Welcome to the eighth episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall continue our review of The Ascent of Man.
The Drive for Power
In Chapter Eight, Dr. Bronowski discusses the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution, which he thinks of as the “English Revolution” occurring alongside the French and American revolutions, began about 1760 in English countryside villages. It was perhaps initiated by overseas trade, which caused the economy to grow more competitive until rustic labor was no longer an efficient means of production.
Bronowski spends some time on the English canal system. It was built by practical men for practical purposes; education was not needed, since the English education system was only concerned with the Classics and religious conformity. On the other hand, in continental Europe, sophisticated mechanical devices were made as toys for nobility rather than practical purposes, and this is a reason the Industrial Revolution started in England.
He states that the ideals of the men of the Industrial Revolution are invention, material comfort, and raising the standard of living. He acknowledges that there were bad working conditions in factories, but says it was also bad in the earlier mines and workshops.
“We think of pollution as a modern blight, but it is not. It is another expression of the squalid indifference to health and decency that in past centuries had made the Plague a yearly visitation.”
The new situation with factory work is that laborers were made to keep pace with machines. Idleness became the most despised vice. Power became a focus in England: what did all the natural energy sources have in common? How do you change one kind of power to another? Even artists became interested in power. There was a shift from describing Nature to manipulating Nature. Importantly, heat was discovered to be a form of energy, and Carnot founded the field of thermodynamics in 1824. Richard Trevithick altered Watts’s steam engine to make it more powerful, suitable for locomotives. This started a transportation revolution.
Bronowski sees a connection between the Romantic Movement and the eccentric British scientists of the Industrial Revolution, but I’m afraid the connection escapes me.
Other topics discussed by Bronowski in this chapter include some aspects of the French Revolution and the personage of Ben Franklin.
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