Age of Invention: The Crucial Century

Britain as a backwater and the tech celebs of the 1590s

If a peaceful extraterrestrial visited the world in 1550, where would it predict would be the most likely site for an Industrial Revolution? That’s the subject of my latest blogpost, “The Crucial Century”, which you can read here. I run through a number of potentially important factors, including urbanisation, major cities, living standards, military might, and state capacity. But on all of them, England was unexceptional, really even a backwater.

I’d also like to share with you here some of the more qualitative evidence that I didn’t mention there, and which I’m still working on. In terms of science and technology, England in 1550 seems to have had trouble keeping up with the rest of Europe, let alone developing innovations of its own. Italy had its da Vinci, and the Low Countries its Gerardus Mercator leading a revolution in cartography and navigational instruments. Germany had its Georgius Agricola improving mining and metallurgy, and Poland had its Nicolaus Copernicus arguing that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Each of them were surrounded by other like-minded inventors, researchers, and craftsmen. England, however, might have boasted Hans Holbein, who had died in London in 1543, but he was the exception. And besides, he had been German. In fact, England before 1550 seems to have lacked native-born artists, clockmakers, cartographers, and makers of navigational instruments of any note, instead relying on a handful of skilled foreigners.

What’s striking about this is that England, and London in particular, would very soon become a world leader in all of those fields, and more. By the 1570s, we can safely say that London had a small hub of people of international renown, and by 1595 authors like John Davis, in his navigation manual “The Seaman’s Secrets”, was boasting about a few of them. Davis’s heroes are fairly unknown today, but they were the innovator-celebrities of his day. You might recognise a few of the names. Thomas Digges, John Dee, and Thomas Harriot made the list “for the mechanical practices drawn from the arts mathematic”; Emery Molyneux for designing globes; Nicholas Hilliard for painting (“for the singularity of his portraiture has the praise of Europe”); and Matthew Baker for shipbuilding.

And then there were the discoverers.

Britain may have always been an island, but the English were not, in 1550, a nation of seafarers. Much of its merchant trade seems to have been confined to hopping across the Channel to Antwerp or Calais. The daring might have ventured into the Baltic, or to the north coast of Spain. But that was about it. It was in the early 1550s, however, that you start to see more ambitious projects: the quest for a northeast route to India and China, for example, around the northern coast of Russia. Although it failed - ice - it did open up a new trade with Muscovy via the White Sea. And in the 1560s and 70s you begin to see similar quests for a northwest passage and for the foundation of colonies in the New World. So Davis could list a lot of seafarers. Those who made his list were Hugh Willoughby (who searched for the northeast passage), Humphrey Gilbert (the northwest), John Hawkins (a case of when innovation can be evil, as he pioneered the transatlantic slave trade), George Raymond (who commanded an ill-fated expedition to the Indian Ocean), and, of course, the still-famous Francis Drake (for his circumnavigation of the globe).

There’s plenty of further qualitative evidence like this, of a transformation in the late sixteenth century. What I’m now working on is explaining why much of this change had occurred by the 1570s. More on that another time. Regardless, as I explain in my blogpost, when it comes to investigating the underlying sources of England’s acceleration of innovation, 1550-1650 seems to be the crucial century.

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