I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking and writing about the role of innovators as cultural entrepreneurs — in other words, how it is that innovators themselves created the institutions that would support innovation. It’s an especially important question when considering the origins of modern, innovation-led economic growth, which had appeared in Britain by the mid-eighteenth century.
The cultural entrepreneurship of innovators often took the form of creating entirely new organisations. Take the Royal Society, which in its early years in the 1660s attempted to promote practical technologies as well as what we would now call science. Its founders attempted to collect a dictionary of artisans’ techniques and machines, for example, although many of the artisans were unhappy about their trade secrets being revealed and the project was dropped. Or take the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, which since 1754 has acted as a voluntary, subscription-funded, and semi-official national improvement agency, in any and every way imaginable. In its first century it provided cash prizes or honorary medals for unpatented inventions, thus revealing the artisans’ trade secrets to the public by purchasing them. (By the way, I recently finished writing a book on the history of the Society of Arts, to be published by Princeton University Press in April 2020). Both the Royal Society and the Society of Arts were created by people who were already innovators. They are very concrete examples of innovators creating the institutions to support innovation.
Yet innovators also acted as cultural entrepreneurs in much more humdrum ways. Like any entrepreneurs, cultural or otherwise, they attempted to cater their products to what they thought people would buy. In other words, as innovators, they promoted their inventions in ways that would make invention in general more popular. And one of the ways they did this throughout the period of the British Industrial Revolution was to downplay the effects of technological unemployment — of machines stealing people’s jobs.
Some great examples of this downplaying come from patent petitions. A lot of people assume that just because people took out patents for inventions in the eighteenth century, that these were similar to those used today. Patent systems, for example, are often considered better than prizes because they do not seek to dictate the direction of invention — they allow for almost all and any kinds of inventions to be rewarded. But in the early eighteenth century this was not quite the case. Since the Statute of Monopolies of 1624, the monarch was limited in some important ways in terms of the patents they were allowed to issue. The Statute provided a sort of check-list for the law officers (the attorney-general and/or solicitor-generals) to work out whether the patent that an inventor was petitioning for would be legal. The law officers would only recommend an invention for a patent if it passed all the checks. Yet one of the conditions in the Statute was that the invention be “not generally inconvenient”. This very vague condition was usually explained by legal theorists with the example of technological unemployment— that there was once a fulling mill invented for making bonnets and caps, which would have replaced the work of 80 labourers. The mill was thus both undeserving of a patent and then even banned.
So not only were the legal conditions for a patent vague, and thus often at the discretion of the law officers to interpret, but they were stacked against labour-saving inventions. At some point in the 1760s the law officers became a lot more lenient about enforcing the conditions of the Statute of Monopolies — they more or less abrogated all responsibility, choosing to simply grant the patent and leave it to others to challenge their legality in court. We don’t really know why they became a lot more laissez faire, or even exactly when. But that’s a story for another time (I’m still in the process of researching some details). Suffice to say, prior to the 1760s there was a bias against labour-saving inventions. And so, it was incumbent on inventors petitioning for patents to allay fears that their inventions would cause unemployment.
Thus,Thomas Lombe justified his famous 1718 engines for winding, spinning, and twisting silk, which his brother had stolen from Piedmont, by arguing in his patent petition that they would employ “many thousand families of our subjects”. Why? Because they would also introduce a manufacture not currently already practised in England.
Lewis Paul, another major pioneer of mechanising textile manufacture in the early eighteenth century, in 1748 justified his wool-carding machine by saying it was “adapted to the strength and abilities of children”, and would thus allow them “to get a comfortable livelihood”. He focused on the fact that it would employ an otherwise unemployed demographic — kids — rather than saving on the labour of adult workers.
In a similar vein, Martin Bedwell in 1729 patented an engine for spinning and weaving hemp, flax, and hair, claiming that it was “so contrived that the invalids in the hospitals, forts, guards, and garrisons may be employed in spinning and weaving linen cloth for tents, sails, sheeting, and shirting”. It would put the idle hands of sick and wounded soldiers to good use, and would apparently save many hundreds of thousands of pounds per year in imports (this was another favourite theme among policy-makers, who were anxious about gold and silver leaving the country to pay for foreign goods).
And these themes were not only limited to petitioning for patents. The Society of Arts, for example, offered a prize to anyone who could introduce the making of artificial flowers from point lace (also to replace foreign imports). They noted that it might employ women of middling rank “who at present are supported by their relations, or struggle with difficulties from the smallness of their fortunes”. It was thus not only unemployed kids and the wounded who were to be put to work rather than replacing existing labourers, but also the kinds of women you find as heroines in Jane Austen novels. The person who suggested the prize, a milliner named Dorothy Holt, said she had already instructed a few “young gentlewomen” in the art.
Lastly, it’s worth noting labour-saving innovations that were motivated by boredom — the kind of labour that surely everybody would be in favour of eliminating. Take John Napier, for example, a sixteenth-century Scottish lord and the inventor of logarithms. He argued that complex multiplications, divisions, and working out the square and cubical extractions of large numbers “molest and hinder calculators … which besides the tedious expense of time, are for the most part subject to many slippery errors.” Calculators were not the devices of today, but the people who used to be employed to do calculations by hand, usually for astronomical charts, astrological prediction calendars, and so on. The invention of logarithms was thus highly popular among mathematicians who had to do such tedious work — it allowed them to do it faster and with fewer errors. Similarly, Charles Babbage was employed as a “computer” in the nineteenth century when he famously wished aloud that the calculations could all be done by steam. Thus were conceived his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, the respective ancestors of the modern calculator and computer.
Yet by Babbage’s time, things had already dramatically changed in Britain. Policy-makers and many elites were relaxed about technological unemployment, at least as compared to the early eighteenth century. Indeed, when the Luddites started smashing up machinery in the 1810s, the state had no qualms about suppressing them with violence. The seeds of persuasion, sown by the early eighteenth-century innovators, had by the 1800s grown deep roots.
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