Age of Invention: Prince Henry's Men
The plot to create an Inventor-King
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As some of you will know, I’ve been working on a book — one on the causes of the acceleration of innovation that led to the Industrial Revolution. Part of that book’s core thesis is that it was inventors themselves who formed many of the crucial innovation-supporting institutions, cultivating new forms and norms of patronage, coming up with legal devices like patent monopolies and joint-stock corporations, and forming societies of their own. Inventors became, in effect, an increasingly organised and effective lobby group — not just for their own, personal interests, but for future generations of inventors as well.
The big hold-up with my book draft — it’s already taken at least three years longer than I’d initially planned — is that the details of how those early innovators organised are still murky. When I began my work, I had focused mainly on the eighteenth century, but I then became increasingly convinced that the crucial century of change was really 1550-1650. It’s why so much of this newsletter — often, effectively, a research diary for what will end up in the book — has been so focused on that period. I’ve been writing as I learn, about a period I had barely looked at before.
Delving into the world of early seventeenth-century inventors has been a bit like overturning a log in a forest and discovering an anthill — a miniature hidden world, teeming with life, with the creatures crisscrossing, disappearing, and then suddenly reappearing again, but with the hint of some underlying order connecting them all. I feel like I’m starting to make sense of the anthill, and have noticed at least one ant queen — or rather, a prince.
Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, was the eldest son and heir of James I of England. He would presumably have become Henry IX had he managed to outlive his father. But he died in 1612 aged just 18. The kingdom instead ended up with his younger brother Charles I and civil war. I’m not sure how far Prince Henry was influenced, but it seems that many of the major innovators of the period were purposefully cultivating him as a kind of inventor-scientist king.
It reminds me of a very similar and successful scheme, which I noticed when researching my first book on the history of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. This was the scheme to cultivate George III — famed for his madness and losing the Thirteen Colonies, but also for his collection of scientific instruments and interest in agricultural innovation. Those interests were no accident: his upbringing had included lessons in botany from the inventor Stephen Hales, in art and architecture from William Chambers, and in mathematics from George Lewis Scott. These were not just experts, but active innovator-organisers. Hales was a key founder of the Society of Arts; Chambers helped organise the artists who split off from it to form the Royal Academy of Arts; and Scott was involved in updating Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences — an early encyclopaedia focused on technical knowledge. And their efforts bore fruit. Unlike his predecessor and grandfather George II — whose interests mainly fell under the headings of Handel, Hanover, hunting, and heavy women — George III became an active patron of science, invention, and the arts.
Given how successfully the inventors cultivated George III, it makes me wonder how things might have looked had Prince Henry lived to be king. His younger brother Charles I had an education heavily geared towards languages, theology, and overcoming various health issues through sports. But Henry — naturally athletic and charismatic — had an upbringing tightly controlled by Sir Thomas Chaloner, who had a major financial stake in innovation.
Chaloner housed and supported his alchemist cousin (also, confusingly, called Thomas Chaloner). This cousin had published an early treatise on the medical applications of saltpetre, or nitre (what we now call potassium nitrate), and had tried to produce alum on the isle of Lambay, off the coast of Ireland. Alum was a valuable substance used to fix cloth dyes, which had hitherto been monopolised by the Pope, who owned Europe’s only alum mine. Opening a competing, English-controlled, Protestant supply of alum was not just about starting a new industry. It was a matter of Europe-wide religious and strategic urgency.
Earlier attempts to mine alum at Dorset, on Lambay, and in Yorkshire had all failed. But the alchemist cousin had identified promising alum veins while living at Guisborough, on Chaloner’s Yorkshire estate. So Chaloner, using his extraordinary political influence as Prince Henry’s governor, obtained a wide-ranging 31-year patent monopoly over all alum production in the country. The patent, shared with a handful of neighbours who also had alum deposits on their lands, was used to protect a substantial investment from London merchants. The merchants technically leased the patent, also handling the alum sales. But they, in turn, sub-contracted the actual work of managing the mine and the alum-processing works to Chaloner’s alchemist cousin.
The alum works got off to a disastrous start. The cousin was fired and replaced with a group of mineral experts poached from the mining regions of Germany and modern-day Belgium. But the concern continued to make a loss, and in 1609 the works were effectively nationalised, to be leased out directly by the Crown. The Yorkshire alum supply was too important to let fail, especially given “the Pope might be hindered”.
Chaloner’s interest in the works ended there, but he and his family benefited a lot. Despite the enterprise’s losses, the Crown bought out his share on generous terms. Perhaps because of his cousin, however, he also had a longstanding interest in innovation. He was considered a good mathematician, and in the 1590s had visited John Dee. He also seemingly knew the inventor Hugh Plat, providing him with details of a fountain he had seen on a trip to Italy.
And, crucially, he put many inventors directly into the orbit of prince Henry. He got William Barlow — an expert on magnetism, who improved compasses and other navigational instruments — the post of Henry’s chaplain. Chaloner obtained another navigational improver, Edward Wright, to be Henry’s mathematical tutor. Wright was about to appointed Henry’s librarian when the young prince died. And Chaloner chose as Henry’s perspective-drawing tutor the French engineer Salomon De Caus, famous for his work on hydraulic machines.
Henry’s circle also included the Dutch polymath Cornelis Drebbel, who would become famous all over Europe for travelling in a submarine under the Thames, for his improvements to microscopes, and for inventing a perpetual motion machine (which isn’t as silly as it sounds — it was effectively a kind of barometer, exploiting changes in temperature and air pressure to move).
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The more I look into the circle of inventors around Prince Henry, the more familiar names crop up. There even seems to be some connection to Simon Sturtevant, one of the original patentees of a method to make iron by using coal instead of wood — Chaloner was seemingly responsible for evaluating Sturtevant’s inventiveness, to see if he merited a patent. I found it very striking that when Sturtevant’s iron-making business was about to get going, Prince Henry was to have a share.
Given such innovative company, we can only imagine what kind of a king Prince Henry might have been. If George III grew up to be “Farmer George”, might a Henry IX have become associated with navigation or hydraulic engines? We’ll never know. But even during his brief lifetime, there was plenty of patronage to be had for inventors at the court of their would-be Inventor-King.
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