A Middle-Class Invention

"England is a nation of shopkeepers." Thus spake Napoleon.

Napoleon Bonaparte wasn't being complimentary. It was a put-down, his way of saying England was no France, and certainly no match for his "Grande Armee" that was planning to invade.

Napoleon was wrong. England was not a nation of shopkeepers but a nation of inventors whose work led to the standardization of parts and a decided edge in weapons production and ship building, giving the English army and navy an advantage over France (more guns and more ships) that ultimately led to Napoleon's defeat.

The Industrial Revolution began in England. Coal mining, iron making, steam power--and the technology to exploit them--was available in France. In fact, it was available throughout the world--and had been for 2000 years--but it was England that was first to fully develop the technology and make it a paying proposition.

Why England, and not France? Indeed, why not mineral-rich China? Or Germany, with all its clock makers? Or Italy during the time of the Medici, who ushered in the Renaissance and nurtured an imaginative group of inventors including Leonardo da Vinci?

Why England? Because England was the first country to recognize ideas as property, ideas that could be patented, sold, and make money. And because England was at least partially democratic. The House of Commons represented the rights of the middle class.

If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, inventing is the second oldest. There have always been inventors the world over. Prior to England's patent law, however, inventing was more amusement than occupation, and a pastime of the rich, performed by men of culture and learning and done for the amusement of wealthy patrons and for royalty. Inventions were often clever and brilliant, but absolutely of no benefit to the general population.

For example, steam power was invented in first-century Alexandria only no one knew what to do with it. Ultimately, the first steam-propelled object was viewed as little more than a plaything, rather than a way of making life easier. The rich and powerful who sponsored such inventions had no use for them; their life was already easy, thanks to servants to meet their every whim.

With passage of England's patent law, however, invention became a middle-class occupation, done with an eye for profit. Making money was and is a middle-class obsession. Thanks to a generation of middle-class inventors, steam power was developed to pump water from coal mines, which led to steam-powered textile mills, and ultimately to steam-powered locomotives to transport coal and textiles to market.

England’s unwashed masses were the real benefactors. Prior to steam power, the English lower and middle classes wove their own fabric and made their own clothes. Indeed, they made virtually everything they owned.

With the advent of steam--and the Industrial Revolution it spawned--average people began buying clothes made in textile mills: it was better made, of higher quality, and relatively inexpensive. Add factory-made pots and pans, furniture and oil lamps; the list of manufactured goods grew exponentially. The result? England's GDP doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and went through the roof. Coupled with a revolution in finance, a small island off the coast of Europe was transformed into the richest nation on earth.

French, German and Italian inventors began crossing the English Channel to make a buck. And China? When it came time to move up in the world, ordered 20 steam locomotives from tiny England. Certainly, China had the coal, the steel, and a clever, industrious people to have invented steam power, but it also had a repressive government that stifled creativity.

In China, the emperors were credited with having invented everything, including language and writing, medicine, the plow, the wheel, the cart, and the domestication of animals. Clever men those emperors. Only China’s elite ruling class had a chance of seeing their inventions put to good use--but only with the Emperor’s blessing. What chance did the average Joe have of peddling a new invention that might benefit a people and advance a nation? None. The industrial revolution did not begin in China until--would you believe?--the 1960s.

From "The Most Powerful Idea in the World" a book by William Rosen

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