Age of Invention: The Transformative '20s

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

As we embark upon the ‘20s, we inevitably look back to previous ones. Most of us have some image of the “roaring” 1920s - Art Deco, Great Gatsby, prohibition, hyperinflation, unemployment, general strikes.

But we have no mental image of the earlier ‘20s. If I say 1820s, what comes to mind? Probably very little. It falls into an awkward gap in the collective memory, somewhere between Napoleon and Queen Victoria. 1720s? Even less likely springs to mind. 1620s? Probably nothing. I think it’s time to rectify that. In every case, especially in Britain, these decades were periods of important technological and institutional change. Over the next few emails I’ll be providing a short introduction to each of them.

First up, The Transformative ‘20s:

The 1620s saw an upsurge in major projects to transform Britain’s landscape. Engineers from the Dutch Republic like Cornelius Vermuyden came to straighten its rivers, build canals, and even drain its marshes, converting them into pasturage and farmland - in the decades that followed, they would even begin to drain the Great Fens. The cityscapes changed too. The former theatre designer and architect Inigo Jones - by 1615 the Surveyor-General of the King’s Works - introduced classical architecture from the continent, drawing upon the rules of beauty and proportion that had been set down by Vitruvius in the first century BCE and resuscitated in Renaissance Italy by Andrea Palladio. Jones’s influence transformed England’s palaces, churches, cathedrals, and even Covent Garden square, to reflect his ancient Roman ideal.

But the environment, built or natural, would be most transformed by the experiments of a few individuals with fossil fuels. Dud Dudley, an illegitimate child of the 5th Baron Dudley, in the 1620s experimented with smelting iron with peat and coal. Dudley was not the first to do so - the patent on using coal instead of charcoal to work iron had been sold on from person to person since at least 1589 - but his experiments were among the most influential. The famous Abraham Darby, who achieved commercial success in applying coal to smelting metals in the early eighteenth century, was Dud Dudley’s great-great-nephew.

The decade also saw major new attempts to use coal as a fuel in other processes, such as glass-making. Although the patent on using coal to make glass had been around since at least 1610, by the 1620s Sir Robert Mansell had bought out the partners who owned it and was pouring a fortune into setting up glassworks at Newcastle. In this case, the transformation was institutional. Mansell’s political connections allowed him to widen the terms of his patent, such that he even tried to ban all other kinds of glass in England, regardless of whether they were made using other fuels, or even imported. Usually, patents of invention were for things entirely new, and were not supposed to interfere with existing English industries. But over the course of the 1610s, various abuses like Mansell’s came to light. King James I, eager for cash, had sold monopolies on ancient trades, as well as the new - one crony was even awarded a patent for inns and alehouses. Mansell’s patent, along with the others, was attacked in Parliament in the 1620s, and even revoked. The outcry ultimately led to the Statute of Monopolies of 1624 - the earliest patent legislation in England, which sought to regulate the royal practice of granting them. (Ironically, Mansell was so well-connected that he managed to get his controversial glass-making patent renewed and then exempted from the new Act.) The Statute of Monopolies was the only English patent legislation in force during the Industrial Revolution - there was no more patent legislation until 1852.

Finally, the ‘20s saw a transformation of science. It was the decade in which Francis Bacon published some of his most significant works, on how to collect, refine, and systematise human knowledge for the good of humankind. He set out a comprehensive programme for the organisation of science and invention, with his utopian work New Atlantis setting out his ideal R&D lab - “Salomon’s House”. (Despite these high-minded aims, Bacon was also Mansell’s brother-in-law, and as attorney-general had helped draft the controversial glass-making patent. In 1621 he was convicted, fined, and even briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London for his role in the corrupt early patent system, though he appears to have been a scapegoat.)

While Bacon was theorising, however, others were already applying the breakthroughs of the preceding decades to useful ends. Following the invention of logarithms by the Scottish lord Napier in the 1610s, the Welsh-born professor of astronomy at Gresham College, Edmund Gunter, applied the new techniques to trigonometrical functions and the improvement of various navigational instruments. In the process he coined the words cosine and cotangent, and gave his name to a Gunter’s scale, a Gunter’s quadrant, and, most famously, the Gunter’s chain for surveying. A cricket pitch, at 66 feet, is the length of a single Gunter’s chain.

The 1620s was also a decade of corruption, war, religious fanaticism, plague, piracy, and colonialism - the Mayflower set sail in 1620. It was the decade in which William Harvey announced to the world that blood circulated, and in which the Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel demonstrated a submarine in the river Thames. I haven’t done the decade justice. But I hope I’ve given a taste of its transformations. May our own ‘20s be as interesting, but for the better.

Next week, we’ll take a look at The Scheming ‘20s of the eighteenth century.

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