Europe’s path to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment was very far from straight and narrow; rather, it was long and tortuous. It had its origins in the fundamental Christian tenet that Church and state should be separate. ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22: 21) is an injunction radically different from that in the Koran, which insists on the indivisibility of God’s law as revealed to the Prophet and the unity of any power structure based on Islam. It was Christ’s distinction between the temporal and the spiritual, adumbrated in the fifth century by St Augustine’s City of God (as opposed to the Roman Empire’s ‘City of Man’), that enabled successive European rulers to resist the political pretensions of the papacy in Rome; indeed, until the reassertion of papal power over the investiture (appointment) of the clergy by Gregory VII (1073–85), it was the secular authorities that threatened to turn the Pope into a puppet.

Europe before 1500 was a vale of tears, but not of ignorance. Much classical learning was rediscovered in the Renaissance, often thanks to contact with the Muslim world. There were important innovations too. The twelfth century saw the birth of polyphony, a revolutionary breakthrough in the history of Western music. The central importance of the experimental method was proposed by Robert Grosseteste and seconded by Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century. In around 1413 Filippo Brunelleschi invented linear perspective in painting. The first true novel was the anonymous La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes (1500). But a more decisive breakthrough than the Renaissance was the advent of the Reformation and the ensuing fragmentation of Western Christianity after 1517. This was in large measure because of the revolutionary role of the printing press, surely the single most important technological innovation of the period before the Industrial Revolution. As we have seen, the Chinese can claim to have invented printing with a press (see Chapter 1). But Gutenberg’s system of movable metal type was more flexible and scalable than anything developed in China. As he said, ‘the wondrous agreement, proportion and harmony of punches and types’ allowed for the very rapid production of pamphlets and books. It was far too powerful a technology to be monopolized (as Gutenberg hoped it could be). Within just a few years of his initial breakthrough in Mainz, presses had been established by imitators – notably the Englishman William Caxton – in Cologne (1464), Basel (1466), Rome (1467), Venice (1469), Nuremberg, Utrecht, Paris (1470), Florence, Milan, Naples (1471), Augsburg (1472), Budapest, Lyon, Valencia (1473), Kraków, Bruges (1474), Lübeck, Breslau (1475), Westminster, Rostock (1476), Geneva, Palermo, Messina (1478), London (1480), Antwerp, Leipzig (1481), Odense (1482) and Stockholm (1483).17 Already by 1500 there were over 200 printing shops in Germany alone. In 1518 a total of 150 printed works were published in German, rising to 260 in 1519, to 570 in 1520 and to 990 by 1524.

No author benefited from this explosion of publication more than Martin Luther, not least because he saw the potential of writing in the vernacular rather than in Latin. Beginning modestly with the introduction to an edition of the Theologia Deutsch and the Seven Penitential Psalms, he and the Wittenberg printer Johann Grunenberg soon flooded the German market with religious tracts critical of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s most famous broadside, the Ninety-Five Theses against the Church’s sale of indulgences (as a form of penance for sin), was initially not published but nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. But it was not long before multiple copies of the theses appeared in print.18 Luther’s message was that ‘faith alone without works justifies, sets free, and saves’ and that all men were ‘priests for ever … worthy to appear before God, to pray for others, and to teach one another mutually the things which are of God’.19 This notion of an autodidact ‘priesthood of all believers’ was radical in itself. But it was the printing press that made it viable, unlike Jan Hus’s earlier challenge to Papal power, which had been ruthlessly crushed like all medieval heresies. Within just a few years, Luther’s pamphlets were available throughout Germany, despite the 1521 Edict of Worms ordering their burning. Of the thirty sermons and other writings Luther published between March 1517 and the summer of 1520, about 370 editions were printed. If the average size of an edition was a thousand copies, then around a third of a million copies of his works were in circulation by the latter date. Between 1521 and 1545, Luther alone was responsible for half of all pro-Reformation publications.20

Because of its emphasis on individual reading of scripture and ‘mutual teaching’, the new medium truly was the message of the Reformation. As with so many other aspects of Western ascendancy, however, commercial competition played a part. Luther himself complained that his publishers were ‘sordid mercenaries’ who cared more ‘for their profits than for the public’.21 In fact, the economic benefits of the printing press were spread throughout society. In the course of the sixteenth century, towns with printers grew much more rapidly than those without printers.22

Crucially, the printing press spread teaching other than Luther’s. The New Testament itself was first printed in English in 1526 in Matthew Tyndale’s translation, permitting literate laymen to read the scriptures for themselves. Religious conservatives might denounce that ‘villainous Engine’, the printing press, and look back nostalgically to ‘an happy time when all Learning was in Manuscript, and some little Officer … did keep the Keys of the Library’.23 But those days were gone for ever. As Henry VIII’s minister Thomas More was quick to grasp, even those who opposed the Reformation had no option but to join battle in print. The only way of limiting the spread throughout Scotland and England of the Calvinists’ Geneva Bible (1560) was for King James VI and I to commission an alternative ‘authorized’ version, the third and most successful attempt to produce an official English translation.* Also unlocked and spread by the printing press were the works of ancient philosophers, notably Aristotle, whose De anima was published in modern translation in 1509, as well as pre-Reformation humanists like Nicolaus Marschalk and George Sibutus. Already by 1500 more than a thousand scientific and mathematical works had appeared in print, among them Lucretius’ De natura rerum, which had been rediscovered in 1417, Celsus’ De re medica, a Roman compilation of Greek medical science, and Latin versions of the works of Archimedes.24Italian printers played an especially important role in disseminating commercially useful arithmetical and accounting techniques in works like Treviso Arithmetic (1478) and Luca Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita (1494).

Perhaps most remarkably, at a time when anti-Turkish pamphlets were almost as popular as anti-Popish tracts in Germany,25 the Koran was translated into Latin and published in Basel by the printer Johannes Oporinus. When, in 1542, the Basel city council banned the translation and seized the available copies, Luther himself wrote in Oporinus’ defence:

It has struck me that one is able to do nothing more grievous to Muhammad or the Turks, nor more to bring them to harm (more than with all weaponry) than to bring their Koran to Christians in the light of day, that they may see therein, how entirely cursed, abominable, and desperate a book it is, full of lies, fables and abominations that the Turks conceal and gloss over … to honour Christ, to do good for Christians, to harm the Turks, to vex the devil, set this book free and don’t withhold it … One must open sores and wounds in order to heal them.26

Three editions were duly published in 1543, followed by a further edition seven years later. Nothing could better illustrate the opening of the European mind that followed the Reformation.

Of course, not everything that is published adds to the sum of human knowledge. Much of what came off the printing presses in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was distinctly destructive, like the twenty-nine editions of Malleus maleficarum that appeared between 1487 and 1669, legitimizing the persecution of witches, a pan-European mania that killed between 12,000 and 45,000 people, mostly women.27 To the audiences who watched Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, first performed in 1592, the idea that a German scholar might sell his soul to Satan in return for twenty-four years of boundless power and pleasure was entirely credible:

By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,

And make a bridge through the moving air,

To pass the ocean with a band of men;

I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,

And make that country continent to Spain,

And both contributory to my crown:

The Emperor shall not live but by my leave …

Yet, just seventy years later, Thomas Hooke could publish his Micrographia (1665), a triumphant celebration of scientific empiricism:

By the means of Telescopes, there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view; and by the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding. By this means the Heavens are open’d, and a vast number of new Stars, and new Motions, and new Productions appear in them, to which all the ancient Astronomers were utterly Strangers. By this the Earth it self, which lyes so neer us, under our feet, shews quite a new thing to us … We may perhaps be inabled to discern all the secret workings of Nature. What may not be therefore expected from it if thoroughly prosecuted? Talking and contention of Arguments would soon be turn’d into labours; all the fine dreams of Opinions, and universal metaphysical natures, which the luxury of subtil Brains has devis’d, would quickly vanish, and give place to solid Histories, Experiments and Works. And as at first, mankind fell by tasting of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, so we, their Posterity, may be in part restor’d by the same way, not only by beholding and contemplating, but by tasting too those fruits of Natural knowledge, that were never yet forbidden. From hence the World may be assisted with variety of Inventions, new matter for Sciences may be collected, the old improv’d, and their rust rubb’d away …

Hooke’s use of the term ‘cell’ for a microscopic unit of organic matter was one of a host of conceptual breakthroughs, crowded together astonishingly in both time and space, that fundamentally redefined humanity’s understanding of the natural world.

The Scientific Revolution may be said to have begun with almost simultaneous advances in the study of planetary motion and blood circulation. But Hooke’s microscope took science to a new frontier by revealing what had hitherto been invisible to the human eye. Micrographia was a manifesto for the new empiricism, a world away from Faustus’ sorcery. However, the new science was about more than just accurate observation. Beginning with Galileo, it was about systematic experimentation and the identification of mathematical relationships. The possibilities of mathematics were in turn expanded when Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz introduced, respectively, infinitesimal and differential calculus. Finally, the Scientific Revolution was also a revolution in philosophy as René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza overthrew traditional theories about both perception and reason. Without exaggeration, this cascade of intellectual innovation may be said to have given birth to modern anatomy, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, geometry, mathematics, mechanics and physics. Its character is best illustrated by a list of just the most important twenty-nine breakthroughs of the period from 1530 to 1789.*


Paracelsus pioneers the application of chemistry to physiology and pathology


Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium states the heliocentric theory of the solar system

Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica supplants Galen’s anatomical textbook


Agricola’s De natura fossilium classifies minerals and introduces the term ‘fossil’


Tycho Brahe records the first European observation of a supernova


Galileo’s tests of falling bodies (published in De motu) revolutionize the experimental method


William Gilbert’s De magnete, magnetisque corporibus describes the magnetic properties of the earth and electricity


Galileo discovers that a free-falling body increases its distance as the square of the time


Hans Lippershey and Zacharias Jansen independently invent the telescope


1609 Galileo conducts the first telescopic observations of the night sky


Galileo discovers four of Jupiter’s moons and infers that the earth is not at the centre of the universe


John Napier’s Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio introduces logarithms


William Harvey writes Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus, accurately describing the circulation of blood


René Descartes’ ‘La Géométrie’, an appendix to his Discours de la méthode, founds analytic geometry


Galileo’s Discorsi e dimonstrazioni matematiche founds modern mechanics


Pierre de Fermat founds number theory


Fermat and Blaise Pascal found probability theory


Robert Boyle’s Skeptical Chymist defines elements and chemical analysis


Boyle states Boyle’s Law that the volume occupied by a fixed mass of gas in a container is inversely proportional to the pressure it exerts


Isaac Newton’s De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas presents the first systematic account of the calculus, independently developed by Gottfried Leibniz


Antoni van Leeuwenhoek discovers micro-organisms


Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica states the law of universal gravitation and the laws of motion


Carolus Linnaeus’ Systema naturae introduces systematic classification of genera and species of organisms


Daniel Bernoulli’s Hydrodynamica states Bernoulli’s Principle and founds the mathematical study of fluid flow and the kinetic theory of gases


Jean-Etienne Guettard prepares the first true geological maps


Joseph Black identifies carbon dioxide


Antoine Lavoisier accurately describes combustion


James Hutton’s ‘Concerning the System of the Earth’ states the uniformitarian view of the earth’s development


Lavoisier’s Traité élémentaire de chimie states the law of conservation of matter

By the mid-1600s this kind of scientific knowledge was spreading as rapidly as had the doctrine of the Protestant Reformers a century before. The printing press and increasingly reliable postal services combined to create an extraordinary network, small by modern standards, but more powerful than anything previously achieved by a community of scholars. There was of course a great deal of intellectual resistance, as is always the case when the paradigm – the conceptual framework itself – shifts.28 Indeed, some of this resistance came from within. Newton himself dabbled in alchemy. Hooke all but killed himself with quack remedies for indigestion. It was by no means easy for such men to reconcile the new science with Christian doctrine, which few were ready to renounce.29 But it remains undeniable that this was an intellectual revolution even more transformative than the religious revolution that preceded and unintentionally begat it. The ground rules of scientific research – including the dissemination of findings and the assigning of credit to the first into print – were laid. ‘Your first letter [paper] baptised me in the Newtonian religion,’ wrote the young French philosopher and wit François-Marie Arouet (better known by his pen-name Voltaire) to Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis following the publication of the latter’s Discourse on the Different Figures of the Planets in 1732, ‘and your second gave me confirmation. I thank you for your sacraments.’30This was irony; yet it also acknowledged the revelatory nature of the new science.

Those who decry ‘Eurocentrism’ as if it were some distasteful prejudice have a problem: the Scientific Revolution was, by any scientific measure, wholly Eurocentric. An astonishingly high proportion of the key figures – around 80 per cent – originated in a hexagon bounded by Glasgow, Copenhagen, Kraków, Naples, Marseille and Plymouth, and nearly all the rest were born within a hundred miles of that area.31 In marked contrast, Ottoman scientific progress was non-existent in this same period. The best explanation for this divergence was the unlimited sovereignty of religion in the Muslim world. Towards the end of the eleventh century, influential Islamic clerics began to argue that the study of Greek philosophy was incompatible with the teachings of the Koran.32 Indeed, it was blasphemous to suggest that man might be able to discern the divine mode of operation, which God might in any case vary at will. In the words of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers, ‘It is rare that someone becomes absorbed in this [foreign] science without renouncing religion and letting go the reins of piety within him.’33 Under clerical influence, the study of ancient philosophy was curtailed, books burned and so-called freethinkers persecuted; increasingly, the madrasas became focused exclusively on theology at a time when European universities were broadening the scope of their scholarship.34 Printing, too, was resisted in the Muslim world. For the Ottomans, script was sacred: there was a religious reverence for the pen, a preference for the art of calligraphy over the business of printing. ‘Scholar’s ink’, it was said, ‘is holier than martyr’s blood.’35 In 1515 a decree of Sultan Selim I had threatened with death anyone found using the printing press.36 This failure to reconcile Islam with scientific progress was to prove disastrous. Having once provided European scholars with ideas and inspiration, Muslim scientists were now cut off from the latest research. If the Scientific Revolution was generated by a network, then the Ottoman Empire was effectively offline. The only Western book translated into a Middle Eastern language until the late eighteenth century was a medical book on the treatment of syphilis.37

Nothing better illustrates this divergence than the fate of the observatory built in Istanbul in the 1570s for the renowned polymath Takiyüddīn al-Rāsid (Taqi al-Din). Born in Syria in 1521 and educated in Damascus and Cairo, Takiyüddīn was a gifted scientist, the author of numerous treatises on astronomy, mathematics and optics. He designed his own highly accurate astronomical clocks and even experimented with steam power. In the mid-1570s, as chief astronomer to the Sultan, he successfully lobbied for the construction of an observatory. By all accounts the Darü’r-Rasadü’l-Cedid (House of the New Observations) was a sophisticated facility, on a par with the Dane Tycho Brahe’s more famous observatory, Uraniborg. But on 11 September 1577 the sighting of a comet over Istanbul prompted demands for astrological interpretation. Unwisely, according to some accounts, Takiyüddīn interpreted it as a harbinger of a coming Ottoman military victory. But Sheikh ul-Islam Kadizade, the most senior cleric of the time, persuaded the Sultan that Takiyüddīn’s prying into secrets of the heavens was as blasphemous as the planetary tables of the Samarkand astronomer Ulugh Beg, who had supposedly been beheaded for similar temerity. In January 1580, barely five years after its completion, the Sultan ordered the demolition of Takiyüddīn’s observatory.38 There would not be another observatory in Istanbul until 1868. By such methods, the Muslim clergy effectively snuffed out the chance of Ottoman scientific advance – at the very moment that the Christian Churches of Europe were relaxing their grip on free inquiry. European advances were dismissed in Istanbul as mere ‘vanities’.39 The legacy of Islam’s once celebrated House of Wisdom vanished in a cloud of piety. As late as the early nineteenth century, Hüseyin Rıfkı Tamani, the head teacher at the Mühendishane-i Cedide, could still be heard explaining to students: ‘The universe in appearance is a sphere and its centre is the Earth … The Sun and Moon rotate around the globe and move about the signs of the zodiac.’40

By the second half of the seventeenth century, while the heirs of Osman slumbered, rulers all across Europe were actively promoting science, largely regardless of clerical qualms. In July 1662, two years after its initial foundation at Gresham College, the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge received its royal charter from King Charles II. The aim was to found an institution ‘for the promoting of physico-mathematical experimental learning’. Significantly, in the words of the Society’s first historian, the founders:

freely admitted Men of different Religions, Countries, and Profession of Life. This they were oblig’d to do, or else they would come far short of the largeness of their own Declarations. For they openly profess, not to lay the Foundation of an English, Scotch, Irish, Popish or Protestant Philosophy; but a Philosophy of Mankind … By their naturalizing Men of all Countries, they have laid the beginnings of many great advantages for the future. For by this means, they will be able to settle a constant Intelligence, throughout all civil Nations; and make the Royal Society the general Banck and Free-port of the World.41

Four years later, the Académie Royale des Sciences was set up in Paris, initially as a pioneering centre for cartography.42 These became the models for similar institutions all over Europe. Among the Royal Society’s founders was Christopher Wren – architect, mathematician, scientist and astronomer. When, in 1675, Charles II commissioned Wren to design his Royal Observatory in Greenwich, he certainly did not expect him to predict the outcomes of battles. Real science, the King well understood, was in the national interest.

What made the Royal Society so important was not so much royal patronage as the fact that it was part of a new kind of scientific community, which allowed ideas to be shared and problems to be addressed collectively through a process of open competition. The classic example is the law of gravity, which Newton could not have formulated without the earlier efforts of Hooke. In effect, the Society – of which Newton became president in 1703 – was a hub in the new scientific network. This is not to suggest that modern science was or is wholly collaborative. Then, as now, individual scientists were actuated by ambition as much as by altruism. But because of the imperative to publish new findings, scientific knowledge could grow cumulatively – albeit sometimes acrimoniously. Newton and Hooke quarrelled bitterly over who had first identified the inverse-square law of gravity or the true nature of light.43 Newton had an equally nasty argument with Leibniz, who dismissed gravity as having ‘an occult quality’.44 There was indeed an important intellectual fault-line here, between the metaphysical thought of the continent and the empirical practice of the British Isles. It was always more likely that the latter, with its distinctive culture of experimental tinkering and patient observation, would produce the technological advances without which there could have been no Industrial Revolution (see Chapter 5).45 The line that led from Newton’s laws to Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine – first used to drain the Whitehaven collieries in 1715 – was remarkably short and straight, though Newcomen was but a humble Dartmouth ironmonger.46 It is not accidental that three of the world’s most important technological innovations – James Watt’s improved steam engine (1764), John Harrison’s longitude-finding chronometer (1761) and Richard Arkwright’s water frame (1769) – were invented in the same country, in the same decade.

When Newton died in March 1727 his body lay in state for four days at Westminster Abbey, before a funeral service in which his coffin was borne by two dukes, three earls and the Lord Chancellor. The service was watched by Voltaire, who was astonished at the veneration accorded to a scientist of low birth. ‘I have seen’, the famous philosophe wrote on his return to France, ‘a professor of mathematics, only because he was great in his vocation, buried like a king who had done well by his subjects.’ In the West, science and government had gone into partnership. And no monarch would better exemplify the benefits of that partnership than Voltaire’s friend Frederick the Great of Prussia.

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