KNAW Conference

KNAW CONFERENCE: “Inventive intersections: Sites, Artifacts and the Rise of Modern Science and Technology”


The Scientific and Industrial Revolutions are usually regarded as two of the most important landmarks of European history. Traditionally, historians have connected them by asking whether the Industrial Revolution resulted from the application of scientific developments. More generally, the relationship between the history of science and technology has long been viewed in similar binary terms: did technology develop independently or should it be viewed as “applied science”? The colloquium outlined here offers a different perspective. It begins by replacing the historiographically reified distinction between science and technology with an historical examination of natural inquiry and invention during the period between the so-called Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Not only are the terms “natural inquiry” and “invention” historiographically neutral, they allow for the fact that inquiry and invention could and did lead to both scientific and technological development. In other words, it is not the case that natural inquiry falls under the domain of the history of science and invention under the history of technology; their dynamic intereraction helped give rise to what institutionally evolved as two domains.

The colloquium will be organized by focussing on key sites and artifacts that provided points of intersection for a broad range of actors who inquired into and inventively engaged with nature and art. Participants will analyze how the various interests and activities of philosophers, doctors, merchants, courtiers, governmental and private patrons, artisans, apothecaries and engineers were fused by their passage through these materialized crossroads to give rise to both technological development and scientific formation. The Scientific and Industrial Revolutions are hereby reconfigured as episodes in an historical process whereby the processes and results of natural inquiry and invention gained increasingly regularized and institutionalized form, culminating in what we have since come to recognize as modern science and technology.

This project is part of an ongoing conversation in the history of science and technology, offering a challenging response to some of the field’s central questions. How do we account for the development and interaction between these two paramountly important elements of (post-) modern culture? What do we mean when we use terms such as the “Scientific Revolution” and “Industrial Revolution”? What historical developments tied these two “revolutions” together? How can the lessons of history sensitize us to our current identities as scientists, technologists and citizens?

Background and Project Contents

There are two traditional views of the Scientific Revolution. One portrays the rise of modern science as an intellectually driven search for natural law and order. Whether dressed as deductive argumentation or mathematical generalization, reason is seen to have guided scientific development. The other tradition locates modern science’s origins in the changing socio-economic conditions that stimulated interaction between skilled craftsmen and the intellectual elite of Renaissance and early-modern Europe. Yet it too presents science as a body of knowledge undergirded by reason, separating science essentially from the craft practices of contemporary artisans. Behind these two contending views, then, stands a fundamental point of agreement.

Historians of science are not alone in having organized the past around the poles of reason and empiricism. Twentieth-century philosophers of science mirrored this approach by largely shaping their inquiries around the contending claims that either empirical facts or theory are the basic building blocks of scientific development. Both historians and philosophers have only recently begun to think about science in other terms, due in good part to two trends: 1] a growing interest in scientific practice rather than knowledge as the focus of analysis and 2] a move toward considering science as an integral aspect of culture, and therefore subject to cultural analysis. This has opened a space for examining the rise of modern science from a new perspective with important implications for how we view the historical relations between natural inquiry and invention. By considering modern science to have arisen from a complex network of interests and practices pursued by actors including philosophers, doctors, courtiers, government officials, private patrons, merchants, engineers, and artisans, “scientific reason” appears as a consequence of the winnowing process of scientific formation rather than serving a priori as its definition or guiding force.

From this perspective we need not ask whether technology developed independently or should be considered “applied science.” Rather, the history of technology can be understood as involving a concatenation of practitioners, skills, practical economies, objects and instruments that productively engaged with nature and art in ways that fed (natural) philosophical understanding while directing technological development. Accounting for the Industrial Revolution in terms of its relation to the history of science, then, is not a question of relating (scientific) ideas to entrepreneurial practice. It is, rather, a matter of mapping out the continued evolution of this network of intersections and divergences.

The workshop described here will pursue this vision to help distil a better comprehension of the period between the so-called Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Participants will present case studies in the history of early-modern European natural inquiry and invention that focus on “inventive intersections”. That is, their papers will focus on a single site or artifact as the point of intersection for the activities and interests of various actors, to show how the network of their interactions contributed to scientific formation, technological development and the relations between them.

“Inventive Intersections” list of invited speakers

  • H.F. Cohen, Universiteit Twente (retired)
  • F.J. Dijksterhuis, Universiteit Twente
  • Eric Jorink, Constantijn Huygens Instituut
  • Klaas van Berkel, Universiteit Groningen
  • Pamela H. Smith, Pomona College
  • Mary Henninger Voss, Princeton University
  • Larry Stewart, University of Saskatchewan
  • Eric Ash, Wayne State University
  • Simon Werrett, University of Washington
  • Paola Bertucci, University of Bologna
  • Peter Dear, Cornell University
  • John Detloff, Max Planck Institute, Berlin
  • Ken Alder, Northwestern University
  • Simon Schaffer, Cambridge University
  • Adrian Johns, University of Chicago
  • Pascal Brioist, University of Tours
  • Liliane Perez, Conservatoire national des arts ets mJtiers
  • James Bono, State University of New York, Buffalo
  • Marc Ratcliff, University of Geneva
  • James Bennett, Oxford University
  • Chandra Mukerji, UC Davis
  • William Ashworth, University of Liverpool
  • Leonard Rosenband, University of Utah
  • Lissa Roberts, Universiteit Twente