Aug 6, 2020
A conversation with Dr Anton Howes about The Royal Society of Arts, cultural factors that drive innovation, and many aspects of historical innovation. Anton is a historian of innovation whose work is expansive, but focuses especially on England in the 18th and 19th centuries as a hotbed of technological creativity. He recently released an excellent book that details the history of the Royal Society of Arts called “Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation” and he publishes an excellent newsletter at Age of Invention.
Aton on Twitter: @AntonHowes
Age of Invention - Anton's Newsletter
We don't dig too much into the content of the book because Anton talked about it on other podcasts. He gives a good overview in this one.
How much did a steam engine cost in today's dollars, these sources suggest it was roughly $100k , but as anton noted - it's complicated.
the place that I I'd love to start is the,society of arts did something that I feel like people don't discuss very much, which is focused on, inventions that have positive externalities. So you, you talk a lot about how they, they would promote,Inventions that maybe people,couldn't make a lot of money off of they weren't going to patent.
, and it's one of the few examples I've seen in history of like non-government forces really promoting,inventions with positive externalities. And so I was wondering , if you see that. how could we get more of that today? And like, if there were other [00:02:00] things doing similar work at the time and maybe how that theme has like moved forward in time.
Anton: Yeah. That's really interesting question. I'm trying to off the top of my head, think of any examples of other non-governmental ones. I suspect there's quite a few from that period, though, just for the simple reason that. I mean the context in which the society of arts and emerges right, is at a time when you have a very capable state, but a state that doesn't do very much.
Right? So one of the, one of the things you see throughout it is actually the society kind of creating what you might call the sorts of institutions that States now take upon themselves all the time, voting positive externalities as you, as you, which is a very good way of putting it. , you know, Trying to identify inventions that the market itself wouldn't ordinarily provide.
, later on in the night in the mid 19th century, trying to proper state into providing things [00:03:00] like public examinations or, you know, providing those things privately before you have a state education system. But I think one of the main reasons for that is that you don't really have that kind of role being taken up by the central state.
Right. I mean, the other thing to bear in mind here of course, is that a lot of governance actually happens at the local level. And so when we talk about the government, we really mean the central government, but actually a lot of stuff would be, is happening, you know, amongst the, kind of the towns and cities.
It seems with that written privileges, the various borrowers with their own often quite bizarre privileges and like the way they were structured,local authorities for want of a better word, although they kind of. Take all sorts of different forms. And I think you do see quite a lot of it. It's just, it wasn't all done by a single organization at the time.
So I think that's kind of the main underlying context there.
Ben: Yeah. And so I guess sort of riffing on that. , one thing that I was wondering, as I, as I read through the book was like, why don't we see [00:04:00] more of that sort of like non central, central state,Positive externality promoting work done. Now, like you think of philanthropy and it doesn't quite have that same flavor anymore.
And I wonder like do, like, my bias would be, would be to think that sort of,there's almost like a crowding out by the centralized state now that people sort of expect that. , and I was wondering like, do you. W w how do you think of it,
perhaps there's some crowding out. I mean, the interesting thing, right, is that Britain has actually kind of interesting in that it has quite a lot of these bottom up institutions.
Whereas across the rest of Europe, you actually see quite a few top-down ones. Right? So I discussed in the book that there is actually not one, but two French societies of arts, sociology. Those are there's even a third one, which still exists, which is a kind of a later much later one from, I think the late 1938, early 19th, late [00:05:00] 18th, early 19th centuries.
, part of the, kind of catch up with Britain project that Napoleon and others start pursuing,But yeah, you have a lot of these princely institutions, ones that depend on particular figures to be their patrons,to promote them,to, you know, provide a meeting space for them to provide them with funds, to provide up, to, to fund anyone who's doing fellowship of that, of that kind.
Whereas in Britain, you seem to get basically those stuff that doesn't get funded by the particular patrons, even when they're promised that funding like the Royal society, which they always hoped we'd get some kind of government or, you know, some funds from Charles the second or something never does.
, it obviously gets support that, you know, he gives them a Royal base that they can have on the table in front of them when they have that discussions. But that's about it. And the society of arts I guess, is, has to be set up because you have that lack of. , you have that lab because of state support.
, I mean, what's interesting is I guess in certain [00:06:00] complex contexts, you do get state funding of these sorts of institutions. The Dublin society becomes the Royal Dublin society, but that one actually does get state funding as part of the kind of compact try and get Ireland to catch up with, with, with Britain in terms of its economy, same with Scotland, the society Scottish society of improvers does eventually get.
I guess morphed into what becomes the Scottish board of trustees for fisheries and manufacturers, probably full title one. , so organizations like that, I guess become state ones. I mean, the idea that there, the fact that they're quite uncommon though, is, is interesting. And I wonder if Britain was just a bit better sometimes that they're organizing these things and keeping them going.
, the Dublin society is. An outlier. So there's the society of arts. You see lots of these patriotic societies set up to emulate the society of arts across Europe, but very, [00:07:00] very few of them,assisted I think by the 1850s, the only one, like they're pretty much, refounded a bunch of them as kind of discussion clubs.
And then since then, I think the only real one to keep going was it's the one on Malta for summary, bizarre reason. , I've kind of forgotten the original question now I've kind of gone. So, so the original question was just around,like why almost like why aren't there more,nongovernmental organizations sort of devoted to promoting,these positive externalities.
Like that's, that's sort of the big question I have. So I guess my answer there is partially that. It seems as though if you did have crowding out it was happening just as much then, or at least had that potential. Right? Cause you have these Nobles who could be the patrons. You have the King, who could be the patron.
, although potentially you're right in that, because British Monex worth giving their patronage. You end up with these actually ironically more robust institutions because they're [00:08:00] much more broad based and bottom up. Yeah. Being formed and then surviving. So perhaps it's the case that because we just expect the government to do it and the government's extremely rich and actually does give lots of money for lots of different things.
We just say, well, it's easier to, just to kind of persuade a politician, to get some money set aside for a new agency in much the same way that you know, today Britain is trying to set up an ARPA. , I think just announced a few weeks ago. , because once the idea gets,enough currency, as long as you can persuade the panels that be the, maybe it's actually quite straightforward to do it.
The reason I ask is actually based on something that, that Jomo cure has pointed out, which is how,Kind of like the federalisation of innovation makes it much more robust. , I'm sure you've seen the, the,sort of like the contrast between like the Chinese state. , and then how, like, in, in Europe, comer, [00:09:00] Copernicus could like go, go between Patriot to patron until they found someone who would actually support him.
, and so I always wonder about like having multiple sources of innovation and like how to have that happen. , so that was that's, that's sort of something that, that I'm, I'm always thinking about. , I guess you could say that that's, that's present right on the European level. Certainly the big question then is why is it that you don't get it happening in other fractured States?
, I think a very neglected part of the case thesis, right? Is that yes, fractured States is one thing, but the other half of that, of the, of the puzzle there is also having a kind of common culture. Yeah. Even if that's. Completely kind of invented right with Swedes who presumably is descended from whatever bar area, really fat calling themselves, you know, Albertus Magnus or, or, or whatever, you know, people who are certainly not Latin from, you know, in [00:10:00] any kind of.
I guess ethics sense claiming a Latin heritage or Greek or Latin heritage for themselves. , I guess bricks as well. Right? , many of whom are probably Anglo, Anglo, Saxon, Germanic Anglo-Saxons or, or, or pre Roman council something. , you know, John D is actually referring to himself as the artist know.
But, but that, that, that common language, you know, having a lingua franca, French of Latin then of French, and then I guess more, more recently of English having that common set of assumptions, you know, the Republic of letters. Wasn't just about the fact that you could, as a stop gap or safety valve move somewhere, that could be a bit more promising.
, I think it's also very much, it very much requires that extra step, whether or not you have had in other places is, is debatable. Right. I think kit mentions, you know? Yes. Career in Japan and next to China, but they don't [00:11:00] quite have the common culture. So even though some Chinese intellectuals will move to Japan there, they get kind of forgotten neglected.
It's a really good point. And I had, I appreciate you. You. Bringing up that neglected part. And so it's like then,actually this is a great segue into another thing I wanted to ask you about. , it's like, so we're, we're in the middle of the coronavirus and you've done a lot of work on sort of like the virality of,of innovation itself,and the ideas like that.
And,and so. In contrast, it feels like there's a contrast between,sort of the, the industrial revolution where it seemed like people really would,see someone innovating on something and then take it on themselves to start doing something similar. , and then today you see something like Elon Musk doing something awesome, but then you don't see that many people.
Replicating that. , and [00:12:00] do you have a sense of the what's what's different or whether I'm,basically that on like some false assumptions that makes sense, like, like, or just generally, how could we,have more of that innovation vitality? I mean, I think a lot of people probably are inspired by people like Musk.
, the way in which they're inspired, I guess is debatable. , you do, I think it's important to have. Invention figureheads. If you like people who you can aspire to copy when it comes to improvement, when it comes to tinkering, when it comes to invention, I guess one of the problems with a figure like Musk is that he seems unaware, reachable or unobtainable, right?
There's a kind of level of connectedness and wealth. That seems almost like a starting point before you can even. Get us starting the sorts of projects that [00:13:00] he does or involved himself with. And I think that's potentially harmful. And that it kind of, it's some idea I keep coming back to actually, which is that there's the, the myth of the genius inventor is on the one hand.
Good. Because people aspire to be like them. But on the other hand, it can be quite damaging if it seems as though. You have to be born with that a couple lucky enough to just be, be a genius of that. , and that I think is very problematic,because that's not a tall, what we see, I think in the 18th century.
And it's certainly not what we see in the 19th century, which is this idea. I articulated that you could be anybody in any past station of life. Right? The Samuel smiles self-help mantra is you can be dirt poor. And, you know, a minor or something in, in, in, in,in the Northeast, someone like George Stevenson and yet through the sheer force of [00:14:00] self-education and.
Adopting that improving mindset, you can do great things. Yeah. , and so one of the reasons I quite like improvement as an idea, versus like, as something broader like innovation or invention, is that it has that kind of sense of marginality, that sense of tinkering, that sense of, you know, just doing a little bit to make things a bit better.
Which can often have very outsized effects. So a problem with a figurehead, like Musk, I think is that it's like, Oh my God. Yeah. Where do you even start? If I said,
if I say it, whereas I think if you can construct a narrative false or not, I think that's actually relevant here. Right. But if you construct a narrative where. It's simply through hard work, a bit of, a bit of hard work and just tinkering around the edges and then keeping on optimizing until you get something really great.
That's much more accessible. And I think it also [00:15:00] happens to be true. Right. I think, I think that happens to be true that occasionally certain bundles of improvements with these huge outsize effects can make people extremely rich, extremely famous, and then it kind of spirals from there for certain people.
But I think focusing on those initial stories is one of the reasons why, you know, I think, I think the Victorian narratives ended up being so effective, perhaps even had an actual impact on inspiring more people to go in and do that, that sort of thing. And that's actually something that,I've, I've comfortably been thinking about, which is the sorts of things that can be tinkered with and improved now feel different than the sorts of things that could be tinkered and improved in the 19th century.
Right. So it's like you look at. , like you could actually like tinker with what was sort of the cutting edge technology, right? Like you could tinker with, [00:16:00] , like railroad brakes or you could tinker with,like sailing apparatus, but it's now harder. It's like, you can't really go like tinker with,like a fusion reactor in the same way.
, and. Do you think there's something to that? Or like, like that, that, that contrast, I think perhaps there is something in the mid 19th century. You've got this focus, I guess, on. I'm trying to make some of these instruments, more accessible things like a sort of study of arts gets involved with things like having cheap microscopes that you can send out to working men's colleges, mechanics, institutions, all over the country so that people can then use these things and then make new discoveries, or at least know how they work.
, you know, the closest thing we have to that now, I guess it's like something like the raspberry PI, you know, these very simple things that you can start tinkering away around [00:17:00] with. , and I guess, you know, maybe in certain respects you want as much as possible to make. Not, not even necessarily knowledge, but to make invention more accessible, you need the materials to become more and more accessible.
Having said that if you think of something like the rust free pipe, that is a very complicated piece of machinery that is now available to school kids,that would be like, you know, in the 18th century taking, you know, a watch or something, something extremely complicated and being like, yeah, how the go, you know, like take this apart and do what you will.
, you know, these are things,they certainly come down in price so the time, but they're still. They're not cheap to tinker with. I mean, you mentioned, you mentioned shipping, you know, doing any kind of tinkering with a ship is actually extremely expensive. I mean, it's in the 18th century, that's very much on par with trying to tinker with a jet fighter today in terms of the relative cost of it, you know?
So, well, let me, let me push back against that a little bit, which is that. It at least like I've, I've never,like actually like built a [00:18:00] ship, but it seems like it's a little bit more modular, right? Like, like you could say, like tinker with the steering wheel of the ship without,necessarily affecting like the whole, whereas.
There's, it's not really possible to like the jet fighter is so integrated that I'm not sure how much you could tinker with like, maybe that the instrument panel, but I'm like, that's it. Or it's like, you could, you could tinker with a sale, a sale design. , but you can't really tinker with the engine of a jet fighter.
Yeah. Interesting. I mean, I guess something like the steam engine is kind of similar there where most of the time, most of the improvements you make probably involve redesigning the whole. And there are a few, obviously exceptions to that, but you know, something like in reaching the separate condense that [00:19:00] does require actually changing the way it works, the same with Marine engines, you know, the kind of much lighter, smaller engines that you can use on boats, because they're trying to make these things as small as possible light as possible, at least the same with high pressure engines.
, I guess, yeah, those, those do require a big upfront cost. And yet what's astonishing now, I guess it's still that you have a lot of people. From all sorts of backgrounds, still, somehow managing to, to make their improvements to it. Model scale, perhaps not at full scale, but then using a model to show the principles and then getting it built at a much larger, much larger way.
Actually, I'm not sure if you know this off the top of your head, but like, do you have a sense of how much a steam engine. Costs in term, in, in the 19th century. But in terms of today's money, not off the top of my head, that'd be real. I'd be just like interested in like, [00:20:00] even like order of magnitude, right?
Like, would it be like, like 10,000 pounds or a hundred thousand or a million, right. Like. I mean, it depends how you measure these things a lot of the time as well. But if I have the figure to hand, it it'd be a bit easier, but yeah. Cause you can make it to things later. I'll look it up. Yeah. Stick it in the link.
Yeah. But there's different ways of measuring it as well. Right. So just the real cost doesn't actually tell you very much because the basket of goods changes so dramatically over time, the labor cost maybe tells you a bit, but then it's probably it's relative to the average. Wage, which is like the labor is wage very often and not, you know, if you're, if you're a middle class in the 18th century, you were actually pretty damn rich.
If you're upper class, you'll extremely rate unimaginably wealthy. , and if you're not, then you're extremely, then you're very, very poor. , like the levels of inequality at the time seeing was unfathomable today, I think,Even when we talk about Nicole T increasing, it's really the comparison. Not that bad [00:21:00] people forget that.
The very, yeah, it's difficult to appreciate, I think how, how things change qualitatively as well as typically, but then you've also got measures, like, you know, what is the cost of it relative to the size of the economy, which can also be an interesting way of looking at that. , so, and then you've got different ways of, of, of comparing those measures.
So it's very difficult to compare the money over time. I mean, certainly these are expensive machines. , making a model even is extremely expensive, requires quite a lot of careful work. , but I wonder how much of that to scale tinkering happens. It's possible that, you know, in. In the process of making machinery with interchange parts and making it as kind of custom built.
It's not really custom built, but. As integrated, as you say, as possible, we've made it actually harder to make changes. Perhaps we should be putting more in the way of tweak ability into our [00:22:00] design. Yeah. I mean, like that's, that's a, that's a huge thing. , it's like you see that with,you know, it's like, you can't take the,battery out of most Mac laptops anymore.
, most cars you can't tinker with the engine. Anymore. , because you, you do get sort of like re efficiency returns by making things unconquerable. , so, so I, I, I definitely agree with, with you,I really appreciate you bringing in the nuance of comparing,the, the prices now to prices in the past.
And,So think that I also wanted to ask is what do you think, like you're, I feel like one of the real historians who engages the most with sort of like the, the technology,world, what do you think that I would guess, I would say like, technology, people get wrong when they're thinking. Historically, like what, what sort of like, almost like cognitive [00:23:00] errors do you use, you see people making that just like make you want it, tear your hair out?
What an interesting question. Couple. This is where I offend people. I think this is, I think, I think like, like you gotta, you gotta be okay with that as long as, as long as you like really believe it. Hmm. That's an interesting one.
I mean, certainly you occasionally see a sort of simplified oversimplification of certain trends. Right. , but I, I don't know if that's common to technology people particularly, or if that's just general humans, a general human thing,which you probably see quite a lot. But, you know, I have to think about that one.
Yeah, we can, we can circle back on it. I'm just, I guess it's just my, my bias is that I think a sort of historical thinking is under [00:24:00] done. , like, like lots of people talk about history, but they don't approach it like historians. And so I would love to just like inject a little bit more of the way that you think into the world.
So I try to the general thing, I guess it would be that very occasionally I'll see the kinds of. Historical work, where you're effectively see people reading the Wikipedia page and kind of coming up with this very straightforward, almost linear narrative of this invention and led to this invention, which led to this invention or this understanding led to this invention.
And I think what's often missing there is, is the extent to which. A lot of fan is just tinkering a lot of thought that there are so many more steps along the way that go into this and dead ends and you know, ways in which things either, either failed from a scientific point of view or a technical point of view [00:25:00] or.
Just kind of, there's a lack of understanding at the time. We'll just from a business point of view where I think dead ends happen very easily in the history of technology. And there are a lot of them and they're probably somewhat unexplored, but on the converse, the other thing I notice a lot is that people often have a bias, I think, towards very technical explanations.
, so a good example of this was, so I wrote this,Sub stack this newsletter, this newsletter blog post about the invention of Dungeons and dragons. Yes. I bought that one. I don't think it was quite as, it was probably my most popular one so far, even though, you know, bizarrely that thing, this is the one I spent the least time writing.
Mmm. And the most common reaction. So that the overall argument for listeners who may not be aware of it, or probably won't be aware of it was that you have a lot of inventions that are behind that time, [00:26:00] which is the phrase, Alex, tap rock economist users. I quite like it essentially very, very low hanging fruit things that could have been done very, very early.
And for some reason just worked. , and I think the reason I was just very few people in the past tinkered. Yeah. , and even fewer, perhaps, you know, of those who did tink or even made things public. So sometimes you get things invented and they actually failed to reveal it, to discover by the way, which is, you know, the word discover is uncover it's to kind of, not just that you found the things that you actually bother to tell someone about the thing and through the transmission of that knowledge, you know, that, that technology as a whole, as a, as a society advances,so yeah, some idea that it is is that you have a lot of these ideas that are, or inventions that could have been done any point within the past.
And my main example of this or the one that I discussed that was doughnuts of records, right? This is literally for those who haven't played, literally, you need. Nothing except the people, right? It's it's you just [00:27:00] basically tell a story and then I guess you need dice. But I actually noticed the other day that they had,the 20 sided dice in each, in Egypt, something thousand, something BC, whatever, they found, very intricately inscribed.
So you've got all of the raw materials and then all you do is you have the structured plate and the pushback from this was overwhelmingly. No, but there must be other factors, right? That there has to be some kind of constraint. I think the way that, and this is, this is the economist thing like this,cause they're trained to, and I think a lot of people in, I guess the, the technology sector thing like this as well, that there must be some kind of constraint that needs to be overcome.
So a lot of people were saying, well, you did have some things like a Creek spiel. , which is this Prussian army game, which was kind of similar. Going back to the 19th century. There were potentially a few, I think it's the Bronte sisters may have come up with a similar form of structured play. , so there was the [00:28:00] questioning from that level, but then the other one was what cable you needed.
I don't know the American suburb so that kids are like the invention of Childs so that kids would have, and yes, I get that those things may have contributed towards the specific form that D and D took. But. It still could have been invented earlier, right? These are, these are weak constraints. , and I think a lot of people, they, they tried very, they try very hard to find hard constraints, the same with the famous example,of the.
, the suitcase with wheels, you know, people were just like, well, you know, first of all, you need to have, you know, good enough floors in the airport. You need to have a lot of people going to the airport, you know, an international flight because otherwise, what are you gonna use? This thing you need good enough roads for the wheels to work.
You need good enough rubber. You probably need the, the ball bearings or something or something rather for this to be technically possible. But the reality is there are, there are absolutely loads inventions that just didn't require, you [00:29:00] know, maybe that's just a bad example. , but there are actually loads and loads of other ones as well.
, another one I mentioned. Yeah. And that post, which not many people picked up on was Semafore systems, you know, signaling between ships or from ship to shore. Like you need a flag. Yeah. I mean, a lot of the early, when they, when they discovered it well, when they create invent the one that kind of becomes modern Semifore, you know, people are literally just doing with like a white handkerchief.
Yeah, they wrapping around their arms. , the holograph by leftenant James Spratt is the one where they just kind of wrap it around their arms. It almost has a picture of Vitruvian man. , with the, you know, the, the kind of arms different positions all at once holding these handkerchiefs,very long kind of white cloth,or wrapping it around their arm.
, the only example I can really think of,you know, The warning system that they used in Elizabethan times for when someone was invading England, which [00:30:00] is a bit like the lighting of the beacons and all the rings, you know, where they just set up a fire, it's like attack, you know, there's no, there's no signaling going on there.
And another one I noticed just the other day was from the early 17th century was some kind of signaling system when they were fishing off the coast of Cornwall. But it's actually say what, how. How intricate that system was. So these are inventions though, that, you know, given it probably did exist in Cornwall in the 17th century.
Why isn't it used while the Royal Navy until the late night, the late 18th, early 19th century, or even the kind of physical infrastructure that you see in France beforehand, they have these towers with signaling systems. Where they kind of have almost like they look a bit like windmills, except they don't turn around.
They just kind of have these shutters that kind of go up and down in different arms of the shutters go up and down for different letters. Why do they only set that up in the seventies and eighties? This would have been useful, you know, underneath. 200, 300, 500,000 years. Exactly. I would say like the Greeks, like why didn't the Greeks [00:31:00] a signal between ships with,and I think a, you know, something when people say, Oh, it was invented earlier.
Well then the question is, well, why wasn't it more widely adopted, right? Yeah. Invention does happen all the time. You do get things reinvented all the time. , but there are actually very few hard constraints on, on those inventions. I think that's just as true today. , I mean, one of the really interesting things about, I think a lot of people in today's technology, the sphere, the industry, and I guess the kind of intellectual sphere.
Is that if you look at how a lot of them actually make their money, it is often from exploiting, extremely simple things that could have been done quite a bit earlier, which has worked well. They were, but they failed for whatever, either unrelated reason or the conditions weren't quite right. Or they just a bit unlucky.
Yeah. Yeah. That's , Man. Okay. So there's, there's a couple of places that I'd love to go from this. I think one that I really want to get your take on is, and I think you're [00:32:00] really sort of touching it here is,if you look there, there are two really big schools of. Thought around history, right? Like, so you have the great man people, and then you have sort of like the evolutionary,sort of, so like, almost like I was, I was looking into this and there's no like single, like anti great man.
It's theory, but like, it's, it's sort of like, is it just like, do things come about because like, like singular people really push things through, or is it a much more like, like it would have happened anyway process,and. I, I completely realized that it's not a binary thing, but what I'd love to do is just hear like your mental model of like, how like those, those two poles and where like, how things actually work.
I think you, you probably need a bit of both. Right? So in a lot of my own work, I, I guess I'm [00:33:00] methodologically individualist, right? I like looking at what it is that individuals deed and said, and then from what they did and said, try to work out what they also thought or what motivated them, which isn't necessarily the same thing, but, you know, but you can, you can get at it a bit.
Yeah. , At the same time, I think it's worth taking it's it's worth taking stuff off the kinds of forces that are pulling the strings, so to speak of those individuals and maybe affecting all of them all at once. So I think you need a bit of both. You have to be aware of the kind of overall macro level arguments.
Yeah. Was it just, the prices were right in general, which is, you know, such a kind of broad sweep of coordination of millions, potentially people. Resulting in this single figure, right. , it's kind of spontaneously generated or created a thing. The emergent thing. , but at the same time, you do need to be aware that, you know, people I think do have agency,yes, their context [00:34:00] matters as to how they are mine, their agency.
But I think one of the things I've learned is yeah, great, man theory may not exist. Great person theory may or may not be quite right. But so I think bad to throw the baby out with the, of water and say, well, yes, we've just, you know, in the kind of Marxist. Reading of things just at the mercy of these, these suffer national global forces around which we have no say whatsoever.
I mean, the reality is that, you know, I think the industry relations is a great example of this because you have this broad acceleration. Imagine with some of these inventions, having these global scale effects on the rest of the world, you know, things like the steam boat. Okay. It's a collective endeavor that leads to that point where you have steam boats, but once steam boats effectively shrink the world, I mean, that completely changes the game when it comes to.
Trade patterns, right? Suddenly the whole world can be globally integrated. You can see price convergence across the entire [00:35:00] globe. You see this kind of distinction between this growing distinction, as they, as people put it in the forties and fifties, you know, the periphery and the S and the core, an industrialized series of.
The nation's sucking in raw materials from the rest of the world, because those raw materials were profitable. Those countries start specializing in those things alone. And, you know, perhaps they get the industrialized or whatever, you know, those forces are still ultimately caused by the actions of a few individuals.
So I guess the way to think of it is that, you know, we should take the individual actions seriously in their context and not necessarily think of them as heroic individuals. You know, changing the course of the river, but they can definitely change the rate of the flow, the, the direction that it, that it flows in.
, they can, you know, eat away at the banks a bit more or a bit less. Okay. I think, I think that there's room for change [00:36:00] there. , especially when it comes to network effects and that very much relies on individual initiative. Right. I think we take for granted that, Oh, you know, okay. Let's say a place like Vienna in the early in the year 19th century.
It's just, yeah. You know, there's something magic in the air or in the water and people come together. No, you require individuals to be these kinds of. Social butterflies and bring together particular groups. And through those interactions almost create new ideologies potentially right? Where the convergence of different ideas and interest leads to a sort of synthesis.
, you know, the Royal society in England in the 1660s is often cited as being a kind of outgrowth of the circle around Samuel Hartlieb he draws together all of these different people and they become, essentially a,an invisible college . Yeah, even though he's not really that involved himself in what then happens, the Hartlieb [00:37:00] circle kind of manifests itself as the Royal society later on, even though a lot of the Hotlips circle, you know, you could say we're very associated with the Cromwell Rasheem, you know, during the English civil war, you know, the Royal is sympathizers amongst the mobile we're adjacent to that ended up forming their own society.
, so I think you need those sorts of fingers. People like hot flip or someone like Benjamin Franklin, right. Is he's as much a connector as he is an actor. Yeah. Bringing together particular people, sometimes that's just through writing, but often it's through correspondence is through active meeting.
It's through setting things up or what the society of arts, which I wrote my book about, right. Would not have happened. Had it not been for the ship assistance of the guy like William Shipley, a lot of people have this ideal of an organization like that, but to actually make it happen, you need to actually do the organizing.
So two things that makes me think of a first, actually going back to your point about soft [00:38:00] constraints. , what would you say to the argument that the softer, the constraints, the more important the individual is? So if it's something where it's like the world, just like wasn't ready for it. Like a hard constraint changed and then the world could have it then maybe it's like, okay.
It just happened to be someone who made the thing, but then you look at such as the dragons,the inventor, Gary Gygax,maybe he was actually very important,because he was the one to really crystallize the whole thing. In my understanding of that particular example is there are quite a few people hovering around what, what would it, what he kind of hit it hit upon in his kind of unique way.
, which strikes me as suggesting that, you know, perhaps there were a bunch of soft constraints that get lifted,in that particular case, or at least maybe not constraints, but things that led to that kind of particular. Form that it took. I mean, it's definitely a [00:39:00] plausible mechanism, right? That sounds like it probably works. I'm just trying to think through an example of how, of whether or not that that's the case.
I guess, I guess the right comparison would be, are there cases where I get or how, how quickly do old ideas that had very solid, hard constraints then get adopted? The moment those hard constraints get lifted. Yeah. Is perhaps the way to think about that. That'd be an interesting. Just like actually like going through those case studies.
And I suspect there's quite a few from the 20th century. I mean, I'm trying to think of something like the steam engine, but the problem of the steam engine is that actually the hard constraint of simply not understanding how air works. And then once that gets once, once we do have an understanding of the air, it's actually pretty rapid from there.
No, it's a matter of decades. I would say [00:40:00] once they, once they hit upon that, and once they, they realize they can do it with steam, it moves very, very quickly because I've seen, I mean, just today I was apparently there's a Spanish claimants to the adventure of the steam engine from 1606. I've got very worried.
So I looked into it because it would have been validated my last blog post. , but I was safe. It turns out,because you know, that the steam mentioned is, as we know it doing the kind of work did from the 18th century onwards very much realized that understanding the weight of the air and then using atmospheric pressure through the steam condensing that you get the, the work being done.
Whereas this much early one it's very much just. Basically using the steam itself to push water up. So you kind of get, put the, put the water that you're trying to drain into a tank yeah. Which is lower than the altar itself. And then you kind of push the [00:41:00] steam from the boiler through that up. So it kind of spouts out the top through a pipe, which is not the tool, same thing.
Right. The amount of work you can do with that kind of dimension is completely different. , Yeah, I guess the things to look at would be actually, I can't, I can't think of an example. There are certain forms of engine, which I think are only, I think it's the Sterling engine, which are now being looked at again, because at the time that they were come up with in the 1820s, if I remember rightly,The Sterling engine just didn't really have the materials to make it work.
Yeah. But now that we can do it, it seems as though they're starting to be a bit of movement around it, but they are, the problem is perhaps half dependence that we've, we've invented all these very good engines that do things pretty well. And to shift to a different path will only be worth it. If it becomes extremely, extremely expensive to, to work or to continue producing or.
Well using the [00:42:00] existing laws that we have. Yeah. It's a sort of enhanced two question, I guess, is the sort of case where once you have those sorts of developments, it does start to rely a lot on relative prices in terms of the kind of investment that goes into certain things or the effort that goes into certain things, or when something is invented.
You know whether or not it succeeds in the market, it definitely relies on those overall historical forces beyond our control, like prices and costs. Yeah, no, it's just,It's fascinating to think about it. And I appreciate you,actually thinking about it. Like, I feel like everybody has their, so, so many people have their narrative about like, this is the way it works.
Like it's all evolution or it's all great people. , and, and so like actually like digging in and thinking about like, okay, like when, when is it, which,I really appreciate,I want to switch a little bit and talk about risk. , So a lot of the things that, that you discussed,blow up when they [00:43:00] fail.
And yeah. So I'm, I'm wondering, like, if there's some like, and I feel like people today would not use something, if it would blow up when it failed. Right. So, so,and so, so,I'm wondering, like if there's something. In like, like you need a societal risk tolerance, like of, of like physical danger in order to be able to do this tinkering with,Sort of intense technology, right?
Like, so like steamships, they, they blow up when they fail. And like you see all these pictures of,like steam engines that have, have exploded and they, they kill people. , and so it's like, do you think that there's, there's a difference in our level of, of risk tolerance between now and,the, the 18th and 19th centuries.
Maybe I'm not, I don't think so though. Okay. I'm trying, I'm just thinking of all of the sorts of things that just [00:44:00] from recent memory, you know, things like washing machines used to explode and fridges explode pretty easily, and it has that risk associated with them. , it's not until certain regulations come into force as the ways they have to be produced to kind of conform to certain standards.
I mean, that's only a few decades ago. ,
And we certainly seeing a lot of inventions with the rocketry going on. Right. Which have a very, very real risk of exploding with absolutely no chance of survival. It's true. But you don't see that many, like, like, ah, I would say like sort of like civilians or, or customers getting on them right now, perhaps.
I mean, certainly when it comes down to the wire, people are willing to take the risk for things like, you know, Testing a vaccine for the coronavirus. Right? What I've noticed is actually a lot of people are very bravely putting themselves forward for that sort of thing. I think I read the other day that the children of one of the, one of the [00:45:00] scientists working on it, an Oxford where, you know, very willing Guinea pigs for their moms,work in terms of there's vaccine and, you know, things go wrong with the vaccine.
Things can do very, very wrong. Yeah, life-changing Lee or like Killingly I guess,even if they don't kill you, it could, it could affect the rest of your field days. So it seems as though, I mean, usually of course, you've got all sorts of regulation about the stages in which you test things out, and that's definitely different to what happens in the 18th century where, you know, it would gener.
Gets his Gardener's son and gives him, you know, he purposely gives him cow pox and then smallpox to see if he gets it. And he's fine. Thank God. You know, or, you know, in the 17th century, the early experiments with track blood transfusions, they get pretty widespread and ultimately it just requires a doctor to kind of persuading their [00:46:00] patient on the, the procedure.
, So, I suppose in some ways were more cautious about risk. , and again, even in these early cases, you know, they would often, when it comes to the first small pox inoculations, when they're trying to test them, they choose people who are going to be hanged as they're, you know, so they're, they're not, they're not always choosing people who are volunteering without any other constraints around that.
Well, without any other possibilities, that's actually, that's very reassuring. I think it's like a, like there's I have this narrative in my head where we're like super risk averse and like, that's why we can't do anything, but,be very happy. That's actually wrong. I mean, certainly if you look at the number of people who become entrepreneurs and.
In terms of just financial risk, basically give everything up and go bankrupt freeze. I mean, I don't see, I don't sense any change there. [00:47:00] Yeah. If anything, probably because the money available given how cheap capital is, it's just like everywhere for whatever idea, no matter how crazy, you know,in a way that in the past, just wasn't available.
So. You know, even if society as a whole is becoming more risk averse in terms of regulation and trying to prevent loss of life, the ability to take financial risks as much, you know, we're were able to take as much. Much more risks, I think, than the net before, you know, society is now enabling the risk takers in that kind of stuff.
As, as long as you will, could possibly make the money, I think is one of my concerns, I guess. So, but even then, I mean the business cases, aren't exactly what we solid. So that very kind of what's the classic, you know, do this question, Mark. Make some money. Yeah. I will speak to him. I'll also, also,Sell you a hundred dollars for $99 get [00:48:00] all the users.
Yeah. , so,another thing that,I wanted to ask you about is like, sort of like in terms of the cultures of innovation is something that I've been struggling with is like almost by definition to really innovate on something. You need to break a spoken or unspoken rule. And,So, like, have you seen anything in the relationship between,like cultures and rule breaking and innovation?
Do you know what this actually, maybe also answers your earlier question about something that people mentioned a lot, which is that the. As though it's a kind of us for you, them. I had a narrative where we must take on the entrenched interest and they're going to block us at every turn. Luddites are everywhere.
Yeah. That's the classic Silicon Valley. Yeah. And maybe in some ways it's a [00:49:00] useful, even if it's a myth in the sense that, you know, if you're going to troll people together, what better way than to create an enemy for them to fight or to help do. Right. , So maybe it's not necessarily a bad thing and can be quite motivating in a way that isn't necessarily that harmful.
Right. Cause it's more about out competing someone,than it is about destroying them necessarily. , no, it's okay. Competition as a word could perhaps be a bad thing cause it, it, it, it. Implies a contest or not really a contest, but maybe combat. Whereas what's really meant is something more like a sports where whoever whoever's first wins, the race versus boxing or something where whoever knocks the other one out is the one, the one who wins,
so I think this, this narrative is very common. And I'm so skeptical of it nearly all the time, right? Is that you do have that kind of opposition to invention, but it's always been there. And I don't think, I think it's, I think that kind of opposition is very rarely to innovate invention per [00:50:00] se. I think it's much more commonly in opposition to particular ways in which those inventions affect existing interests.
, So the Luddites, for example, a smashing particular kinds of machinery that are, that they feel are framing their jobs, the suite, the captain swing rights, again, affecting particular kinds of machinery. , I mean to, to, to go beyond machinery, think of the kind of anti enclosure movements where, you know, this is an economic change that is potentially improving the, the rental yields of the land in the sense that it's a more efficient use of it.
, but it's certainly. Yeah, depending on the kinds of enclosure, it could be kicking labor is off. So the replacing fields with, with sheep,which is, you know, competing like 40, 40 laborers suddenly replaced with one shepherd,So these are things that I think affects particularly interest in the same way that, you know, Uber opposition to Uber, isn't Israel, Haley about kind of general opposition to that kind of [00:51:00] technology.
It's usually a kind of just opposition by taxi drivers. Having invested a lot of money in getting these rents and being like, you know, what the hell I've, I've invested all that money. And you're telling me this was for nothing. And I could have just gone and use this app. , Which is understandable, right?
It's, it's something that you see throughout. And so I think, you know, a lot of the time when I see this and you see this throughout history as well, I often see something being like,
so, and so inventor was rejected by the emperor of China, the emperor of Turkey, or. The queen list with the first. And so they went abroad and took their invention elsewhere. And the moment you actually start to dig into the details of those, they're either completely apocryphal or they're much more about the specifics of the invention and not about inventors in general.
, I very rarely come across cases where people are just anti novelty. Because if you're [00:52:00] anti novelty in one direction, you might actually be very pro novelty and other ones, right? The kinds of people who might be very unhappy about things, look, call center to call an employment, probably perfectly happy to have new designs for the silks they're going to wear.
You know, there's novelty as a whole is Jen is I think it's we over overanalyze it, we over kind of label it, like creating this kind of fake. We in the same way that I disliked discussions before the scientific revolution or, you know, big, broad terms that cover these huge sweeping things or individualism.
Right. I find these very difficult concepts to get my head around because when I actually. Think okay. How would I use this myself? I kind of can put the Gates a bit of a problem now, even industrial revolution to even define it. You require an essay. So, yeah, so, so the upshot is, is it's actually like much more nuanced and complicated.
, [00:53:00] Man, I, this is like, this is like the historian's buzzkill. Right? Which is like, you've covered this great theory. I'm sorry. Well, I think it's something that happens a lot and weirdly I think I'm off historians, actually, a lot more willing to entertain the broad sweeping theories. Cause I think, you know, they, they do, I mean, certainly have a certain sort of historian, right?
Those who are brought up in the economic history or the Marxist and various other traditions or the long duration kind of traditions, they certainly have these, these broad sweeping theories and they like to tinker with those. , but there's also a lot of historians who are much more specific. And I think you do need a bit of both that, that.
But you've got, when you do use it, who's you or your boss killing bit by saying actually it's more complicated than that. , I think that's best when put in relation to the theory as a whole. Yeah. So it should be telling us about our general mental models of how the world works. So yeah, for me, that my [00:54:00] problem with a lot of these Luddite things is they, they kind of give me this instinctual kind of, I don't know if it's such a big.
Battle,in that particular way, I mean, actually to give you an example that I've just been writing about right now, just before we started the podcast, I've been reading the work of Daniel Defoe, so famous for Robinson Crusoe,and to foe is both pro improvement and yet seemingly very anti particular forms of technology.
Right. The whole book that I've been reading, which is a tour through the islands of great Britain. Is him just going all around Britain and commenting on the recent things that have happened, the economic growth, the improvements, the land, you know, the, the, the change, the changes to manufacture, how many more people are now being employed.
And they were formally, you know, how much more trade is going on in these sports. And he's excited about this stuff. He thinks that improvement as a whole is a good thing. He's pro I would say he's a [00:55:00] pro improvement technology. Awesome. Yeah. And yet when you come to specifics, like. The stocking frame. He is lamenting the fact that it's made certain whole villages completely unemployed.
Yeah. Cause the, the, the, the economy, that's all the kind of where the growth is, has shifted to other places where those frames were being applied earlier. I mean, he's even talking, you know, very in favor of bands or imported. Silks and important cottons because it affects the wool, the fine wool industry and East Anglia.
, and so this isn't his, it's not like he's anti openness or anti, I mean, he's a pro-trade person. I mean, he's someone who is extremely pro-immigration,who was trying to create these settlements almost like charter cities for religious written political refugees in the early 18th century. And yet.
When it comes to those specific things, he can still [00:56:00] think that's a bad thing. It's not inconsistent for that. So I guess that's what I mean, there is that we, we should be careful about labeling people as Luddites or anti-technology I guess, where that's interesting though, is that you do at the same time, have certain people who I guess from an ideological perspective will be quite panty.
Those things, but they're rarely workers. They're rarely people who are directly affected. I mean, I guess like to a lot of your listeners, it's going to be the kind of. The, I guess, increasing email, traditional feeling between journalists who cover technology and technologists, right. That you see a lot of the kinds of critiques.
And I've noticed on Twitter that have that all of this kind of a growing vehemence like that. And that's, that's, that's interesting, right? , and I don't know if that's ideological or, or if it's just the journalists, I find good stories and good stories are usually negative or they involve, I have [00:57:00] people.
So if you're put in charge of technology, you're going to be looking for bad people,in particular sectors. And so that might color your whole view. Of the sector, or if you're, if you're asked to come up with the kind of general op-ed about what the state of what's going on, you're probably going to come up with like the bad things that happen, the things to be careful.
So, yeah, again, I don't think that's necessarily like anti technologist and I mean, to a certain extent, those people are probably pro a lot of the kinds of technologies that are coming up. They're certainly using them often as well. I think, I think the problem with. Having so much nuance is that it really involves like sitting down and like talking to people and like really trying to understand them and people,often don't want to spend the time doing that.
the last question I always like to ask people is,what is something that people you think should be thinking about that they're not thinking enough about.
[00:58:00] In a historical way in this is, this is your or just anything like this. This is your, I think of this as sort of like the, the open, open podium. , no pressure, no pressure at all. It's an interesting one. I guess that changes day by day for me as to what I think people should be thinking more about. Yeah.
Well, what about today? Today.
I mean, the, the main general one is that, and this, I guess isn't probably as targeted as your usual audience, but as a more general thing is it would be nice if people appreciated technology a bit more and they thought about its evolution a bit more,Or even just the people who were involved in making those things possible.
I mean, if you just look around the room that you're in right now, or the space that you're in right now, like the, the nearly everything in it [00:59:00] regarding whether it's actually manufacturer even natural as involved someone doing a bit of tinkering. I mean, I'm looking at a house plot right now and thinking to myself, okay, what even allowed this plant to be here.
That's always, certainly not native to England. It's you know, so it probably involves perhaps, you know, greenhouse technology, it involved all sorts of glass, making that in involved people learning how to cultivate it, spreading that knowledge of cultivation probably involves fertilizer improvements. You know, the, the, the, the capacity of improvement is almost infinite.
, I guess, I guess this is a kind of other general thing that maybe you'll usual listeners will also be kind of more interested in, which is that, you know, a lot of what we can improve. Isn't just about efficiency. It isn't just about making things cheaper or work faster or work better. , it can, or even simplifying things, which I imagine a lot of people do.
It's also about [01:00:00] aesthetics. It's also about beauty. It's also about. Capacity of things to provoke, meaning I guess, or interpretations of a particular kind. , which sounds a bit fluffy. , but I don't think it is. I think, you know, a lot of, a lot of improvement that takes place happens along these kind of unexpected.
Lines,where it's, you know, maybe just something like increasing the variety of plants in your garden, you know, in the 17th century, unexpectedly leads to dramatic improvements in agricultural productivity a hundred years later because of the sorts of things that you had to problem solve to do that.
I mean, just today I was reading or yesterday I was reading about the first orange trees in England and how. When those were introduced, you know, during the winter they created a sort of shed that would have been put up all of the trees to protect them from the frost. And that actually, you know, does have an impact later on in the kinds of multicultural development that you get later on as well.
So yeah, I [01:01:00] guess that's a kind of be open to those artists affected. I wish people were more open to those unexpected avenues for invention.