Inventions and Inventors in the Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century saw a flurry of inventive activity. Historians had long seen the century as the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, based on a deterministic account that strongly emphasized inventions, such as the steam machine. Invention was reduced to machinism and productivity gains, to a strictly economic perspective. Today’s rereadings favor two different approaches. They firstly highlight the abundance of micro-inventions, which involved all layers of the working world—the craft industry included—as well as a broader public. Second, they underscore the culture of invention developed thanks to powerful institutional measures and new forms of mediation (companies, press, demonstrations). Studying inventions during this period subsequently calls for taking a distance from the linear vision of the beginnings of the “Industrial Revolution,” and instead focusing on the specific features of another key moment, the Enlightenment.

Jacques Vaucanson, Loom for weaving figured fabrics, designed to replace the old drawloom (1746). Musée des arts et métiers. Photograph by Frédéric Bisson.
Jacques Vaucanson, Loom for weaving figured fabrics, designed to replace the old drawloom (1746). Musée des arts et métiers. Photograph by Frédéric Bisson. Source :

The eighteenth century was a period of technological modernization. It included the beginnings of textile mechanization (jenny, water-frame), with a concurrent diffusion of printed cotton fabrics increasingly made using chemical products such as chlorine, giving rise to printed (Indian) cotton, a leading article in the expansion of consumption during the Enlightenment. Heavy industry was also transformed by the use of coal, with the first coke-fired cast iron furnace appeared in England in 1709. The development of mining accompanied the installation of machines à feu (fire engines) for pumping groundwater, the most developed example being James Watt’s steam engine (1769). Beyond these “major” inventions, which have been central to the traditional account of the Industrial Revolution, recent research has emphasized the abundance of micro-inventions (alloys, veneers, varnishes, innovative products such as lamps, watches, portable items, etc.). There were multiple causes for this proliferation. In addition to demographic growth and the rise of markets, historians have underscored the culture of invention, which was fostered by institutional measures and new mediations.

The Politicization of Invention

In Europe there has been a tradition of support for invention on the part of states and major figures since the late Middle Ages.  Venice innovated with a law in 1474, with the inventor securing—after examination—exclusive privilege for ten years, which offered protection against counterfeiting.  This law developed elsewhere in Europe, for instance in sixteenth-century France and England (patents). Combined with financing and various other advantages, it formed the foundation of state policies for innovation, in connection with the rise of courts, wars, and mercantilism. Under Colbert, the creation of royal manufactories went hand in hand with the Academy of Sciences in 1666, with the examination of inventions becoming one of its duties.

This heritage gained new momentum in the eighteenth century when the enlightened monarchy placed its hopes of reform in inventions. Steven L. Kaplan has used the term “political technology,” which is to say a politicization of technology. The Bureau du commerce, which was created in France in 1722, processed requests from inventors for privileges and subsidies. Technology was caught up in a political project, a dynamic illustrated by the career of Jacques Vaucanson (1709-1782). The son of an artisan and the producer of automata, Vaucanson drew the attention of senior civil servants at salons. He was recruited as an inspector for silk manufactories, with the task of reforming the sector. He was elected a member of the French Academy (1746), and evaluated the inventions of artisans sent to the Bureau du commerce, all while inventing in the service of the state: looms for spinning rich figured fabrics, with attempts at automation, spindles for reeling silk strands from cocoons, machine tools. Upon his death in 1782, his workshop at l’hôtel de Mortagne in the rue de Charonne became the first official depository for machines connected to inventions that had won awards or secured privileges, and also served as an experimental center. During the French Revolution, his equipment formed the nucleus for the Conservatoire des arts et métiers (1794).

Patents and Industrial Capitalism

The situation was quite different from the British patent system, which was never subject to examination. Parliament’s hostility to royal power explains why the government was kept at a distance, along with the Royal Society in London (1660), the English academy. A patent was a paying title, and since it was rarely enforced by the state, one had to appear before the courts to protect one’s rights, which was costly. In the eighteenth century patents were suitable for innovating industrial actors who could invest in this legal resource, which proved increasingly necessary with intensifying competition.

A prime example is James Watt’s steam engine, for which he secured a patent in 1769. A manufacturer of instruments employed at the University of Glasgow, he sought partners to exploit his invention from the very beginning. Thanks to his patent he joined forces with the Scottish metallurgist John Rœbuck. When Rœbuck went bankrupt, Watt turned to another financier in 1774, the Birmingham industrial actor Matthew Boulton, who hesitated to invest because at the time a patent only provided ten years of exclusive use. In 1775, Watt and Boulton obtained a 25-year extension for the patent through a private Act of Parliament. The context of innovation for the steam machine was that of industrial capitalism, based on patents and accompanied by intense lobbying. The system was ruinous for other investors, which is why English inventors tried their chance in France, such as John Kay, who settled there and enjoyed multiple gratifications, albeit at the price of repeated and uncertain examinations of his inventions.

The end of the century saw growing challenges to the management of innovation on both sides of the Channel, driven by new sociabilities.

Inventions, Culture, and Society

In the eighteenth century, new opportunities appeared in Europe for inventors thanks to a group of fifty innovative societies that were open to artisans—some of them women—and connected to Freemasonry. The model had the greatest success in England with the Society of Arts in 1754. This private society brought together dignitaries, gentry, and amateur and professional scientists in the name of collective investment in progress.  The model was open “in the English manner,” and driven by civil society’s capacity to mobilize. The Society of Arts supported modest inventors, and fostered the circulation of information. Hand-written and printed transactions were driven by letters from inventors, representing a space of communication (one that was also feminine). The Society of Arts built a public of inventors, and provided inspiration for progressive circles in France.

The 1770s were marked by the creation of amateur societies that played a major role in the rise of “public science” (outside of academies). For example, Abbé Baudeau’s society brought together the educated elite from 1776-1779, while Pahin de la Blancherie’s salon published a journal from 1778-1788 entitled Nouvelles de la République des Lettres et des Arts, and held public sessions to examine the inventions of artisans often turned away by the government and the Academy. This occurred against a backdrop of new mediations thanks to the rise of the press, public courses, and the demonstration of inventions in stores—the new spaces for legitimizing inventions. It was also a participatory culture that promoted the exchange and publicizing of knowledge, and fostered inventive practices with broader audiences in which artisans were the central actors.

During the French Revolution, inventors mobilized in new societies advocating for the recognition of intellectual property as a natural right. This was the foundation for the brevet d’invention (patent for invention), which was created in 1791 after the fall of academies (1793). The inventor became a figure of modernity, as demonstrated by the inclusion of James Watt’s statue in Westminster in 1824, a genuine challenge to aristocratic and military culture. The promotion of inventors should nevertheless be grasped in its multiple genealogies, since the fifteenth century and on a European scale.

To quote from this article

Liliane Hilaire-pérez , « Inventions and Inventors in the Eighteenth Century », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 22/06/23 , consulted on 03/10/2023. Permalink :


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