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Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800): London?s Leading Scientific Instrument Maker

Author(s):McConnell, Anita
Reviewer(s):MacLeod, Christine

———— EH.NET BOOK REVIEW ————– Published by EH.NET (August 2008)

Anita McConnell, Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800): London?s Leading Scientific Instrument Maker. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007. xxi + 318 pp. $100 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6136-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Christine MacLeod, Department of History, University of Bristol.

?London?s leading scientific instrument maker? at a time when London occupied the pinnacle of Europe?s instrument-making trades, Jesse Ramsden styled himself simply ?optician.? From 1786 he was entitled, as were few other craftsmen, to add ?FRS?; he could secure an audience with George III at a moment?s notice; and he would probably have defeated his friend James Watt in any contemporary competition to identify Britain?s greatest inventor. Ramsden emerges from McConnell?s splendid biography as an ingenious perfectionist, notorious in equal measure across Europe for his unparalleled skill and woefully unpunctual delivery (these traits were not unrelated).

With no personal or business papers to work from, McConnell has been assiduous in pursuit of archival evidence, not least from Ramsden?s customers, associates, competitors, and industrial spies, which she integrates with her expert knowledge of his products. She depends for insights into Ramsden?s character and personal life chiefly on two contemporary memoirs (reprinted in full as appendices) both of which are fairly discreet, and is scrupulous in avoiding speculation as a substitute for evidence. Her focus is consequently on Ramsden?s better documented business life. McConnell?s primary audience is fellow researchers of instruments and the eighteenth-century instrument trade: she gives little quarter to readers who do not already understand the function and significance of Ramsden?s products, or the nature of the trade (for which, see A. D. Morrison-Low, Making Scientific Instruments in the Industrial Revolution, Ashgate, 2007). She does emphasize, however, the uniqueness of his business strategy.

Ramsden was by no means unique among leading instrument-makers in having arrived from the provinces: he was born in Halifax (Yorks.) and initially apprenticed to the local cloth trade, close to the time of Defoe?s famous account. Yet, while most London instrument makers engaged in a form of putting-out, Ramsden concentrated his exceptionally large labor force of forty to fifty in a spacious workshop, first on Haymarket then at 196 Piccadilly, in the fashionable heart of Westminster, where he could supervise them closely and intervene immediately to resolve technical problems. McConnell suggests he may have been inspired by Matthew Boulton?s division of labor at his Soho factory. Like Boulton, Ramsden required his workers to specialize in a single operation, and turned out a huge quantity and range of standard (if regularly improved) instruments, from telescopes, sextants, and barometers to spectacles and spirit levels ? not forgetting repair work. Also crucial to this productivity was his invention of two dividing engines (one circular, one straight-line), with which a scale could be graduated accurately to one two-thousandth of an inch (engraving it remained a skilled, manual operation). Such mechanized precision was to transform not only astronomy and navigation but ultimately, of course, also industrial production.

It was not this ?off-the-shelf? output, however, that made Ramsden?s name but the dividing engines themselves and the bespoke trade in innovative, often large instruments ? too large for engine division ? that piggy-backed on its profits, skills and space, and preoccupied his waking thoughts. He equipped prestigious European observatories with astronomical instruments of unprecedented power and accuracy and expeditionary voyages with newly invented instruments for refining their measurements. Simultaneously, he drove numerous customers to distraction, as his search for perfection (compounded by illness, accident, competing orders, and the seasonality of precision workmanship) imposed delays of years, even decades, on the delivery of commissioned instruments. One quipped, ?Ramsden has already been ordered to make the trumpet for the Last Day so that it will be ready in time? (p. 231). Ramsden met his nemesis in General William Roy, for whose ambitious project of establishing the relative positions of the Greenwich and Paris observatories he agreed in 1784 to supply surveying instruments of the highest precision. Frustrated by the delays occasioned by slow delivery of his great geodetic theodolite, in 1790 Roy angrily denounced him to the Royal Society. For this history must ever be grateful, for it provoked Ramsden to pen a detailed rebuttal explaining at length his methods of working, which McConnell reprints in full.

The engineering careers of both James Watt and John Smeaton were rooted in the instrument-making trade, and it is evident that Ramsden?s mechanical talents could have led him along the same path. Like Watt, he was prompted to invent and improve by identifying design defects in instruments brought to him for repair. Unlike Watt (with Boulton at his shoulder), but in common with most contemporary engineers and instrument makers, he had little time for patents. He obtained one at an early point in his career ? prompted perhaps by his Dollond brothers-in-law, against whose controversial patent he was later to testify ? but appears to have been unassertive in its employment. Thereafter he found other ways to protect his ?intellectual property? ? through secrecy, contractual arrangements with the Board of Longitude, or the proprietor?s mark stamped on all instruments graduated by his dividing engines ? but apparently relied most on reputation. Ramsden?s ingenuity kept him at the head of the pack until his death in 1800, when his foreman, Matthew Berge inherited the business. He might have died wealthier (his assets totaled under ?5,000) and lived longer (contemporaries diagnosed overwork), but he could scarcely have been more esteemed ? or, it seems, cherished by friends and associates, if not family.

In 1795 the Royal Society awarded Ramsden the Copley medal, for his ?various inventions and improvements to philosophical instruments.? McCulloch leaves us in no doubt that it was fully deserved or that Ramsden?s was one of the greatest intellects of his, or any, age. Readers will likewise appreciate the great service to scholarship of this first full-length biography. Beautifully illustrated, skillfully researched, and lucidly written, McConnell?s book is certainly worthy of its remarkable subject.

Christine MacLeod is Professor of History at the University of Bristol and author of Heroes of Invention: Technology, Liberalism and British Identity, 1750-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century