18th Century Europe

Europe in the 18th Century

King Louis XIV visiting the
Paris Academy, 1671

In Europe, the eighteenth century was a period of intellectual, social, and political ferment. This time is often referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, for it was in the 18th century that the ideas of the previous 100 years were implemented on a broad scale. In academia, the relatively-new fields of calculus and mechanics began to influence thinking about the workings of the universe. Politically, the ideas of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and others would give rise to a notion of democracy that would ultimately supplant the monarchical power structure on the European continent. By the end of the century, Adam Smith’s economic ideas would provide the intellectual basis for the development of modern capitalism.

For the first time, science became a central piece of public discourse. Until then, much of what is now considered scientific inquiry was pursued by a relatively small group of academics whose writings did not enjoy widespread circulation. Beginning in the late 17th century, there was a twofold development in academia that would bring about a rapid democratization of scientific knowledge. The first was the foundation of the Paris Academy and the Royal Society of London, two institutions whose primary purpose was to do scientific research and report their

Cover of the Acta
Eruditorum, 1726

conclusions to the public. Over the succeeding decades, several other institutions would be founded on the model of these two, including the Berlin Academy, the St. Petersburg Academy, the Turin Society, and many others. Frequently, these academies operated under the patronage of a particular monarch, and as such were subject to the changing desires of those individuals. While this made life in academia somewhat erratic, there was a great deal more continuity and freedom than had existed previously.

The second major development in academic life was the rise of scientific journals. These publications were often produced by the academies themselves (e.g., London’s Philosophical Transactions and Paris’s Mémoires), though a fair number were produced independently (e.g., the Acta Eruditorum and Crelle’s Journal). These new journals circulated to a wide audience that included many outside the scientific community. In one sense, these are among the first “popular science” magazines, in that scientific results were reported to an audience of non-specialists. As such, the 18th century was a time when scientific tracts could become bestsellers. One of Euler’s books, Lettres à une princesse d’Allemagne (Letters to a German Princess), went through thirty-eight printings in nine different languages, and remained in print for a century.

By the middle of the 18th century, the scientific revolution was in full swing; decades of research had been compiled, exchanged, corroborated, and communicated to the public. As the most prolific mathematician and scientist of the time, Leonhard Euler made significant contributions to many different fields, including optics, mechanics, artillery, naval science, planetary motion, and several branches of calculus. More recently, the 20th century science historian Clifford Truesdell has calculated that of all the mathematical and scientific work published during the whole of the 18th century, a full 25% was written by Euler.