Rethinking “Industrial Revolution” in History of Science


A review of Machine Past, Machine Future: Technology in British Thought, c.1870-1914 , by Daniel C.S. Wilson.

Although historians often revel in uncovering the origins of concepts, ideas, and words that people assume have always been there, they frequently have blind spots when it comes to thinking historically about the tools that they use to analyze the past. One of those ideas is the “Industrial Revolution” – not the empirical facts of increased industrial productivity but the idea of an industrial revolution having taken place at a particular point and place in time. Another is “technology” – in particular its relationship to machines and machinery. Although both of those ideas are part of the intellectual furniture in history of science, technology, and medicine, few historians are aware of the ways in which they emerged from a particular set of historical and intellectual circumstances. Daniel Wilson’s dissertation is a searching exploration of those circumstances and an account of how, in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain, the meaning of technology was debated in ways that are hugely significant for our understanding not just of that period but the ideas and concepts we work with now.

As its title suggests, Machine Past, Machine Future is divided into two parts, both chronologically and thematically. Part one, “Machine Past,” investigates the intellectual context in which technology was conceived of during the late nineteenth century, in particular how machines and machinery emerged as conceptual and analytic categories. Wilson explores that emergence through close study of important but surprisingly underused sources. These sources include the reports of the mid- to late nineteenth-century meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which are examined in Chapter 1, and the writings of key thinkers, including Arnold Toynbee (who first coined the term “industrial revolution”), the historians William Cunningham and W. J. Ashley, and the economist J. A. Hobson, who are examined in Chapters 2, 3, and 4. Those Chapters show how central to intellectual life questions about machines and machinery were during the late nineteenth century through close analysis of books, articles, public lectures, and debates. In addition to throwing new light on a number of sources that scholars might consider well-known, Wilson reveals how complex ideas about machines were embedded in an emerging narrative of and discussion about Britain’s past, through which the idea of the “Industrial Revolution” was established. Moreover, Wilson uncovers how those ideas were rooted in evaluations of the changes that had been wrought during the previous 100 years – something that has subsequently been lost.

Part two, “Machine Future,” then uses that examination of late nineteenth-century debates about machinery and their impact on the building of narratives about the past as the basis for a discussion of one of the most distinctive intellectual features of the early twentieth century: the kind of speculation on the future that we would label “futurology” or “science fiction.” As Wilson shows in a close study of H.G. Wells’ writings, and his debates with G.K. Chesterton and Arthur Penty, machines assumed a new role in the early 1900s when they became the foundation for thinking about the relationship between the present and the future as well as the present and the past. In fact, the concept of the machine that had emerged as a tool for thinking critically about the past became a tool for thinking critically about technological trends. In particular, machines and machinery became concepts that enabled thinking about the relationship between humans and technology, including technology’s potential consequences, whether they be economic, cultural, or political.

In navigating its way through these issues, Machine Past, Machine Future is highly sophisticated, both historiographically and conceptually, and reveals the origins of our approaches to technology. On the one hand, and building on the kind of work done by Thomas Dixon on the history of altruism, Wilson documents and explores the emergence of not just particular words and terms but the concepts and ideas that were entangled with them (Thomas Dixon. The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). In this respect, Machine Past, Machine Future is a story of the negotiation of meanings associated with terms, including technology, which are now commonplace but were once up for grabs. On the other hand, Machine Past, Machine Future is an archetypal piece of Skinnerean intellectual history that takes individuals and their work and puts them back into the historical contexts in which they existed to reveal the meanings they once held but have subsequently lost. Wilson shines fresh light, for example, on what the idea of an “Industrial Revolution” meant to Arnold Toynbee, whilst simultaneously recovering the depths and dynamics of Hobson’s writings on empire and capitalism, which scholars routinely pass over. Moreover, Wilson weaves those insights into a broader narrative about the emergence and transformation of a complex set of ideas about machinery. In so doing, he recaptures the intellectual vitality and dynamism of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, showing it to have been the foundation of so much we now take for granted.

While interrogating the origins of the conceptual framework for thinking about machines and technology, Machine Past, Machine Future achieves a number of sophisticated aims. On the one hand, Wilson successfully eschews the alluring narrative of professionalization that dominates the historiography of late nineteenth-century science. As Paul White has argued in his work on T. H. Huxley, historians of science have often been led too easily from the well-known coining of the term “scientist” by William Whewell in the 1830s to the conclusion that everybody wanted to be a specialist or professional from that point onwards (Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Instead, many people, including Huxley, avoided the label “scientist” for some time, believing it to be too narrow to represent their broader visions. Machine Past, Machine Future reconnects with those broader visions – the thinkers who were specialists in the sense that they possessed detailed and professional knowledge of a specific field, but who also aimed to work between the lines of different disciplines so that they could capture the bigger picture. Wilson is successful in impressing upon the reader not just how that holistic enterprise is necessary for understanding the thinkers he explores but also the period as a whole. What is clear is that if we do not reconnect with those visions, we will never come close to understanding how those thinkers understood themselves.

In these respects, Wilson’s work makes a number of incredibly important historiographic contributions. One of these contributions is to the historiography of the Industrial Revolution, in particular how that historiography is handled within history of science. As Jonathan Hodge has argued in his recent work on the capitalist contexts for Darwinism, historians of science have operated and continue to operate with hazy understandings of the industrial revolution, especially when compared to the their colleagues in conventional history departments, who moved away from homogeneous understandings of nineteenth-century capitalism and industry some time ago (“Capitalist Contexts for Darwinian Theory: Land, Finance, Industry and Empire.” Journal of the History of Biology 42 (2009): 399-416). Drawing on Boyd Hilton, P. J. Cain, and A. G. Hopkins, Hodge has explored the implications of a more sophisticated understanding of capitalism’s different stages of development for our understanding of Darwin’s work and its reception. In this spirit, Wilson has uncovered the contexts in which life was first breathed into the idea of an “Industrial Revolution,” throwing light on all kinds of interesting issues, from the original evaluative meaning of the term to its place in debates about the identity of the emerging history profession, whose practitioners frequently aspired to scientific status and therefore uniformitarian rather than catastrophist explanations of phenomena.

Machine Past, Machine Future’s biggest achievement, however, is the way it skilfully and successfully integrates past, present, and future when considering its significance for the history of science. More specifically, the dissertation’s strongest point is the way it integrates the history of ideas with intellectual history and the history of technology, while reflecting on not only the significance of that approach for a number of different historiographies but also the historical processes that make it necessary at all. As Wilson rightly observes, the historiography of technology has come to be dominated by a particular view of technology, which emphasises human and social control over those artefacts. As the contents of Machine Past, Machine Future make clear, though, things were not always thus. Broader visions of technology were cultivated in the past in the belief that holistic and multi-disciplinary approaches were necessary to understand and evaluate machines and their relationships with humans. In this respect, Machine Past, Machine Future offers insights into the work of a large number of historians of technology, from Leo Marx to David Edgerton, and the trajectory taken by the historiography of technology since the interwar period. Moreover, and just as importantly, Wilson demonstrates that the thinkers he explores are more than just historical relics by showing how their work has the potential to inform the way we think about technology now. Indeed, Machine Past, Machine Future shows that the past is not just a static entity but a dynamic site of intellectual possibilities when it comes to thinking about the future of our disciplines.

Chris Renwick
Department of History
University of York

Primary Sources

Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
Arnold Toynbee, papers and published writings
H. G. Wells, published writings
G. K. Chesterton, papers and published writings
J. A. Hobson, papers and published writings

Dissertation Information

Birkbeck, University of London. 2010. 288 pp. Primary Advisor: Daniel Pick.

Image: Arnold Toynbee. Frontispiece to L.L.F.R.Price, Industrial Peace: Its Advantages, Methods And Difficulties, London, Macmillan and Company (1887). Wikimedia Commons.

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