- Practical Matter: Newton's Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687-1851
This short volume is part of a new series from Harvard University Press entitled 'New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine' which are intended for popular audiences. Margaret C. Jacob and Larry Stewart are both well-known historians of eighteenth-century science and society. Their book examines how Newtonian science became the paradigm in Western thought and how, in particular, it contributed to that series of events known as the Industrial Revolution. Readers acquainted with [End Page 263] Jacob's work will find much familiar material here, including an emphasis on sociability and freemasonry, and the argument that Newtonian science, as transmitted by popular, non-university lecturers, played a critical role in the Industrial Revolution. Stewart's work on popular lecturers and experimental demonstration complements and extends this argument. Although there is some mention of continental European developments, particularly in France and the Netherlands, the main emphasis of the book is on Britain. Its end point of 1851 marks the apogee of British industrial dominance, but British science had begun its decline in relation to the Continent several decades earlier.
In their opening chapters Jacob and Stewart offer an overview of Newtonianism and Western science that highlights the experimental and mechanical side of Newton and of seventeenth-century science generally. The authors know perfectly well that Newton was not a straightforward mechanist: immaterial forces were at the centre of his system, and experiments took second place to mathematical demonstration. But they are correct in asserting that Newtonians - whom they define very loosely - were more mechanical and experimental than was Newton himself. However, as the example of Descartes shows, the mechanical philosophy did not imply experimental proof.
Jacob and Stewart are at their best in their lively account of the social and political networks of eighteenth-century science. Alongside the more formal academies such as the Royal Society and the Paris Académie des sciences were criss-crossing informal networks of writers, lecturers, and interested amateurs who congregated in coffee-houses and taverns across Europe. Public lectures fuelled popular interest in science of all kinds. Jacob and Stewart emphasize the practical, mechanical (in the modern sense) subject matter of these lectures, but in fact lecturers flourished in many different areas, some of them quite esoteric, including human and animal anatomy. However, all lecturers engaged their audiences in similar ways, with dramatic experiments and, increasingly, with the use of various instruments. Emblematic of the popular lecturer was the Huguenot Jean Théophile Desaguliers (who unaccountably becomes John halfway through the book), who lectured successfully while also managing engineering projects on the estate of the Duke of Chandos. Not surprisingly, Desaguliers - like many men of science, an Anglican clergyman - neglected his parish, but the patronage of Chandos and others more than made up for that.
Public lecturing, which had spread from London to the provinces, the colonies, and the Continent by the mid-eighteenth century, attracted growing audiences, particularly of artisans and craftsmen. 'Philosopher-engineers' such as John Smeaton paved the way for Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Dissemination of scientific ideas took place in popular [End Page 264] magazines as well as in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions and in a variety of local societies. The authors conclude with a case study of Manchester in the early nineteenth century and the intellectual and scientific interests of two cotton manufacturers. In Napoleonic France, in contrast, scientific education became a matter of national policy, which, in the long term, proved superior to that of Britain. But the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition displayed a Britain at its industrial height. Briskly narrated and engagingly illustrated, Practical Matter is a readable addition to the debates on the origins of industrialization. [End Page 265]
Anita Guerrini, Department of Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara