- Manufacturing ModernityInnovations in Early Modern Europe—An Introduction
Early modern, technology, innovation, early modern science
The early modern period, from roughly 1450 to 1800, was a time of global social and political upheaval. Driven by rivalry between the great powers of Europe and their efforts to explore, colonize, and conquer new territories, it was an era during which revolutionary changes occurred in science, technology, and culture that continue to shape the modern world.1 Theologically, it encompassed the cultural revolutions of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.2 Intellectually, it witnessed the radical conceptual shifts that have come to be known as the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.3 Technologically, it saw the first economic transformations arising from the British Agricultural Revolution, while laying the foundations for the Industrial Revolution.4 Politically, it was punctuated by revolutions in Britain, France, and the Americas, and included extended periods of military conflict throughout Europe, as well as colonial wars in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and the Americas.5 Arguably the most shameful legacies of this period are the European colonizers' despoliation [End Page 995] of indigenous cultures and an enormous escalation in the slave trade between Europe, West Africa, and the Americas.6 All these transformations—however they are now interpreted—are fundamental to what it means to be modern.
This special issue highlights some of the early modern period's key contributions to technological development, including some of our unexamined assumptions concerning its continuities with earlier periods, its breaks with the past, and their implications for contemporary life. The articles contribute to current research arguing that competition between political, legal, and cultural institutions in developing rules of practice has been a critical factor enabling innovation, growth, and personal autonomy in the history of humanity.7
The five articles prompt us to reconsider some of the novel practices and inventions that emerged during the early modern period, and to reevaluate our understanding of technological change in the transition from mercantile to industrial societies. The authors variously explore: the mixed origins of the French patent system and intellectual property; revolutionary subversions of utilitarian technology; the emergence of modern advertising and consumer cultures; the misattribution of foreknowledge about physical theories of heat to key innovators in the Industrial Revolution; and the application of experimental quantitative techniques to control water supply in early modern France.
Recent scholarship shows that the early modern period provided the material bases for many aspects of contemporary life we now simply take for granted. It can be usefully conceptualized as having gone through two main phases. The first phase is often labeled "pre-industrial" or "proto-industrial," when most economic activity occurred in the context of rural or cottage industries producing goods for external markets mediated and coordinated by merchants.8 During this first phase (1450–1650), advances in shipbuilding, navigation, cartography, metallurgy, weaponry, fortifications, engineering, and construction laid the foundations for advances in the second phase (1650–1800), in mechanics, manufacturing, logistics, agriculture, chemistry, and instrument-making. The second phase, which enabled the transition to urban factory production, would not have been possible without the foundations laid in the first phase.
However, the question of what drove the changes which led to the second phase, and what was subsequently called the "Industrial Revolution," remains hotly contested. [End Page 996]
According to Marxist social historian Eric Hobsbawm, overseas trade, military expenditure, colonial wars, protectionism, and internal demand constituted the necessary and sufficient conditions for the Industrial Revolution.9 More recently, neoclassical economic historian Robert Allen has maintained that what enabled the Industrial Revolution in Northwestern Europe and North America were supportive institutions and cultures, and higher wages relative to capital costs—together these factors drove the self-reinforcing process of local technological innovation.10 Economist and network theorist Leonard Dudley agrees, but points to the collaborative ventures between inventors, investors, managers, and entrepreneurs in cities and their hinterlands during the Industrial Revolution to explain this self-reinforcing process of change. The countries where those ventures succeeded had large populations with high literacy rates, a shared common language, and openness to cultural diversity. The practitioners' ability to address complex challenges depended on mutual trust, clear...