Revolutionary Roads

Why did it take so long for humans to have the Industrial Revolution? is the question asked over at the Marginal Revolution. What do you mean say I? Thirteen point seven-five billion years isn't **that** long. Apparently, though, Tyler and friends interpreted the question slightly differently since they quickly fall to geopolitical and economic speculations.

Like other similar questions, e.g., "why did it take so long to" (a)develop agriculture", (b)evolve a technological species, or (c)get some free oxygen on the planet, the most interesting thing is not the answer, which nobody knows, but the reasoning involved in the deduction. I guess I'm not too impressed with historical/economic factors argument.

My prejudice is to believe that the central fact was preceding scientific revolution of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and others. Not only were the laws of physics extremely useful for the designers of mechanisms, but probably even more influential was the shift to a fundamental viewpoint in which the Universe was not inexplicable but just a very complicated machine. I don't think it is coincidental that the industrial revolution occurred in the same part of the world as the scientific.

There were certainly seeds for an industrial revolution in Archimedes and the Muslims, Indians, Chinese, and Koreans, but the soil they fell on evidently did not support them. Why not? Geopolitical, social, religious reasons or other? I'll will put my money on the crucial ingredient being the scientific substrate - not just knowlege of the facts and equations, but the prestige of science and the public fascination with it. These were perfect to encourage an intense burst of experimentation and technolgical progress.

By the dawn of the industrial revolution Britain was a nation of tinkerers. George Caley was inventing the airplane and the caterpillar tractor. Across the water, Ben Franklin was sussing out the nature of electricity. I'm pretty sure that kind of cultural explosion could not have taken place in ancient Greece or any of the other supposed candidates.


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