The Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason rather than faith contributed greatly to the advance of science and technology in the 18th and 19th centuries.
A new, more practical, mindset arose, replacing fanciful superstitions or God’s Will and the workings of mischievous spirits as explanations for natural phenomena.
This encouraged interest in scientific discoveries and industrial advances, particularly in Britain which showed the way after 1750 near the start of its Industrial Revolution.
The Advance of European Science and Industry
Other Europeans soon realized the importance of technical industrialization. Germany, for example, took steps to unhitch its industries from traditional, outmoded practices. In 1810, Wilhelm Humboldt had already founded the Humboldt University in Berlin which offered courses in theoretical science, with the emphasis on mathematics and physics.
In 1821,Christian Beuth, a lecturer at the Prussian Institute of Trade, opened the Gewerbeschle (School of Trade and Industry) in Berlin to introduce manufacturers and workers to the new technicalities and chemical substances being used in industry.
World Fairs and Museums
Both intellectual and popular interest in science and technology were encouraged by ‘world fairs’ at which new inventions and discoveries were exhibited. Among the first were the French Industrial Exhibition in Paris in 1844 and in London in 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of industry of All Nations, to give it its full title. Paris staged two more exhibitions, in 1889, and 1900.
Museums served as permanent showcases for scientific and other discoveries and developments. The ‘Museum Age’ in the U.S.A. at the turn of the 20th century saw an intense period of museum building.
In Paris, the Louvre had already been turned into a museum and in London, a complex of museums was built to hold many of the exhibits on show at the Great Exhibition after it closed in 1858.
Archaeology and Astronomy
At the British Museum, which had opened in London in 1759, archaeological finds attracted a great deal of excited attention. Modern archaeology effectively began after 1748 with the discovery of the ancient Roman town of Pompeii, 14 miles southeast of modern Naples.
Previously, relics found at the site of Pompeii were considered the work of fairies, whereas the excavations discovered a town and its inhabitants frozen in time just as they had been when the nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79AD.
Similarly, excavations in Egypt after the 1880s revealed the till then unsuspected extent and magnificence of the Ancient Egyptian civilization.
Significant advances were made, too, in astronomy. In 1781, William Herschel, the German-born British astronomer, discovered Uranus, the seventh planet of the solar system . An eighth planet, Neptune, was found in 1846 by the German astronomer Johann Galle.
New Machines and Inventions
The 19th century also produced the calculating machines invented by the English mathematician Charles Babbage – the ‘difference engine’ and ‘analytical engine’ which prefigured the modern computer.
There were, in addition, a mass of inventions and discoveries which radically altered former lifestyles. This was not always for the best. For example, the spinning, weaving and other machines in the factories of the late 18th and early 19th centuries involved the exploitation of workers who laboured long hours in stifling and unhealthy conditions. The British Parliament was required to pass into law special legislation that put a stop to these practises on the part of employers.
On the other hand, there were significant benefits in the advances achieved by factory-made production. For example, textiles, pottery and other domestic products enabled people to buy items, formerly hand-made and expensive, which until now, they had not been able to afford.
New Ways to Travel
The canals and railroads constructed to take products to the markets ensured a regular and much more plentiful supply of goods. In addition, the railroads transformed popular lifestyles by providing . a new way for people to travel faster and further than ever before.
Railroads also allowed them to avoid jolting in carriages over the badly-made roads which were not improved until John MacAdam the Scots inventor and engineer, devised his method of smoothing over roads with his ‘tarmacadam’, a covering of crushed stone bonded with gravel.
At sea, the chronometer devised by English clock maker John Harrison enabled seamen to measure longitude correctly for the first time, so giving a proper reckoning of a ship’s position at sea. The chronometer was a life saver, eliminating mistakes in navigation that at one time caused ships to be wrecked on rocks, beached onshore or driven into dangerous shallows and sandbanks.
The modern bicycle, invented by an English sewing machine manufacturer, James Starley had a similar effect on freedom of movement, especially for women who, for the first time, were able to explore the countryside and any other destination that lay further from home than they had ever been able to travel previously. Starley designed and built the ‘Coventry’ tricycle and, in 1871, the ‘Ariel’ bicycle.
The Enlightenment, a philosophical movement originating in the 18th century, involved a wide-ranging rethink of traditionally held beliefs and methods.
The early adherents of the Enlightenment sought freedom from the shackles of ignorance, superstition and the despotism which characterized royal government in Europe so that they could instead form their own opinions and generally to think for themselves.
New Challenges to Old Ideas
The influence of the Enlightenment spread across Europe and on to Britain’s American colonies where its principles inspired Thomas Jefferson when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Tom Paine’s pamphlet The Rights of Man reflected the same influence, and represented the most radical type of Enlightenment thinking.
In Europe, Enlightenment ideas created a range of priorities in different countries.
In France, they challenged the rights and powers of royal autocracy, feudal aristocracy and the reactionary Roman Catholic Church.
In England and Scotland, Enlightenment thinkers were more concerned with how to run a capitalist society that was also free, liberal and incorporated a constitutional monarchy.
In the various states of Germany and in Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal. the emphasis was on using the ideas of the Enlightenment to educate despotic rulers to govern more efficiently, modernize the economy and create an expert governing class.
Revolutions across Europe
But whatever the route to Enlightenment chosen by its adherents, the long term effect was to forge a new mindset that eventually overcome the basic medieval principles of mute obedience to authority and the absolute power and privilege of the ruling classes. These age-old principles were replaced, if gradually, by secularism and belief in liberal and personal freedoms and the value of democracy.
The initial reaction was revolution though with variable results. In Britain’s American colonies (1775) France (1789) and, much later, Tsarist Russia (1917) the ultimate effect was the total overthrow of established authority.
Elsewhere in Europe, where the revolutions of 1848 comprised demands for new, liberal constitutions rather than a permanent change of governance, most of the liberal uprisings of 1848 were ruthlessly suppressed and the autocrats were back in power within the year.
The Fate of Europe’s Despots
Nevertheless, the despots were never able to feel safe or secure again. Their lives were smothered in security, making them even more isolated from their people than they had been before.
They were also subject to a series of terrifying frights. Security was not so foolproof that it prevented all attempts at assassination or their consequences. The Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary for instance, was murdered in 1898 and the shooting in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, sparked off the First World War in Europe in 1914.
The Enlightenment in Britain
As has so often occurred in European history, the experience of Britain was different from that of Europe. By the 18th and 19th centuries, British Parliamentary government was solidly established and its monarchs, though powerful and influential, had never been absolute.
This did not mean, of course, that the authorities remained undisturbed by the immense upheavals that took place across the English Channel as Enlightenment principles spread over Europe and threatened the fundamental status quo that had existed for many centuries.
On the contrary, potential revolution was seen virtually everywhere, in working men’s associations, the trades unions and the Chartist Movement which sought the vote for all adult men. The legal response was commensurate.
Punishment and Retribution
Application of the law grew intensely retributive and the death penalty and transportation, the top two punishments for crime, much more common. In fact, by 1810, death by hanging could be imposed for 222 crimes, including stealing a loaf of bread, cutting down trees and horse stealing. Children as well as adults were hanged.
Repression, however, did not have the last word. As the 19th century progressed, philanthropists in and out of the British Parliament campaigned successfully for a more liberal and compassionate approach. The number of capital crimes was gradually reduced by law until, by 1837, only 16 remained.
Other men and women of the same ilk worked to improve conditions in mines, factories, prisons, hospitals and orphanages.
It was notable, too, that Enlightenment principles also inspired members of the exploited “underclass” which had once been forced to resign themselves to their disadvantages.
The Rise of the British Working Class
Towards the end of the 19th century, trades unions were growing in strength, an advance typified by the Trades Union Congress established in 1867. In 1889, the Dockers’ Strike in London established the principle of a decent, liveable wage for workers instead of the paltry pay allowed them by their employers.
In 1900, the Labor Representation Committee, forerunner of the British Labor Party was formed. In 1909, for the first time, old age pensions were granted to people aged over 70 years.
Although much still remained to be done – to improve living conditions, health care, and education among other problems – the social revolution begun by the Enlightenment was well on its way.