Age of Invention: The Tools of Absolutism

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been swotting up on English inventors in the early seventeenth century. Curiously, it’s a period that’s often entirely neglected in accounts of the causes of the British Industrial Revolution. The public might recognise the names of later scientists and inventors, from Hooke, Newton, and Boyle in the late seventeenth century, to the likes of Jethro Tull and John Harrison in the early eighteenth. Yet I doubt they could name many innovative figures who were prominent earlier. Somehow, histories that focus on invention almost always seem to start with the founding of the Royal Society, in the early 1660s.

But we need to explain how England came to have such a collection of innovators and scientists in the first place, and how their organisation came to be so influential as to be called “Royal”. Part of the problem, of course, is the English Civil War (or, as some historians more accurately like to call it, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms: the series of conflicts that engulfed Scotland, Ireland, and England 1639-53). As a subject, the wars and their political, social, and religious contexts appear to have largely sucked the attention away from the period’s science and invention. But, in fact, they are closely intertwined. For innovators in the early seventeenth century had become the tools of absolutism.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the key earlier achievements of innovators in Tudor times was to be taken increasingly seriously by political and commercial elites. In the mid-1540s, they exploited a series of crises — rampant inflation, debasement of the currency, unemployment, trade slumps, and the recurring threat of Catholic invasion — to present their various innovative projects as potential solutions. They made sure that the crises did not go to waste, and in the process gained support, even privileges, such as patent monopolies and special dispensations.

The various schemes that innovators proposed — from finding a northeast passage to China, to starting a brass industry, to colonising Virginia, or boosting the fish industry by importing Dutch salt-making methods — all promised to benefit the public. They were to support the “common weal”, or commonwealth. And to a certain extent, many projects did. The historian Joan Thirsk did much pioneering work in the 1970s to trace the impact of various technological or commercial projects, revealing that even something as mundane as growing woad, for its blue dye, could have a dramatic impact on local economies. With woad, the income of an ordinary farm labouring household might be almost doubled, for four months in the year, by employing women and children. In the late 1580s, the 5,000 or so acres converted to woad-growing in the south of England likely employed about 20,000 people. That may seem small today, but at a time when the population of a typical market town was a paltry 800 people, even a few hundred acres of woad being cultivated here or there might draw in workers from across the whole region. In the mid-sixteenth century, even the entire population of London had only been about 50-70,000. As Thirsk discovered, innovative projectors also sometimes fulfilled their other public-spirited promises, for example by creating domestic substitutes for costly imported goods, or securing the supplies of strategic resources.

But the ideal of benefiting the commonwealth could also, all too frequently, be elided with serving the interests of the Crown. Projectors might promise the monarch a direct share of an invention’s profits, or that a stimulated industry would result in higher income from tariffs or excise taxes. Increasingly, they proposed schemes that were almost entirely focused on maximising state revenue, with little evidence of new technology. They identified “abuses” in certain industries — at this remove, it’s difficult to tell if these justifications were real — and asked for monopolies over them in order to “regulate” them, then making money by selling licences. Last week I mentioned patents over alehouses, and on playing cards. They also offered to increase the income from the Crown’s property, for example by finding so-called “concealed lands” — lands that had been seized during the Reformation, but which through local resistance or corruption had ostensibly not been paying their proper rents. The projectors would take their share of the money they identified as “missing”. And they proposed enforcing laws, especially if the punishments involved levying fines or confiscating property. The projectors offered to find the lawbreakers and prosecute them, after which they’d take their share of the financial punishments.

Projectors thus came to present themselves as state revenue-raisers and enforcers, circumventing all of the traditional constraints on the monarch’s money and power. They provided an alternative to Parliaments, as well as to city corporations and guilds, in raising money and propagating their rule. Taking it a step further, projectors offered the tantalising possibility that kings like James I and Charles I might rule through proclamation and patents alone, without having to answer to anybody. They thus experimented with absolutism for much of 1610-40, only occasionally being forced to call Parliament for as briefly as possible when the pressing financial demands of war intervened.

In the process, with the growing multitude of projects — a few bringing technological advancement, but many merely lining the pockets of courtier and king — the designation “projector” became mud. It was as if, today, the Queen were to use her prerogative to grant a few of her courtiers monopolies on collecting all traffic fines, or litter penalties, to be rewarded solely on commission. Or if she were to award an unscrupulous private company the right to award all alcohol-selling licences (perhaps on the basis that underage drinking was becoming common). The country would soon be awash with hidden speed cameras and incognito litter wardens, and the price of alcohol would go through the roof. The people responsible would not be popular. A recent book by economic historian Koji Yamamoto meticulously charts the changing public perceptions of projects, describing the ways in which innovators then struggled, for decades, to regain the public’s trust.

Thus, having succeeded in getting the ear of political elites in the mid-sixteenth century, innovators then became too successful. By casting their agendas as solutions to England’s financial and economic crises, they increasingly also became the monarch’s lackeys — agents of tyranny, who profited from the public’s oppression. They became too popular with the state, and thus villains to the people.

And yet. I’m starting to think that the ways in which innovators tried to make themselves popular again, to both state and people, may have set the scene for Britain’s remarkable growth in the eighteenth century. More on that another time.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, you might also be interested in my new book, Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation. It’s been getting some great reviews, most recently from popular science history blogger Thony Christie, as well as from Matthew Sweet in History Today. Blackwell’s bookshops in the UK currently list the book under their “seriously good” non-fiction collection. (And right now you might be able to win a free copy of the book, if you can guess the invention quiz I set here.) Please do read it, share it, review it, and, if necessary, request it in your local bookshop!

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