Age of Invention: Remaking the State

Welcome to my weekly newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here:

How do you change the nature of government? In the early nineteenth century, the British government essentially spent its money on two things: war, and paying off the debt from previous wars. Yet by the end of the century, the state had been transformed. Prodded along by a surprisingly small group of reformers, the central government became involved in matters of public health and sanitation, in education, museums, libraries, design, and more.

Take education. Since the 1820s, radical and utilitarian members of Parliament like William Ewart had campaigned to secure government grants for building new schools, which they achieved in 1833, and which from 1839 were managed by the rather obscure-sounding Committee of the Privy Council on Education. In 1836 they also persuaded the government to create schools of design — all the better, they argued, to compete economically with France. Ewart also helped pass the Museums Act of 1845, and the Public Libraries Act of 1850, though both of these were substantially watered down by other politicians in order to become law. Both acts simply allowed local authorities to slightly raise local taxes to pay for their own, local museums and libraries, which was also made extremely difficult. Raising such a tax could not simply be done by the resolution of a town council; it had to be approved with a two-thirds majority in a local referendum.

Despite these setbacks, however, a whole new opportunity for reform was provided by the Great Exhibition of 1851. As I explained in the previous newsletter, an international exhibition of industry functioned as an audit of the world’s industries. It, and its successors, the world’s fairs, gave some indication of how Britain stood relative to rival nations, especially France, Prussia, and the United States. And whereas some people saw the Great Exhibition as a clear mark of Britain’s superiority, for would-be reformers it was a chance to expose worrying weaknesses. Thus, Henry Cole and the other original organisers of the exhibition at the Society of Arts exacerbated fears of Britain’s impending decline, giving them an excuse to create the systems they desired.

They identified two areas of worry: science and design. Britain of course had many eminent scientists and artists—some of the best in the world—but other countries seemed to have become better at diffusing scientific training and superior taste throughout the workforce as a whole. Design skills were an issue because France appeared to be catching up with Britain when it came to the mechanisation of industry; if it caught up on machinery while maintaining its lead in fashion, then Britain would not be able to compete. And scientific training appeared more useful than ever, with the latest scientific advances “influencing production to an extent never before dreamt of”. Visitors to the Great Exhibition had marvelled at the recent inventions of artificial dyes, a method of processing beetroot sugar, and the latest improvements to photography and the electric telegraph. Thus, for Britain to maintain its lead, it would need to improve the education of its workers.

The reformers’ scare tactics worked. The aftermath of the Great Exhibition saw the creation of a government Department of Science and Art under the direction of Henry Cole, who in turn oversaw the agglomeration of various museums, design schools, and other cultural institutions to what is now the “Museum Mile” in South Kensington. (Curiously, the area was originally called Brompton, but when Cole opened a museum of design and industry there, he named it the South Kensington Museum. Kensington was a much more aristocratic area nearby, though it had no ‘south’ at the time. The museum evolved, rather complicatedly, into what is now the Victoria & Albert Museum. But unlike so many top-down area re-brands, the name South Kensington stuck.)

And that was just the beginning. Cole and his allies then oversaw a dramatic expansion of the state into education, largely through the use of examinations. Although state-funding for education had initially centred on building new schools, getting any more involved was a highly contentious issue. Most schools were controlled and funded by religious organisations, but were split between the established Anglican church and dissenters. When the government first became involved in schools, it was thus bitterly opposed by many dissenters as they feared that their children might become indoctrinated to Anglicanism. And naturally, the government could not teach dissenting religions. Yet the proposed compromise of teaching no religion at all was unacceptable to both sides. Schools were crucial, the groups believed, to keeping religion alive.

So the utilitarians came up with a workaround. Rather than getting the state too involved directly in managing the schools themselves, it would instead influence the curriculum. By holding examinations, and then paying teachers based on the outcomes of the tests, they could incentivise the teaching of certain subjects and leave the schools free to teach whatever religious beliefs they pleased. Indeed, by diverting more and more time towards teaching particular subjects, the reformers saw it as a secularising blow “against parsonic influence”. The tactic was initially applied to adult education. The Society of Arts would first trial out examinations without payments, to test their viability. Then Cole would have his department take over the examinations, first for drawing, and later for science, using his budget to fund payment-by-results. The effects were dramatic. The Society’s relatively popular examinations in chemistry, for example, rarely had more than a hundred candidates a year. But when the department instituted its payments, it soon drew in thousands. By 1862, when the government wanted to improve the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic in schools, they adopted Cole’s suggestion that they also use payment-by-results.

What followed was a repeating cycle of world’s fairs, followed by calls for education in new subjects to keep Britain competitive, followed by the creation of examinations to encourage those subjects. It did not always succeed — in the 1870s, the government would not pay for examinations in technical subjects for adults, so the ancient guilds and livery companies of the City of London were persuaded to do it instead. (The organisation they set up to do so still offers vocational qualifications today.) But overall, the strategy worked. Eventually, in 1899, the Department of Science and Art was merged with the Committee of the Privy Council on Education, to form the first Board of Education — what was to become the Department of Education. Thus, despite substantial religious resistance to government involvement in education, the utilitarians had won.

For more, you can read my new book on the history of the Society of Arts, which is finally officially published! You can get 25% off the hardback and free shipping when ordering directly from the publishers, here, using the code AAM20. And if you’ve already read it, please leave a review somewhere.

Until next week,


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Age of Invention: The Power of Exhibitions

Welcome to my weekly-ish newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here:

On this day, in 1851, Londoners were finally allowed to enter one of the most spectacular edifices to grace their city. Over the previous months they had watched it spring up in Hyde Park — the largest enclosed structure that had ever been built, and made with three hundred thousand of the largest panes of glass ever produced. Set against the blackened, soot-stained buildings of London, the massive glass edifice gleamed. It soon became known as the Crystal Palace.

Although it no longer exists — it was rebuilt in Sydenham, but the new version burnt down in the 1930s — the fame of the Crystal Palace endures. The same goes for the event that it was originally built for, the Great Exhibition of 1851. But, despite that name-recognition, I’ve found that most people don’t really know what the Great Exhibition was for. Yes, it attracted six million visitors in the space of just a few months — an estimated two million people, almost a tenth of the entire population of Great Britain, most of them returning again and again. But why? I must admit, despite having mentioned the event before in some of my work, I’d never really considered it properly before I started researching the history of the Society of Arts.

The idea of such an exhibition in Britain originated with the Society’s secretary in the 1840s, the civil engineer Francis Whishaw. He had seen the use of industrial exhibitions in France, as a means of catching up with Britain in terms of technology. Every few years since 1798, the French government had held an exhibition of its national industries in Paris. The state paid for everything — a grand temporary building, as well as the expenses of the exhibitors — and the head of state himself awarded medals and cash prizes for the best works on display. Some of the very best exhibitors were even admitted to the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit. The benefits to exhibitors were so high that essentially every manufacturer wished to take part. In the days before GDP statistics, the exhibitions were thus an effective means of getting a detailed snapshot of the nation’s manufacturing capabilities. An exhibition served as the nation’s industrial audit.

Armed with the knowledge of the condition of its industry, every few years the French state had been able to identify ways to improve it. It used its exhibitions to determine where to focus its subsidies for particular industries, or which subjects to prioritise in schools. And exhibition prizes, for the best things on display, were a tool of the French government’s industrial strategy—a means of directing the efforts of industrialists toward solving particular problems. Yet the exhibitions themselves were more than just a means of measuring and directing industry—they were themselves a tool for improvement. Motivated by the prizes on offer, manufacturers would try to outdo one another each year, as well as to outdo their previous performances. The exhibitions thus provoked a spirit of competitive emulation, while revealing to manufacturers the latest technology and most fashionable designs.

On the demand side, too, they harnessed the visiting public—the mass of potential consumers. When consumers were uninformed, manufacturers could easily become complacent, finding that people bought their wares even when their products were not very good. They could continue to manufacture their sub-standard wares, with no incentive to improve. But exhibitions shattered this complacency. They showed consumers what was possible, educating them in taste and forcing the manufacturers to cater to their heightened demands. Once the paying public had been exposed to the best, they would settle for nothing less.

The 1844 Paris exhibition in particular set alarm bells ringing in Britain. France appeared to be catching up in terms of mechanisation and mass production, and in some respects it was pulling ahead. France’s scientists were taking the lead in applying the latest chemical advances to industry, and it continued to secure its already existing dominance of design and fashion. Britain, by contrast, had not undertaken a comparable industrial audit. Without a national exhibition of its own, it could not be sure that it would remain competitive.

Although there had been a few local exhibitions of industry in Britain in the late 1830s and early 1840s, there had been nothing on a national scale to rival the French ones. So Francis Whishaw began the work of getting the Society to organise such an event — a national exhibition of industry for Britain. His initial plan came to nothing, partly as he left the Society to take another job, but in the late 1840s the project was resurrected by a new member of the Society, a civil servant named Henry Cole. In fact, Cole almost entirely took over the Society in the late 1840s, turning it into an exhibition-holding organisation. It held exhibitions devoted to particular living artists, on ancient and medieval art, on inventions, and especially on industrial design — what Cole liked to call “art-manufactures”. And, at the 1849 national exhibition in Paris, he adopted an idea that had already been floated for some years by French officials: an international exhibition, to show the industry of all nations.

This was the crucial step. The idea of an international exhibition of industry appealed to the free trade movement in Britain, which had achieved success in the 1840s with the abolition of the Corn Laws. By displaying the products of other nations, the argument went, British consumers would demand that they be able to buy them more cheaply. And free trade would hopefully bring an end to war, too. Free trade campaigners argued that the productive classes of rival nations competed peacefully, simply by trying to outdo one another in the quality and quantity of what they produced. It was the landed aristocracy, they argued, who let the competition become violent, feeding their pride by causing destruction. Thus, a grand exhibition of the products of all nations — the Great Exhibition — would be a physical manifestation of free trade and international harmony: a “competition of arts, and not of arms”.

The Great Exhibition thus had many roles. It was partly born of national paranoia, about French industrial catch-up, as well as about Britain being the first to hold such an event. It was also about exciting competitive emulation between manufacturers, showing consumers what they did not know they wanted, and achieving world peace and free trade. It certainly spurred on dozens of examples of international cooperation. In fact, just the other day I discovered that the first international chess tournament was held in London to coincide with the exhibition. And it served as an audit of the world’s industries, allowing people to judge who was ahead and who was behind. It thereby gave domestic reformers the ammunition to push for changes in areas where Britain seemed to be falling behind, in areas like education, intellectual property, and design. But more on those another time.

For more, you can read my book, Arts & Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation. (As I mentioned last week, the publishers have kindly arranged for a discount on the hardback edition for subscribers to the newsletter, of 25% off and free shipping when ordering directly from them, here. Just use the code AAM20.)

Until next week,


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Age of Invention: Patents vs Prizes

Welcome to my weekly newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here:

Last week I mentioned some of the prizes offered by the Society of the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce — it rewarded methods to save people from drowning in shipwrecks, and to save workers from inhaling metal dust while grinding needles. I highlighted the scandiscope: a chimney-cleaning brush designed to replace child labour. But what I did not discuss was why so many of the inventions it rewarded had such humanitarian aims.

After all, the Society of Arts did not always advertise specific premiums. In fact, as the decades went on, more and more of the inventions it rewarded were entirely unsolicited, and by the mid-nineteenth century its advertisements had become vague. Whereas in 1760 the Society might go into detail in its call for a rat trap that specifically did not use poison (“the destroying them by arsenic being sometimes attended with great mischief”), by the 1820s the typical advertisement did not bother to specify much at all. In the field of mechanics, the Society would call for “improvement in those objects on which the interests of Great Britain essentially depend, namely, steam-engines, shipping, and the machinery employed in extensive manufactures”. So, pretty much anything.

Yet despite the lack of specification, the kinds of inventions that were rewarded remained pretty similar. This was because of a particular rule, informally in place since the beginning, and made explicit in the early 1760s: inventions submitted to the Society could not be patented. (Nor was anyone supposed to patent an invention that had already won a prize, though a few people broke this rule.)

There were a few reasons for this ban. To start with, some of the Society’s founders had a general distrust of monopolies. William Shipley, the drawing teacher who got the whole thing going, had initially tried out a smaller project for the public good in the 1740s, when he was living in Northampton. Shipley had noted that merchants hoarded wood and coal during the cold winters, selling them at high prices when they were most needed for fuel for heating. These “engrossers” or “forestallers” seemed, to him, to be pursuing personal profit by exploiting the poor. So he set up a public subscription fund that would buy wood and coal in the summer when it was cheap, and sell it to the poor for as little as possible during the winter. He hoped to undercut the fuel engrossers, forcing them to lower their prices.

Such anti-monopolistic strategies continued when Shipley set up the Society of Arts. In the 1750s, for example, the Society advertised a premium for improvements to hand-mills, for grinding corn. The Society’s members feared that poor people in more isolated villages were being “abused by the millers”, whose windmill might be the only one for miles around. If the poor had nowhere else nearby to go to grind their corn, then millers could get away with raising prices and potentially even adulterating the flour. The premium aimed to break the millers’ monopoly. (Incidentally, John Harrison of longitude fame was one of the contestants for the hand-mill prize, as was the famous astronomer James Ferguson. But their designs did not win.)

So the Society’s early members had an aversion to monopolies, and patents are, after all, temporary monopolies. But there was actually a more practical reason to not give rewards to patented inventions. In fact, quite a few active members of the Society were themselves patentees, and patents for inventions were not generally lumped together for condemnation with practices like forestalling and engrossing. The practical reason for banning patents was that there was no point giving a prize for something that people were already doing anyway. Patents were expensive in the eighteenth century — depending on how you account for inflation, it could cost about £300,000 in modern terms to obtain one — so the fact that there was a patent for a process was a clear indication that it might be profitable. The Society, by contrast, was supposed to encourage things that would not otherwise have been done.

Thus, when a patent had already been granted for a process the Society had been considering giving a premium for, it purposefully backed down — not because the prize would infringe on the patent, but because its encouragement was no longer necessary. And so the effect of the ban on patented inventions was that the Society received, even unsolicited, exactly the kinds of inventions that there was less monetary incentive to invent. Occasionally, this meant trivial improvements — minor tweaks, here and there, to existing processes. An engineer might patent one invention, but not see it worth their time patenting another — through the Society’s prizes, they might at least get a bit of cash for it, or some recognition. The improvement would also be promoted through the Society’s publications. Or, the Society received inventions that were far from trivial, like the scandiscope for cleaning chimneys, but which were not all that profitable: inventions that saved lives, or had other beneficial effects on the health and wellbeing of workers and consumers. And finally, the Society received innovations that could not be patented, such as agricultural practices and the opening of new import trades. In the early nineteenth century the Society awarded its prizes to a whole host of naval officers, including an admiral, who came up with flag-based signalling systems between ships — early forms of semaphore.

Another effect of the ban on patents was that the Society also attracted submissions from different demographics. Many of its submissions came from people who were too poor to afford patents, as well as from those who were too rich — wealthy aristocrats for whom commercial considerations might seem vulgar. The poor would generally go for the cash prizes, and the aristocrats for the honorary medals. And the prizes were used by people who might otherwise be socially excluded from invention. In 1758, for example, the Society instructed its members in the American colonies to accept submissions from Native Americans. It also allowed women to claim premiums (just as it allowed them to be members). My favourite example is Ann Williams, postmistress at Gravesend, in Kent, who won twenty guineas from the Society in 1778 for her observations on the feeding and rearing of silk-worms. She kept them in one of the post-office pigeon-holes, referring to them affectionately as “my little family” of “innocent reptiles”. Unlike other elements of society, the Society of Arts accepted, as she put it to them, that “curiosity is inherent to all the daughters of Eve.”

The Society thus encouraged the kinds of inventions that might not otherwise have been created, and catered to the kinds of inventors who might not otherwise have been recognised. Rather than competing with the patent system, it complemented it, filling in the gaps that it left. The Society operated at the margins, and only at the margins, to the better completion of the whole. It found its niche, to the benefit of innovation overall.

As promised, I’ll continue to share more about the Society over the next few weeks, and you’ll be able to read much, much more about in in my book on its history, coming out on 12th May. (By the way, the publishers have kindly arranged for a discount on the hardback edition for subscribers to the newsletter, of 25% off and free shipping worldwide when ordering directly from them, here. Just use the code AAM20.)

Until next week,


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Age of Invention: England's Peculiar Disgrace

Welcome to my weekly newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here:

When we think of the British Industrial Revolution, the image that springs to mind tends to be of soot-belching factories and foundries, of child labour and squalid cities. The inventors who spring to mind tend to be James Watt and his steam engines, or Richard Arkwright and his cotton-spinning machines. But what people tend to forget is that the Industrial Revolution was unleashed by a much broader tide of accelerating innovation — as I never tire of repeating, it touched everything from agriculture to watchmaking, and everything inbetween. Just as some inventors pioneered the use of factories, other inventors sought solutions to industrialisation’s social ills.

Last time, I mentioned the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, set up in 1754 in a London coffee house (the Society of Arts for short). What’s so fascinating about the organisation — which still exists today, now called “Royal” — is that it was closely involved with many of the more socially-oriented innovations of the period. By this, I mean the kinds of inventions that were rarely immediately profitable, but which aimed to save lives, to alleviate suffering, or to remedy some other social ill. The Society advertised premiums — cash prizes or honorary medals — for solutions to the problems that its members identified. And it offered similar rewards, which they called bounties, for unsolicited inventions.

It awarded a bounty of fifty guineas and a gold medal to Henry Greathead, for example, one of the claimants for the invention of the lifeboat. It gave another fifty guineas to a sergeant of the Royal Artillery, John Bell, for a method of firing a rope and grapple by mortar from a ship to the shore, to save people on board from shipwreck during storms. (Some years later, it even gave a gold medal to another inventor for a device that did the opposite, firing from shore to ship.) The Society awarded a medal to a Sheffield schoolmaster, John Hessey Abraham, for a magnetic apparatus that would prevent metal dust getting into the eyes and lungs of workers employed in grinding the points of needles. And in 1767 it awarded a bounty to a clockmaker, Christopher Pinchbeck, for a safer crane — cranes at the time were like gigantic hamster wheels, but for humans. When lines snapped, the results could be fatal, so Pinchbeck added a pneumatic braking mechanism.

The list goes on — in all, over the course of about a century, the Society of Arts awarded over two thousand premiums and bounties for inventions. But there is one that really stands out: a premium for the invention of a mechanical means of cleaning chimneys. With such an invention, the Society hoped to abolish the employment of children, sometimes as young as 4, who were forced to climb up inside chimneys in order to clean them. These children were sometimes abducted by the master chimney sweeps, and frequently perished in horrific accidents or of soot-induced cancers. Strikingly, the use of climbing boys was thought to be unique to Britain — the “peculiar disgrace of England” as the campaigners put it (though I don’t think this was quite true). The Society’s idea was that if a technological replacement could be found, then the case for outright abolition could be made — they wanted to create a machine to take the children’s jobs.

The Society of Arts played its role with the offer of a premium, but it acted alongside another campaign run by a few of its members, who ran the snappily titled ‘Society for Superseding the Necessity of Climbing Boys, by Encouraging a New Method of Sweeping Chimnies, and for Improving the Condition of Children and Others Employed by Chimney Sweepers’, founded in 1803 at the London Coffee-House on Ludgate Hill. Let’s call it the SSNCB for short. There had been earlier campaigns to abolish the use of climbing boys, one of the most prominent being run by Jonas Hanway (a prominent philanthropist, also a member of the Society of Arts, whose various claims to fame include being the first man in London to sport an umbrella). But the 1803 campaign was to prove the most successful, drawing on wider political support. The SSNCB’s key members included William Wilberforce, who later became famous for his zeal in abolishing the slave trade.

The Society of Arts’ premium was won in 1805 by George Smart, a timber merchant and engineer. His tool, the ‘scandiscope’, could be operated from the fireplace, was cheap, effective on all but the bendiest of flues, and weighed “no more than a musket”. The brushes, if wetted, could be used to put out fires in the flue — a task that otherwise fell to the climbing boy equipped with a damp cloth, putting him in extraordinary danger. Yet the existence of an effective invention was not enough to abolish the use of climbing boys. The master chimney sweeps opposed it.

At first, the SSNCB’s campaigners tried to cooperate with the sweeps, offering their own prizes for the number of flues swept using the scandiscope, subsidising their purchase of the machines, and advertising the reliable sweeps who used them. But the sweeps took advantage of this generosity, purposefully misusing Smart’s scandiscopes in an effort to turn customers against them. By 1809, the campaigners had had enough. Emboldened by the success of the abolition of the slave trade just two years earlier, their strategy changed from cooperation to outright disruption. They encouraged brand new entrants into the sweeping trade, extolling the modest profits that might be made by using the machines. And they encouraged the owners of larger homes to buy their own scandiscopes (to be used by domestic servants), so as to actively remove customers from the market.

The campaign was eventually successful. George Smart’s scandiscopes were gradually brought into use, and the lot of the climbing boys improved. Crucially, the scandiscope made laws banning the use of climbing boys possible, although this took decades of more campaigning as well as further improvements to Smart’s machine. In 1834 Parliament banned the use of climbing boys under 14 years old, extended in 1840 to 21. But the climbing boys would have to wait until 1875 for a law that had sufficient teeth for enforcement. Up until then, the campaigners at groups like the SSNCB spent their own time and funds collecting evidence and prosecuting the law-breakers themselves.

It’s a great success story, but what I find disconcerting is that George Smart has been almost entirely forgotten, when he clearly deserves a place in the pantheon of the Industrial Revolution’s inventors, alongside the likes of Watt and Arkwright. I wrote Smart’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography only a few years ago, and he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry. And it’s not like he was a one-hit wonder: as I soon discovered, Smart also pioneered the mass-production of barrels, made it safer for sailors to take down a ship’s topmast, and even came up with some widely used civil engineering techniques. So here’s to George Smart, and to the hundreds of other forgotten Society of Arts premium winners, who turned their inventive minds to the public good. May they one day get the recognition they deserve.

I’ll share a bit more about the Society of Arts over the following weeks — and you can read much, much more about it in my book on its history (25% off and free shipping with the code AAM20 when ordering the hardback directly from the publishers).

Until next time,


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Age of Invention: A Breath of Fresh Air

Welcome to my weekly newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here:

One of the most worrying diseases of the mid-eighteenth century was typhus. We now know that it is spread by lice or fleas, but at the time, like so many other diseases, it was thought to be caused by noxious air — “malaria”, for example, literally means “bad air”. This was not a silly theory. It was based on empirical observation, which perhaps explains why the belief in such noxious miasmas persisted for so long — well into the late nineteenth century, if not the early twentieth, before finally being ousted by germ theory. Our ancestors were not stupid, no matter how strange their beliefs might appear in hindsight. (Also take alchemy, or the belief that some animals spontaneously generated.)

Typhus fit the miasma theory especially well because it frequently appeared in confined spaces, like ships’ holds, prisons, mines, workhouses, and hospitals. The disease was thus often called “gaol fever”, or “hospital fever”. And there was the fact that at least one of the solutions designed to combat miasmas, the ventilator, actually seemed to work. This ventilator was not the kind that is in such high demand right now, used to help feed oxygen into patients’ lungs, but instead a machine used to get the air flowing in and out of confined spaces — like a 1740s air-conditioning unit.

At first glance, removing the stale air from a space shouldn’t do anything against typhus. But mortality declined drastically in the prisons and ships to which the ventilator was introduced. It halved the number of deaths per year in Newgate prison, where the bellows-like machinery was powered by a windmill, and the inmates of the Savoy prison fared even better. On ships, too, mortality declined among mariners, passengers, soldiers, and especially among the group that suffered most from long voyages across the eighteenth-century Atlantic: slaves.

But it’s not clear exactly why. After all, the ventilator did not kill the typhus-ridden lice or fleas. I have a few theories as to what must have been going on. Perhaps, by improving the supply of oxygen to confined spaces, people’s bodies were simply better served to deal with all manner of diseases. Surgeons aboard slave ships sometimes noted that, without proper ventilation, many slaves would simply die in the night of suffocation. Or perhaps the ventilator’s effectiveness had something to do with its drying effect. The machine was used to prevent grain stores from becoming humid, thus staving off damp-loving weevils. The ventilators might thus have staved off typhus through a similar means: although I’m not so certain about body lice, humid conditions are preferred by fleas. Regardless of the real reasons, the ventilators worked, and even when they did not reduce mortality, they made confined spaces more bearable for those who had to endure them. Ship captains reported that they did not even have to force their sailors to pump the ventilator’s bellows, because they liked the cool air so much. Ventilators were soon installed in the House of Commons, and in many of London’s theatres.

But what interests me most about the ventilator was its inventor, the Anglican clergyman and amateur scientist Stephen Hales. Hales had spent much of his scientific career investigating how sap flows through plants and how blood circulates in animals, as well as how both fluids interact with the air. But it was not until his sixties that he finally applied his scientific knowledge to preventing typhus (even if the science would later turn out to be wrong). Like so many other scientists, he had largely been content to advance our understanding of nature, but not our use of it. His own brother had even probably died from typhus, while in prison for debt, but it was decades before Hales applied himself to inventing the ventilator.

Once Hales had caught the invention bug, however, he could not help but spread it further. He came to believe that more scientists should be seeking to apply their knowledge, both for the good of humankind, and to prove that the study of science was “not a mere trifling amusement”. He became known for offering innovative tips and tricks — what today we might call life hacks — to all and sundry. He used his understanding of chemistry to advise ladies on how best to prevent limescale in their tea kettles, and applied his knowledge of pneumatics when he advised them to place a teacup in their pies, upside-down, to prevent the juices boiling over. Just before he died, in his mid-80s, he was even seen painting the tops of his local footpath posts white, in order to prevent people injuring themselves on them at night. Yet Hales’s most lasting legacy was to help create an institution that would continue to spread innovation further. Although he was a fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific organisation, he saw the need for an organisation that would systematically promote knowledge’s application. Thus, in 1754, in a London coffeehouse called Rawthmell’s, Hales and a few others helped found the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce — a society for the improvement of anything and everything. It still exists today, usually known as the Royal Society of Arts (and, incidentally, it’s the subject of my first book - the hardback available at 25% off and free shipping with the code AAM20).

Over the following weeks, I’ll share a bit more about it.

Until next week,


P.S. I realise I’ve been posting less frequently of late. I’ve been writing elsewhere. Here’s a piece I wrote last week on systems for promoting innovation, and how they can be used to combat the pandemic (there’s a bit of history in there, too).

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