faced the actual challenges of production.46
One can find other examples in which Chinese society did not come up with the knowledge that would have led them to techniques that would have been of use to them. Consider optics. Optical advances are not at the center of the Industrial Revolution, but the invention of eyeglasses extending the effective lifetime of craftsmen and intellectuals cannot be overestimated, and the improvements in the optical microscope in the 1820s led to medical breakthroughs that equaled the Industrial Revolution in importance. At some point, there seems to have been a strong interest in the topic in China.47 Optics is not an exactly delineated area of useful knowledge since it involves physical and physiological phenomena (the nature of light and the process by which it is received and processed by the human body). Optics was born in classical civilization, but remained essentially unapplied, the myth about Archimedes constructing concave mirrors that burned Roman ships notwithstanding. The greatest advances before Kepler’s celebrated essay Expounding the Optical Part of Astronomy (1604), were made by Alhazen (Al-Haytam, early 11th century) who studied curved mirrors and lenses and first established that light travels from the source to the eye and not vice versa. Yet from a technological point of view, the first successful application was the emergence of eyeglasses in the 1280s.48 Without some underlying epistemic base, the probability of this technique emerging was low indeed.49 Given that this knowledge came about, the eventual occurrence of even better spectacles (correcting for myopia in addition to presbyopia), telescopes, and microscopes were quite likely.
Yet how probable was the development of useful optics in the Orient? As Needham has
46Needham points out that Chinese artisans were remarkably good at carrying out empirical procedures of which they had no scientific understanding. The real work in engineering was “always done by illiterate or semi-literate artisans and master craftsmen who could never rise across that sharp gap which separated them from the ‘white collar literati’” (Needham, Grand Titration, p. 27). Pomeranz points out the networks diffusing certain types of scientific knowledge clearly existed in China, but that artisans were largely outside such networks. Pomeranz in Tetlock et al.,
47Graham and Sivin produce an interesting early beginning of Chinese Mohist studies (4th century BC) in certain areas of optics but the insights of these writing led nowhere, presumably because they were incompatible with the mainstream of Chinese natural philosophy. Cf. A.C. Graham and Nathan Sivin, “A Systematic Approach to the Mohist Optics.” In Shigeru Nakayama and Nathan Sivin, eds., Chinese Science: Explorations of an Ancient Tradition, 1973, pp. 105-152. Whether they would have led to applied optics if Mohism had become mainstream in China is hard to know, but Graham and Sivin (p. 107) note that the optical propositions have no direct connection with technology. Other scientific sections of the Mohist Canon, however, do have such applied interest, and perhaps Mohist thinking is an example of a technological equivalent of an extinct “could-have-been” much like the one Stephen Jay Gould argues for in his Wonderful Life: the Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, 1989.
48It can hardly be a coincidence that Alhazen’s Optics had beentranslated into Latin in 1269, about a decade and a half
49G.N. Cantor, “Physical Optics.” In R.C. Olby et al., eds., Companion to the History of Modern Science. London: Routledge.1990.