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Progress and the modern concept of history

People have been telling stories about the past and writing history for a long time. What is remarkable is that historians had no concept of innovation, improvement and progress shaping history until about 400 years ago. Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an observant, perceptive, well read and very creative playwright. When he wrote Julius Caesar (1599) and Coriolanus (1608) he “imagined ancient Rome as just like contemporary London but with sunshine and togas.” As a result in the two plays he referred to a clock striking and the points of the compass, however, both the mechanical clock and the compass were invented after the time of the ancient Romans.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was a contemporary of Shakespeare, but he saw and promoted the significance of the growth of knowledge and the accumulation of discoveries to history. “Bacon had a sense of history; he felt that his era, the seventeenth century, was the beginning of a new scientific age, and he wanted the veneration of the texts of Aristotle to be replaced by a direct investigation of nature.” Jorge Luis Borges, The Enigma of Shakespeare (1964).

By the time the Royal Society of London was founded in 1660, the concept of progress was starting to change from it old meaning of journeying to its current form. Thomas Sprat wrote a history of the Royal Society in 1667. He titled his work History of the Institution, Design and Progress of the Royal Society of London for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy and in so doing linked progress to science and advancement of science.

The idea that history was shaped by the forces of progress such as discovery, innovation and the growth of knowledge, took root and grew steadily. Just 100 years after the formation of the Royal Society there was a recognisably new and commonly held view of history. David Wootton said “…in the middle of the eighteen century, progress had come to seem so inevitable that it was read backwards into the whole of previous history.” We now commonly divide history into periods and define them by technological innovations. The Neolithic Age started with the move from hunter-gathering to settled farming. The Bronze Age was the invention of bronze smelting and the move from stone to bronze tools. Similarly, the Iron Age is defined by the move from bronze to iron tools. In general terms, each was an improvement and underpinned the sense that progress was a vital part of human history. This sense provides a useful way of understanding history and learning from it.