Matt Ridley claims in The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (and also in an article in the Wall Street Journal):

In his book he argues:

Again and again, once you examine the history of innovation, you find scientific breakthroughs as the effect, not the cause, of technological change. It is no accident that astronomy blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine.

His essential argument (derived from Terence Kealey) is that new inventions are developed by practical people and the basic science tends to follow later. Is this broadly true in the history of science and major new technology?

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    I think this is going to be "too broad". Which invention are we talking about? I'm pretty sure we can find at least one example of each side. Oct 24, 2015 at 18:43
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    The claim here seems vague beyond repair. Astronomy blossomed in the Renaissance. [You might disagree, but aren't we just arguing opinions?] Boyle's Law predates James Watt's steam engine. When theory is dependent on many practical inventions, and a practical invention is dependent on many theories, what does it even mean to claim one precedes the other? How could such a beast be measured empirically?
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 25, 2015 at 12:37
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    Warning to potential answerers: Anecdotal evidence and opinions will not be tolerated. You will need to provide some references to impressive definitions to distinguish between Science and Technology. You will need to show that any study hasn't cherry-picked or poorly sampled. Good luck.
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 26, 2015 at 2:51
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    This question is based on a series of wrong assumptions: there's no need for science or technology to come one before the other; there's no need for there being a typical pattern; there's no need for "science" and "technology" to be two separate endeavours; etc. Before asking if a pattern is so-and-so, we must answer the question: is there a pattern at all?
    – Sklivvz
    Oct 26, 2015 at 9:27
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    Several people have proposed that systematic studies will help. I reject that. I flat out don't think it is answerable. Efficient steam engines relied on the science of thermodynamics to study coal, which was triggered by the invention of the steam engine, which relied of the science of metallurgy. They are hopelessly interlinked - science requires previous technology, technology requires previous science. There isn't even a decent separation between science and technology. Is CRISPR science or technology? Was Edison's efforts to test different lightbulb filaments science or technology?
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 27, 2015 at 9:57

1 Answer 1


It's impossible to prove or disprove the assertion that something is "typical", but there's much evidence that both effects occur (that science and tech benefit each other).

There are many examples of science benefiting technology but the quintessetial example could be that a scientist, Sir Tim Barners-Lee invented the web while working on basic science at CERN.

In 1989, while working at at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, Tim Berners-Lee proposed a global hypertext project, to be known as the World Wide Web. Based on the earlier "Enquire" work, it was designed to allow people to work together by combining their knowledge in a web of hypertext documents. He wrote the first World Wide Web server, "httpd", and the first client, "WorldWideWeb" a what-you-see-is-what-you-get hypertext browser/editor which ran in the NeXTStep environment. This work was started in October 1990, and the program "WorldWideWeb" first made available within CERN in December, and on the Internet at large in the summer of 1991.

It is a classic example of the so called "spill-over", which is actually well studied. The UK government published a paper in which documents specifically the effect of "big science" on technology advancement and growth.

A survey of high-tech contracts for the Large Hadron Collider concluded that around 40% of suppliers were able to take those experiences and launch new products or services in the market place

I am surprised that Ridley doesn't know that since his involvement in the Science and Technology select committee of the UK parliament where he is a Lord.

Furthermore the examples given are also pretty much false


The telescope was invented when optics was a well established science. While I agree that the telescope helped astronomy, it was itself built on other more basic science. It was not invented in a knowledge vacuum!

Steam engine

The first steam engine was invented in the first century AD

The earliest known rudimentary steam engine and reaction steam turbine, the aeolipile, is described by a Greek mathematician and engineer named Hero of Alexandria (Heron) in 1st century Roman Egypt, as recorded in his manuscript Spiritalia seu Pneumatica.

The basis of thermodynamics were discovered around 1650 and was clearly unrelated to the steam engine which was basically a non-commercially viable curiosity.

The history of thermodynamics as a scientific discipline generally begins with Otto von Guericke who, in 1650, built and designed the world's first vacuum pump and demonstrated a vacuum using his Magdeburg hemispheres. Guericke was driven to make a vacuum in order to disprove Aristotle's long-held supposition that 'nature abhors a vacuum'. Shortly after Guericke, the physicist and chemist Robert Boyle had learned of Guericke's designs and, in 1656, in coordination with the scientist Robert Hooke, built an air pump. Using this pump, Boyle and Hooke noticed a correlation between pressure, temperature, and volume. In time, they formulated Boyle's Law, which states that for a gas at constant temperature, its pressure and volume are inversely proportional.

The first practical steam engine had to wait until 1712,

It was Thomas Newcomen with his "atmospheric-engine" of 1712 who can be said to have brought together most of the essential elements established by Papin in order to develop the first practical steam engine for which there could be a commercial demand.

but it was invented based on thermodynamics and not vice versa

In 1679, based on these concepts [Boyle's law and thermodynamics ndr], an associate of Boyle's named Denis Papin built a steam digester, which was a closed vessel with a tightly fitting lid that confined steam until a high pressure was generated.

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    What we understand to be the science of thermodynamics was not developed until the min 19th century, postdating the steam engine by a fairly long time.
    – matt_black
    Apr 9, 2019 at 16:34
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    I find the claim "invented based on thermodynamics" and especially the mention of thermodynamics in square brackets to be misleading at best. The four laws underlying thermodynamics were developed well after the end of the 17th century. To take the first law as an example, take a look at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_energy#History and D. S. L. Cardwell's "From Watt to Clausius: The Rise of Thermodynamics in the Early Industrial Age" (archive.org/details/fromwatttoclausi0000card). Dec 30, 2021 at 5:19

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