Historiography of Technology

If science is the procedure which leads to a basic understanding of nature, and technology is the use of 'knowhow' so that utility can be produced, there is a relationship between the two, which becomes more important as the knowhow becomes more complex, and more dependent on basic understanding.

The key to the rapid expansion of knowhow that led to the industrial revolution in England was the proliferation of voluntary associations which made the scientific understanding generated by the work of the Royal Society, and disseminatated in its publications, available to the expanding literate artisan class.

According to Inkster(9) by the time of J S Mill (1848) there were some 1020 organisations in England and Wales of which the majority involved the artisans and labour aristocracy; their total membership was some 200,000. The amount of mental capital involved in this culture of ingenuity far exceeded the physical capital involved in land, buildings or equipment.

Key elements in this process were the Mechanics Institutes. There was no barrier between science and technlogy in the early years of the industrial revolution; artisans would read the transactions of the Royal Society where they dealt (for example) with ore chemistry.

This is the background against which Tyndall's(10) early association with the Mechanics Institutes, and Fitzgerald's(11) concern with technical education in Dublin, must be assessed.

Inkster charts the transfer of the technologies associated with the steam revolution across Europe. Where they were able to be taken up and understood by a literate and ingenious artisan class, they took root and developed locally, as in Belgium, France and Germany. Where, as in Russia, they remained in enclaves, manned by foreign technical people, in a sea of illiterate serfs, development was delayed.

In the case of India, Inkster shows how the British were actively hostile to the development of technical education accessible to the Indian working people, and how the demand for this was expressed through the Indian Association for the Advancement of Science (founded in the 1870s). Thus in India the demand for science-based technical competence to be available to the working people formed part of the culture of the national movement.

In the Irish case, Inkster instances the 40-lecture RDS laboratory course of William Higgins, which started in 1798. This was in the context of his analysis of the mainstream of the Industrial Revolution radical dissenting culture, fortified by a stream of engineering talent coming in via Scotland.

The role of the RDS as an emergent College of Technology, having links with France, has been treated by McMillan(12).

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