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Lecture: Enlightenment and Revolution

What was the Enlightenment? It's very difficult to date, but historians like to separate it from the so-called "Scientific Revolution". That revolution seems to focus on measurement and experimentation, and the ultimate combination of this approach with reason and deduction to create what we call the "scientific method". By the beginning of the 18th century, the scientific method of combining empiricism with rationalism was already adopted among intellectuals. The Enlightenment occurred when thinkers began applying the lessons of science, as they saw them, to humanity. Technologies became the tools for that application.

Reason and Passion

An easy way to get at the Enlightenment is to see it as a tussle between two elements: the rational and the emotional. This had been a special concern of the ancient Greeks, who had believed that reason and passion needed to be balanced to achieve health, happiness and prosperity. Their society had in many ways been based on moderation - you can see it in the balanced art and architecture, and in their idea of medicine as restoring balance. 18th century philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau revived this struggle: each can be used to represent a side of the argument. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in the human connection to nature, and valued intuition and emotion over reason. His work The Social Contract (1762) created the idea that government should be based on the general will of the people being governed, which would be a founding idea for liberal revolution. His work Emile (also 1762) argued for a natural, guided form of education for children, rather than the learning by rote prized by 17th century philosophers like John Locke.

Voltaire favored the rational mind, particularly in opposition to superstition and human cruelty. For example, he went to court to defend the honor of a Protestant man, Jean Calas, who had been executed for murdering his son, who had become a Roman Catholic. The Calas case, overturned by a court in 1765 and restoring the family name, made Voltaire a champion of those innocent but accused because of rumor and prejudice. He was already famous for his wit and sophistication, and his ridicule of stupidity and ignorance in works like Candide. Like Voltaire, Denis Diderot believed that humankind's great accomplishment were the achievements of the rational mind, applied to the real world. They worked with others on the Encyclopédie, a 28-volume work that purported to display all of human knowledge. For our purposes, the Encyclopedia contains an extraordinary amount of information, including many woodcut prints, explaining the technology of the day.

needlemaker letterpress felt hat plow
Needle Making Printing press Felt Hat Making Plow

The other way to see the focus on reason over passion is to look at art. Compare, for example:

Fragonard Swing

David Horatii

<- Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing (French: L'escarpolette), 1767, Wallace Collection, London.

Above: Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Louvre

Here we are contrasting the fluffy, fun Rococo style of Fragonard with the neo-classical, almost photographic, geometric, rational style of David's work. Neo-classicism, the deliberate revival of classical Greek and Roman themes, was the artistic representation of this Age of Reason. Reason was seen almost like a goddess, a savior who would stop decades of superstition and political decisions based on tradition instead of rational decision-making.

Agriculture and Transport

The last of the Encyclopedia illustrations above, the plow, was part of a new Agricultural Revolution that caused great change. Although the revolution was primarily technological, there was also another factor: the influx of new foods from foreign countries, especially the Americas. The Columbian Exchange had brought many new foods, and some were adopted as "people food" (as opposed to those you feed animals) more quickly than others. Potatoes and tomatoes (which are related to each other) were difficult to get people to eat at first because the plant and leaves are poisonous. And potatoes exposed to the sun can also be toxic. Frederick the Great of Prussia, realizing the crop's potential, adopted it as a royal plant and encouraged its cultivation. Potatoes are truly remarkable plants - they can grow in poor, sandy soil with little nutrition, and still provide large yields. They have Vitamin C and good carbohydrates, and can also be fed to animals. (If you don't believe me, buy an organic potato, cut it into four pieces, and plant all four. Invite me over for potato salad in 6 months.)

Other foods and crops came over that fueled (I think literally) intellectual growth: coffee, tea and chocolate. Coffee arrived in the 17th century from the Middle East, leading to coffee houses for drink and spirited conversation. Tea came from China and India. Both coffee and tea, of course, have caffeine. Chocolate was a NJethro Tull bookew World crop; in the Americas it was made into a bitter drink. The main chemical in chocolate is theobromine (food of the gods). Mixed with Canary Islands sugar and northern European milk, chocolate (as a drink) became extremely popular in the 18th century. At one time there were more chocolate houses than coffee houses in Europe. Tobacco, another New World crop developed in the 17th century, became even more popular in the 18th. The most popular form was snuff.

At the same time, technologies were introducing change in agricultural methods in Europe. Jethro Tull was a scholar who became a farmer, and in 1801 invented the seed drill for planting seeds evenly in a furrow. It was several decades before agricultural improvement became popular, and by then he was at the heart of it, publishing The New Horse Hoeing Husbandry in 1731. Changes in agriculture, including the movement to enclose common fields, created agricultural expansion and surpluses. When combined with adaptations of new foods, particularly the potato, the health of common people improved, and population expanded. In fact, it expanded so much as to create migrations of people to the cities, looking for work.

The produce of this era, and all the commercial goods from the colonies, needed to be transported. In England, this meant a boom in road and canal building, accompanied by investment ups and downs. Ups and downs were also needed on the canals themselves, to create smooth canals with towpaths for the animals to pull the barges. Often a particular canal would be higher or lower than the nearby navigable rivers. Barges needed to transfer easily from canals to rivers, so canal locks were built, a really cool technology that is still pretty much used in this form. Check out the animation:

lock animation
Descriptive text

The patent system

Among the many inventions of the Enlightenment, one of the most important was the patent system itself. The idea of a patent, or monopoly on a particular invention for a certain number of years, may have originated with Venetian glass workers in the 15th century. But most patent law developed in the 18th and 19th century, for example French patent law during the early years of the French Revolution, and patents are enshrined in the American Constitution. Patents are designed to encourage innovation and, through publication, dissemination of technical information to encourage even more innovation.

Oliver Evans is an example of an inventor on the cusp of the patent system. He was American, inventing and trying to file patents before US Patent Law in 1790. Among his innovations are a water-driven flour mill that uses an assembly line to produce flour without it ever being touched by human hands:

Evans mill

Evans also created a high-pressure steam locomotive, and many other things, but wasn't able to get the patents he needed to protect his inventions. After the law of 1790, he spent a lot of time in court because people stole his ideas. Industrial espionage may seem like a modern thing, but it isn't. In that same year, 1790, American Samuel Slater returned from England to Rhode Island. In England he had visited the automated water-powered textile mills, and his hosts had all visitors searched to make sure no one took drawings or plans of the mills out of the country. Slater held the plans to an English textile mill in his head, scribbled on the boat, and built the first American water-powered textile mill in Rhode Island.


Here I need to jump back in chronology a bit to introduce you to Gabriello Fallopio, Italian scientist of the 16th century (1523-1562). He was an anatomist at the University of Pisa and the University of Padua, and did a lot of dissections. He names a number of body parts, including the cochlea, the clitoris, and the (obviously) fallopian tubes, which connect the ovaries to the uterus and which he discovered. Together with Vesalius, he created a new Renaissance medicine that turned away from the classical models of Galen. But the other thing he did was conduct experiments in using condoms to prevent syphilis.

Syphilis was a deadly scourge in the 16th century, and would continue to deform, madden and kill its victims well into the 18th. Fallopio's experiments proved that condoms could prevent transmission. By the 18th century, they could be obtained from apothecaries and ship captains (trying to shield their crews from infection with the "French pox" or the "Spanish pox" - English terms, of course - when they docked in port). Mercury had been used as a cure for two centuries, but usually in an inhaled form that caused severe side effects. Austrian physician Gerhard van Swieten instead used an oral suspension (later called Liquor Swientenni) which, though still debilitating during therapy, was more effective. If you look at the literature and pop culture reference to the "mercury cure" you will find dismissive statements about the use of mercury and how poisonous it was. Primary sources don't necessarily agree - Casanova took the cure several times for syphilis, and was cured each time until he got it again from future encounters.

Mercury cures were also available by injection. Injections had been around since the 17th century when blood circulation was being understood, and both Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle had conducted experiments. In the 18th century an injection of an emetic helped a patient vomit up an object blocking his throat. But the real age of injections would have to wait till the 19th century invention of the calibrated syringe, which meant you didn't need to cut open a vein.

Inoculations, however, could be delivered just under the skin. The idea that one could prevent full-blown disease by introducing a small amount of that same disease had been around for centuries. Credit is given to Edward Jenner for creating the first smallpox inoculation in 1796. But I think the credit should go to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who survived smallpox and was heavily scarred by it. In 1717 she described in letters the Turkish practice of inoculating for smallpox, and had her children inoculated. She tried to popularize the practice in England, but the inoculation was so strong that some children became scarred from the shot. The mortality rate for smallpox in the 18th century was 40%, and it was Jenner who discovered what many country people knew - that milkmaids didn't get smallpox. Turns out that cattle carried cowpox, and many people in continual contact with cows carried that disease, which was very mild. Jenner made his innoculation out of cowpox, which worked much better.

Obstetrics became professionalized in the 18th century. Here's a video explaining:

Video and text available here.

Such technological "advances" such as the forceps may have been influential in the attacks on midwifery and the ultimate reliance on surgeons for even simple births. Since many midwives rejected such tools as being harmful to the baby (which they often were), these technologies became the tools of surgeons, and helped 18th century doctors (many of whom were far less educated about births than midwives) take over. But there is no doubt that the models, like those shown here from the Museo Galileo, would be extremely helpful in teaching them the anatomical characteristics of difficult births.

Video and text available here.

Newspaper and broadsheet presses

Although the first newspapers were published in the 17th century, they became popular in the 18th during a time of intellectual expansion and political disruptions. The first broadsheets, or broadsides, were large single printed sheets sold or distributed to share ideas. Scholars wanting feedback on ideas, rabble rousers trying to rouse the rabble, advertisers marketing their products, or police looking for witnesses, all used broadsheets.

You can see here an ad for a pedometer, carried in the pocket, invented by a William Fraser in London at the beginning of the 18th century.


And a report on capturing suspects in a murder (1780):

murder broadsheet

Later, steam-run printing presses make these early newspapers (and advertisements) seem like a minor thing, but they were mass media despite the small runs. And they were crucially important to the American Revolution (see next topic).

With the coming of the broadsheets, and ultimately the mechanization of printing and cheaper publications by the mid-19th century, one question is how this new medium influenced society. In his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, media analyst Marshall McLuhan claimed that people changed radically as a result of the printing press, beginning in the 16th century. He saw four phases of the human change in response to media: the oral age (before writing), the hand-writing age (manuscripts), the printing age, and the electric age (and this was long before the internet). The evolution of reading printed text, he believed, created cognitive changes in the reader, which then influenced social and political changes. Reading is, after all, a solitary activity if you're doing it silently. McLuhan suggests that more people reading print meant more people seeing themselves as the center of their own perspective - just you and the material, if you like. Is it possible that the development of concepts like individual rights went hand in hand with printing technology?

Political Revolutions: Printing Press and Guillotine

Franklin pressIn 1763, the Seven Years War ended, and France had ceded her territories to Great Britain in both the Americas and India. The American theatre of this war had been called the French and Indian War. It had been an expensive war, particularly the defense of the British colonies in North America. The British government initiated taxation efforts to gain money from the American colonies, and the American merchants, who had been running their own affairs for decades, rebelled. The printing press was used throughout the colonies to garner support for the "patriots" - Benjamin Franklin's press was particularly busy printing circulars and posters. Combined with John Locke's ideas of political liberalism (the idea that government's job is to protect life, liberty and property), the American Revolution led to the complete break from Britain in 1781, cemented by the treaty after the War of 1812.

The success of the ideas of individual liberty and the purpose of government, supported by Thomas Jefferson and other liberal guillotinethinkers, encouraged the liberals of France to launch a French Revolution, which increasingly became more radical. Liberal revolutionaries took over the government and imprisoned the king. Then more radical members were voted in, and they turned against the middle class liberals, trying to create total equality. Mass executions took place.

Executing people requires tools. The main tool in the 16th and 17th centuries had been the axe or sword, wielded by a skilled executioner. Well, often skilled. Beheading was a somewhat inexact art, the blow's effectiveness dependent on a number of variables, including the thickness of the criminal's neck. Interestingly, the number of crimes punishable by death increased during the 17th century, so more techniques had been developed. There had been efforts since the 14th century to use the weight of a falling blade to do the beheading. The Halifax Gibbet had been used during the Middle Ages, until the middle of the 17th century. It had an axe head that fell down a track. In 1789 Dr Guillotine proposed his invention, based on the Gibbet, to the National Assembly in France. It was tested and used in 1792, as the Great Terror began, and it made mass executions more efficient. Dr Guillotine was apparently horrified - his intention had been to create a humane form of capital punishment, not mass execution. The technology was intended as a tool built out of reason and humanity, to prevent brutality. The guillotine was indeed a more humane method of execution than the axe, since the drop was weighted well and it tended to slice cleanly. Of course, after hundreds of deaths, I assume the blade got duller. Ew.


Technology can get beyond intentions, and be used for other purposes. We'll see that in future eras, certainly - perhaps as technology gets more complex, it becomes harder to control its effects. But the Age of Reason had another, more subtle impact. The dependence on Reason could be seen as faulty - the Reign of Terror in France seems to show that total reason can go too far, undermining the very ideas of civilization it vows to protect. It also lacks emotion, which many people use daily to make decisions. Many people then, as now, used their emotions as a lens through which they saw the world. Technology can seem cold, devoid of humanity, mechanized in a way we may not want people, or society, to be. These concerns were first seen in the 18th century.







Sources: H. Feldmann, History of injections. Pictures from the history of otorhinolaryngology highlighted by exhibits of the German History of Medicine Museum in Ingolstadt . Laryngorhinootologie. 2000 Apr;79(4):239-46. Translation from German. Abstract here.

Image of flour mill from http://patentpending.blogs.com/patent_pending_blog/historical_patents/page/2/, derived from illustration from Theodore Hazen's site on Flour Mill Automation, and Oliver Evan's Mills, with color and arrows added by Dr. Barbara J. Becker from her site, Spinning the Web of Ingenuity, which is part of her class on the History of Technology at U.C. Irvine.