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Heroes of Invention: Technology, Liberalism and British Identity, 1750-1914

Author(s):MacLeod, Christine
Reviewer(s):Khan, B. Zorina

Published by EH.NET (January 2009)

Christine MacLeod, Heroes of Invention: Technology, Liberalism and British Identity, 1750-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xv + 458 pp. $105 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-521-87370-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by B. Zorina Khan, Department of Economics, Bowdoin College.

Let me avoid any suspense and immediately ask (and answer) the question: to what extent will this book be a useful addition to the library of a reader of EH.Net? I was once chastised (and rightly so!) by a journal referee for not including in my bibliography Christine MacLeod?s last book, Inventing the Industrial Revolution: The English Patent System, 1660-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1988). Any economic historian investigating the genesis of British patent institutions is indeed indebted to this meticulous and impressive monograph. Fans of that prior work should note that Heroes of Invention is not a sequel, it does not offer a systematic study of invention nor of inventors. Instead, MacLeod (Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Bristol, UK) parses the question of the role of technological heroes in British cultural evolution. The author restricts herself to traditional exegesis, and makes no attempt to formulate testable hypotheses or indulge in data analysis. She makes more frequent reference to Punch (17) and Mechanics? Magazine (22) than to the Journal of Economic History (2). Thus, although the current work is included in the Cambridge ?Studies in Economic History? series, this billing is somewhat misleading, for the latest book contributes to cultural history rather than to economic history. It will likely not appeal to the narrow economist, but presents numerous insights that will fascinate and enlighten those with more encompassing interests in social attitudes, perceptions, and representations of technology and culture, during the period of industrialization in Britain.

The author never invokes the caption, ?Heroes of Invention,? without a sardonic smile accompanied by a skeptical lift of one (or both) eyebrows. The very first sentence informs us that ?the inventor was an improbable hero.? Nevertheless, during the British industrial revolution a ?bourgeois culture? dedicated to manufacturing and technical progress prevailed over the former ?aristocratic cultural hegemony? (p. 13) that revered military prowess. Christine MacLeod shows that the evolution of ideas and projections about British inventors has to be understood within this context of changing socioeconomic circumstances during early industrialization. Their social standing increased during the early nineteenth century, and peaked in the third quarter of this period, but by the First World War inventors had fallen back into obscurity or were only noticed to be derided for their peculiarities.

The book is organized in chronological fashion. The introduction and first two chapters discuss the eighteenth century, when inventors were typically viewed as charlatans, invidious monopolists or unstable visionaries (or all of these simultaneously). The fourth chapter focuses on James Watt?s ?shocking leap into the national pantheon? (p. 25) and the subsequent two chapters (?Watt, Inventor of the Industrial Revolution? and ??What?s Watt?? The Radical Critique?) trace the ramifications of Watt?s ?patent on glory? (p. 181). The following section elaborates on the celebrity of other inventive entrepreneurs, such as Isambard K. Brunel, Sir Humphry Davy and George Stephenson. The 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition revealed the ambivalence of the era, when controversies about the abolition of patents occurred simultaneously with exhilaration about the achievements of the inventive era. According to MacLeod, the ascendancy of nineteenth-century technologists to the pantheon of heroes owed to a coalition of pacifists, dissenters, radical political factions, and representatives of the upper working class whose celebration of inventive geniuses provided the fulcrum to leverage their own schemes. The homage to inventors was not enduring: by the turn of the century the statue of the physicist Lord Kelvin, modeled as an academic scientist rather than as inventor, was more emblematic of the age. The final two chapters trace the regression that occurred after World War I, when the class of inventors once again lapsed into obscurity. Today, ?our pantheon of inventors is essentially that bequeathed us by the Victorians? (p. 395).

How to obtain a proxy or gauge for popular attitudes toward the creators of contributions at the frontier of Victorian technology, from the distance of more than a hundred years? The author?s solution is original and encompassing in reach. She appeals to a cultural cornucopia of poems, public monuments such as grand statues and street names, cartoons and more flattering portraits, grandiloquent speeches and fund-raising subscriptions, metaphorical phrases, newspaper obituaries, biographies and novels. The book includes fifty-two line illustrations and photographs (some of them expertly taken by the author) that enhance and further the narrative. MacLeod offers particularly interesting and innovative interpretations of commemorative statues. Stone and marble effigies honoring James Watt, she argues, signified ?the epitome of a new philistine Britain dedicated to the ethos of utility and the pursuit of meritocratic success? (p. 121). (The economists among us will wonder what to make of the fact that the world?s first public monument to Adam Smith ? financed with private subscriptions ? was unveiled on July 4, 2008 in Edinburgh.)[1].

MacLeod is a careful and authoritative scholar who makes exhaustive use of archives and sources, as the astonishing forty-three-page bibliography attests. So it is tempting for the reader to traverse the shoreless Sargasso of supportive anecdotes and passively trust to the seaworthiness of this well-crafted and persuasive thesis. At the same time, those unheroic few who wish to adopt a more scientific approach to the study of science and technology will wonder how one might progress beyond the confident commentary to attempt to prove or disprove the assertions that comprise this convincing narration. This sort of skepticism is reinforced by the book?s own ambivalence about such issues as timing. There is an unsettling exactitude about statements such as ?the year 1824 witnessed a turning point in the status of inventors? (p. 91). Whereas, at various points the peak in the inventors? heroic reputation is identified as occurring during the second half of the nineteenth century, at others in the third quarter and, even more precisely, in 1883. Improvements in the status of inventors are alleged to have ?stimulated demands for a more efficient patent system? (p. 125) despite the calls for patent reform decades earlier.

Another obvious question arises regarding the crucial issue of causality. It is evident that the rise and decline of the glorification of British inventors coincided with the rise and decline of British competitiveness in technological innovations. A plausible hypothesis is that the status of British inventors deteriorated because the glory and the credit for important innovations soon belonged to inventors in other countries. The author instead categorically proclaims that cultural programming, and not changes in the domain of technology itself, caused the changes in attitudes towards inventors. If so, one wonders, why was the code for cultural programming in France or the United States so different? But perhaps a sequel is in the offing…

Note: 1. ?Enlightening Sight as Adam Smith Statue Finally Arrives,? The Scotsman, July 5, 2008:

B. Zorina Khan is Associate Professor of Economics at Bowdoin College and Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the author of The Democratization of Invention: Patents and Copyrights in American Economic Development, 1790-1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2005), which was awarded the Alice Hanson Jones Biennial Prize for an outstanding book in American economic history. Current projects include an extensive investigation into prizes and patenting among ?great inventors? and ordinary patentees in Britain, France and the United States.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII