Knowledge is Power: Education and Political Power for the Masses during the Industrial Revolution

Of course I had previously heard the expression, "knowledge is power," but my first experience with it in the context of HistoryofInformation was writing about the Mechanic's Magazine founded on August 30, 1823 one month after George Birkbeck founded the Mechanic's Institution or Mechanic's Institute, an organization designed to help working men obtain an education while working. On the frontispiece of the first volume of the magazine we see the motto, "knowledge is power," under which we see the emblems of a different kind of power, the steam engine and the steamship--prominent examples of the successful mechanical applications of energy that were responsible for the Industrial Revolution.

Later I found the same motto on the wall of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge's Greenwich lecture hall. One could easily appreciate how the SDUK and the Mechanic's Institution, founded by the same people, or certainly by people who knew one another, would share the same educational goals, and use the model to encourage working class people to advance themselves through education. However, from the clothing of the people depicted in the audience at the opening of the SDUK lecture hall in Greenwich we can see that not all were members of the working class. Though the original goal of the SDUK was to educate the working class, it turned out that some of their audience was actually the middle class, and some of SDUK's publications were too expensive for the working class market, notably the Gallery of Portraits and Memoirs on which the SDUK and Charles Knight embarked on in 1832, at the cost of one guinea per volume for a seven volume set, was far above the purchasing power of members of the working class. Like most of Charles Knight's publications, the Gallery of Portraits was issued in parts to make it more easily affordable, but the set, printed on higher quality paper than the SDUK usually used, was somewhat of a luxury publication. Probably members of the English and American middle class, who already had some education, found it easier than members of the working class to appreciate that "knowledge is power," and that further education would help them advance further in society. Recognizing this, the SDUK appealed to the dual market of the haves and the upwardly mobile have-nots.

Having learned about the Mechanic's Institution and the SDUK I was, to a certain extent, surprised to see that that the motto, "knowledge is power," was also adopted by the radical printer and publisher Henry Hetherington. Hetherington combined "Knowledge is power" with his other main cause, "liberty of the press." To radicals like Hetherington the kind of power associated with knowledge was political power rather than just intellectual or economic advancement. Some of Hetherington's radicalism was undoubtedly supported by the revolutionary forces at work on the continent of Europe--especially the July Revolution that took place in France.

I had long ago heard or read that "knowledge is power," was an expression originated by Francis Bacon, and I had noticed what appeared to be a bust of Bacon on the back wall of the Greenwich lecture hall of the SDUK as depicted in the print that I had collected and had written about in HistoryofInformation. Before I sat down to write this essay on Christmas Day 2020, I thought I would confirm the attribution of the expression to Bacon. Not surprisingly there was a Wikipedia article on just this specific expression, but in the original Latin, Scientia potentia est. From that I learned that Bacon's version of the expression was a little different, and that the Latin expression, scientia potentia est, was originally published by Thomas Hobbes in the Latin edition of Leviathan (1668). The person depicted above the expression in on the wall behind the speaker in SDUK's lecture hall could just as well have been Hobbes as Bacon.

My positive view of the expression, "knowledge is power," derived from its applications in the Industrial Revolution, was somewhat muted when I learned that the expression had been much more recently adopted by the fortunately short-lived "Information Awareness Office" established by the U.S. government as part of a presumably misguided surveillance state project between 2002 and 2003. Though government's ostensible purpose may be protecting national security, government surveillance projects, it would seem, run the risk of repressing the power of the people by using information gained through surveillance to impose government power. I am pleased that the Information Awareness Office was closed after only one year of existence, but not pleased that some of the surveillance projects continued, just under different names. While it is too much to expect the government to refrain from electronic surveillance, hopefully, it will not reuse the motto "knowledge is power," associated so long with supporting human advancement, to promote surveillance.

Jeremy M. Norman
December 25, 2020