innumerable petitions for some special legislation to be passed or rescinded, taxes and regulations to be lifted, and customs duty to be adjusted. These lobbies informed and persuaded through subtle contact with influential legislators, constrained by the often arcane rules of Parliament. The political process of lobbying legislators was in itself neither good nor bad. It all depended on what was successfully lobbied for. Insofar as legislation sought to redistribute resources in favor of vested interests that wanted protection or to maintain exclusionary rents, successful lobbying was costly and impeded economic growth. But when lobbies tried to abolish regulations, establish free markets, and encourage and reward innovation, their effects could be salutary.34

Parliament consisted almost entirely of wealthy landowners, who were “often poorly educated, corrupt, and lazy.” Many of them obtained their places through pocket boroughs, rotten boroughs or other questionable practices. There was little in British history to guide them in how a Parliament with the unquestioned right to make laws should behave. And yet, in time, they figured it out. By 1750 the idea that Parliament should serve the national interest had taken hold, and by 1780, Enlightenment views were beginning to be adopted. Mercantilism began to unravel, and was certainly extinguished by 1850. Monopolies were rare by 1820. 35 Legislative impediments to trade were slowly abolished, mostly in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

The Statute of Artificers was abolished in 1814, the enumeration clauses (that forced British colonial goods to be shipped to third markets through Britain) in the Navigation Acts were abolished in 1822, the law prohibiting the emigration of artisans was repealed in 1824, the export prohibition on machinery was weakened in 1824 and repealed in 1843, the Bubble Act in 1825, and trade liberalization slowly advanced, beginning in the early 1820s and culminating in the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 and what remained of the ultra-mercantilist Navigation Acts in 1849. Usury laws, a particularly atavistic restriction, were finally repealed as late as 1854 but rarely enforced long before — bills of exchange had already been exempted from it in 1833.36

The philosophers’ aversion to redistributive policies made the British economy much more efficient, but when taken to the limit, it greatly harmed those who were in need of assistance.

British institutions until well into the nineteenth century reflected the recognition by some that in some cases redistribution was inevitable and possibly even desirable, and hence the continuous experimentation with schemes to relieve the poor. By the 1830s, however, a growing resistance to redistribution in any form except on the most niggardly terms led to the 1834 Poor Law Reform and a decade late to the miserly aid to Ireland during the Famine.37

Property Rights

Parliament protected property rights — except when it was reassigning, circumventing, or terminating them. These decisions, on the whole, made Britain’s economy more efficient.

The abolition of slavery involved the termination of a property right, namely the right of one human to own another human. The first step toward abolition in the British Isles was the trial known as Somersett’s Case (1772). The judge’s decision stated only that a slave could not forcibly be removed from England; but the grounds for the decision, that slavery had never been authorized by either common or statute law, led many to conclude that slavery was illegal in England and Wales. However, its illegality was not firmly established until 1807, when Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which ended all British involvement in the slave trade. A further act, the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833, ended slavery throughout the British Empire.

The Canal Acts illustrate Parliament’s willingness to circumvent property rights. Canals were an important part of Britain’s transportation system during the Industrial Revolution. Canal barges were slow (they were pulled by horses walking along adjacent towpaths), but they were a cheap way of moving heavy and bulky cargoes. Britain’s inland waterways expanded from 1400 miles in 1760 to 3900 miles in 1830 as demand for this kind of transportation soared.38 Many of the canals were built over difficult terrain, requiring the construction of aqueducts, locks and tunnels. And every one of them was authorized by a separate Act of Parliament. These Acts regulated both the construction and the operation of the canal. A common provision in the Acts compelled the sale of any private land needed by the canal company. Compensation was given to the landowners, but this provision was a significant curtailment of their property rights. It was justified by the nation’s interests in having these projects succeed.

Enclosure provides the most conspicuous example of the reassignment of property rights. Almost a third of British agricultural land still operated under the open field system in 1700. 39 Each farmer owned scattered strips of land, and a group of adjoining strips constituted a field that was communally managed. Some land was set aside as “waste” or as pasture land, to which there was communal access. Access to the waste land was not an insignificant right for the poorer farmers: it gave them firewood for heating and cooking, and perhaps a rabbit for the pot. However, open fields were being gradually converted to enclosed fields. Strips of land were exchanged to form large fields, which were then owned and operated by individual farmers. The waste and pasture land was also divided up. These enclosures were largely voluntary until about 1760, after which resistance by the poorer farmers caused the process to stall. Further enclosures were then facilitated by Parliament. Parliament acted when it received a petition from the owners of a substantial majority of the land in a given area. Parliament would then order all of the land to be surveyed and reallocated, with compensation being given to tenants for the termination of their rights. These proceedings were confirmed in Parliament by an Act of Enclosure. There were 1800 Acts of Enclosure between 1760 and 1800. The benefits of these enclosures accrued predominantly to the wealthy landowners, who could afford to make capital investments in their land. The poorer farmers were often made worse off because their compensation was based on their legal rights to land, with no compensation being given for the traditional rights that were often a significant part of their livelihood.

On the whole, though, Parliament agreed with Hobbes that life, liberty and property were natural rights. It generally gave strong support to property rights; for example, it rejected petitions that sought to protect workers by limiting the right of entrepreneurs to introduce new technology. In some instances, Parliament sent in the military after new technologies led to rioting by the workers.40

The Economy Changed Because the People Changed

Mokyr argues that the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment represent radical changes in the way that Europeans thought about both nature and society, and that both events had important ramifications for the economy. The Scientific Revolution changed the way they thought about material progress, and the Enlightenment changed the way they thought about governance. Both of these events were essential precursors to the Industrial Revolution.

  1. A. C. Grayling, The Age of Genius (Bloomsbury, 2016), ch. 1.
  2. Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” (1764).
  3. David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, Part II, Essay II (1742).
  4. Joel Mokyr, “The Second Industrial Revolution, 1870-1914,” manuscript, August 1998, p. 1.
  5. Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth (Princeton, 2017), p. 72.
  6. Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration (1620), preface.
  7. Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620), Book I.
  8. Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration, quoted by Grayling, The Age of Genius (Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 213.
  9. Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration, quoted by Grayling, The Age of Genius (Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 214.
  10. Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society of London (1667), quoted in Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth, pp. 85-86.
  11. Much of the discussion in this section is taken from Arnold Pacey, The Maze of Ingenuity (MIT Press, 1992), pp. 75-8 and 98-100.
  12. The discussion in this section is based on chapter 7 of David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (Harper, 2015).
  13. William Wotton, Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1694), p. 300.
  14. This manuscript might well mark the first appearance of the word “fact” in English. The phrase “matters of fact” first appeared in English in the 1658 translation of Blaise Pascal’s pseudonymous Provincial Letters. Both expressions were in common use in the early 1660s; for example, the expression “matters of fact” appears in the 1663 statutes of the Royal Society.
  15. Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Change, pp. 279-80. The Heilbron reference is to p. 9 of “Introductory Essay” in T. Frängsmyr, J. Heilbron and R. Rider, eds., The Quantifying Spirit in the 18th Century (University of California Press, 1990)
  16. Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Change, p. 112.
  17. Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth, p. 267.
  18. Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy p. 43.
  19. Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy p. 48.
  20. Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy p. 55.
  21. Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy, p. 395.
  22. Joel Mokyr. The Enlightened Economy, p. 416. In the period 1688-1800, between 2/3 and 3/4 of all Acts dealt with specific places or institutions (p. 417).
  23. F. W. Maitland, The Constitutional History of England (1911), p. 383. Quoted by Mokyr in The Enlightened Economy, p. 416.
  24. Giles Milton tells this tale in Nathaniel’s Nutmeg (1999).
  25. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), Book 4, Chapter 2.
  26. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), Book 4, Chapter 2.
  27. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), Book 4, Chapter 2.
  28. David Hume, “Of the Jealousy of Trade” (1752).
  29. David Hume, “Of the Jealousy of Trade” (1752).
  30. Josiah Tucker, The Case of Going to War, for the Sake of Procuring, Enlarging, or Securing of Trade (1763).
  31. David Hume, “Of the Jealousy of Trade” (1752).
  32. This argument is the price-specie flow mechanism, which describes adjustment under a gold standard. It was first set out by David Hume in his essay “Of the Balance of Trade” (1752).
  33. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), Book 4, Chapter 2.
  34. Joel Mokyr. The Enlightened Economy, p. 415.
  35. Joel Mokyr. The Enlightened Economy, p. 73.
  36. Joel Mokyr. The Enlightened Economy, p. 67.
  37. Joel Mokyr. The Enlightened Economy, p. 426.
  38. Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy, p. 210.
  39. Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy, p. 173.
  40. Rioting workers destroyed an Arkwright mill in Birkacre in 1779, and in 1826 workers attacked mills using the powerloom. In both cases the military was brought in to restore order.