change in Europe and its offshoots, these stability parameters were no longer invariant.
I will therefore argue that the changes in the generation and utilization of useful knowledge during the Industrial Revolution were central to irreversible historical turn that occurred. To be sure, we can trace the historical roots of the institutional background for the Industrial Revolution quite well. I have elaborated on these elsewhere, and reader is referred to these papers. Here I wish to explore a slightly different question: had the institutions that favored it in western Europe not existed, would any other institutional set-up brought about a similar outcome? Were cotton-spinning machines, diesel engines, and freeze-dried coffee inevitable, so that if Europeans had not thought of them some other civilization would have? Or was the Industrial Revolution and the modern technological age it spawned a uniquely “Western” phenomenon?
Useful Knowledge in History
The specific forms and manifestations that western technology took were certainly contingent, but they may not have mattered. Had the West “selected” lighter-than-air instead of fixed-wing aircraft or funicular instead of locomotive-pulled railroads, its economic success and political domination would have been little changed. However, if the useful knowledge on which western techniques are based is allowed to change, and if the meta-rules by which intellectual resources were allocated, research agendas chosen, and hypotheses formulated and tested had been radically different, the technological face of society would have ended up very different indeed.
Moreover, if the selection rules by which new techniques are chosen were changed, the same
would have been true. The religious strictures that prevented Islam from adopting the printing press for centuries and the politics of insulation and the ban on firearms practiced by Tokugawa Japan should remind us that such selection rules may have profound influence even when the underlying - knowledge has become available elsewhere. For the present purpose, however, I shall focus on the knowledge alone, since the issue of selection would get me into profound social and cultural issues beyond the already quite ambitious scope of this paper. Can we picture what Western technology would
have looked like in the absence of certain epistemic bases?
For instance, the growth in the understanding of electricity in the eighteenth century was slow and halting. Many scientists, such as the great eighteenth century French physicist Coulomb, and a pioneer of electricicity theory, believed that magnetism and electricity were unrelated. But in 1819 a Danish physicist, Hans Oersted, brought a compass needle near a wire through which a current was passing. It forced the needle to point at a right angle to the current. It turned out that electricity and magnetism were related after all. From this point on, the knowledge basis started to increase quickly,