Why England?  The English Revolution and Science [1640 CE – 1660 CE]

When teaching in Southwestern China in the 1980s, I occasionally asked my more advanced students why the number of people in China studying English was so much larger than the number of people in English-speaking countries studying Chinese.  After all, England is tiny, only slightly bigger than Shandong Province.  In terms of area and population, Sichuan Province alone was significantly larger than England.

Many of their responses boiled down to the proposition that England was very good at war, which contributed to the creation of the British Empire with exploited colonies around the globe.    When pressed further, they said England’s military prowess was because England experienced the Industrial Revolution before China, which in turn was because England had been the first nation to benefit from the Scientific Revolution, usually referring to the career of Isaac Newton [1643 CE – 1727 CE] to buttress their argument.

To which I would answer with examples of Chinese science and engineering that often preceded Western practice by hundreds of years, including:

  • Crossbows [5th Century BCE]
  • Belt drives [5th Century BCE]
  • Paper [300 BCE, used for toilet hygiene by 589 CE, and for money by the 9th Century CE]
  • The blast furnace [3rd Century BCE]
  • Deep drilling for natural gas as fuel [2nd Century BCE]
  • Ball bearings [2nd Century BCE]
  • Theory of blood circulation [2nd Century BCE]
  • Compass [lodestone compass by 83 CE; with magnetic needles by 1088 CE]
  • Seismographs [132 CE]
  • Paddle wheel ships [418 CE]
  • Iron chain suspension bridges [6th Century CE]
  • Printed books [by 868 CE]
  • Gunpowder [9th Century CE]
  • Inoculation against smallpox [10th Century CE]
  • Printing with movable earthenware type on paper [11th Century CE]
  • Two-stage rockets [1360 CE]

I would offer to provide further examples but those usually sufficed.

Joseph Needham’s masterpiece, the multivolume Science and Civilization in China, has fostered modern awareness of China’s magnificent pioneering contributions in a wide variety of fields, including mathematics, physics, mechanical and civil engineering, paper and printing, metallurgy, ceramics, botany, agriculture, and medicine.

Historians refer to “The Needham Question,” which asks why Chinese scientific creativity seems to have ended suddenly in the early 16th Century CE.  In other words, why didn’t the modern scientific revolution take place in China?

Scholarly responses to that question have suggested that:

  • Old China’s traditional denigration of hands-on work limited experimentation.
  • Unlike European powers, China lacked neighboring nation states to foster competitive generation of new ideas and technology.
  • Chinese bureaucracy killed entrepreneurial spirit, preventing the development of a strong merchant class that would adopt and disseminate technical improvements.
  • The Chinese simply stopped trying. In the Yuan [1271 CE – 1368 CE], Ming [1368 CE – 1644 CE] and Qing [1644 CE – 1911 CE] dynasties, they could not get ahead anyway.  The Yuan Dynasty was Mongol; the Ming was totalitarian even by Chinese standards; the Qing Dynasty was Manchu.
  • The Chinese got smug.  They were so used to being preeminent in Asia they became incurious, and tried to ignore the more advanced ways of Westerners who showed up on their shores in increasing numbers in the 17th and 18th Centuries CE. Chinese Imperial attempts to bully and bluff the foreigners backfired badly, resulting in a loss of the prestige that the assertions of the superiority of the Middle Kingdom were supposed to enhance.

One leading Sinologist, Nathan Sivin, has expressed doubt about the usefulness of further pursuit of answers to “the Needham Question” to explain why the Scientific Revolution did not happen in China: “What did happen was the emergence of early modern science in Europe. It is Europe that needs to be understood.”

In terms of the Scientific Revolution in Europe, England needs to be understood most of all.  Copernicus did not foster a Scientific Revolution in Poland; Galileo did not lead to a Scientific Revolution in Italy. What set England apart?

The key seems to be the English Revolution of the 1640s, when middle class gentry and merchants overthrew the not very competent government of Charles I, resulting in that monarch’s beheading and the creation of a Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

The revolutionaries’ radical Protestantism was crucial, not because of any direct correlation between Protestantism and scientific genius, but because of the link between Protestantism’s emphasis on universal Bible reading and widespread literacy.  The widespread ability to read and write in England made it possible to disseminate and implement scientific advances in that country.  The Mediterranean lands lagged:  as late as the Napoleonic wars [1803 CE – 1815 CE] the illiteracy of Italian sailors shocked the men of the British Navy.

Following the success of the English Parliamentarians in the Civil War, there was a purge of royalist academicians at the universities.  This effectively removed the impediment of Aristotelian professors, thus helping to advance knowledge.

Francis Bacon’s [1561 CE – 1626 CE] emphasis on empiricism and inductive logic, and his dedication to The Advancement of Learning [1605 CE], could not have contributed as much as they did to the Scientific Revolution if education in England continued to be dominated by those who felt all answers could be found in ancient Greek and Latin authorities.

It should be noted, however, that Bacon’s logic sometimes led him to unfortunate conclusions, as when he was charged with taking bribes from both sides in a highly contentious issue he was supposed to resolve.  Bacon defended himself by saying that the person complaining about bribery had not received judgment in his favor, which meant that the money he had given to Bacon had not affected Bacon’s decision, and therefore had to be considered a gift, not a bribe. The King and Bacon’s opponents were not persuaded.

The Scientific Revolution needed a literate, bourgeois, practical social infrastructure in order for it to take root and grow.  The English Revolution of the 1640s provided the environment required.   When Newton married mathematics to the empiricism of early modern science, he brought the components of the scientific method together in a post-revolutionary England that was ready for it, having already assimilated profound changes in its social, political, and belief structures.

The upheavals of the English Revolution, Civil War, and Commonwealth resulted in a polity accustomed to change, and capable of conceiving and accepting, within certain limits, the implications of the new scientific manner.  The Scientific Revolution could only progress beyond a small circle of intellectuals after a revolution had broken the limiting paradigms of traditional thought and learning in the wider society.

It is common but none the less accurate to note that at the beginning of the 17th Century, most consciousness in England was at least half Medieval, while by the end of the 17th Century, most was at least half Modern.  When attempting to chart the course of the Scientific Revolution in England, it is necessary to first analyze the political and religious developments that paved the way for its success.

Further Reading: 

  • For China’s scientific contributions, see Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China. He raises “the Needham question” in Volume 7:  The Social Background, Part 2, General Conclusions and Reflections as well as Chapters 5 and 6 of The Grand Titration:  Science and Society in East and West. For a condensed introduction to the topic, see Robert Temple’s The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention. Nathan Sivin’s argument that efforts to explain what did not happen in China were beside the point can be found in China Review International 2005.
  • Christopher Hill’s Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited and The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution deal with the complex issues of the recasting of England’s mentality during the 17th Century.  
  • R. Gardiner’s multi-volume History of the Great Civil War and History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, The Puritan Revolution 1603 -1660 are still in many ways the finest narrative histories of the period.
  • P.V. Akrigg’s The Jacobean Pageant delivers a refreshingly non-hagiographic portrait of Francis Bacon in its overview of England during the reign of James I.
  • John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science gives a broader perspective to the English achievements.
  • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is still worth reading, no matter how many undergraduates have misused his concept of paradigm changes.
  • One radical take on the ultimate fate of the English Revolution is outlined in James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana. H. Parry’s Trade and Dominion: European Overseas Empires in the 18th Century illuminates many of the long-term effects of England’s 17th Century changes.

2 thoughts on “Why England?  The English Revolution and Science [1640 CE – 1660 CE]

  1. “It is common but none the less accurate to note that at the beginning of the 17th Century, most consciousness in England was at least half Medieval, while by the end of the 17th Century, most was at least half Modern.” I wonder what it is now — not only of England, but the U.S. The love of learning has gone the way of the suspender — permanently out of fashion.

    Your writings are fascinating,succint and poetic and unfortunately so true. Thanks for a great read.


    1. Your kind words are appreciated. Both England and the United States have serious problems with their educational systems, and a disrespect for learning and science is alarmingly widespread in both nations.

      America has cycles of good and bad education that go back to Colonial times. The most recent cycle started with the improvements in American education that began in 1957 as a response to Russia’s launching of Sputnik. By its own historical standards, the U.S. is about 30 years overdue for a major educational overhaul.

      From my perspective, the current rampant ignorance in the U.S., confirmed by declining scores on standardized tests and comparison with the performance of students in other countries [e.g. Finland, South Korea, Singapore, China, Japan], is ameliorated to some degree by the immigration of highly accomplished international students. It is common to find science labs in American universities that have no native born American citizens performing research.

      But although there are backwards sections of the United States, none are actually medieval in a strict historical sense. The only current culture I personally know of that is medieval is Tibet, with its faith-based polity and theocratic autocracy, though some Siberian Old Believer communities would also seem to qualify.

      The social and intellectual levels of proudly backwards Americans tend to be 19th Century rather than medieval. Most such people are ignorant rather than stupid. The distinction is important: ignorance can be cured, but stupidity can only be treated.

      A minor point: suspenders came back into fashion in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. They were worn with pride and ostentation by the young bloods in the financial industry in New York City.



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