Age of Invention: Unsung Materials
One of my big goals for this year, as part of finally finishing my book on the causes of the Industrial Revolution, has been to get a handle on a bunch of industries of the period — ones that experienced dramatic changes especially in the period 1550-1650, but which are almost totally ignored, as well as industries where most people have a general sense of the highlights, but where actually there was a whole lot more development that’s been almost entirely neglected or forgotten.
So I have something of a series in mind for this year, with each post exploring the history of a particular industry. These posts will probably not be as frequent as I usually aim for — probably with more of a monthly than fortnightly cadence — because I’d like them to stand alone quite well as near-comprehensive, go-to pieces, and achieving that takes a lot more time to research and write.
I had hoped to get the first of these finished before the end of December, and then last week, and then this week, but I keep uncovering more and more complications to what at first I’d thought would be a straightforward story. I don’t want to give away what that first one is about just yet, as I start the piece with a riddle, though I can’t resist a hint or two: it was among the first industries to be dramatically transformed by the rise of coal, and was the original basis of Lowland Scotland’s wealth…
In the meantime, however, here are some of the other industries I’ll be looking into as part of the series:
Iron. Check any half-decent overview of iron’s development, and it will probably focus on the medieval rise of the blast furnace followed by the eighteenth-century shift from smelting ore with baked coal (coke) rather than baked wood (charcoal). Abraham Darby always gets an obligatory mention. But there was a great deal of experimentation already happening long before Darby, and there were many more advances in the industry that are almost entirely unsung, including dramatic improvements to bellows as well as major change in all the ironmaking processes other than smelting.
Stockings and Silk. Stockings were seemingly a very big deal in the seventeenth century, and yet I still don’t quite understand how William Lee’s stocking frame worked exactly. Or how it compared with other early forms of textile mechanisation, of which silk seems to have been the leader.
This subject is especially replete with myths, which I’d like to get to the bottom of, and ideally address all in one place. It’s often said, for example, that Lombe’s silk mill at Derby in the 1710s was among the world’s first “modern factories” — a statement that should immediately set off alarm bells, not least because it explicitly copied Italian practice, but also because it’s incredibly vague, hiding all manner of sins by failing to define what a modern factory is. The reality is that there were already plenty of large industrial establishments the world over, not least in Britain, and we should really have a proper definition of “factory” if we’re going to throw such bold claims around.
There’s also the legend that William Lee had his patent rejected by Elizabeth I on the basis that it would make too many people unemployed. This story gets repeated everywhere. It’s an ideal illustration of Luddite attitudes among politicians. But the story lacks any real evidence. The reality is that we know hardly anything for sure about Lee, with at least three Oxbridge colleges each claiming him as their own. His Wikipedia page, and various other encyclopaedia entries about him for that matter, are a complete disaster. But I’m pleased to report that I’ve recently (and accidentally) found some rather interesting new evidence…
Saltpetre. From a political point of view, this was one of the most important industries in any country in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was the essential ingredient to gunpowder, but was often a source of great controversy. The saltpetre patents were unusually long-lasting and were almost always exempted from any parliamentary attempts to regulate the granting of patents, even though they caused a lot of resentment. The patentees often had a right to break into people’s stables, barns, dovecotes, and apparently even their homes, to dig for saltpetre. But there was also a great deal of invention involved, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen comprehensively covered — in fact, I’ve hardly ever seen saltpetre mentioned at all in accounts of industrialisation. I’ve covered a few tiny snippets of Britain’s saltpetre story, such as the remarkably close relationship between Elizabethan England and the Saadi Empire of Morocco, but there’s so much more and I’ve barely even started researching it.
Glass. This is one area I’ve been collecting notes on for a while, but I need to get to the bottom of it all and draw it all together in one place. It was one of the earlier industries to attempt the transition from wood to coal as a fuel, but the story of its patents are so intricate that it’s hard to figure out exactly what was going on.
Brass. I think this may be an unsung hero of England’s early advantages in navigation, weaponry, and especially in precision instrument-making. And I’d like to do separate posts on clock- and watch-making (a chance for me to make something of my membership of the Antiquarian Horologist Society), as well as on precision engineering.
Manure. Not long ago I sung the praises of lime, but also lamented the almost total lack of historical research into this important material. So if nobody else will do it, I suppose I ought to make a start on it… I suspect this investigation will lead me down a bunch of other rabbit holes to do with agricultural innovation, which really ought to get a lot more attention than it does.
Is there anything else I really ought to include?
And for my paying subscribers, here are some of the other and questions topics I’d like to address on the newsletter this year, which are towards the top of my to-do list: