Manchester and the Birth of the Industrial Revolution

What was so exciting about Manchester? Disraeli with his acute political and historical instinct understood that Manchester had done something unique and revolutionary. Only he was wrong to call it science. What Manchester had done was to invent the Industrial Revolution, a new style of life and work which began in that little country town about two hundred years ago and inexorably grew and spread out from there until it had turned the whole world upside down. Disraeli was the first politician to take the Industrial Revolution seriously, seeing it in its historical context as a social awakening as important as the intellectual awakening that occurred in Athens 2,300 years earlier. Disraeli saw it as his task to bring together the two worlds into which England was split, the old world of aristocratic glitter surrounding the Queen in London, the new world of factories and warehouses spreading out from Manchester. He succeeded, and the true memorial of his success is the name which all over the world belongs to the era in which he lived, the Victorian Era.

Science did flourish in Manchester during the crucial formative years of the Industrial Revolution, but the relations between science and industry were not at all in accordance with Disraeli's ideas or with the ideas of later Marxist historians. Science did not arise in response to the needs of industrial production. The driving forces of the Manchester scientific renaissance were not technological and utilitarian; they were cultural and aesthetic.

Recently the historian Arnold Thackray was in Princeton and I had the opportunity to learn from him what really happened in Manchester in the second half of the eighteenth century. The seminal influences in the growth of science in {39} Manchester were the city infirmary (founded in 1752) and the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel. The doctors and the Unitarians were the intellectual elite of the rapidly growing town, and they joined forces in 1781 to create an institution appropriate to their needs, the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. The Literary and Philosophical Society was consciously designed to give Manchester a cultural focus, to raise the aspirations of the leading citizens to a loftier level, to divert them from the mere accumulation of wealth to the pursuit of higher learning. From the very beginning the society was enormously successful. It attracted and supported first-rate scientists such as Priestley, Dalton and Joule, it published a journal, it built a library and a College of Arts and Sciences and a Mechanics' Institution and an Academy, it gave birth to Owens College which ultimately grew into the University of Manchester, and it had a big share in the founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. During the first seventy years of its existence, from 1781 to 1851, the society had altogether 588 members, and of these no less than 31, a little over 5 percent, became sufficiently distinguished as scientists on the national scene to be elected Fellows of the Royal Society of London. An extraordinary achievement for a bunch of amateurs in a raw provincial town.

The historical question which needs to be answered is why a group of doctors and Unitarian Chapel-goers, having decided to give their city a new cultural identity, should have found it in the study of physics and chemistry. The name of the Literary and Philosophical Society shows that their original objective was general culture and not specialized science. Thomas Henry, who was both a physician and a Unitarian and one of the founding members of the society, expressed their purpose explicitly: "A taste for polite literature, and the works of nature and art, is essentially necessary to form the gentleman." In other words, the founding fathers wanted to prove that it was possible to live in Manchester and still be a gentleman. How did it happen that the search for genteel status led them so rapidly and decisively into science?

Arnold Thackray explains their concentration upon science as a result of two main factors. First, the Unitarians were legally barred from the academic establishment of Oxford and Cambridge, and the atmosphere of Manchester was saturated with contempt for the ancient universities. So the organizers of the Literary and Philosophical Society were anti-academic, having no use for the smattering of Latin and Greek which the universities in those days called a classical education. Second, the inhabitants of Manchester were unrepresented in Parliament and therefore tended to radicalism in politics, especially in the formative years of the society before the French Revolution made radicalism unpopular. Radical politics included a belief in public education, and science served better than Latin and Greek as a vehicle for educating the masses. The chemist Priestley, hero of the radicals, expressed their view of science as an agent of social reform: "The English Hierarchy, if there be anything unsound in its constitution, has reason to tremble even at an air pump or an electrical machine."

So the anti-academic, anti-establishment brashness of Manchester made a fertile ground for the growth of science. And the science which grew in that northern soil had a style different from the science of Athens, just as two hundred years later the music of the Beatles growing up in nearby Liverpool had a style different from the music of Mozart. The science of Athens emphasizes ideas and theories; it tries to find unifying concepts which tie the universe together. The science of Manchester emphasizes facts and things; it tries to explore and extend our knowledge of nature's diversity. Of course the tradition of unifying science did not end with Athens, and the tradition of diversifying science did not begin with Manchester. Historians of science are accustomed to call these two traditions in science Cartesian and Baconian, since Descartes was the great unifier and Bacon the great diversifier at the birth of modern science in the seventeenth century. The unifying and diversifying traditions have always remained alive in science to a greater or lesser extent. But the human exploit which Disraeli discerned in Manchester included an important {41} rebirth of the diversifying tradition in science. Manchester brought science out of the academies and gave it to the people. Manchester insolently repudiated the ancient prohibition, "Let nobody ignorant of geometry enter here," which Plato is said to have inscribed over the door of his academy in Athens.


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History of technology (0.657778): dbpedia | freebase
French Revolution (0.656929): dbpedia | freebase

 Infinite in All Directions
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Dyson , Freeman J. (2004-07-22), Infinite in All Directions, Harper Perennial, Retrieved on 2012-04-25
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  • Folksonomies: religion