The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries was one of the most decisive turning points in European history. Between the Renaissance and Newton, there was an intellectual revolution when ideas about nature and society underwent a radical transformation. The foundations of the modern world view were laid during this period.

The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and the 17th centuries owed much to the scientific achievements of the Greek civilization in antiquity as well as to the contributions of the Arabic, late medieval, and early Renaissance thinkers.

The Renaissance had its origins in ancient Greece, as did the origins of modem science. To the Greeks, science and philosophy were almost the same since most philosophers tried to explain the nature of the physical world. In mathematics among the Greeks, Euclid and Pythagoras contributed to geometry. In medicine, Hippocrates the ‘Father of Medicine, laid the foundations of modern medicine by insisting that every disease had a natural cause and that without natural causes nothing can happen.

Further, in astronomy, Aristarchus propounded the theory that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun. But it was Ptolemy’s point of view that the earth was the center of the Universe that prevailed till Corpemicus upset the theory.

Hipparchus made an approximately correct calculation of the diameter of the moon and the distance between the earth and the moon.

Eratosthenes calculated almost correctly the circumference of the earth. Herophilus described the brain in detail and the functions of arteries in the circulation of blood Doctors practiced dissecting human bodies for the first time and obtained a great deal of knowledge about human anatomy.

By the end of the 16th century, the Scientific Revolution had begun. But scientific activity and results were accomplished only within the framework of the ancient and medieval system. The developments which were to take a break from medieval traditionalism and credulity, to modern scientific insistence upon observation and verification were to occur only during the 17th century.

The discovery of the new World, the sea route to the East, and the success of the early voyages of discovery created an enormous demand for shipbuilding and navigation and for the making of the compass, maps, and other instruments.

Navigational schools were founded in Portugal, Spain, England and Holland, and France. There was a growing interest in astronomy, careful observation of celestial bodies, and more reliable tables of stellar positions. The most striking changes were therefore in cosmology.

The Ptolemaic Theory of Heavens, which conformed to the Aristotelian view of the Universe, was upset by the exposition of the solar system by Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543). Copernicus in Italy came under the influence of Neo-Platonism and learned from Cicero and Hicetas that the earth revolved on its axis, and from Aristorchus that the earth rotated around the sun.

Copernicus rejected the earth-centered cosmos of Aristotle and replaced it with a solar system viewed from one of its many spinning planets. On the basis of mathematical calculations, he made the revolutionary discovery that it was not the earth that was the center of the Universe but the Sun and that the earth rotated on its axis every twenty-four hours. His great work, on the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs, was published only on his death.

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) who was another great exponent of the heliocentric theory was burnt at the stake for heresy. Tycho Brahe, a Danish scientist, with the help of the Danish King, built the first really scientist institute of the modern world from where he observed the position of the stars and planets.

The discovery of the greatest scientific instruments of the age was the telescope, a by-product of the manufacture of spectacles, in Holland around 1600. Galileo Galilee who was a professor of physics and military engineering at the University of Padua was a confirmed Copernican.

The foundation of the two new sciences, Statics and Dynamics was also laid by Galileo. These two sciences laid down the laws of motion and the mathematical theory of the strength of materials. He used the pendulum and inclined plane to accurately measure the fall of bodies. By observation and exact experiment with mathematical analysis, he solved the problem of the fall of bodies, and thus provided the first clear example of the methods of modem physics.

Vieta developed algebra and trigonometry. Simon Stevin, who introduced in 1568 the decimal system of representing fractions, he also laid the foundation of modern hydraulics. Napier introduced Logarithms in 1614. Gilbert founded the sciences of electricity and magnetism.

Revolution in Agriculture

The revolution in agriculture in fact had started before the Industrial Revolution. Naturally, there were changes in farming methods to produce more food, and more importantly, to produce cash crops for the market and raw materials for industries.

New farm machinery included the steel plow and harrow for breaking the ground, the mechanical drill for seeding, and the horse-drawn cultivators to replace the hoe. There were also machines for reaping and threshing. Farmers adopted intensive manuring soil fertility. Crop rotation is effective because different crops take different elements from the soil. Moreover, planting a crop like Clover can actually be better for the soil than letting it lie fallow because clover is one of the plants that add fertility to the soil.

Landowners in England also began to enlarge their farms. They had already consolidated their holdings through the enclosure movements. The strips of land that lay scattered about the village were so consolidated that they could hold all their land in one piece. In doing so, the big landowner quite unfairly got possession of the peasant’s small-holding along with his own. But the big landowners controlled Parliament in those days and got laws passed that enabled them to do these things. The result was that the peasants were forced off the land. With no other means of livelihood, they moved to the new industrial towns and cities where they got jobs. Industries thus benefited but at the small farmer’s expense.

The Glorious Revolution

When James II attempted to flout the Parliament and establish his despotic rule over the country, the leaders of the Parliament invited William of Orange to invade England. As soon as the forces of William reached the shores of England, James II lost heart and fled to France. The despotic rule of James was thus brought to an end without any war or shedding of blood. The event is known as the Glorious Revolution of 1668 AD.


Thus, the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and the 17th centuries was an era to discover the rotation of the planets around the sun, and the circulation of blood was firmly established by 1642. The old picture of the world was replaced by a new one. New means for understanding nature were discovered, though the telescope was the only new scientific instrument discovered.

B.A. History
Paper III
History of Modern World
(15th Century to World War II)

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