Philosophy & Technology

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 97–126 | Cite as

Technological Origins of the Einsteinian Revolution

  • Donald Gillies
Research Article


The Einsteinian revolution, which began around 1905, was one of the most remarkable in the history of physics. It replaced Newtonian mechanics, which had been accepted as completely correct for nearly 200 years, by the special and general theories of relativity. It also eliminated the aether, which had dominated physics throughout the nineteenth century. This paper poses the question of why this momentous scientific revolution began. The suggested answer is in terms of the remarkable series of discoveries and inventions which occurred in the preceding decade (1895–1904) and which were the result of technological developments in instrumentation. The paper gives a survey of these inventions and discoveries, which include X-rays, radioactivity (radium and alpha, beta and gamma rays), the electron, wireless transmissions across the Atlantic and the patenting of the first thermionic valve. An attempt is then made to show that it was these developments, which gave rise to special relativity.


Einstein Scientific revolution Cathode ray tube Discovery of electron Discovery of radium Elimination of aether 



When I was planning this paper but had not yet begun to write it, I had a very useful conversation with Thomas Sturm whom I met in Rome in the summer of 2013. Our conversation was continued by email. Thomas Sturm stressed the importance for this topic of the work of Carrier, Galison, Renn and others. He also pointed out that Kuhn had expressed doubts about his ‘build-up of anomalies’ theory in the second revised edition (1970) of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. These points were very helpful to me. Earlier drafts of the paper were read by a variety of scholars, including Alex Bellamy, Ladislav Kvasz, Avinash Puri, and Eli Zahar. I am very grateful for their comments, which helped to improve a number of points. Earlier versions of the paper were also read at La Sapienza in Rome in October 2013, and at a workshop on Innovation in Scientific Practice at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in June 2014. I am very grateful for the many helpful comments I received on those occasions, and for those of three anonymous referees of this journal.


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Further Reading

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Science and Technology StudiesUniversity College LondonLondonUK

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