One of the key findings from my research into the British Industrial Revolution is that most innovators, before they started tinkering with things, had first known other innovators. In other words, innovators inspired those around them, inculcating their apprentices, colleagues, students, and families, with an improving mentality: the very idea of innovating.
But where did this start? Who was the original thinker to come up with the improving mentality?
Well, we will probably never know — I strongly suspect that the improving mentality has been spreading from person to person for millennia. Innovation as an idea might even have been independently thought-up by a handful of people in various different cultures (although as I’ve argued elsewhere, it does not seem that innovation, without prior inspiration, is an activity that tends to come naturally to people). It might even be that no single person could ever have invented the idea of inventing, and that it instead emerged from the interactions of a group — the sort of idea that starts to develop during a conversation, gradually taking shape as previously disparate concepts come together from the various interlocutors. Again, we will probably never know.
Nonetheless, we might know who first brought the improving mentality to the British Isles, at least in the sense of getting the ball rolling for the Industrial Revolution. One excellent candidate for this was a young man straight out of university: John Dee.
John Dee is today best known for being Elizabeth I’s astrologer — an association with the occult that has inspired countless representations in fiction. But in 1547, just a few months after the death of Henry VIII, the 19-year-old Dee traveled to the University of Leuven, in Brabant (then part of the Hapsburg Netherlands, and today in present-day Belgium). There, he fell in with a crowd of “some learned men, and chiefly Mathematicians, as Gemma Frisius, Gerardus Mercator, Gaspar à Mirica.”
I was particularly taken with this description of Leuven’s intellectual climate: “Under Frisius’s influence, Louvain had become caught up in a rapture of scientific measurement, a mood reflected in the Flemish picture The Measurers, which was painted by an unknown artist around the time Dee was there”. Frisius, born Jemme Reinerszoon, invented triangulation — the fundamental principle of surveying, and consequently of accurate map-making. And he improved numerous instruments used in navigation. Gaspar à Mirica (aka Amyricius, born Gaspar van der Heyden) was the practical man, trained as a goldsmith, helping Frisius to realise his innovative designs. And Gerardus Mercator (born Geert De Kremer), was chief among Frisius’s protégés, to whom Dee would become the closest. Mercator by 1547 was already constructing exceptional new globes, and had even recently endured seven months in prison at the hands of the Inquisition. In 1569 he would develop the map projection that bears his name, which corrected for the curvature of the earth to depict sailing courses as straight lines.
It was from this crowd of mathematicians and surveyors that Dee brought back the idea of invention — and, indeed, their very inventions: “I returned home, and brought with me the first Astronomer’s staff in brass, that was made of Gemma Frisius’s devising, the two great Globes of Gerardus Mercator’s making, and the Astronomer’s ring of brass, as Gemma Frisius had newly framed it”.
Dee, as far as I can tell, was the earliest to bring such inventions to the British Isles — an area that, in 1547, was one of Europe’s scientific and technological backwaters. Thony Christie (who really knows his stuff on such matters) has called Dee’s England a “mathematical desert”. And many other industries were just as parched. Glass-makers, for example, were said to be almost entirely lacking. Even England’s textiles (its main export at the time) were hampered by shoddy dyes: “no man almost wyll meddle with any coullours of clothe touchinge wodde and mader [woad and madder] … that is dyed within this realme”.
England’s backwardness is confirmed by a cursory look at the very earliest grants and patents (which came before the patent system), which reveals that most of them were given to foreigners bringing existing practices from the rest of Europe: to two Brabant weavers to settle in York in 1336; to three Delft clockmakers to come over for a short period in 1368; to three Bohemian miners to bring their knowledge of minerals in 1452. And this trend persisted for at least a century: the earliest innovators in my sample (which is from 1547–1851) tended to be foreigners bringing technology that already existed elsewhere.
So Dee’s return in 1547 from Leuven, laden with the cutting edge instruments of his time, was a momentous event in the history of English technology. He introduced the needed instruments, and more importantly the mindset to improve them. The author who damned English textile dyes in 1553 ascribed the country’s technological retardation not to “the inhabilitie of oure wyttes”, but rather “to oure beastly blyndnesse, which wyll not suffer us to searche for that knowledge which our wyttes are able enough to attayne”. The English in other words had the smarts for innovation, but not the improving mentality. Dee’s return was the cure to that “beastly blyndnesse”.
It should be noted that Dee’s personal contributions as a mathematician were rather modest, and I’m not even certain that he can be classed as an innovator. But as a vector for the spread of the idea of innovation, he was highly influential, affecting many of the late 16th century innovators in my sample. The sailor and privateer John Davis seems to have known Dee before he invented the backstaff — a quadrant that allowed sailors to measure the height of the sun in the sky without having to stare directly at it. And Leonard Digges, who developed the theodolite, was a close friend: upon Digges’s death, his son Thomas (yet another inventor of navigational instruments) was placed under Dee’s foster care.
Dee’s direct influence was also long-lasting, extending well into the 17th century. Dee’s patron the 1st Earl of Leicester had a son, Sir Robert Dudley, who would go on to design an azimuth dial, propose new ship designs, and complete the first English sea atlas to use the Mercator projection. And Dee was an influence upon the polymath Hugh Plat, whose inventions took an entire book to catalogue (they range from pasta-making machines and sweet-smelling oils, to methods of preserving food and rain-proofing garments). Dee and Plat were introduced by Plat’s father-in-law, an acquaintance that might have had particularly far-reaching consequences (Hugh Plat has been floated by some as a more influential figure than even Sir Francis Bacon.
So 1547, famous as the year of Henry VIII’s death, should perhaps also be seen as the symbolic turning point in the technological and economic fortunes of the British Isles. Dee’s return from Leuven was one of the initial trickles in the barren desert, which grew into a stream, a river, and eventually a deluge.
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