Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

Time, Technology, Religion, and Productivity
Values in Early Modern Europe

Francis C. Haber

Summary This paper is concerned with the emergence of a set of values that supported machine manufacture and increased economic productivity in connection with a tradition in the Christian West of justifying technology on religious grounds.* The tradition took on new importance in the early seventeenth century. Against a prevalent expectation of an impending catastrophic end of time for this world with the advent of the Apocalypse, a group of writers advocated a gradualist redemption of mankind from the damage of the Fall by using the surviving spark of reason to develop the arts and sciences. They argued that this would lead to a better understanding of the works of God, make the earth more fruitful, and benefit mankind. Francis Bacon and a later circle of Baconians centered around Samuel Hartlib were influential in transforming the religious justifications into a utilitarian program, articulating a set of values that emphasized modernization and increased productivity.

The mass production of goods with machinery driven by the natural forces of wind, water, or steam was an essential element in the emergence of industrialism. It is an idea that was developed into a social goal with particular intensity in modern Europe. The practice, however, is very old. Joseph Needham has found ample evidence of the use of water mills for industrial purposes in ancient and medieval China, with striking examples of the use of complex spinning machinery driven by water mills in the production of textiles in the early fourteenth century.1 He has demonstrated beyond question that the Chinese were incredibly gifted in mechanical inventiveness and that technology found significant support inside and outside the imperial governments. Yet, the Industrial Revolution took place in eighteenth-century England, not in China, despite its technological proficiency. The Romans were producing flour with water mills by the first century B.C. The construction of machines for such mills was described by Vitruvius in his Ten Books of Architecture (c. 27 B.C.). The largest industrial complex of the Roman Empire appears to have been at Barbegal, near Arles, and Jean Gimpel estimates that it could produce twenty-five tons of flour a day.2 However, the Romans did not adopt a policy of extending the mechanization of the production of goods.

Because the Ancients did not take the step toward industrialization, Benjamin Farrington has argued that their science was a "failure." They considered science only as a knowledge of nature, not as the means of power over nature, he said, noting the similar

____________________
*
Support for this paper was provided by a grant from the General Research Board of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland at College Park.

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