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

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