Introduction: 1700–1799

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Introduction: 1700–1799

The Age of Enlightenment Carries the Scientific Revolution Forward

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the way educated people viewed the natural world and their relationship to it underwent a radical transformation. Known as the Scientific Revolution, this change was based on the work of such scientists and philosophers as Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Nicolas Copernicus, René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, William Harvey, Johannes Kepler, Gottfried Leibniz, and John Locke. It reached its crowning achievement with the publication of Isaac Newton's laws of motion in 1687.

As a result of the Scientific Revolution, by the beginning of the eighteenth century people had great confidence in the ability of reason to explain the natural world. They believed that scientific methods (such as those that had led to Newton's achievements in physics) could give rational explanations for all phenomena. Not only were Newton, Leibniz, and Locke still alive as the new century began, but Newton and Leibniz subsequently published major new works. They were joined by others who shared their faith in rational explanations, and who were attracted by the continuing success of this new empirical approach. Devoting themselves systematically to problems in science and technology, they critiqued, applied, and expanded this new way of thinking about the world and humanity's place in it. Knowledge expanded and practical applications of science grew at an unprecedented rate. Because of this intellectual ferment and the progress that came from it, the eighteenth century is known as the Age of Enlightenment.

Major discoveries about the composition of the physical world, made by men like Henry Cavendish, Joseph Priestley, and Joseph Black, were interpreted and synthesized into a theoretical framework by Antoine Lavoisier, who established chemistry as a distinct science. The modern science of biology began to take shape as new systems of nomenclature and classification were developed by Carolus Linnaeus. The organization of knowledge in both these fields facilitated learning and understanding.

In the life sciences, the century saw significant progress in the understanding of photosynthesis, plant hybridization, the role of nerves in muscle contractions, and the electrical basis of nervous impulses. The science of nutrition was launched by Rumford, and inoculation for the prevention of smallpox was developed by Edward Jenner.

Mathematics continued to play a significant role in the development of the physical sciences, and much progress came as scientists found mathematical expressions for much of the physical world. During the eighteenth century, Pierre Laplace and Joseph Lagrange made particularly significant contributions in statistics, probability theory, calculus, and analysis.

Similar strides were made in the physical sciences. The work of Joseph Black, Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford), and others led to important progress in the understanding of heat and its transfer; Benjamin Franklin and Luigi Galvani provided an understanding of electricity; and Daniel Bernoulli laid the foundations of the science of hydrodynamics.

New Technology Leads to the Industrial Revolution

Applying this new scientific knowledge to technology led to new processes and inventions. Life was made easier by such inventions as the flushing toilet and bifocal spectacles. Benjamin Franklin invented the kitchen stove, liberating women and servants from the difficulty of cooking on the open hearth.

The production of manufactured goods was greatly enhanced by the development of efficient steam power, the blast furnace, and the hydraulic press. Inventions like the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, the power loom, and Eli Whitney's cotton gin improved textile weaving. These (and other) inventions led to a new industrial system in which work was concentrated into a single factory that employed many workers, replacing traditional cottage industries in which work was done by individuals in their homes. The Industrial Revolution had begun, and the way people lived and worked was changed forever.

During the eighteenth century, the invention of an accurate marine chronometer, development of navigational quadrants, and other new technology that aided navigation significantly increased exploration of the world and led to an expansion of worldwide trade. Of particular importance were the circumnavigations of the globe by Captain James Cook. On land, exploration of California, Alaska, and the African interior began during this time. The region beyond the Appalachian Mountains was opened for settlement through the efforts of pioneers such as Daniel Boone. Nor were the heavens neglected—hot air balloons were first used for human transportation during this time.

Adverse Effects of the Growth of Science and Technology

The extensive progress in science and technology during the Enlightenment created change that was sometimes painful. While expanding industrialization and trade enlarged the middle class of merchants and manufacturers and improved their living conditions, the change from piece-work manufacture in the home to factory production had negative consequences for many people. The shift spurred the development of industrial cities, whose rapid growth produced squalid slums with a variety of health and social problems.

Back on the farm, the development of scientific agriculture and better equipment reduced the need for farm workers ("freeing" them for factory work). Furthermore, the expanding wool market encouraged wealthy farmers to convert much of the open land previously used for growing crops into sheep pasture. Enclosure, as it was called, left many small farmers without the means to survive, and their farms were effectively dissolved. Entire communities, such as the crofting (cooperative farming) towns of Scotland, were abandoned, and the population was forced to seek a means of livelihood elsewhere, often in the teeming industrial cities. Many emigrated to America, where they served as an impetus for westward expansion.

A particularly cruel effect of technological progress was the rise of slavery, especially in the American South. Ironically, in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, slavery was becoming an economic liability, especially in the Southern states. Slaves were expensive, and there were no crops that could overcome in profits what they cost to maintain, however poorly. Cotton was a labor-intensive crop, and deseeding it (except for Sea Island cotton, which could only be grown along the coast) was so time-consuming that it was hardly worth the effort to plant it. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 changed everything. Suddenly cotton seeds could be removed quickly and easily, and even the hard-to-seed inland varieties became highly profitable. Cotton became a cash crop almost overnight, when farmers realized they could sell to the British textile industry, whose demand for cotton to feed their mills was insatiable. This assured the South's reliance on slave labor for the next 60 years.

Religion was especially influenced by the developing scientific (and quasi-scientific) ideas of the Enlightenment. The church had dominated life in the West before the Scientific Revolution, yet its influence was gradually diminished by the emergence of science, with its belief that nature was both rational and understandable. Among intellectuals, there was a rise in deism, the belief that God created but then withdrew from the world, and in atheism, the denial of God's existence. Geology, which became a separate scientific discipline during the eighteenth century, resulted in widespread debate on the accuracy of the biblical creation story in Genesis. Although the Catholic Church and other denominations remained strong, a decreasing confidence in established church doctrine and a wish for a more individualized, less formal, religious expression grew. The founding of Methodism in England and the Great Awakening revival in America were direct results.

Science, Technology, and Politics

In the political arena, the eighteenth century was not a peaceful one. While monarchy remained the most widespread means of government in the West, the middle class began to demand freedom from arbitrary hereditary rule. This led to two major revolutions: the American colonists against England, resulting in the birth of a new self-governing nation; and the middle class and peasants of France against the king and the ancien régime, resulting in years of turmoil, and eventually the usurpation of power by Napoleon.

Because industrial and scientific growth was concentrated in France and England, these nations became the primary world powers. Their competition for territory, natural resources, and markets caused a number of costly and destructive wars, in which new technology increased casualties. These included the War of Spanish Succession, the Seven Years' War (fought as the French and Indian War in America), and the Napoleonic Wars. These political realities affected science directly. Governments financed the development of new technologies because of their potential contribution to the national economy and possible application to warfare, a practice that has remained in effect ever since.

Cultural Effects of Scientific Thought

The eighteenth century foreshadowed the profound effect that science and technology would have on all areas of human endeavor in succeeding centuries. Enlightenment philosophy was deeply influenced by the widespread confidence in new scientific ideas and the rationality of all things, including economic, social, and political matters. Philosophical systems developed either in support of these new ideas or in reaction to them. John Locke's ideas formed the philosophical bases of the American and French revolutions. The writings of François Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, and George Berkeley were widely read in the eighteenth century and remain influential today. Their works are part of the foundation on which our understanding of truth rests, and they influence our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. In addition, the economic principles of Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith were instrumental in justifying laissez-faire policies and the spread of the Industrial Revolution.

Music, literature, and art also developed greatly during the Age of Enlightenment. Changes in these fields reflected a cultural response to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Styles evolved from a concentration on mathematical form and precision (the Baroque era) through a nostalgic return to simpler ideals (the Classical period) into an idyllic focus on the natural world (the Romantic style). Some historians argue that music reached its highest point during the eighteenth century with the introduction of the concerto, symphony, sonata, and opera in their modern forms; the invention of the piano; and the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friederich Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

The principal visual artists of the eighteenth century portrayed people and the natural world realistically. They included Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds in England, Jacques-Louis David (who portrayed French patriotic fervor) and Jean-Baptiste Chardin in France, Francisco Goya (whose works involve social criticism) in Spain, and Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley in America.

Prose forms, especially the essay, were developed into effective means for influencing political thought and disseminating scientific and other ideas. Joseph Addison, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were particularly successful essayists; Jonathan Swift and Françios Voltaire were especially adept with satire. The English novel flourished with such authors as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding. The Scotsman Robert Burns made colloquial poetry an acceptable form. A strong Romantic movement developed at the end of the century, especially in poetry. Its practitioners, who were strongly influenced by the scientific observations of the naturalists, included Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Wordsworth, William Blake, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The effort to codify all knowledge scientifically also led to the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary in England and Encyclopédie in France. Both were the first of their kind; the latter was regarded as the Bible of the Enlightenment. The first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, debuted in England in 1702. By the end of the century, public newspapers were commonplace among in France and the American colonies as well. The Enlightenment ideal of knowledge and rational discovery was being disseminated to the people.


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Introduction: 1700–1799

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Introduction: 1700–1799