Education was different then

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768Last week, we asked the questions “When did the Industrial Revolution (IR) start for our purposes?”, “Who were some key players?”, and “What were some key accomplishments?” Simple sounding questions, but not so easy to answer, especially as we reflect on how to draw good lessons for today by understanding the educational and cultural environment of the past. This week, we do not have answers, but we are closer to understanding IR educational issues.

No matter what we choose as the opening date for the Dawn of the Age of Industry, we can’t just ignore everything that happened before that. Unlike Athena, the Greek goddess of technology, who sprang full-grown, armed, and ready for battle, from the head of Zeus, most great revolutionary ideas, acts, and actors do not suddenly appear fully formed and functioning. In real life, there is always preparation, sometimes long and arduous, often serendipitous. The main actors in our IR drama must have used at least some of the intellectual tools they picked up in their educations, which began 10 to 50 years before our selected date. So we adjusted our perspective a bit, focusing not on the calendar, but on the key players and their intellectually formative years.

Before investigating educational influences on successful IR innovators, we delved into a little educational background. In England, education has historically been important. The universities at Oxford and Cambridge were established in the Middle Ages. Basic education was recognized as necessary for a successful adult life, whether that meant university studies, trades, or simply everyday living. Theoretically, there were many ways to obtain education, especially at the basic level. Before universal, free, state-sponsored, compulsory education was instituted in the late 1800s, alternatives for basic schooling, including reading, writing, grammar, and arithmetic, did exist. Options, depending upon finances and availability, included private tutoring at home, by a professional tutor, a governess, or a mother, and a variety of non-governmental educational institutions such as public schools (where select students paid fees to learn together “in public” at exclusive private institutions like Eton), church and Sunday schools, dame schools, grammar schools, and, when religious tolerance became more widespread, schools run by and for “Nonconformists” or “Dissenters” – Protestants who were not members of the Church of England. Edward VI of England (reigned 1547 – 1553) established “free grammar schools” to teach all children the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, whether they could afford tuition fees or not, but attendance was not compulsory. However, the gap between theory and practice was real. Schools varied in quality as well as focus. In poor families, where the economic contributions of children’s labor were essential for survival, families could not afford to let children miss work, even to attend the free schools.

Today, “education” usually means “formal education”, acquired from established and accredited schools, awarding degrees or certificates upon completion of prescribed courses of study. In the 18th and 19th centuries, extensive formal education was the privilege of the few. Intellectual and practical knowledge was routinely transmitted through more informal channels. Once the basic skills of education were mastered, motivated individuals could learn from a smorgasbord of informative and entertaining offerings, many of which promoted high-quality learning. The Penny Universities, mentioned last week, were a place to meet, learn, and discuss, with different coffee houses catering to different interests. More directed, non-classroom learning came from apprenticeships to learn trades, including the business skills of setting up one’s own shop.

There were respected social and intellectual organizations, such as Edinburgh’s Mechanics’ Institute (1821), Derby’s Lunar Society (1766) , or the Invisible College (1645), which became the Royal Society in 1660. Spitalfields Mathematical Society (1717) limited the number of its members to a perfect square (49 or 64); in 1744, about half its members were weavers (unsurprising to anyone who weaves), with other tradesmen such as bakers, braziers, and bricklayers making up the rest. Membership included affordable access to the society’s library and scientific equipment. These were valuable privileges in those times before easy access to public libraries, many of which were not lending libraries. Nor had museums of the time evolved into the welcoming institutions we know today. The British Museum was founded in 1753, but did not open its doors to the public until six years later. Entry was free, and officially to be given to ‘all studious and curious Persons’, but, in reality, visitors applied for permission to visit, and, if approved, would be escorted on guided tours through selections from the collections.

Edutainment is a modern term, but the practice extends at least as far back as the Enlightenment. Joseph Wright’s painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), above, shows a scientist with a flair for showmanship, who may be an amateur friend of the family, a professional educator serving as a household tutor, or a peripatetic lecturer. Periodicals of the IR give instructions for hands-on parlor experimentation, albeit not always so equipment-intensive or elaborate.

With that background under our belts, we begin our investigations by expanding last week’s list of innovators to the following even dozen. Using this small, non-random sample, we hunt for trends and patterns of educational influences on successful IR innovators.

  1. The Iron Masters
    1. Abraham Darby I (1678-1717)
    2. Abraham Darby III (1750-1789)
  2. The Steam Engine Specialists
    1. Thomas Newcomen (1664 – 1729)
    2. Thomas Savery ( c. 1650 – 1715)
    3. Richard Trevithick (1771 – 1833)
    4. George Stephenson (1781-1848)
  3. The Pressure Pump People
    1. Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691)
    2. Christiaan Huygens (1629 – 1695)
    3. Denis Papin (1667 – 1712)
  4. Some Mathematical Men
    1. Gottfred Leibniz (1646 – 1716)
    2. Isaac Newton (1643 – 1747))
    3. Thomas Simpson (1710 – 1761)

The educational and socio-economic backgrounds of our pilot group are quite diverse. All the non-British men (the Saxon, Leibniz; the Dutchman, Huygens; and the Huguenot refugee, Papin) were university educated, as were two of the Brits (the son of the Earl of Cork (Boyle) and the son of an illiterate but prosperous farmer (Newton)). Basic academic skills came from a variety of sources. Boyle had private tutors and attended exclusive Eton to prepare for Oxford; Huygens had private tutors, Leibniz attended the well-respected Nicolai School in Leipzig. Newton prepared for Cambridge at Free Grammar School in Grantham; Stephenson, who came from an impoverished mining district, was illiterate until he enrolled himself in night school at the age of 18; Simpson, a weaver by trade who became a mathematician still known for his work in numerical methods and probability, briefly attended a school at Market Bosworth, but was largely self-taught. Others had ordinary formal educations, attending village schools (Trevithick), or getting on-the-job training. Darby I was an apprentice in the mill and brass trades, Darby III was probably taught at home or in a Quaker school. Educational details are not known for Savery and Newcomen, but the former was “a military engineer”, and the latter an “ironmonger and Baptist lay preacher”, occupations which do require literacy and numeracy.

Perhaps the most interesting artifact unearthed this week is an anecdote about Simpson, the former weaver. According to Ball (1960), Simpson mastered Cocker’s Arithmetic and the elements of algebra with the assistance of a fortune-telling pedlar. (Cocker’s Arithmetic was a popular text also used by Benjamin Franklin to teach himself mathematics.) Even if the anecdote is apocryphal, evidently the concept of a fortune-telling pedlar with such mathematical skills was credible, and could be a indicator of the level of numeracy among the mercantile population.

Not surprisingly, considering the small sample size, no dramatic, sweeping conclusions are possible, and no clear lessons for our times have emerged. There are trends: the university men were earlier than the non-university men. Home, village, grammar, and night school educations provided solid foundations for further learning for the motivated and intelligent student.

Join us next week for further musings.


Ball, W. W. Rouse. 1960. A short account of the history of mathematics. New York,: Dover Publications.
Weightman, Gavin. 2007. The industrial revolutionaries : the making of the modern world, 1776-1914. 1st American ed. New York: Grove Press.