The Age of Scientific Revolution can be dated from the early 1600s through about the end of the 18th century. As the ideas of scientific method were carried into the social and political sphere, the effect became known as the “enlightenment.” Textbooks in Western civilization sometimes divide this 200-year period into the 17th century, as the Age of Scientific Revolution, and the 18th century, as the Age of the Enlightenment.
Several features set this period apart from others. In antiquity and in the Middle Ages (periods [parts] I and II in this encyclopedia), it was very rare that an invention was attributed to a single, specific individual. As late as the 14th century, major new developments such as the clock, playing cards, and eyeglasses had been invented anonymously, although later historians have attempted to track down the probable locations of those inventions. However, after the mid-1500s, scientists and inventors, in the Renaissance spirit of individual achievement, sought to ensure that their own names were associated with a specific invention or scientific discovery. The 17th century was characterized by many great disputes over priority as Robert Hooke and Christiaan Huygens fought over who invented the balance spring, Hooke and Isaac Newton over who discovered the laws of motion and gravity, and Newton and Leibniz over the invention of calculus.
In some cases, money was at stake, as states often would reward inventors with a grant of a large pension or single lump-sum payment for the benefit their invention brought to the nation. In other cases, governments would grant a patent guaranteeing the right to exclusively produce the new device and to reap the financial rewards. But frequently, inventors
and scientists simply fought for the recognition, realizing that their names would live on in history if their claim to priority were recognized.
The Age of Scientific Revolution was different from earlier eras in another respect. During this period, several key instruments, either to look more closely at the natural universe or to measure more accurately some natural phenomenon, served as tools that led to further scientific discoveries. Historians of science have debated whether the tools produced the discoveries or whether the scientific curiosity drove the development of the tools. Thinking about this chicken-or-egg question is stimulated as we look closely at the invention of the telescope, the microscope, and the mercury barometer and thermometer and at improvements in timekeeping itself, with the pendulum clock, the balance spring, and the chronometer. With all these tools, the scientist and the explorer could better map the universe and begin to achieve sufficient numerical accuracy to be able to establish the fundamental laws by which the universe operated.
Some of the great discoveries were simply improved explanations for long-observed phenomena. The heliocentric solar system, suggested by Copernicus in the 16th century as an explanation for the motions of the planets, was confirmed by the observations of Galileo, and its mechanics were unraveled by Newton. In fact, the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun had tremendous impact. The idea that the Earth had a “revolutionary” motion meant that in the languages of western Europe, the word “revolutionary” took on its broader meaning of “completely new.” Thus, when the French monarchy was overthrown in 1789, the change came to be called the French Revolution. The whole era from about 1600 to 1790 became known as one filled with “revolutionary” ideas, not because they revolved, but because they were as new and startling as the concept of the revolution of the Earth around the Sun.
With the new instruments and with improved laboratory glassware, scientists such as Robert Boyle and Blaise Pascal began to understand the behavior of gases, and other scientists, such as Henry Cavendish, Antoine Lavoisier, and Joseph Priestley, were able to identify oxygen and its role in life.
During this period, the exchange of information among scientists became regularized, with the development of national societies of scientists and the regular publication of papers. Publication became a means of establishing priority, and by the end of the period, the hallmarks of the modern scientific establishment were in place, with what
later became known as peer review and regular replication of findings to demonstrate the accuracy of a scientist’s work. Scientific knowledge came to be formalized, and the methods for presenting the work became better established.
Often scientific societies of the era turned their attention to practical matters. In France, the Paris Academy worked on specific problems assigned by governmental ministries, while in England, following the philosophy of Francis Bacon, scientists hoped to voluntarily address the pressing issues of the day. Two of the most important problems in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries were approachable with science and engineering. With the depletion of forests for firewood, shipbuilding, and construction, the price of fuel in Britain climbed, and coal
became the fuel of choice. As mines went deeper, they tended to flood, and some means of pumping the water out became crucial. This need pressed the development of pumps and led to the steam engine.
The other great practical problem for the expanding British Empire was a more accurate means of determining longitude while at sea to allow better navigation. This issue was so crucial that the British government established the paid position of royal astronomer and built the Greenwich Observatory in 1675. Later, the government offered a huge cash prize of £20,000 for a method of determining longitude that would be accurate. The quest for the prize led to the invention of the chronometer by John Harrison.
The Paris Academy and the Royal Society put scientists in touch with each other and stimulated the flow of information. With both institutions and others devoted to finding practical applications, the Scientific Revolution was as much a revolution in technology as it was in science. Some scientists invented their own tools, while others, hearing of reports from another country, sought to quickly emulate and improve on the tools others had developed.
Several of the major scientists of the period discovered basic laws of nature, and to have a law named after a scientist was perhaps the greatest mark of achievement. For this reason, some findings were called “laws” even before they could be demonstrated to be completely accurate, such as “Bode’s law,” about the spacing of the planets. However, other laws stood the test of time, such as Pascal’s law and, with some modification, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.
The relationships between science and technology, and between discovery and invention, are some of the great issues in the history of human progress. And in this period, a series of developments illuminate different aspects of those relationships. Several of the greatest discoveries were made by the inventors of the very tools with which the discoveries were made. This can be said of Leeuwenhoek and the microscope, Galileo and Newton and their telescopes, and Hooke and his microscope. Some of the great instrument makers were great scientists, and some of the great scientists were great instrument makers. Key to the advancement of science, microscopes, telescopes, vacuum pumps, laboratory glassware, litmus paper, balances, thermometers, and other tools and techniques all came out of scientists’ quest for knowledge.
Some simple devices invented in the 18th century had little to do with science but had great impact, including several improvements to textile making such as the flying shuttle and the spinning jenny. Together, these
machine improvements, advances in basic motive power, and mechanization of textile manufacturing set the stage for launching the Industrial Revolution. By the end of the 18th century, the beginnings of large capital-intensive industries were in place, preparing the way for many more turbulent developments in the 19th century. These included the vast growth of mill towns and cities, the rise of a capitalist class and a factory working class, and social and political movements reflecting the new social conflicts that came out of the changed conditions.
Hints of the future could be seen by the 1780s and 1790s, with the beginning of coal gas for illumination, air travel, and attempts to harness steam for transportation. Similarly, work in chemistry and electricity led to further breakthroughs that would change the nature of warfare, of manufacturing, and of the everyday life of the consumer in the next century. Some of the household products and systems that we take for granted in the modern age were created in this period, including bleach for clothing and linens, reliable table clocks, carbonated soft drinks, pressure cookers, mass-produced textiles made of cotton or wool, door locks, piped gas for heating or lighting, and flush toilets.
In some of these inventions, the interplay of science and technology was at work when scientific findings were applied to practical, everyday problems. Joseph Bramah developed the flush toilet after a review of the work of Pascal on hydraulics, gaining ideas that soon found fruition in new hydraulic devices such as the hydraulic press. Soda water became popular after scientific experiments by James Priestley on dissolving carbon dioxide in water under pressure. James Watt made some of his improvements to the steam engine from the study of scientific work on expanding gases, although much of his work represented adaptation and improvement of existing mechanical devices.
Despite the focus on great individuals who made contributions, we should remember that several simultaneous inventions demonstrate deeper underlying patterns. The inventions and discoveries, while they can be traced in this period to specific people, would have been invented or discovered even had those specific individuals never been born. The fact that several people came upon similar ideas a few months or a few years apart shows how innovation built on innovation and idea built on prior idea. While the scientists and engineers are rightly honored and remembered for their achievements, their contributions sprang from the juxtaposition of tool, problem, and intellect, reflecting the innovative spirit and ability that had characterized the human race since the Neolithic period.