Age of Invention: Where Be Dragons?

Welcome to my weekly newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here: A theme I keep coming back to is that a lot of inventions could have been invented centuries, if not millennia, before they actually were. My favourite example is John Kay’s flying shuttle, one of the most famous inventions of the British Industrial Revolution. It radically increased the productivity of weaving in the 1730s, but involved simply attaching a little extra wood and string. It involved no new materials, was applied to the weaving of wool — England’s age-old industry — and required no special skill or science. Weaving had been “performed for upwards of five thousand years, by millions of skilled workmen, without any improvement being made to expedite the operation, until the year 1733”, was how Bennet Woodcroft — one of the nineteenth century’s most important historians of technology — put it. (Lest you doubt that description of Woodcroft, he was, in addition to being an inventor himself, the man who compiled and categorised England’s entire patent record up to 1852, and who collected the inventions that would later form the basis of London’s Science Museum, particularly some of the earliest steam engines — among the most important machines in human history — that grace its engine hall today. My hero!) Weavers had been around for millennia, as had shuttles: one is even mentioned in the Old Testament (“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, And are spent without hope”). As a labour-saving invention, Kay’s flying shuttle was even technically illegal.

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