The scientific and industrial revolution: a global story


The most important lesson that can be drawn by comparing the history of the scientific revolution and the one of the industrial revolution, is that both phenomena were able to develop thanks to two main components: an intellectual shift in society, and an economic expansion due to the rise of new global trade routes. The classical view of the history of science and the reason why the industrial revolution was able to happen, has a strictly European focus, offering an understanding that it was just a few brilliant men that led the way for the two revolutions. The thesis that this paper raises is that this is not the case, and the explanation of the two revolutions must be found looking at the picture from a more global perspective. 

Intellectual shift 

It is generally understood that the scientific and industrial revolutions are separated in terms of when they took place. Commonly there is this perspective that the methods and knowledge that the scientific revolution brought, enabled the realization of the industrial revolution in a second moment. This chronologically understanding of the events can be grouped under the concept of “the classical view”. This view understands the two revolutions with a strong European focus with the scientific one as a starting point. According to Cunningham and Williams (1993) the “classical view” understands the birth of science as a sum of crucial events in understanding nature. This understanding of nature led to a mathematization of it and a “mechanization of the world picture” . 

Furthermore, the classical view describes science as a universal knowledge system and ultimate end, giving it more value compared to others. 

This essay, following the ideas of Cunningham and Williams (1993), does not agree with this classical view, but instead, it tries to provide a different one. Science in this context is seen as one of many knowledge systems, and possible because of the deep embodiment with society. The main argument in favor of this description is the focus not on the methodology of science but on the intellectual element embodied in it. To better understand what is meant, the difference of natural philosophy compared to science will be explained, and for doing so, the example of Newton described by Cunningham and Williams (1993) will be reported. 

In the classical view, natural philosophy and science are just two interchangeable terms. Looking at classical works, it is possible to see that until a certain period of time there is the use of the term natural philosophy, but later when the scientific methods gain more importance to the same type of practice and research, it is given the name of science. What Cunningham and Williams (1993) propose is a different understanding. Newton is generally understood as one of the first scientists, one of the fathers of the scientific method. Although Newton used observation and empirical experimentation to purpose his research, he was not a scientist but a natural philosopher. This is because, according to the two authors, science is not about the method but about the intellectual reasons of the research. Natural philosophy intended to show a world view in which the metaphysical present of God was deeply embodied. The research here was to understand nature in order to get closer to the creator, and this can be seen in the work of Newton itself. In fact, the English philosopher did not write and try to understand nature for the sole purpose of understanding, but he was relating this research for the interpretation of the sacred texts. Science does not have this metaphysical component in looking to nature in order to be closer to the creator, but it investigates nature because all the answers are already inside there. 

But why was there this intellectual shift? According to Cunningham and Williams (1993), there are three main social reasons that brought this change. The first one is the French revolution, and therefore a political factor. This is because this event emphasizes the importance of the free will of the individual. The second one was the industrial revolution, which took place almost simultaneously to the scientific one. This revolution was economic, and it was able to be achieved thanks to the application of the scientific method to the industrial sector. This implies an increase in investment and new settings in which people were acting. The third revolution was an intellectual one, resulting from a building-up process of the previous two. This was a shift of the intellect’s role, meaning that the importance of the persons’ knowledge in society was taken more into account. Under this view, the sense of the first part of the thesis of this essay can be understood. 

New trade routes: a global economic expansion

This essay argues that the second element that enabled the rise of the scientific and industrial revolutions was the creation of new global trade routes and, what followed, economic expansion. In supporting this thesis, two different types of work are used. At first, the papers of Cook (2004) and Canizares (2017) will support the argument that the new trade routes of the XVI and XVII centuries were essential for putting the basis of the upcoming revolutions. Second, how the policy, protectionism regulations, and taxes systems in relation to the new global world determined the geographical rise of these phenomena. 

The thesis of Cook’s paper is that modern science started with the creation of new global networks. This is because, in his opinion, knowledge is first of all a process of information exchange. A similar thesis can also be linked to Canizares (2017)who understands the scientific revolution not as a European phenomenon, but as a global one, which was possible because of the new trade routes that were established after the discovery of America and the bigger trade with Asia. The two authors make the case with the exchange of abstract and medical knowledge through global networks between the Dutch and Japanese, and the foundation of new colonies in the Americas with connected exploitation due to raw materials and cultivation. What is important to underline is not that Europeans brought science to the world, but instead, it was the opening of new routes that enabled the movements of people and ideas, creating networks of exchange of people and information. This communication between different human groups and cultures was essential for putting the basis for science’s emergence. Both authors emphasize the importance of the new trade routes, and the importance of the exchange of information. This factor is central to the thesis of the essay because global trade meant movement and dynamism, which with the relative expansion in the economy with more products that are exchanged creates the assumptions for the start of the intellectual shift described in the first part. 

This essay describes that the reasons that enabled the two evolutions to rise are global, but it is a historical fact that in certain geographical regions these two revolutions had a bigger development compared to others, yet the reasons for this still connect to the big global picture.

Once again, there is a “classical view” which explains why certain geographical regions had a faster industrial development compared to others, and these views can be summarized by the work of Rostow (1973). In this view, the focus is on the growth that the industrial revolution was able to produce, and this was a direct consequence of the scientific revolution. In a simple way, there is an understanding of an action-reaction process at the basis. After the scientific revolution took place, it was just a matter of time before also an industrial one began. This was, according to Rostow (1973), because the rise of rational culture brought on scene three new elements that combined gave, as a result, the industrial achievement. The first element was a philosophical impact. The new scientific methodology created a rational mentality, leading to a positive attitude towards nature developing new knowledge. This element is strictly related to the second one, as new knowledge enables the application of it in new tools, leading to improvement of technology. The third element, and most important in Rostow’s story, concerning the role of Britain and why growth happened there, was the emerging of new social figures. Scientists, inventors, and innovators took the lead in the new social context of the industrial revolution, giving a creative push of innovation that enables the application of new knowledge and technology in industrial settings. The reason why this happened in Britain and not in other countries, in Rostow’s understanding, was because of the political system. In fact, according to the author, Britain had a liberal approach to their internal economy, with a system of deregulations in which the state was taking a step back on the social context in order to leave the leading role to the three new social figures. 

The story that this essay tells is more closely related to the arguments that Ashworth (2008) describes. Ashworth zooms out from only Britain trying to find an answer relating the case to a global picture. According to the author, the limited timber resources of Britain were not enough to supply the expansion of its industries. To answer this situation, two possibilities could be followed: either importing timber from abroad, which was expensive for trade reasons, or trying to find new fuel resources. The second possibility was the one that was followed. This led to the use of coal on a big scale, as coal provided better performance compared to timber, and this blew up the industrial capacity. Increasing the industrial capacity, permitted by the regulation system and policy protection to provide taxes policy in the collection of revenues for the state, that on the other hand started to invest in a massive way on infrastructure and industry development, blowing up the economy. To this, another important element that the scientific revolution brought with it must be added in Ashworth’s opinion, which is the application of experimental methods and mathematical textbooks of science also to the industry sector. 

A further work that goes against the classical view of rationality described by Rostow is Pomeranz’s (2000) paper, which puts the effort into the role of trade and internal economic factors. In fact, in his article, he argues that two factors caused the Britain’s industrial revolution, which support the thesis of this short essay. The first was the passage from organic to mineral economy. This argument is quite similar to Ashworth’s, and indeed it was a key factor in the expansion of Britain’s industry. On the other hand, the second reason was the trade with America and this meant access to the resources of that continent. The factor of global trade led to an expansion of Britain economy as well as industrial manufacturing capacity. 


The aim of this essay was to demonstrate that the scientific and industrial revolutions developed not just for European events. Their realization was possible due to an intellectual shift and new global context. In the first part of the text, it was argued that although the methods of science started to be developed in the XVI and XVII centuries, modern science started a couple of centuries later, at the end of the XVIII and beginning of the XIX century. This is because science is a practice that was powered by intellectual reasons, and this shift in the intellectual domain, enable the birth of modern science. Following this picture, it is possible to see that between the scientific and industrial revolutions there is no clear boundary. 

In the second part of the essay, the emphasis was put on the role that the new global trade routes had in the two phenomena. At first, it was said that the basis for the two revolutions was the exchange of information on a global level created by movements of people. 

It is historically true that some geographical regions had more modernizations than others, but it was argued that this is still because of global factors compared to internal ones. This argumentation can be found in the second part of the second section. 

Furthermore, from this essay, a bigger message can be taken: it seems that even if history analyzes what happened in the past, the interpretations and understanding of it is not something fixed. The complexity of our present days requires more than ever a new story and understanding of the past, to see more clearly what the present, but also the future, reserves for all of us. 


  • Ashworth, W., (2008). The Ghost of Rostow: Science, Culture and the British Industrial Revolution. History of Science, 46(3), pp.249-274.
  • Cañizares-Esguerra, J., (2017). On Ignored Global “Scientific Revolutions”. Journal of Early Modern History, 21(5), pp.420-432.
  • Cook, Harold J. “Medical Communication in the first global age: Willem ten Rhijne in Japan, 1674-1676.” Disquisitions on the Past and Present II (2004): 16-36.
  • Cunningham A., and Williams P., (1993). De-centring the “big picture”: The Origins of Modern Science and the modern origins of science. British Journal for the History of Science 26 (1993): 407-432.
  • Perdue, P. C. (2000) Lucky England, Normal China. H-Net Reviews in the Humanities & Social Sciences. Available from: [accessed 21 December 2021].
  • Rossi, P., (1973). The scientific revolution: from Copernico to Newton. Laterza Editori, Bari.
  • Rostow, W., (1973). The Beginnings of Modern Growth in Europe: An Essay in Synthesis. The Journal of Economic History, 33(3), pp.547-580.

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