Age of Invention: Improveable Beings

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:

I stumbled across a speech the other day, delivered by Dr Olinthus Gregory - the mathematics teacher at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich - to the Deptford Mechanics’ Institution. The mechanics’ institutions, or institutes, were created by working men pooling their savings to pay for lectures, libraries, educational equipment, news-rooms, and book clubs. They spearheaded Britain’s bottom-up approach to adult education, with the classes held in the evenings after work. But they’re a story for another time.

What caught my eye was Gregory’s speech. Delivered in 1826, Britain’s industrial prowess was already obvious to many. The Industrial Revolution was already in full swing. Gregory paints the picture perfectly:

Agriculture, manufactures, commerce, navigation, the arts, and sciences, useful and ornamental, in a copious and inexhaustible variety, enhance the conveniences and embellishments of this otherwise happy spot. Cities thronged with inhabitants, warehouses filled with stores, markets and fairs with busy rustics; fields, villages, roads, seaports, all contributing to the riches and glory of our land.

But there was more to be done. After all, everything can always be improved (an attitude that I call the improving mentality):

Recollect farther, that every natural and every artificial advantage is susceptible of gradual progression, and trace the yearly elevation to higher perfection. New societies for improvement …, new machines to advance our arts and facilitate labour; waste lands enclosed, roads improved, bridges erected, canals cut, tunnels excavated, marshes drained and cultivated, docks formed, ports enlarged: these and a thousand kindred operations which present themselves spontaneously to the mind’s eye, prove that we have not yet attained our zenith, and open an exquisite prospect of future stability and greatness.

Progress had been made, but there was always room for more.

As for the causes, Gregory had some interesting observations. Important, he said, was coal: “more valuable to us than the gold mines ever were to Spain, since without these the various metals could not be worked, and half our manufactories would be at a stand.”

But coal alone was not enough. There would be less output, of course, but he did not say that progress would have been stifled altogether (which is also more or less my own position). Also important was that inventors could persuade the government of the benefits of innovation, which is something I mentioned in my last email. As Gregory put it, Britain had “a government of whom the arts and sciences never crave audience in vain.”

And most important of all was Britain’s community of inventors and scientists, from the Boultons and Watts and Smeatons and Arkwrights and Bramahs, to the Donkins, Hornblowers, Trevithicks, Maudslays and Stephensons (only a few of whom are at all heard of today):

…you need only imagine for a moment that Britain were altogether deprived of the results of their science and skill, and you would be able to appreciate the extent of their contributions to our national greatness, by the barbarism and desolation which would then reign around.

Rousing stuff. Yet we should also be aware of Gregory’s aims with the speech. He was not only imbuing his audience with the improving mentality as applied to the world around them, but to themselves: “man is in his nature an improveable being”, he preached. He regaled them with examples of labourers who had become renowned classicists, militiamen who had become mathematicians, and tin-plate workers who had invented new solutions to cubic equations. He exhorted his audience of working self-educators to carefully study the biographies of “great men”, so that they should discern the causes of their greatness and emulate them.

Gregory wanted his audience to continue their self-education, and to take hope from prior examples. He hit upon a theme that would become especially popular over thirty years later, in 1859, when Samuel Smiles published his book “Self-Help” - a best-seller of the late-nineteenth century, which was essentially a collective biography of inventors, artists, and industrialists. Regardless of the veracity of Gregory’s or Smiles’s claims, they both thought that such bootstrapping narratives were important, especially if they encouraged people to value their own education. Every extra person inspired to learn, Gregory argued, led to the “augmentation of the national stock of happiness, prosperity, and peace, as well as to its stock of mechanical knowledge, of beneficial invention, and of practical skill.”

To the nineteenth-century proselytisers for improvement, inspiration mattered. I suspect it matters today, too.

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