Age of Invention: Exploding Telegraphs

A nineteenth-century PR masterclass

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

One of the major arguments of the book I’m writing is that inventors’ talent for public relations and lobbying was one of the main reasons that Britain - rather unexpectedly - was the place that experienced an unprecedented acceleration of innovation.

The greatest of these lobbyist-inventors has to be Bryan Donkin, a nineteenth-century mechanical engineer. As an inventor, Donkin improved threshing machines, dredging machinery, and a variety of other tools. He invented the steel pen, dabbled in chemistry, as well as phrenology, and was one of the key people responsible for mechanising the production of paper. He became best known for improving and commercialising tin cans for food. Mechanised paper-making and canned food, having both been invented in France, were perfected in Britain by Donkin. He was the archetypal tinkerer.

But it’s as a lobbyist that I think Donkin was truly exceptional. His experience has important lessons for all would-be supporters of invention today.

In April 1817, Donkin read in his newspaper that there had been a disaster in Norwich: the boiler aboard the steamboat Telegraph had exploded. Of the boat’s twenty-two passengers, eight had died immediately in the blast, and another six had eventually succumbed to their wounds. It was a shocking tragedy. And for Donkin, doubly so: in addition to the human death toll, the explosion threatened to kill off one of the era’s newest and most exciting inventions.

Although some of the first trials of steamboats had taken place in the 1780s, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that they began to be practical. By 1817, the first commercially successful steamboat service in Britain, Henry Bell’s Comet, had been chugging its way up the River Clyde between Glasgow and Greenock for only five years. And Londoners like Donkin had only just seen their first steamboat, Margery, when she puffed her way into the Thames in 1815 (the following year, after becoming the first steamboat to cross the Channel, she reinvented herself in Paris as Elise). Thus, by the time of Telegraph’s explosion, the passenger steamboat had only just been born. There was a very real risk that it would be banned.

Fortunately, however, the steamboat had Donkin in its corner. His immediate reaction upon reading about the explosion was to gather some of his engineer friends - Timothy Bramah and John Collinge - and set off for Norwich to view the explosion site for themselves. As the first expert engineers on the scene, they then took control of the narrative about the explosion. Donkin and his friends went straight to Norwich’s MP to ask him to set up a parliamentary select committee to look into the disaster. And while they waited for the politicians to be assembled for the committee, they held a series of public meetings about the disaster at the Crown & Anchor Tavern - a favourite haunt of London’s engineers. There, they had a chance to rally the rest of the profession and get their story straight about what must have caused the explosion.

Unsurprisingly, having asked for the inquiry in the first place, Donkin and his fellow London engineers were its principal expert witnesses. And their tavern discussions paid off too. Faced with near-unanimous expert opinion, the committee gave the verdict that they all wanted: it found that there was nothing unsafe about steamboats themselves, so long as the boilers were made of decent materials and had the right safety valves. Thus, rather than being banned outright, the steamboats were subjected to a little regulation. The infant technology was saved.

What’s so striking about this event is that Donkin was not involved with developing steamboat engines himself; nor were most of the other engineers he rallied. For them, it was about defending innovation in general. And the reason for that attitude was also key to their success as a lobby group: they were already extremely interconnected, in ways that crossed industry boundaries. Donkin and the other expert witnesses already knew one another, and as much more than just colleagues or competitors. Donkin regularly supported other engineers and inventors, and received help in return. Even if people were rivals in one domain, they were generally happy to be close collaborators in others. They regularly sat on committees together for a whole host of associations, such as the Society of Arts, where Donkin was a member of the mechanics committee, or the Society of Master Millwrights, of which he was a founder. They all toured one another’s factories, delighted in each other’s mechanical improvements, and, of course, drank together at pubs like the Crown & Anchor. Thus, when a disaster like that of 1817 occurred, they were already primed to be concerned about innovation in general, and all ready to spring into action, to great effect.

Donkin in the years that followed was heavily involved in many more campaigns, giving expert testimony to parliamentary inquiries into the safety of steamboats at sea (once again, he helped establish that they were fundamentally safe), on how to reform the patent system (which sadly led to nothing), on removing the ban on unions (successfully), on lifting the ban on exporting machinery (unsuccessfully), and on allowing skilled workers to emigrate (successfully). In fact, even before the 1817 incident, he had been instrumental in overturning the centuries-old legislation that made seven-year apprenticeships compulsory.

But each of those is worth looking into in more detail, so I’ll talk more about them in the weeks to come.

Until next week,

Anton

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