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Gottfried Leibniz, a white man with long curly brown hair

Gottfried Leibniz, a German mathematician – Enlightenment science

What set off the Enlightenment?

By 1650 AD, Europeans understood Islamic algebra and trigonometry better. Then they combined that with the exciting invention of the telescope and microscope (thanks to earlier Islamic work on glass). Together, these two new things led to a lot more new scientific discoveries.

Medieval and modern glass
Medieval Islamic mathematics
Renaissance science in Europe
Enlightenment and religion
All our modern Europe articles

The Wars of Religion also got a lot of people thinking about what they really believed. How could you know for sure?

The Thirty Years’ War
Elizabeth and Mary in England
Henry IV in France

Colonization and the Enlightenment

Most of these people lived in Europe. Colonization and trade brought fascinating new ideas to Europe from all over the world. Africans used inoculation against smallpox. There were new kinds of electric fish in South America. The Maya and Aztec had new calendars. China had a medical system with different medicines (and so did South America). India had big manufacturing centers and trade networks.

The Mughal Indian economy
Chinese medicine
Inoculation and smallpox

Europeans get rich from slavery and mining

In addition to getting new ideas, Europeans were taking tons of silver and gold. They forced other people to work as their slaves. Western Europe was getting a lot richer. Everywhere else was getting poorer. So in Western Europe, more people got good educations and could grow up to be scientists. But in the Ottoman EmpireIndia, or China, not as many people could. That’s why many important new discoveries happened in Western Europe during the Enlightenment.

Slavery in the Caribbean
Silver mining in Peru
Mining and slavery in Brazil
European economy in the 1600s

Isaac Newton: a young white man with long hair

Isaac Newton, mathematician and physicist – Enlightenment science

The invention of calculus

More people studying algebra and trigonometry in Western Europe led to the invention of calculus about 1665. Two men invented calculus independently about the same time. One was Gottfried Leibniz, in Germany. The other was Isaac Newton, in England. Calculus is a mathematical method for calculating the area of more complicated shapes. It’s very important for modern engineering.

More about Isaac Newton

Both of these men did other work too. Leibniz did a lot of work on binary number systems and mechanical calculators.

Astronomy and the Laws of Motion

Newton was an astronomer. So he was also very much interested in the new glass lenses. He was also able to use these lenses to develop the science of optics.

History of astronomy
Arya Bhata in India
The First Law of Motion

Newton also studied the work of the earlier European astronomers CopernicusGalileo, and Kepler. Like earlier scientists, Newton saw mathematics mainly as a way to answer astronomical questions. He brought the new calculus together with optics and astronomy to work out the law of gravitation. In 1687, Newton also published the laws of motion.

Enlightenment medicine

But many other scientists were also working in Europe now. In 1675, Anton van Leeuwenhoek used the new microscope to see bacteria. That helped to show why people got sick – from germs!

What are bacteria?

About 1700, Bernardino Ramazzini confirmed Georgius Agricola‘s idea that some people’s occupations made them sick. Miners got cancer from working with coal, lead, arsenic, and iron. People who worked with dust and fire, like bakers, blacksmithsprinters, and glass-workers, tended to get coughs and lung cancer. Ramazzini also saw that nuns didn’t get cervical cancer, but they did get more breast cancer. Nuns didn’t have babies. So Ramazzini figured out that both kinds of cancer must be related to whether women had babies.

A Leyden Jar - an early kind of electric battery

A Leyden Jar – an early kind of electric battery – Enlightenment science

Advances in electricity

By 1745, scientists were beginning to do experiments with electricity, too. Ewald von Kleist invented the Leyden Jar. A Leyden Jar is a very early kind of electric battery. It can store electricity and then let it out all at once.

History of electricity

European scientists did many dangerous experiments with lightning like those of Benjamin Franklin in North America.

Astronomy with telescopes

And then more astronomical observations also kept pouring in as people built bigger and more powerful telescopes. Astronomers first observed the atmosphere of Venus in 1761.

The planet Venus
What about Uranus?
What is a galaxy?
So what is a nebula?

They proved that galaxies and nebulae were made of lots of faraway stars in 1771. And they discovered a new planet, Uranus, in 1781. But all of these discoveries built on the earlier work of hundreds of other scientists. The telescopes depended on the invention of lenses. Accurate lenses depended on glass-making technology and on the invention of trigonometry. Glass-making depended on the invention of the pot-bellows. People from all over the world invented things that came together in Europe’s Enlightenment.

European Science in the 1800s AD

Bibliography and further reading about the history of science:

Renaissance Science
Early Modern Science
Science in the 1800s home