Progress Research Paper

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Progress (Latin: progressus) originally meant moving across country to a chosen destination. Progress toward individual betterment was a derivative meaning that entered English with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). The idea that society as a whole might progress was slower to emerge, taking shape during the Industrial Revolution. Technological “progress” has, of course, exhibited destructive capabilities that prompt the question: change is everywhere, but is it really for the better?

Ever since 1492, when Europeans first began to sail across the oceans, advances of geographical and mathematical knowledge accumulated rapidly. Scientific progress became obvious by 1687, when Isaac Newton published mathematically formulated laws of motion, making eclipses as well as more ordinary movements of sun, moon, planets—and even cannonballs—predictable. Writers like the French scientist, Bernard de Fontenelle (1657–1757) concluded that progress of knowledge was real and might be expected to continue indefinitely into the future, but unchanging laws of nature meant that human society as a whole would remain much as before.

As long as most people lived just about the same way their parents and grandparents had done, any other opinion would have seemed absurd. But beginning about 1750 a cluster of changes began in Great Britain and western Europe that historians later called the Industrial Revolution. The central feature of that revolution was expanding the output of useful goods by using inanimate forms of power—first falling water, then coal and steam, and then electricity—to drive large, often complicated machines. As a flood of useful things began to come from such machines, human lives in western Europe began to change unmistakably, and sometimes for the better, as cheaper manufactured goods became available.

Engines of Change

But at first the biggest improvement for most people was not industrial at all. Rather, food supplies increased enormously in Europe due to the rapid spread of potato cultivation after 1763, when all the principal governments of the continent set out to imitate the Prussians who, fifteen years before, had pioneered official efforts to persuade peasants to plant their fallow fields with potatoes. Potatoes meant more work, since they had to be hoed in summer to remove weeds. But as long as enough hands could be found for that task, potatoes multiplied the amount of food European fields could produce without diminishing the grain harvest in the slightest. This, together with use of turnips and other fodder crops as a parallel alternative to fallowing, radically diminished age-old risks of famine and provoked two centuries of population growth for humans and for their domesticated animals. That in turn assured a supply of people, horses and cattle for intensified cultivation in the European countryside, and soon provoked a surge of migrants looking for wage work in burgeoning industrial towns.

Economic expansion thus became self-sustaining; and as new styles of farming and new forms of industry spread, the daily experience of almost everyone in Western Europe began to change in obvious ways. These novelties soon began to affect the entire world as well. Not all changes were for the better. Living conditions in crowded industrial cities were often horrible, and alternating patterns of boom and bust meant insecurity for all and inflicted severe suffering on unemployed wage earners. But new possibilities and cheaper goods were just as real. Think, for example, of what it meant for ordinary persons—especially those with small babies to swaddle and keep more or less clean—when, as the utopian socialist Robert Owen tells us in his autobiography (The Life of Robert Written by Himself, 1920), in 1858 the cost of cotton cloth in England had shrunk to one seventieth of what it had been sixty years before when he started work as a teenager. During that same life span, steam railways, introduced in 1825, drastically cheapened and speeded up overland transport for goods and people; and after 1837 electric telegraphs allowed instant communication, at first only for a few, later for nearly anyone with an urgent message to send.

As significant novelties multiplied, it became obvious that human lives and the whole structure of society was changing as never before. Ever since a cascade of new technologies, new products and new experiences has continued, and even accelerated, spreading from an initial focus in Great Britain and adjacent parts of Europe quite literally around the Earth.

As always, new possibilities brought new risks and damaged or destroyed old ways of life. Most of the time, most people welcomed enlarged possibilities and liked to have access to cheaper machine-made goods. Yet costs were real too. Everywhere artisans found they could not compete with machine-made products; and old-fashioned agrarian empires found that they had to allow European goods, merchants, missionaries and soldiers to intrude on their territories more or less at will. The flood of new products soon affected even the most remote hunters and foragers whose ways of life were upset by encounters with such items as iron tools and, not least, handguns.

But looked at from the center of disturbance, the rapid growth of wealth, population and political power that Britain, France, Germany, and the United States all experienced between 1800 and 1914 seemed a thoroughly good thing to almost everyone. Accordingly, the idea that human society was destined to progress in desirable directions soon took hold among these peoples. An early champion of that idea was a French nobleman, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794), who wrote Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind in the year of his death. His confidence in human progress toward perfection remains surprising, considering the fact that he was in prison and about to have his head cut off by the French revolutionary government when he wrote his sketch.

In the next century, as desirable novelties multiplied, the idea of progress took firm hold among Europeans. In Germany, the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) made progress a universal principle of reality, moving from thesis to antithesis and then to synthesis, which immediately became a new thesis to keep the process going. Karl Marx (1818–1883) claimed to have stood Hegel on his head by proving that class struggle toward equality and freedom under Communism was the path of the future. Before that, in France another nobleman, Count Henri de Saint Simon (1760–1825), founded a different socialist movement aimed at hastening progress towards a similarly free and equal future. One of his younger associates, Auguste Comte (1798–1857), founded what became the academic discipline of sociology with parallel aims. Meanwhile in England the philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), and the historian Henry Thomas Buckle (1821–1862) explored a more open-ended liberal version of progress in their articles and books.

In 1851, the reality of material progress was spectacularly demonstrated when Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, organized a very successful Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, London. Beneath a specially constructed iron and glass structure, exhibitors from far and wide displayed a vast array of new machines and products for public admiration and instruction. Thereafter, similar world’s fairs became quadrennial events, achieving a new peak of success in 1893, when Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition. That fair celebrated four hundred years of progress since Columbus’s discovery of America, and met with altogether unusual success. A still new transcontinental railroad net made it possible for more than twenty-one million persons to attend the fair; and at night, when incandescent electric bulbs lit up plaster-covered temporary buildings, the dazzling whiteness seemed like a preview of heaven to many of the fair’s visitors. Progress never seemed so certain and so obvious, before or since.

The success of the Columbian Exposition depended partly, too, on the fact that the idea of progress had enlarged its scope and persuasiveness after 1867, when Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. Darwin argued that plants and animals had evolved through geological time thanks to a process of natural selection; and in another book, The Descent of Man (1871), he specifically discussed human evolution from ape-like ancestors. This challenged the biblical story of creation head on and provoked intense and prolonged controversy. Accordingly, one of the innovative features of the Columbian Exposition was a World Parliament of Religions where spokesmen for each of the world’s principal faiths had a chance to come before an American public, looking for shared principles and in some instances, even exploring the plausibility of religious progress through time.

There had always been doubters who discounted the desirability of all the tumultuous changes that beset nineteenth-century societies; and in the course of the twentieth century, doubts about human progress multiplied. The long stalemate of trench warfare in World War I (1914–1918) made the military side of technological progress, of which their nineteenth-century predecessors had been so proud, seem anything but desirable to millions of European and American soldiers; and the postwar boom, followed by the Great Depression (1929– 1938) and World War II (1939–1945) broadened and deepened that skepticism. Renewed economic growth after 1950 was counterbalanced by fears of sudden atomic annihilation and by uneasy awareness that rapid population growth in Africa and Asia was widening the gap between the rich and poor peoples of the Earth.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, though nearly all the world’s politicians still promised to accomplish all sorts of good things if elected to office, most writers and commentators on public affairs took a much gloomier view of the future. Emphatic rejection of the nineteenth-century faith in progress became general. That was partly because continuing improvements in human comfort and diet as experienced by people in the world’s wealthiest countries, like air conditioning in summer, and fresh fruit and vegetables in supermarkets all year round, swiftly came to be taken for granted, while innumerable medical breakthroughs, like antibiotics and heart surgery, had the immediate effect of prolonging life and thereby multiplying the pains and debilities of old age.

Destructive capabilities of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons also multiplied; while gaps between rich and poor, rivalries among ethnic and religious groups, and the decay of local communities seemed only to increase. All too obviously, change was everywhere, but was it really for the better? Did happiness increase with longer life and more things to own and look after? Or did accumulating material goods merely get in the way of leading a good life?

These are valid reproaches against rosy nineteenth-century predictions of moral and political progress. But material progress remains undeniable. No one can doubt that increasing knowledge and skills have enlarged human command of energy flows at a very rapid rate since 1750, and have done so more slowly throughout history. The resulting increase in human capabilities, both for good and for ill, is clearly cumulative, and constitutes a kind of progress that deserves to be recognized as such.


  1. Bury, J. B. (1932). The idea of progress: An inquiry into its origin and growth. New York: Macmillan. (Original work published 1920)
  2. Dyson, J. (2001). A history of great inventions. New York: Carroll & Graf.
  3. Rydell, R. W., Findling, J. E., & Pelle, K. M. (2000). Fair America: World’s fairs in the United States. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

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