Age of Invention: Honours for Innovators

You’re reading my newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. This free edition goes out to over 6,400 people. You can subscribe here:

In the last few weeks, patrons of the newsletter read about some unusual and secretive societies of inventors, and the unusual reasons given by a Cairo eunuch for the lack of printing presses in the Ottoman Empire.

As regular readers will know, my main thesis about the causes of Britain’s acceleration of innovation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that its inventors did so much to evangelise for innovation, to spread it further. Innovation is a mentality, of constantly perfecting and optimising everything and anything around us, and it spreads from person to person. But there was nothing special about Britain in having people with the improving mentality. There was no uniquely British disposition, or national culture of innovation, whatever that is (bizarrely, I’m occasionally cited as saying as much). Far from it. A disproportionate number of the inventors of the period were immigrants, and I think the improving mentality arrived from abroad anyway, in the mid-sixteenth century. What made Britain special was that the improving mentality became especially viral there.

Inventors in Britain, initially by accident, and increasingly on purpose, were especially good at organising themselves into innovation-promoting societies, creating norms for the sharing of inventions, lobbying elites for funding, or to pass laws that favoured innovation, and finding ways to raise the social status of being an inventor. The cause of Britain’s acceleration of innovation was the success of its innovation evangelists — usually inventors themselves, with a fair few non-inventors cheering from the side-lines too.

To the extent that I think there are lessons to be learned for today, then, it’s generally from the innovation evangelists. Their schemes — some failed, some triumphant, all ingenious — are a rich seam of ideas for present-day innovation policy, and especially for upstream policies, of a kind that will actually increase the number of people choosing to become inventors, rather than just fiddling around with the incentives of people who already are. Of all the upstream policies, the lowest-hanging fruit by far is to pay attention to status and prestige.

One of my all-time favourite innovation evangelists is the nineteenth-century barrister, journalist, and politician Henry Brougham. He was an innovator himself, in the late 1830s designing a form of horse-drawn carriage, and as a teenager even managed to get his experiments on light published in the Royal Society’s prestigious Transactions. But his main achievements were as an organiser. Clever, dashing, and articulate, the son of minor gentry, he was an evangelist extraordinaire. In the 1820s he helped George Birkbeck to found the London Mechanics’ Institute (which survives today as Birkbeck, University of London), was instrumental in the creation of University College London (to provide a university in England where you didn’t have to swear an oath to the Church of England), and founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (to print reference works and textbooks cheaply and in bulk). They were all organisations intended to widen access to education, spreading science to the masses.

He also presided at the opening of many more worker-run mechanics’ institutions, libraries, and scientific societies. As a Member of Parliament who went out of his way to support workers’ efforts at self-education, even though none of them could vote, Brougham thus became something of a celebrity to working-class inventors. John Condie, born in Gorbals, Glasgow, to poor parents, and apprenticed to a cabinet maker, would become a prolific and successful improver of iron-making, locomotive springs, and photography, as well as an inspiring lecturer on scientific subjects in his own right — his students at the Eaglesham Mechanics’ Institution were reportedly so engrossed that they would attend his evening classes until midnight. Having once exhibited a model steam engine at the opening of the Carlisle Mechanics’ Institution, however, Condie was reportedly “not a little proud” that Brougham — who had presided at the opening — recalled the model over thirty years later. The detail comes from Condie’s obituary notice in the local papers; I like to think that it was a story upon which he frequently dined out.

Brougham’s celebrity, I suspect, made him appreciate the usefulness of status and prestige, and his influence only grew when in 1830 he was made a lord and appointed Lord High Chancellor — a high-ranking ministerial position, which he held for four years. Brougham was soon behind many efforts to increase the visibility of inventive role-models. The nineteenth-century mania for putting up statues — to people like Johannes Gutenberg, Isaac Newton, and James Watt — often had Brougham or his political allies behind them. Brougham even hoped that while the “temples of the pagans had been adorned by statues of warriors, who had dealt desolation … ours shall be graced with the statues of those who have contributed to the triumph of humanity and science”.

His hero-making extended to print, too, when in the 1840s his Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge embarked on publishing a comprehensive biographical dictionary — an early forerunner to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, but with the extraordinary aim of covering notable individuals from all over the world. It managed to print seven volumes covering the letter “A” before financial considerations forced the whole society to cease, but in 1845 Brougham published Lives of Men of Letters and Science who Flourished in the Time of George III, in which he showcased a handful of eighteenth-century literati and scientists from whom readers were to draw inspiration.

And Brougham tried to raise the status of inventors who were still living. This was done by co-opting a Hanoverian order of chivalry, the Royal Guelphic Order (by this stage the kings of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland were also simultaneously the kings of Hanover). The order was generally used to recognise soldiers, but an interesting precedent had been set when the astronomer Frederick William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, had been made a knight of the order in 1816. So when Brougham rose to power in the 1830s, he envisaged using it more widely, to recognise inventors, scientists, and medical pioneers, as well as literary scholars like museum curators, archivists, antiquarians, historians, heralds, and linguists. Thanks to Brougham’s machinations, the knighthood of the order was offered to the mathematician James Ivory, the scientist and inventor David Brewster, and the neurologist Charles Bell (after whom Bell’s Palsy is named). It was later also awarded to serial inventors like John Robison, who improved the accuracy of metal screws, experimented with cast iron canal locks and the water resistance of boats, and applied pneumatic presses to cheesemaking.

One problem, however, was that the Royal Guelphic Order was considered second-rate. It was technically a foreign order, and did not actually entitle one to be called “Sir” in the UK. The mathematician and computing pioneer Charles Babbage was apparently insulted to have been fobbed off with the offer of a Guelphic knighthood instead of a British one. Although William Herschel had accidentally been called “Sir” during his lifetime, this was soon realised to be a mistake in protocol. When his son John — a scientific pioneer in his own right — was also made a knight of the order, he was also quietly knighted normally a few days later so that the rest of the family would be none the wiser. And regardless, the whole scheme came to an end with the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 — as a woman, she did not inherit the throne of Hanover, and so appointments to the Guelphic order simply passed out of British control.

But I think Brougham’s general idea was a good one. People may no longer be as reverent of monarchy as they used to be — John Herschel apparently lost his nerve when he was about to be knighted, and scurried to the back of the queue — but royal honours are universally recognised. For all the tens of thousands of today’s private cash prizes for innovation, all competing for our attention, the public instantly knows what it means to be honoured as “Sir” or “Dame”, and, at least in the UK, to have letters like MBE, OBE, or CBE after a name. Moreover, the today’s honours system is significantly more meritocratic, with anyone able to be nominated by anybody for consideration, though they don’t currently do a very good job of recognising innovation.

Which is why Ned Donovan and I have just published a paper arguing that the UK ought to create a whole new order of chivalry, to specifically recognise the achievements of scientists and innovators. You can read our rationale in full here, or a very brief summary here. (We even included some beautiful prospective designs for the medals, done by a professional herald.) Like Brougham, I think there’s value in honouring inventors as role models, and especially so if we recognise the many hundreds of marginal improvers quietly experimenting or tinkering away in laboratories, workshops, or even in garages or the garden shed. While a handful of entrepreneurs get rich off their innovations, the great majority don’t. This is not to say, of course, that the creation of an order of chivalry for innovators will directly inspire young people to pursue careers as inventors because they think they might get a medal at the end. But if it were to raise the overall status of inventors in society by even a tiny bit, then it may even be one of the most cost-effective innovation policies imaginable.

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