natural philosophy, chemical, medical, and engineering
knowledge. It is a gargantuan task to
chronicle the exact divergence between East and West, which differs a great deal from area to area. By 1840, however, it surely is impossible to finds many areas in which Europe had not pulled ahead, a point dramatically driven home not only by the opium wars but by the enthusiasm with which Meiji Japan set out to emulate the West.31 The hard truth is that by 1840 the gap between what Europeans “knew” and what others knew was enough for a puny British expeditionary force to humiliate a proud Chinese Empire. Needham’s life mission was to document that it had not always been thus, and his work and that of his students has documented that as late as 1500, Europe was perhaps only pulling even with the Orient in iron-making, textiles, power, printing , and shipbuilding.32 But after that, the signs that the two paths had very different slopes become to clear to ignore. It may well be true that at the economy-wide level the effects of these different paths did not translate into an unambiguous difference in living standards until much later. The difference is not just in the slope, but in the second derivative. Europe was not only advancing faster than the Orient, but its progress was accelerating.
The technology that created the Industrial Revolution, then, was not exclusively British: it was European. Taking what Eric Jones has called the “little England” view and focusing on Britain’s Industrial Revolution is a bit misleading. While Britain pulled ahead of the rest of Europe for a while between 1760 and 1820, its technology relied heavily on epistemic bases developed elsewhere in Europe, especially in France, but also in Germany, Scandinavia and Italy. Comparing Europe with China is therefore to some extent misleading: the various European societies complemented one another, and their internal competition gave it a dynamism that China lacked. Thus, for instance, when in Britain chemical and engineering education began to fall behind, its potential competitors on the continent made up the slack. It also tends to divert attention to much to Britain’s special conditions such as its coal and its colonies, while industrialization in the nineteenth century happened in places without coal (Switzerland, New England) and without early colonies (Belgium, Germany).33
All the same, it seems reasonable to ask: could China have done it? Could it have created a
31The best text on this event and its technological significance is still Daniel Headrick, The Tools of Empire, 1981.
32 It is rather odd that Needham’s students now criticize him for formulating the “Needham question” which “subverts his fundamentally humanist enterprise of writing a non-exclusionary history of science and technology.” Francesca Bray, “Towards a Critical History of non-Western Technology” in Timothy Brooks and Gregory Blue, eds, China and Historical Capitalism: Genealogies of Sinological Knowledge, 1999, pp. 162-63. The notion that we study the “non-event” of Chinese technological development after 1500 because our discourse itself is dominated by capitalist theory squares poorly with the revisionist view that the West did not have a monopoly on capitalism and other institutions that promoted the growth of commerce and economic performance, and that many of these were equally found in China.
33Pomeranz, Great Divergence. See the insightful review by Peer Vries of Kenneth Pomeranz, Great Divergence in Journal of World History, 2001, forthcoming.