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The Lancet


The Royal Society

The Royal Institution


Why is Science Important?

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For a large part of recorded history, science had little bearing on people's everyday lives. Scientific knowledge was gathered for its own sake, and it had few practical applications. However, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, this rapidly changed. Today, science has a profound effect on the way we live, largely through technology—the use of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.

Some forms of technology have become so well established that it is easy to forget the great scientific achievements that they represent. The refrigerator, for example, owes its existence to a discovery that liquids take in energy when they evaporate, a phenomenon known as latent heat. The principle of latent heat was first exploited in a practical way in 1876, and the refrigerator has played a major role in maintaining public health ever since (see Refrigeration). The first automobile, dating from the 1880s, made use of many advances in physics and engineering, including reliable ways of generating high-voltage sparks, while the first computers emerged in the 1940s from simultaneous advances in electronics and mathematics.

Other fields of science also play an important role in the things we use or consume every day. Research in food technology has created new ways of preserving and flavoring what we eat (see Food Processing and Preservation). Research in industrial chemistry has created a vast range of plastics and other synthetic materials, which have thousands of uses in the home and in industry. Synthetic materials are easily formed into complex shapes and can be used to make machine, electrical, and automotive parts, scientific and industrial instruments, decorative objects, containers, and many other items.

Alongside these achievements, science has also brought about technology that helps save human life. The kidney dialysis machine enables many people to survive kidney diseases that would once have proved fatal, and artificial valves allow sufferers of coronary heart disease to return to active living. Biochemical research is responsible for the antibiotics and vaccinations that protect us from infectious diseases, and for a wide range of other drugs used to combat specific health problems. As a result, the majority of people on the planet now live longer and healthier lives than ever before.

However, scientific discoveries can also have a negative impact in human affairs. Over the last hundred years, some of the technological advances that make life easier or more enjoyable have proved to have unwanted and often unexpected long-term effects. Industrial and agricultural chemicals pollute the global environment, even in places as remote as Antarctica, and city air is contaminated by toxic gases from vehicle exhausts (see Pollution). The increasing pace of innovation means that products become rapidly obsolete, adding to a rising tide of waste (see Solid Waste Disposal). Most significantly of all, the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas releases into the atmosphere carbon dioxide and other substances known as greenhouse gases. These gases have altered the composition of the entire atmosphere, producing global warming and the prospect of major climate change in years to come.

Science has also been used to develop technology that raises complex ethical questions. This is particularly true in the fields of biology and medicine (see Medical Ethics). Research involving genetic engineering, cloning, and in vitro fertilization gives scientists the unprecedented power to bring about new life, or to devise new forms of living things. At the other extreme, science can also generate technology that is deliberately designed to harm or to kill. The fruits of this research include chemical and biological warfare, and also nuclear weapons, by far the most destructive weapons that the world has ever known.

"Science," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation
Teacher's Essay

Early Industrialization

Starting in the early 19th Century the United States underwent an industrial revolution. The work that many people did changed as they moved from farms and small workshops into larger factories. They tended to buy things in stores, rather than make them at home or trade with their neighbors. They used machines, and purchased the products of machines, more than they ever had.

LEFT: Spinning wheel, possibly for flax. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.
RIGHT: Mechanized Spinner from
The Progress of Cotton, 1835-40. Courtesy of Slater Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, RI..

The small-scale centers of textile production discussed in Unit 1 lasted well into the 19th century. But the manufacture of textiles began to change dramatically, starting as early as the 1790's, as these traditional sources were first joined, and then replaced, by a new material, a new kind of agriculture, and a new kind of factory. The material processed changed, from linen and wool to cotton; the way that cotton was grown and prepared changed, with the invention of the cotton gin and the reinvention of the plantation; new machines, invented to process the cotton, found a new setting in larger and more complex factories. Together, these changes added up to an industrial revolution.

This textile revolution did not happen everywhere in the United States at the same time, and its effects were quite different in different areas. Perhaps the largest change came in the South, where the new demand for cotton was supplied by plantations based on slave labor and mechanized processing of the cotton by the cotton gin. ("Gin" is short for "engine.") The Northeastern United States changed dramatically as home spinning and weaving, and small-scale carding and fulling mills gave way to large integrated mills where a new kind of worker used new machines to produce cotton cloth on a scale previously unimagined. Smaller mills remained, and would remain for the rest of the century, but for the most part, only in areas of low population far from the commercial markets of the Northeast.

This account of the American Industrial Revolution is different from the usual one found in textbooks. Many textbooks claim, for example, that the Industrial Revolution did not occur until the end of the 19th century, with the coming of massive steel mills and the end of small-scale production. And they omit the mechanization and reorganization of Southern plantations, on the grounds that agricultural production is not part of the history of industry. While this traditional story is not wrong, it leaves out an important part of the story.

It also leaves out many people who participated in and whose lives were changed by industrialization. To focus on factories, which have traditionally employed native white and immigrant workers, and from which African Americans were kept by racial prejudice, leaves out a large group whose story is a key element of American history. Slaves produced the cotton that made possible Northern factories, a piece of history often slighted in favor of stories about those factories. In this curriculum we have widened our point of view to include Southern cotton production as part of textile history. So slavery, and later sharecropping, becomes an important part of the story of Northern textile mills; African Americans become part of the history of technology; and technology becomes part of African American history. Such an inclusionary view should help students of color imagine themselves as people who, like their ancestors, use and control technology.

The South

William Aiken Walker, The Sunny South, 1881
Photo courtesy of Robert M. Hicklin Jr.,Inc., Spartanburg, SC.

It is right to start the story of the industrialization of the textile industry in the South, because that is where the story of cotton starts. Southern plantations underwent an industrial revolution of a sort: one of the key new technologies of the textile revolution, the cotton gin, made possible a new, much larger scale of production, and that increased scale demanded new organization and management.

Before the American Revolution, tobacco, rice, and indigo were the major crops produced for market in the South. Cotton was not produced for market because it was so hard to remove the sticky seeds from inside each cotton ball; it could not be done fast enough to make cotton profitable. (The only exception was long-staple cotton, which could only be grown on the seacoast.) Since the first millenium B.C., people around the world used roller gins to speed the cleaning of cotton. The saw gin, patented in 1793, made processing cotton even easier, faster, and cheaper.

Eli Whitney's cotton gin, demonstration model
1973. Courtesy of National Museum of American History,
Washington, DC

Based on an ancient technology, the introduction of the saw gin at the end of the 18th century changed the nature of American cotton cultivation. Developed just as the world-wide demand for raw cotton was skyrocketing because of the expansion of textile mills in Britain and the United States, the machine removed the principal bottleneck to cotton production. Even the early machines allowed one person to clean the seeds from fifty pounds of green-seed cotton in one day. Soon cotton became the most important market crop in the South. Production went from 3,000 bales in 1790 to 1 million bales in 1835.

With the opportunity to make a good profit from cotton came dramatic changes in Southern agriculture: increased size of plantations, and to work them, increased numbers of slaves. African slaves had been used in Southern agriculture almost from the beginning of European settlement. Tobacco planters had used slaves since the 17th century; slaves were critical to the rice cultivation that developed in the 18th century. Plantations, large farms using slave labor to grow a single crop, were created to make a profit for the owners before technology made cotton a cash crop and before slavery was the only labor system. But plantations were adapted to produce cotton in the 19th century and by then many of them employed only slaves. Planters became wealthy by exploiting the labor of Africans in America, men and women who could not choose another way of life. The growth of cotton as a cash crop in the 19th century meant the growth of slavery throughout the South. Slavery, which had been in decline, became an integral part of the new agriculture.

It might seem odd that a new labor-saving machine like the cotton gin meant an increase in the size of the labor force. But the lower price meant an enormous increase in cotton production, and even with the cotton gin, cotton production still required an enormous amount of labor. Cotton demanded large plantations; it made money only when plantation owners could put more workers in the field. From an investor's point of view, slaves were a capital investment, comparable to the machinery a northern factory owner might purchase. (The student essay "Why a Plantation?" addresses the issues of plantation size and management.)

The cotton gin was one of those inventions that brought about an enormous change in the way people lived and worked, and even in their politics, and so it is appropriate that much of the southern section of this Unit is focused on the gin. The exercise on "Inventing the Cotton Gin" raises issues about the nature of invention. The exercise on fixing a gin raises questions about technological skills. Both of these include a discussion of race and technology.

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