Human Accomplishment and the English

Robert Henderson

In his book “Human Accomplishment” the American Charles Murray calculates the contribution to civilisation made by individuals throughout history up until 1950. To give his calculations as much objectivity as possible he measures the amount of attention given to an individual by specialists in their field in sources such as biographical dictionaries – put crudely, the greater the frequency of mention and the larger the space devoted to an individual, the higher they score.

Murray quantifies achievements under the headings of astronomy (Galileo and Kepler tied for first place), biology (Darwin and Aristotle), chemistry (Lavoisier), earth sciences (Lyell), physics (Newton and Einstein), mathematics (Euler), medicine (Pasteur, Hippocrates and Koch), technology (Edison and Watt), combined scientific (Newton), Chinese philosophy (Confucious), Indian philosophy (Sankara), Western philosophy (Aristotle), Western music (Beethoven and Mozart), Chinese painting (Gu Kaizhi and Zhao Mengfu), Japanese painting (Sesshu, Sotatsu and Korin), Western art (Michelangelo), Arabic literature, (al-Mutanabbi) Chinese literature (Du Fu), Indian literature (Kalidasa), Japanese literature (Basho and Chikamatsu Monzaemon), Western literature (Shakespeare).

Objections have been made to Murray’s methodology such as the fact that many of the great achievements of the past, especially in the arts, have been anonymous, which give it a bias towards the modern period, and fears that it has a built-in Western bias – the representation  of non-Western figures in the science and technology categories is minimal. Nothing can be done about anonymity – it is worth pointing out that the majority of those heading the categories lived at least several centuries ago – but Murray substantially guards against pro-Western bias with the breadth and number of his sources and it is simply a fact that science and advanced technology arose only in the past few centuries and that both are essentially Western achievements.

It is also noteworthy that Murray’s method only places one of his fellow countrymen at number one in any category (Edison in technology). If any bias exists it is unlikely to be conscious. At worst, Murray’s findings can be seem as a fair rating of Western achievement.

The list of those heading the various categories (see second paragraph above) suggests that Murray’s method is pretty sound despite any possible methodological shortcomings, because those who come top are all men of extreme achievement. There might be arguments over whether Aristotle should take precedence over Plato or Kant, but no one could honestly argue that Aristotle was an obviously unworthy winner of first place in the philosophy category.

Of the 13 categories which can include Westerners (they are obviously excluded from non-European literature and art), Englishmen are undisputed firsts or share first place with one other in four: biology Darwin with Aristotle; Physics Newton with Einstein; combined scientific Newton alone; Western literature Shakespeare alone. No other nation has more than two representatives at the top of a category. The thirteen Western including categories have a total of 18 people in sole or joint first place. England has nearly a quarter of those in first place and more than a quarter of the 15 who are drawn from the modern period, say 1500 AD onwards.

Apart from those coming first, the English show strongly in most of the Western qualifying categories (especially in physics – 9 out of the top 20, technology – 8 out of the top twenty – and Western literature). The major exceptions are Western art and music, where English representation is mediocre. I think most people who think about the matter at all would feel those cultural strengths and weaknesses represent the reality of English history and society.

The fact that England shows so strongly in Murray’s exercise gives the lie to the common representation of the English as unintellectual. Moreover, there is much more to human intellectual accomplishment than the fields covered by Murray, most notably the writing of history and the social sciences, areas in which England has been at the forefront throughout the modern period: think Gibbon, Macaulay, Herbert Spencer and Keynes.

English intellectual history is a long one. It can reasonably be said to begin in the early eighth century with Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English, which amongst other things firmly establishes the English as a people before England as a kingdom existed (“At present there are in Britain…five languages and four nations – English, British, Irish and Picts…” Book One).

In the late ninth century comes Alfred the Great, a king whose reign was one of constant struggle against the Danes, but who thought enough of learning to teach himself to read as an adult and then engage in translations into Old English of devotional works such as Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy.

From Alfred’s reign comes the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), a work also written in Old English. (There are nine surviving versions written at different places, eight of which are in Old English with the odd man out being in Old English with a Latin translation). The Chronicle is a history/myth of Britain and a narrative of the settlement of Anglo-Saxons within it until the time of Alfred and then a putative record of and commentary on the great events of English life from the time of Alfred until the middle of the 12th century (like all such medieval works the veracity of the ASC is questionable, but at worst it gives a flavour of the mentality of those living at the time). The work is unique in medieval Europe for its scope and longevity and is particularly noteworthy for the fact that it was written in the vernacular throughout the three centuries or so of its existence, this at a time when the normal language for writing in Western Europe was Latin.

The Norman Conquest subordinated the English politically, linguistically and socially for the better part of three centuries, but it did not kill English intellectual endeavour. Those three centuries of oppression saw the emergence of many of the ideas which were later to produce the modern world. John of Salisbury produced a work on politics (Policraticus 1159) which was “the first attempt in the Middle Ages at an extended and systematic treatment of political philosophy” (G H Sabine A History of Political Theory p246) and one which argued for a form of limited monarchy and the overthrow of tyrants, views given practical English expression in Magna Carta (1215). The period was also noteworthy for the strong showing of annals and histories, most notably those of Eadmer (Historia Novorum or The History of Recent Events – it covered the period 950-1109), Henry of Huntingdon (Historia Anglorum or History of the English 5BC-1129) and Matthew Paris (Chronica Majora). In addition, the Common Law was formed, English became once more a literary language (Chaucer, Langland), John Wycliffe laid the intellectual roots of the Reformation and, perhaps most impressively, ideas which were later to provide the basis for a true science emerged.


The quintessential English art is literature. I doubt whether any nation can excel England here, either in quality or international influence. Take a few names from her literary past: Chaucer, Langland, Mallory, Sir Thomas More, Ben Jonson, Kit Marlowe, Bunyan, Dryden, Milton, Marvell, Pope, Sam Johnson, Fielding, Wordsworth, Byron, Austen, the Brontes, George Elliott, Tennyson, Shelley, Keates, Dickens, Trollope, Waugh, Greene and Golding.

And then there is Shakespeare, still being read, performed, analysed and reinterpreted nearly four centuries after his death. Most authors famous in their day do not remain so for long after their death. Those few who are remembered tend to be honoured more in the lauding of the name than by reading or watching. Shakespeare has never been entirely out of fashion. Today he is performed more than ever. His reach stretches throughout the English speaking world and beyond – The Germans in particular have a great liking for the Bard. No playwright in history has been so often performed. He has provided inspiration for men as diverse as Dr Johnson, Freud and Verdi. The man was truly exceptional, arguably unique.

The Intellectual roots of the Reformation In the latter half of the 14th Century John Wycliffe and his followers developed the theological and practical foundations of the Reformation in the second half of the fourteenth century, one hundred and fifty odd years before Luther pinned his theses on the door of the castle church of Wittenberg. Wycliffe questioned the reality of transubstantiation (the Catholic belief that the bread and wine at Communion turn literally into the body and blood of Christ), he attacked the uncontrolled authority of the Pope, he railed against the abuses of simony and indulgences. He advocated a Bible in English and either he or some of his followers (who became known as Lollards) produced a complete translation before the end of the fourteenth century. Lollardy was officially and harshly suppressed early in the next century, but their ideas lingered, both here and abroad, feeding into the European consciousness, for example through the Bohemian Jan Hus.

The concept of science

The development of the concept of what we call science is arguably the most dramatic intellectual event in history, for it utterly changed both the way in which men viewed the world and provided them with the means to mould it ever more completely to their will.

Science is the opposite of “by guess and by God”. It is the process of not only knowing that something has worked before and replicating the event or process to achieve the same result, but of understanding the process behind an event or process.

The classic scientific experiment involves the generation of an hypothesis to be tested (for example, the behaviour of falling objects) or a defined field to be investigated (for example, an animal’s behaviour), the creation of the means of doing so and a strict observance of the rules by which the experiment are to be conducted and meticulous recording of data. That in essence is the scientific method, although in practice science is far from being as neat and regular as that. Nonetheless, it does encapsulate what science is supposed to be about: the rigorous observation and rational interpretation of what is rather than what the mind might fancy to be the case. It is inductive rather than deductive.

The beginnings of the scientific mentality can be found in the minds of two 13th Century Englishmen, the Franciscan Roger Bacon (c1214-1292) and Robert Grossteste (c1168-1253), Chancellor of Oxford then Bishop of Lincoln. Both saw the importance of  experimentation and observation, Bacon advocated mathematics as the sure foundation of science while Grosseteste anticipated the idea of the scientific hypothesis. Grossteste was also the first to understood the value of falsification, namely, although any number of observed events cannot prove beyond doubt that something is true, but a it can be proved false by a single case which shows it to be false. There are difficulties with the principle of falsification philosophically but it is in practice a most useful tool for scientists.

Another important intellectual tool for the scientist was developed in the fourteenth Century by the Franciscan, William of Ockham. Ockham formulated the principle of parsimony which we know today as Ockham’s Razor. This is commonly expressed as “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity” or, more bluntly, always choose the simplest explanation for something unless there is good reason not to.

Apart from being philosophically important, this dictum is immensely valuable as a guide for scientists, especially those engaged in the “hard” sciences of physics and chemistry, where the simplest explanation has often been found to be the correct one.

Roger Bacon, Grossteste and William of Ockham were also responsible for a substantial amount of important philosophy related to the other aspects of the physical world and metaphysics. In addition, Ockham was a radical political theorist who fought the conciliar case in the long schism in the papacy (which straddled the fourteenth and fifteenth Centuries), arguing that authority within the Church should not rest solely with the Pope but be delegated in part to a council of the Church.

At the beginning of the Seventeenth Century Francis Bacon moved the idea of the scientific method forward in his Novum Organum (1620), in which he laid out the classic version of scientific method and reinforced the ideas of induction and the importance of falsifiability (Bacon stands as the first in the long line of important British empirical philosophers). Bacon was also responsible for the re-classification of sciences in something approaching their modern form in his Advancement of Learning (1625) and argued vigorously forthe separation of reason and revelation.

On the practical science side there is William Gilbert with his work on magnetism (published in his De Magneto 1600), who was one of the first men, even perhaps the first, known to have conducted a controlled experiment, that is, one in which the experiment is entirely artificial and can be exactly repeated. It is the difference between simply watching falling objects which fall without human intent and creating a situation where falling objects can be observed repeatedly under the same conditions.

The practice of science

England was from the seventeenth century in the vanguard of the rise of science. William Gilbert’s work on magnetism was followed by  William Harvey tracing the circulation of the blood, Halley’s work on comets and Robert Hooke’s polymathic span from microscopy to a nascent theory of gravitation. Above all stood the formidable figure of Newton, neurotic, splenetic and marvellous, a man who demonstrated the composition of light and developed the powerful mathematical tool of the differential calculus, besides formulating the laws of motion which form the basis of all mechanical science and the theory of gravitation, which was the most complete explanation of the physical universe until Einstein.

Newton probably had more influence on the world than any man before him. Even today his importance is vast. Quantum mechanics and Einstein’s physics may have superseded the Newtonian as the most advanced explanation of the physical world, but Newton still rules as the practical means of understanding the world above the subatomic.

More generally, Newton provided an intellectual engine which allowed men to make sense of the universe and to see order and predictability where before there had been an order seemingly kept from chaos, and often not that, by the capricious will of a god or gods. The psychological as well as the scientific impact of Newton was great.

To these early scientific pioneers may be added the likes of Joseph Priestly (the practical discoverer of oxygen), John Dalton who proposed the first modern atomic theory), Michael Faraday (who laid the foundations of the science of electromagnetism), J.J. Thompson (who discovered the first atomic particle, the electron), James Chadwick (the discover of the neutron) and Francis Crick (who jointly discovered the structure of DNA with his pupil, the American James Watson).

Then there is Charles Darwin, the man with a strong claim to be the individual who has most shaped the way we view the world, because natural selection provides a universal means of explication for dynamic systems. We can as readily visualise pebbles on a beach being selected for their utility in their environment (from qualities such as crystal structure, size, shape) as we can a horse. As with Newton, Darwin profoundly affected the way men look at the world.

Of all the important scientific fields established since 1600, I can think of only two in which an Englishman did not play a substantial role. Those exceptions are Pasteur’s proof of germ theory and Mendel’s discovery of genes. Box A gives an idea of the scope of English scientific discoveries.

Contents of Box A

Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Gravitation, laws of motion, theory of light.

Robert Hooke (1625-1703). Wrote Micrographia, the first book describing observations made through a microscope. Was the first person to use the word “cell” to identify microscopic structures. Formulated Hooke’s Law — a law of elasticity for solid bodies.

Henry Cavendish (1731-1810). Discovered the composition of water and measured the gravitational attraction between two bodies.

Joseph Priestly, (1733-1804). Discovered Oxygen.

Humphrey Davy (1778-1829). Discovered the elements potassium, sodium, strontium, calcium, magnesium and barium nitrous oxide.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Widely regarded as the greatest ever experimental scientist. Conceived the idea of lines of force in magnetism, discovered electromagnetic induction, developed the laws of electrolysis.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Created modern evolutionary theory.

James Prescott Joule (1818-1889). Calculated the mechanical equivalent of heat.

John Dalton, (1766-1844). Created modern atomic theory.

Sir J J Thomson (1856-1940). Discovered the electron and made the first attempt to represent atoms in terms of positive and negative energy.

Sir James Chadwick 1891-1974. Discovered the neutron.

Francis Crick (1916- ). Joint discoverer of the structure of DNA.

End of contents of Box A

The Enlightenment

In his “Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world”, the historian Roy Porter remarks how peculiar it is “that historians have so little to say about the role of English thinkers in the European Enlightenment as a whole” (p3). Peculiar indeed when one considers the English intellectual personnel of the 17th and 18th Centuries and the high reputation English institutions and ideas had amongst the leading lights of the continental Enlightenment, especially in the country which is generally represented as the powerhouse of Enlightenment thinking, France. Here is the philosophe of philosophes, Voltaire, at full Anglophile admire:

“The English are the only people on earth who have been able to prescribe the limits of Kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government, where the prince is all powerful to do good, and at the same time is restrain’d from committing evil; where the Nobles are great without insolence, tho’ there are no vassals; and where the People share in the government without confusion.” Lettres philosophiques on Lettres Anglais (1775).

A strong argument can be made for the English Enlightenment not only existing but occurring a century or so before that of any other nation and subsequently providing much of the basis for the general Enlightenment movement.

Consider these figures from the seventeenth century: William Gilbert (science, especially magnetism), Francis Bacon (philosophy and science), Thomas Hobbes (philosophy), John Locke (philosophy), Thomas Harrington (economics and sociology), William Harvey (biology/medicine), Robert Hooke (polymathic scientist and technologist), John Rae (biologist), Edmund Halley (astronomy), Isaac Newton (mathematics and physics). What did they have in common other than intellectual distinction? They were all driven by the idea of reason, by the belief that the world could be understood rationally.

That is the real essence of the Enlightenment, the belief in rationality, in particular, the  belief that the world is subject to physical laws, that God does not intervene capriciously, that the world is not governed by magic. Such ideas did not preclude a God or prevent an intense relationship with the putatively divine, but they did encase God within a rational system of thought in which His action was limited, voluntarily or otherwise. Newton may have been utterly fixated with the numerology of the Bible but he believed the world was ordered according to physical laws.

From the belief that the universe is organised rationally comes the corollary that it can be understood, that everything is governed by laws which can be discovered by men. This idea pre-dated Newton, but it was his ideas, most notably his laws of motion and theory of gravity, that elevated the idea to almost a secular religion. During the next century intellectuals took the example of Newton’s inanimate mechanistic physical world and extrapolated the idea to every aspect of existence, from biology to philosophy to social policy. If only enough was known, if only enough effort was made, then everything, of thisworld at least, could be understood and controlled and everything could be the subject of rational decision making.

The 18th century Enlightenment had another aspect, an association with the democratic or at least a wish that the power of kings should be greatly curtailed – the Voltaire quote given above is a good example of the mentality. This also has its roots in England. The ferment of the English Civil war not only produced proto-democratic political movements such as the Levellers, it also started Parliament along the road of being more than a subordinate constitutional player by forcing it to act as not only a legislature but an executive. Stir in the experience of the Protectorate, simmer for 30 years or so of the restored Stuart kings, mix in the Glorious Revolution of 1689 which resulted in the Bill of Rights and established the English crown as being in the gift of Parliament and season with half a century of the German Georges and you have the British (in reality the English) constitution which was so admired by Voltaire, who thought it quite perfect, and which gave the American colonists the inspiration for their own political arrangements (president = king, Senate = Lords, House of Representatives = Commons, with a Constitution and Bill of Rights heavily influenced by the English Bill of Rights.)

The Industrial Revolution

Of all the social changes which have occurred in human history, none has been so profound as the process of industrialisation. The two previous great general amendments to human life – farming and urbanisation – pale into insignificance. Before industrialisation, man lived primarily from the land and animals whether from farming, husbandry or hunter-gathering. In the most advanced civilisations, the vast majority of populations lived outside large towns and cities. Even in industrialising England a majority of the population derived their living directly from the land as late as the 1830s. France did not become a predominantly urban nation until the 1930s. With industrialisation came not merely a change in the material circumstances, but profound social alteration. There arose much greater opportunity to move from the small world of the village. The massive increase in wealth eventually made even the poor rich enough to have aspirations. Sufficient numbers of the wealthier classes became guilty enough about abject poverty existing beside great wealth that the condition of the poor was further mitigated by greater educational opportunity, welfare provision and legislation regulating the abuse of workers by employers. Political horizons were expanded by the extension of the franchise.

The industrial revolution altered the balance of power throughout the world. David Landes “In the wealth and Poverty of Nations” describes the effect succinctly: “The industrial revolution made some countries richer, others (relatively) poorer; or more accurately, some countries made an industrial revolution and became rich; and others did not and stayed poor.”(p168). Prior to industrialisation, the disparity in wealth between states, regions and even continents was relatively small. Come the Industrial Revolution and massive disparities begin to appear. For Dr Landes, it is to the success or otherwise in industrialising which is the primary cause of present disparities in national wealth.

All of this tremendous amendment to human existence occurred because the one and only bootstrapped Industrial Revolution took place in England. Why England? David Landes in the “Wealth and Poverty of Nations” sees the historical process of industrialisation as twofold.

First, comes a pre-industrial preparatory period in which irrationality of thought is gradually replaced by scientific method and what he calls “autonomy of intellectual inquiry”(p201), that is, thought divorced from unquestioned reliance on authority, irrationality, especially superstition. At the same time technology begins to be something more than by-guess-and-by-God. This gives birth to industrialisation by creating both the intellectual climate and the acquired knowledge, both scientific and technological, necessary for the transformation from traditional to modern society. It is as good an explanation as any and fits the flow of England’s historical development. It is not utterly implausible to suggest that without England the world might have had no Industrial Revolution. Those who would scoff at such a proposition should consider the cold facts: even with England and Britain’s example to follow no other nation matched her industrial development until the 1870’s and then the first country to do so was a state ultimately derived from England, namely the USA. Nor did England produce an industrial revolution only in England, they actively exported and financed it throughout the world, for example, most of the European railway building of the years 1840-70 was the result of British engineers and money.

Some may point to scientific advance in Europe from 1600 onwards as reason to believe that industrialisation would have been achieved without England. It is true that Europe advanced scientifically in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but scientific knowledge is no guarantee of technological progress. Moreover, a good deal of that scientific advance came from England. Nor does scientific knowledge have any natural connection with the severe social upheaval required for a transformation from the land-working dominated pre-industrial state to capitalism. Indeed, the landowners of pre-industrial Europe had a vested interest in not promoting industrial advance. Moreover, in many parts of Europe, particularly the East, feudal burdens became greater not less after 1500. This was so even in as advanced a country as France. Consequently, the widespread social mobility which historians have generally thought necessary to promote a bootstrapped industrial revolution simply did not exist in Europe at the beginning of the British Industrial revolution. Even the country most like England in its commercial development, the Netherlands, became socially and politically ossified in the Eighteenth century, with a bourgeoise developing into an aristocracy and representative government narrowed to what was in effect a parliament of nobles.

There will be those – Scots in particular – who will chafe at the idea that the industrial revolution was dependent upon England. The facts are against them. Scotland before the union with England (1707) was a remarkably poor state. Nor, despite its much vaunted educational system – supposedly much the superior of England – had it produced many men of international importance. Read a general history of Europe, either old or modern, and you will find precious few Scots mentioned on their own account before the Union. The names John Eringa and Duns Scotus with perhaps a nod to John Knox are the best the reader may hope for, and the former two had to leave Scotland to make their names. If any other Scotsman who lived before the Union is mentioned, he will be noticed only because of his connection with another country, most commonly England. It required the union with England to give Scots a larger stage to act upon. Without the union, the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith and James Watt would in all probability have been roses which bloomed unseen in the desert air. That is not to decry the talents and contributions of Scots, which are considerable, merely to describe a necessary sociological condition for their realisation. Let me demonstrate how much of an English enterprise the Industrial

Revolution was by using the example of the development of steam power. Contrary to many a schoolboy’s imagining, James Watt did not invent the steam engine. That was the province of Englishmen. The Marquess of Worcester may have produced a working steam engine on his estates in 1663; James Savery certainly did in 1698. This was improved by another Englishman, Thomas Newcomen. Their machines were crude beam engines, but the technological Rubicon had been crossed.

It is true that the Scotsman Watt’s improvements to the steam engine – the conversion of linear to rotary action and the introduction of a separate condenser – were profoundly important and provided the means to extend the use of steam engines from their limited applications in pumping water from mines. But it should be noted that he had to come to England to achieve his improvements through his association with an English entrepreneur of genius, Mathew Boulton, who in his Soho works in Birmingham had probably the best engineering facilities then in the world. It was also Boulton who pressed Watt to develop the conversion of linear to rotary action. It is worth adding that Watt was a timid, retiring personality who left to his own devices would probably have achieved little of practical consequence. Moreover, within a generation of Watt’s improvements, the English engineer, Rchard Trevithick had greatly improved on Watt’s engine by producing high pressure steam engine. It is also true that the very wide ranging patents granted to Watt and Boulton almost certainly delayed the development of the steam engine.

But before steam could play its full role there had to be a revolution in iron production. This was accomplished by Englishmen. Until Abraham Darby began smelting iron with coke made from coal in the early 1700s, iron making in Europe  was an expensive and uncertain business carried on in small foundries using charcoal to fire the kilns (an ironmaker named Dudley claimed to have used coal successfully for smelting as early as 1619 but died without establishing a business to carry the work on).

Compared with coal, charcoal was in short supply. Worse, it did not produce the same intensity of heat as coal converted into coke. Darby and his son solved the basic problem of smelting with coke made from coal. Henry Cort’s puddling process allowed cast-iron to be refined to remove the brittleness. A little later Benjamin Huntsman improved steel making. In the middle of the next century the Bessemer revolutionised steel production to such a degree that its price fell dramatically enough to make steel no longer a luxury but the common material of construction. All these advances were made by Englishmen.

Large scale organisation is also intellectually demanding. If a ready and cheaper supply of iron was a necessary condition for the industrial revolution, so was the very idea of large scale manufactories using machines. Undertakings employing hundreds of men on one site were not unknown before the 18 century – a clothier named Jack of Newbury had a factory employing 500 in Tudor times – but they were very rare. In 18th Century England such enterprises became if not commonplace, at least not extraordinary. By the next century they were the norm.

Industry became for the first time geared to a mass market. Nor was this new method of manufacturing confined to the necessities and banalities of life. Factories such as Josiah Wedgewood’s at Etruria manufactured high quality and imaginative china directed deliberately at the growing middle classes. All the most successful 18th century machines for mass production were developed by Englishmen. Arkwright’s water frame, Crompton’s mule, James Hargreaves spinning jenny.

Once the first blast of the industrial revolution had passed, the fundamental fine tuning was undertaken by Englishmen, with men such as Whitworth leading the way with machine tools and new standards of exactness in measurement and industrial cutting and finishing. All very boring to the ordinary man, but utterly essential for the foundation of a successful industrial society.

Many vital industries since have originated in England. To take a few, George Stephenson produced the first practical railway (the railway probably did more than anything to drive the Industrial Revolution because it allowed a true national market to operate within England); Brunel issued in the age of the ocean going steamship; William Perkins laid the foundation for the modern chemical industry by discovering the first synthetic dye; the first electronic computer was designed in Britain, after theoretical conception by the Englishman, Alan Turing. (In the previous century another Englishman, Charles Babbage, designed but did not finished building the first programmable machine.)

Alongside the development of manufacturing ran that of agriculture. The enclosure movement was already well advanced by 1700. By the middle of the nineteenth century it was effectively finished. Not merely feudalism but the peasantry were gone. The old, inefficient open-field system was a dead letter. With enclosure came agricultural innovation.

In the eighteenth century we have Jethro Tull, whose seed drill greatly reduced the amount of seed needed for sowing, Robert Bakewell whose selective breeding greatly increased the size of sheep and cattle and “Turnip” Townsend who greatly increased crop efficiency by various mean such as the marling of sandy soil. The importance of such developments cannot be overestimated because the population of Britain rose so dramatically in the next century.

The technological inventions and discoveries made by the English are legion. Box B gives some idea of their importance and range.

Contents of Box B

Thomas Savery (1650-1715). Invented the first commercial steam engine – a steam pump.

Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729). Improved Savery’s engine by introducing the piston.

Richard Trevithick (1771 – 1833). Invented the high pressure steam engine. Built the first steam locomotive.

George Stephenson (1781-1848). Made the railway a practical reality.

Abraham Darby (1678-1717). Developed the process of smelting iron using  coke.

Sir Henry Bessemer, 1813-1898. Devised a process for making steel on a large scale.

James Hargreaves (1722-1778). Invented the spinning jenny.

John Kay (1733-1764). Invented the flying shuttle.

Samuel Crompton (1753-1827). Invented the spinning mule.

Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) Invented the waterframe.

Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823). Invented the power loom.

John Harrison (1693-1776) First to build watches accurate enough to solve the longitude measurement problem.

Edward Jenner (1743-1823). Developed scientific vaccination.

Joseph Lister (1827-1912). Developed antisepsis.

Sir Joseph Whitworth (1803-1887) standardised screw threads, produced first true plane surfaces in metal, developed ductile steel.

Henry Maudslay (1771-1831). Invented the screw-cutting lathe and the first bench micrometer that was capable of measuring to one ten thousandth of an inch.

Joseph Bramah (1748-1814). Invented the hydraulic press.

John Walker (1781- 1859). Invented the first friction matches.

John Smeaton (1724-1792) made the first modern concrete (hydraulic cement).

Joseph Aspdin (1788-1855) invented Portland Cement, the first true artificial cement.

Humphrey Davy (1778-1829). Invented the first electric light, the arc lamp.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Invented the electric motor.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). Built the first really large steam ships – the Great Britain, Great Western, Great Eastern.

Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897). Devised the most widely used modern shorthand.

Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802 – 1875). Developed an electric telegraph at the same time as Samuel Morse.

Rowland Hill (1795-1879). Invented adhesive postage stamps.

John Herschel (1792-1871). Invented the blueprint.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) Invented the negative-positive photography and latent image shorter exposure time.

Sir Joseph William Swan (1828-1914). Invented the dry photographic plate. Invented, concurrently with Edison, the light bulb.

Sir William Henry Perkin (1838-1907). Created the first artificial dye – aniline purple or mauveine – and the first artificial scent, coumarin.

Alexander Parkes (1813-90). Created the first artificial plastic, Parkensine.

Sir George Cayley (1773-1857). Worked out the principles of aerodynamics, his “On Ariel Navigation” showed that a fixed wing aircraft with a power system for propulsion, and a tail to assist in the control of the airplane, would be the best way to allow man to fly. Also invented the caterpillar track.

Sir Frank Whittle (1907-1996). Took out the first patents for a turbojet.

Sir Christopher Cockerell (1910-1999). Invented the hovercraft.

Charles Babbage (1792-1871). Worked out the basic principles of the computer.

Alan Turin (1912-1954). Widely considered the father of modern computer science – worked out the principles of the digital computer.

Tim Berners-Lee (1955-). Invented the World Wide Web defining HTML (hypertextmarkup language), HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) and URLs (Universal Resource Locators).

End of contents on Box B

Just a brief sketch

This article is just a brief sketch of what the English have achieved intellectually. There is much which has been either omitted or mentioned too briefly, for example, I have barely touched on the considerable accomplishments in literature, philosophy, history. But there is enough here to show that England has been so far from an intellectual backwater troughout her history that she may be lausibly considered the primary cause of the modern world and its way of thinking and existing. Indeed, without England it is difficult to imagine the world as it is today.

To have produced Shakespeare, Newton and Darwin alone would have been a great thing for any nation, but for England they are merely the cherries on the top of a very substantial intellectual cake. Beneath them sit dozens of others of serious human consequence: the likes of Ockham, Chaucer, Wycliffe, Francis Bacon, Marlowe, Halley, Hobbes, Locke, Gibbon, Priestly, Cavendish, Newcomen, Faraday, Austen, Dickens, Keynes, Turing… ‘Nuff said.

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9 Responses to Human Accomplishment and the English

  1. Barry says:

    This is brilliant I have always wanted to know as an Englishman what my country has done and given to the world. In the main I always get British this, British that when in fact the people they are describing are English, I do not really want to know about Britain/UK I want to know about England and what she has achieved and given to the modern world, thanks to you I now have a rough guide to go by.

    I have often wonderd about in England in the world of sport, it seems to me the English play more different varities of sport than any other country in the world and by consequence have the most record holders in the world, thing is not sure if this is true but it seems plausible does it not?

  2. Hearts upwards says:

    and they all had Scottish tutors………

  3. William says:

    This is a fantastic list and shows that anyone can be English – from Celts to Romans, from Normans to the Plantagenets, from Scots to Irish, from French to Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, England has been enriched by immigration and would have been nothing without Celtic, Roman, Norman, Scottish, Irish, French and modern immigration. This should put pay to the claims of Anglo-Saxon racists of the British Nationalist and the English Defence League

  4. Lurker says:

    England virtually invented modern spectator sport

    Sadly undermined by the modern phenomenon of black worship in sport.

  5. Antony says:

    Every English child should have a copy of this article. An excellent survey. Our contribution to art is perhaps mediocre compared to the great Latin cultures or even Germany, but not many nations produce a Constable, and even fewer produce a vision like Turner’s. I’d defend our music too. Birtwistle and Britten may not be to everyone’s taste, but Elgar, Williams, Walton, Parry, Delius and others should be. The problem with any assessment of this kind is that we tend to overlook the over-riding elite directive to warp English history and stamp out her culture. Pretending she doesn’t have one is the obvious method. I am suspicious of the ‘absence of evidence’ said to hamper our knowledge of early English history for much the same reason. Universities are gatekeepers in my view, not seekers after truth, and in a federated state in which three distinct nations live off a fourth that is the largest, richest and most populace it makes sense to remove all possible sources of trouble. A people without a past are cowed, docile, so when singer Martin Carthy said ‘There is no such thing as an English folk song’ on a BBC radio programme investigating the cultural shame being instilled into English schoolchildren we knew immediately why he got an OBE for his ‘contribution’ to English music. Carthy, like all self-haters, writes and thinks as an enemy. Read the sleeve notes he contributes with Rod Strading on the album ‘Hidden English’, a compilation of regional English song. They are an exercise in national self-denigration from first to last, right down to guilt-stricken mea culpas in the face of complaints from scotch musician Dick Gaughan that his own native music and culture are only now ‘recovering’ after ‘centuries of marginalisation by England’. It can be difficult to enjoy music if you take responsibility for the behaviour of your countrymen, opine our two guides, especially after what they did during ‘the clearances’. There is a good deal more, all of it in the same vein, but this should be enough to warn of what we’re up against – a systematic and relentless drive to efface English culture. Demoralization being a necessary prelude to breaking up of a country, it follows that any permitted assessment of ‘English genius’ is likely to be slanted, intentionally or otherwise. We have enemies everywhere. I’m sorry but it’s true. Great article though.

  6. Antony says:

    Just a word about Roy Porter. I feared the worse when I began his book. Words and phrases like ‘inclusive’ and ‘gendered language’ and and the ugly ‘problematize’ didn’t help. The there was that title: ‘British’ Enlightenment? This has to be a failure of nerve. The book is about England, about her contribution to modernity. Since Porter’s earlier publications on this same topic demonstrate a freely confessed wish – realized here – to correct a historical injustice why be so diffident, so damned English about saying as much? The author’s preoccupation with England’s contribution to the process known as the European Enlightenment doesn’t sit at all well with the note of apology he strikes. ‘British’ and ‘English’, we are told, are used interchangeably precisely because ‘many’ natives [ah, that weasel word again, beloved of academics with no argument to make but a stand to take…] were similarly undiscriminating at the time, while for foreign visitors England and ‘Britain’ were synonymous. No bias then, just references to ‘the elites living in the British Isles, since practically all enlightened thinking was then actually coming out of English heads…’ Eh? Sorry Roy I’m lost. Are we ‘English’ here or ‘British’? And if ‘British’ why go on the offensive on our behalf, giving us an American academic’s disparaging view of the term ‘English Enlightenment’, described by him as ‘jarring’ [because he isn’t used to it, or because it isn’t deserved?] only to then express the hope that he and others find your book ‘a jarring experience’? Why complain at all that ‘when not…ignored, English achievements have been denied’ when your own shorthand reinforces the anonymity imposed on us legally since 1707, and by habituation since the later Victorian period? Good book though. People should make allowances when they read it. It’s just that foreigners would not be so easily led into confusion if we didn’t unthinkingly lend them a hand so often it seems to me.

  7. Pingback: Human Accomplishment and the English | The Libertarian Alliance: BLOG

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