Age of Invention: The Real Roaring Twenties

Welcome to my newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here:

Last week I called the 1720s an era of schemes. 1720 was the year of the South Sea Company’s crash, as well as the collapse of John Law’s Mississippi Company in France. But the decade saw some oft-neglected innovations too. As I never tire of saying, Britain’s extraordinary acceleration of innovation was about all industries, not just the famous ones of cotton, coal, iron, and steam - a point that the 1720s demonstrate perfectly.

For a start, it was the decade in which smallpox began to be systematically eradicated through inoculation. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, having observed the procedure in the Ottoman Empire, had her daughter inoculated in London following an outbreak in 1721. The same epidemic prompted the trialling of inoculation in New England, and the reports of these successes provided the statistical evidence for it to be more widely spread. Soon, through Lady Montagu’s aristocratic connections, even the royal children were being inoculated. Inoculation was still dangerous - it was decades before non-deadly cowpox was discovered to also confer immunity to smallpox - but the 1720s marked the beginning of the end for one of humanity’s greatest killers.

Also in medicine, the brothers James and John Douglas developed the field of lithotomy - the surgical removal of bladder stones. James investigated the anatomy of the bladder, while John developed new surgical instruments and honed his technique. Yet only a few years had passed before their method was superseded by William Cheselden, whose new method could in some cases be performed in under half a minute. In the days before anaesthesia, speed was the key.

Cheselden’s method was significantly safer, too. Under the older methods, about a third of patients could expect to die after the operation - usually from later complications with the wound. Under Cheselden’s operation the mortality rate was reduced to just 10%. It may not have been as important as smallpox inoculation, but even the poets sang Cheselden’s praises. Alexander Pope, whom he treated, wrote to Jonathan Swift that Cheselden had “saved the lives of thousands”. (Incidentally, Pope had also been close friends with Lady Montagu, though they later became bitter enemies.) VIPs from across Europe came to London to be operated on by Cheselden, and he soon achieved still more acclaim: in 1728 he gave sight to a boy who had been born blind, by incising the iris to create an artificial pupil.

Meanwhile, London had emerged as one of the world’s greatest centres for making clocks, watches, and navigational instruments. Under the sign of the “astronomico-musical clock” on Fleet Street, Christopher Pinchbeck advertised singing bird-automata and barrel organs, alongside various trinkets that looked just like gold, but were made from an alloy of zinc and copper of his own invention - pinchbeck. (Pop next door and you could purchase pastries from his wife.)

Specialist clockmakers like George Graham also achieved major advances in the precision of timekeeping devices. He seems to have been among the first in England to make watches with hands that showed seconds, rather than just hours and minutes. Graham’s development of the dead-beat escapement, as well as pendulums that could compensate for changes in temperature, gave clocks an accuracy that would not be superseded for well over a century. Meanwhile, John Hadley improved the reflecting telescope, and Servington Savery discovered how to make magnets artificially, instead of having to use natural lodestones, thus cheapening the navigational compass.

Most famous, however, was the search for longitude. When at sea, it was relatively easy to tell how far north or south you were, but not how far east or west. The implications for navigation were immense. William Whiston, a protégé of Newton, was in 1714 instrumental in lobbying for the creation of a substantial government prize for a solution, and spent much of the following decades trying to win it. His earliest proposal, along with the mathematician Humphrey Ditton, was for ships anchored at fixed locations to essentially shoot fireworks at fixed intervals. By comparing the difference between seeing and hearing the flashes, you might calculate your longitude (it’s actually not that dissimilar to the principle that underlies GPS).

But unlike with the medical advances, the poets were having none of it. As one of them rather crudely put it:

The longitude miss’d on

By wicked Will Whiston;

And not better hit on

By good master Ditton.

So Ditton and Whiston

May both be bepist on;

And Whiston and Ditton

May both be beshit on.

Whiston and the other longitude-searchers also investigated using the earth’s magnetic variation - he produced perhaps the first map with isogonic lines, indicating where compass needles dipped - as well as solar eclipses. And as longitude could be found on land by looking at the eclipses of Jupiter’s moons, he tried to develop telescopes so that they could observe such events on the unsteady sea.

Nonetheless, the solution came from one of George Graham’s friends, the clockmaker John Harrison. Starting in the 1720s, Harrison developed a timekeeping device - the marine chronometer - that would keep its accuracy despite the rocking and rolling and atmospheric changes from being at sea. By comparing your local time with the time at Greenwich shown on the chronometer, you could calculate your longitude. (Though by the time his device came into use in the 1770s, another method had been discovered that involved observing the moon).

While scientific minds sought the longitude, consumer items were also being transformed. In the 1720s, a ship’s carpenter to Jamaica, Robert Gillow, was among the first to import mahogany to Britain, creating a tradition of furniture-making in Lancaster that even the fashion-conscious French would come to regard jealously. In glass-ware, too, John Akerman began to advertise cut flint glass - its refractive qualities made it especially ideal for chandeliers. And flint was used in pottery by John Astbury - one of the first great Staffordshire potters. John Lombe had also recently come back from Piedmont, where he had stolen the details of its silk-manufacturing machines. He and his half-brother Thomas used the plans to create a silk mill in Derby: one of England’s earliest successful factories. (John Lombe died in 1722, aged only 29 - the story goes that the Piedmontese sent a woman to assassinate him.) And while the Lombe brothers spun the silk, designers like Anna Maria Garthwaite came up with beautiful woven patterns - if you’re ever in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, I highly recommend seeking out her designs there. Just as with furniture, English silks began to rival those of the French.

All in all, the 1720s show the sheer range of innovation that swept Britain during its Industrial Revolution. I have mentioned medicine, surgery, machinery, instruments, navigation, pottery, glass, textiles, and furniture. Yet the decade also saw the rise of landscape gardening, the invention of English mustard by the mysterious Mrs Clements, and the development of fire engines. In music, it was the age of Handel, and in literature the age of Swift and Defoe.

If there was a ‘20s that deserves the epithet of roaring, then surely it was this one.

Till next week,


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