Age of Invention: How to Build a State

Welcome to my regular newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. If you enjoy it, please share it with someone who might be interested. You can subscribe here:

I’ve been a little quieter than usual lately, largely as I’ve been trying to write up some tricky parts of my next book. But I did recently publish a piece for a new online magazine called Works in Progress, entitled “How to Build a State”. With the piece, I wanted to convey the basic model of how we should think about what states could and could not do just a few centuries ago:

Suppose yourself transported to the throne of England in 1500, and crowned monarch. Once you bored of the novelty and luxuries of being head of state, you might become concerned about the lot of the common man and woman. Yet even if you wanted to create a healthcare system, or make education free and universal to all children, or even create a police force (London didn’t get one until 1829, and the rest of the country not til much later), there is absolutely no way you could succeed.

For a start, you would struggle to maintain your hold on power. Fund schools you say? Somebody will have to pay. The nobles? Well, try to tax them — in many European states they were exempt from taxation — and you might quickly lose both your throne and your head. And supposing you do manage to tax them, after miraculously stamping out an insurrection without their support, how would you even begin to go about collecting it? There was simply no central government agency capable of raising it.

It’s a basic point, perhaps, but it has lots of interesting implications, not least that monarchs were heavily reliant on making deals with soldiers, religious leaders, and assorted other groups. Appreciating the way states worked in the past — and the many constraints upon them — is fundamental to understanding the kinds of policies they pursued.

Indeed, the rest of the piece provides a framework for some of the other things I’ve been writing about recently, like the emergence of patents for invention, and the birth of the joint-stock business corporation. Both involved inventors exploiting monarchs’ desire for quick and easy cash, with monarchs exercising their prerogative rights to grant monopolies in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. No parliament needed.

And the framework helps to explain how patents came to be corrupted, far beyond the simple encouragement of new inventions or industries. Patents were soon being used to grant exemptions from certain laws and regulations, or even to oversee their enforcement. In 1594, one courtier obtained a 21-year privilege to regulate the quality of ale and beer used to make vinegar (alegar and beeregar, to be precise). In his petition, he alleged that the vinegars were being made from corrupt materials, so needed proper oversight. But in practice, when he obtained the patent, the courtier simply licensed all of the existing manufacturers to continue exactly what they had been doing before, but paying him fourpence per barrel.

Similar patents were granted for the “regulation” of tin, leather, inns, and alehouses, with many of the monopolies going to Elizabeth I’s favourites, like Sir Walter Raleigh, or her groom of the Privy Chamber, Edward Darcy. Darcy even obtained a patent to license the making and selling of playing cards, on the grounds that the past-time was distracting people from archery — more useful from the perspective of national defence. But in practice, of course, they were all just an excuse for a shakedown. The courtiers benefited, and so did the monarch, for in selling such privileges, or even directly taking a cut of the proceeds, Elizabeth I was effectively able to raise taxes on industries without recourse to parliament.

Having started as an aid to industrial policy, patents thus became a tool of absolutism. And a source of resentment.

But more on that another time.

P.S. If you’re enjoying this newsletter, you might also be interested in my book, Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation.