The United Inventors of Britain [Part 1]–Was the Industrial Revolution really driven by a new ‘democracy’ of invention?

8 07 2010

This week’s readings, classes, and excursions have highlighted the enormous number of inventions and innovations in the decades leading up to the Victorian era, years variously known as the ‘Age of Reason’, ‘The Enlightenment’, and ‘The Industrial Revolution’.  That all of this changed the world forever is not up for debate.

William Rosen, author of the recently-published (last month) The Most Powerful Idea in the World (of which we are reading several chapters), writes that although all of human history has been eventful and transformative, “only twice in the last ten thousand years has something happened that truly transformed all of humanity.” (page xv)  These are the two:

1) Ability to cultivate own food (agriculture) “Once humanity was tethered to the ground where its food grew, settled societies developed; and in them, heirarchies.  The weakest members of those hierarchies depended on the goodwill of the strongest, who learned to operate the world’s longest-lasting protection racket.  Settlements became towns, towns became kingdoms, kingdoms became empires.”

Strikingly, there was little change for millennia.  “The average person of William Shakespeare’s time lived no better than his counterpart in Homer’s.” (xvi)

2) The Industrial Revolution, which Rosen differentiates in character from the advent of agriculture, saying that agriculture developed independently in many different places and times, whereas the Industrial Revolution originated in a single place and a single time: in Britain.

HOWEVER, why this happened is very much up for debate.  Rosen offers his answer succinctly in the prologue of The Most Powerful Idea:

The best explanation for the preeminence of English speakers in lifting humanity out of its ten-thousand-year-long Malthusian trap is that the Anglophone world democratized the nature of invention.

In my next post, I intend to question his conclusion.

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