EH.net is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Making Scientific Instruments in the Industrial Revolution

Author(s):Morrison-Low, A. D.
Reviewer(s):MacLeod, Christine

Published by EH.NET (December 2007)

A. D. Morrison-Low, Making Scientific Instruments in the Industrial Revolution. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007. xvi + 408 pp. $100 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-7546-5758-3.

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

In this erudite yet engaging monograph, Alison Morrison-Low, Principal Curator in the Science Section, National Museums of Scotland, takes up the challenge issued twenty years ago by John Millburn to analyze the structure, profitability and economic significance of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British instrument-making trade. Himself an eminent instrument historian, Millburn recognized the magnitude of this task: connoisseurship was rife while documentary evidence was dispersed and sparse, so that, with a few famous exceptions, much more was known about the instruments than about their makers, let alone the nature of the trade as a whole. It is a tribute to the archival and forensic skills of Millburn and his colleagues in this field, such as J. A. Bennett, David Bryden, Gloria Clifton, Anita McConnell, Richard Sorrenson, Anthony Turner, G. L’E. Turner, Deborah Warner and the author herself, that Morrison-Low is now in a position to offer that “reliable and comprehensive synthesis of the trade.” Yet, as she is the first to acknowledge, there remain frustratingly large gaps in our knowledge, especially in the quantitative aspects that most interest economic historians. In this, of course, the instrument-making trade is far from unique!

Morrison-Low’s work has important implications for all students of the industrial revolution but it is more accurately categorized as a business history, than an economic history, of the instrument-making trade. Her primary concern is to specify its evolving structure and geographical distribution, the size and life history of firms, their products, markets and methods of working and, in those rare cases where archives permit, their prices and profitability. Of particular value is her insistence on tracing the expansion of instrument making into the English provinces, a development hitherto obscured by the fewness of provincial signatures on surviving instruments. Consequently, four chapters explore the major and minor provincial centers before the ever-dominant metropolis is allowed on stage ? only to be succeeded by a further chapter on the provincial trade’s industrial organization and production.

Unsurprisingly, as the first of these chapters shows, London was not the only port to sustain a steady demand for navigational instruments. While Bristol supported a small, stable group of quayside makers and retailers throughout the period, Liverpool overtook its south-western rival in this as in most other ways: by 1851 it had more than trebled its 1800 tally of ten firms, developing strong links to London and drawing both on the watch-making skills of nearby Prescot (Lancs.) and the enterprise of Italian and Jewish immigrants. In the next chapter, we move to Yorkshire and two contrasting centers. Having declined as a port much faster than Bristol, York vaulted from eighteenth-century retailing center of optical instruments to mid-nineteenth-century pioneer of instrument manufacturing on the grand scale. Smilesean hero Thomas Cooke (1807-68) installed steam-powered machine tools (many of his own design) and lens-grinding equipment to supply leading British astronomers with high quality refracting telescopes and an international market with much more besides. Neighboring Sheffield built its instrument-making trade on the back of its long-established cutlery industry, which supplied it both with necessary skills in metal-working and lens-grinding and well tried routes to distant markets. Initially it also borrowed the cutlers’ sub-contracting “little mester” system: one enterprise, Proctor & Beilby, anticipated Cooke by several decades to found allegedly the “largest optical manufactory in the world” but only used the factory to concentrate the assembly of outsourced parts. Several other large firms thrived in a center remarkable for its diversification and inventiveness.

The third pairing takes us to two industrial heavyweights, Manchester and Birmingham. It is curious that Morrison-Low does not discuss Manchester in tandem with Liverpool, since the two cities shared the influx of Italian and Jewish instrument-makers and several businesses moved between them; the inland city’s trade remained smaller and, starting with customized apparatus for members of Manchester’s “Lit and Phil,” focused increasingly on the educational market. Birmingham, with its glassmakers and proliferating small brassware enterprises, had more in common with Sheffield; it was long characterized by its flexibility of production, as small metal-ware firms simply added instruments to their repertoire. They also captured a major part of the trade in brass, boxwood and ivory measuring rules, mostly marketed in London (often as “London-made”). Among its glassmakers, the giant firm of Chance Brothers became internationally famous both for its feat of glazing the Crystal Palace in 1851 and its optical glass and lighthouse optics.

London’s global preeminence in the trade, contends Morrison-Low, rested on its capacity to produce “precision” instrumentation, unavailable elsewhere. A “handful” of talented men (often of provincial or Scottish origin) maintained its reputation for technical brilliance and ingenuity through successive generations. British government patronage and lucrative commissions to equip Europe’s observatories and expeditions of discovery sprang from these instrument-makers’ close cooperation with early fellows of the Royal Society (to which they were themselves regularly elected). In particular, “it was the provision of large good-quality telescopes to wealthy clients that paved the way for English pre-eminence in the European market” (p. 139). By 1790, approximately 250 London instrument-makers were following in the wake of this prestigious and highly specialized minority; by 1840, twice as many. The chapters on London and on the organization of the provincial trade are especially rich in information for historians of technology: Morrison-Low deftly mines a range of sources to illuminate working practices in a trade notorious for its devotion to secrecy. While offering no significant revision of the picture of incremental, scarcely mechanized, technical change, she emphasizes organizational developments that allowed both women and provincial manufacturers greater roles than have previously been demonstrated.

A long chapter entitled “Supply” is principally concerned with marketing and distribution: trade cards and advertisements, much in evidence throughout this well illustrated book, come into their own here, but there is also a useful examination of nineteenth-century exhibitions and premiums. Its partner, “Demand,” carefully analyzes the market for scientific instruments, trying to assess the relative importance of its several segments in the absence of any aggregate output figures. While the “dilettante” and “scientific” segments provoked new heights of skill and ingenuity, they were tiny and slow growing in comparison with the booming market for practical instruments, used for navigation, surveying, gauging or teaching (which also carried greater implications for the trade’s organization and techniques of production). It is a sharp reminder, in particular, of the industrializing economy’s dependence on accurate measurement for the construction and operation of its transport infrastructure ? and the modernizing state’s for its revenue. Morrison-Low is to be congratulated for elucidating the broader significance of this small but crucial industry.

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).

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century