The word science came into the English language via Old French from the Latin word scientia, meaning “knowledge, learning, application, and a corpus of human knowledge.” From ancient times, the pursuit of knowledge included things like grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Previous to the term scientist, a practitioner investigating nature and the physical universe was known as a natural philosopher.
Rev. Dr. William Whewell, who coined the word scientist in 1834, was a British polymath; scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science.
From ancient times, an insular focus on social and religious systems often made little distinction between knowledge of astronomy and math, for example, or other types of knowledge, like mythologies and legal systems. The fundamental break with religion and the onset of the first industrial revolution changed this in the 18th century, giving rise to empirical science and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. By the end of the 19th century, with the changes brought about by science, war, and a second industrial revolution, we found ourselves in vastly different, faster-paced lifestyles unlike anything previously known.
Labor, transportation, and communication saw an upheaval in social orders and means that had been in place for centuries. Landscapes and seascapes changed with the introduction of the locomotive, the telegraph, iron-clad ships, and electric lights. Factories tooled and expanded their production lines, becoming faster, and more efficient. The business of business became a science in itself with economies of manufacturing and the cost-effectiveness of human labor as its focus. By the early 20th century, in a period of just ten years, the horse, that stalwart of transport and labor for millennia, was completely replaced by combustion engines.
While the big machines get the most attention, the 19th century also gave us myriad small inventions that were quickly adopted as household and work conveniences. Factories brought us cheaper textiles and ready-made clothing, safety pins, canned food, staplers, raincoats, ice boxes, matches, barbed wire, typewriters, sewing machines, toy balloons, toilet paper, wrenches, cylinder locks, and the zipper.
With the specificity of scientific inquiry came new language and terminologies. Appendicitis, conjunctivitis, bronchitis, and colitis were all 19th-century coinages. Specialized areas of study gave us new fields such as biology, climatology, and ethnology.
Along with 19th-century engineering feats that included the Brooklyn Bridge and the Thames Tunnel, the first trans-Atlantic cable was laid in 1858, and pleasantries were telegraphically exchanged between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan. The cable was celebrated with souvenir watch fobs, earrings, pendants, letter openers, candlesticks, and walking-stick toppers. By 1880, the simple word hello, previously nothing more than a coarse expression for calling hounds to a chase, became a salutation for “calling” someone on the newly invented telephone.
With its break from religious ties, scientists and inventors advanced civilization at such a pace, it truly must have seemed like “three hundred years in the span of thirty.” The next century literally took us to the moon and now a robotic vehicle is sending us data from Mars. Telescopic satellites photograph distant galaxies and star factories, relaying images that are nothing short of breathtaking. Today, 750,000 miles of submarine cables and satellites allow us to communicate, collaborate, and trade on the internet globally. Robots and AI are redefining manufacturing, the efficacy of human labor, and our “relationship” to work. Moore’s Law tells us our world is going to change at a pace and scale even twentieth-century industrialists could hardly have imagined. Buckle up!
To glimpse what’s in store for humanity in the next few decades, take a look at Tony Seba’s RethinkX, a technology think tank that is making data-based predictions for transportation, food industries, and the race toward renewable energies.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like reading about words that are understood all over the world, how the use of acronyms exploded in the past two centuries, or how rebracketing changes the pronunciation of common words!
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