31 August 2010

Universities in the Industrial Revolution

Throughout history, knowledge, as both technical expertise and any kind of information, has been important to humankind for improving the quality of life. What have changed over centuries, however, are the characteristics and the quality of knowledge, the relative importance of science as its source, the methods by which it is created, accessed, transmitted, acquired, and retrieved, its relative importance as a production factor, and the level of education and training required in the workforce.

Until the late nineteenth century, technology was developed independently of science; thechnological developments, in general, preceded scientific developments. The Industrial Revolution that took place between 1760 and 1830 began with the invention and commercialization of the steam engine by James Watt (1736-1819), long before the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics that govern the relationships between heat and mechanical energy and the limitation imposed by nature on the conversion of the former to the latter.

Based on educational backgrounds of the technological leaders of the Industrial Revolution, it can also be argued that the university as an institution made little, if any, contribution to the Industrial Revolution. Mokyr (2002: 307-341), on the other hand, argues that the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightment, both of which owed indirectly to universities and other institutions of higher education, resulted in what he refers to as "Industrial Enlightment." He cites the associations of technical and scientific knowledge, whose number in England had reached 1,020 by the end of the nineteenth century with a total membership of about 200,000, as a major contributor to the Industrial Enlightment. It should, however, be pointed out that chairs ans professorships in various branches of natural sciences had been established in Oxford and Cambridge as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century, and by the end of that century, Scottish universities, such as, St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh, together with the Dutch, such as, Leiden, Groningen, and Utrecht, had emerged as the leading scientific and intellectual centers in Europe. It is conceivable that the scholarship of the Scottish universities did not permeate the neighboring northern England, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, the dissenting academies, where such great scientists as Joseph Priestley and John Dalton gave public lectures, were concentrated in the new commercial and industrial centers, like Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham, where rich merchants and industrialists sponsored and supported them.

The role that universities and other institutions of higher education played in the Industrial Revolution was obviously indirect; nevertheless, it should not be underestimated.

In the pre-industrial society, scientists and scholars worked in isolation, even way from the universities where some of them employed. With the advent of industrial society came the university research laboratories, and public research institutes. Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesselschaft renamed Max Planck Institutes in 1948, and the industrial R&D laboratories, such as those of the German chemical giant Badische Aniline and Soda-Fabrik ((BASF), were the first ones in Germany. Research laboratories of General Electric and Bell Telephone, and Edison's laboratory/shop in Menlo Park were the pioneers in the United States.
Guruz, Kemal. 2008. Higer Education and International Mobility in the Global Knowledge Economy. State University of New York: Albany.

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