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Commercialisation of Invention and the Economy of Knowledge. Britain-France, 18th Century

Final Report Summary - C.I.T.E.K. (Commercialisation of Invention and the Economy of Knowledge. Britain-France, 18th Century)

The aim of the CITEK project was to scrutinise the spread of technical culture in eighteenth and early nineteenth century France and Britain in order to understand the rise of cultural economy for technology and invention. Alongside printed material (books, leaflets, periodicals) were new forms of social interaction that facilitated the emergence of a wider public understanding of technology, such as; workshop visits, product exhibitions, shop displays, and itinerant lectures. Through these means, I sought to understand how this consumption played a major role in the development of the economy of technical knowledge. The concept of 'industrial enlightenment' presents an interpretation of processes that connect these economies and associated links to technical knowledge and the development of the first wave of industrialisation. Cultural reviews of the Industrial Revolution, particularly for the United Kingdom where industrialisation occurred earlier than on the continent, have demonstrated a general movement of improvement that led groups of individuals to invest in new methods and develop new understanding. It was my goal through the CITEK fellowship to highlight this movement for and draw attention to the emergence of a public sphere for technologies as well as pinpoint the differences which arose between developments in different countries.

My main research was split between focussing on collections of Ephemera, periodicals, commercial prints (such as trade cards, 'Direction for uses' leaflets, and advertisements): and also on archives containing inventors' solicitations, such as the Bureau du Commerce in France (F12 serie in national archives, Paris) and the Royal Society of Arts in London. By concentrating on subscription devices, it allowed me to define a relevant approach to understanding specific public investments; and furthermore, I have enlarged the scope of study by analysing other certification processes which integrate public support at a different stage of the development within the innovative enterprise. I sought to answer the question: how does an inventor manage to get his invention recognised, diffused, commercialised and obtain venture capital for his specific project? For example: how to go about constructing a hydrogen balloon-introducing silk-mill machine; or having a heating system validated; distributing a fire retardant method; or developing a process for preserving food or an object for household use? In the first part of the investigation I intended to explore the way in which different types of technological innovation have been displayed to the public in a range of different contexts. Objects of curiosity and production methods embody two inseparable sides of the same coin, which can attract new audiences. The seduction for practical inventions and new processes is partly based on its aesthetic values and the pleasure derived from spectacular experiments, such as the balloon or automata: whereby this material culture was seen to flourish through fashion, fiction, pictures, fantasy and imagination. Whilst exploring further issues relating to this phenomenon, I focused mainly on balloon flights where I introduced new research questions related to the current topic. On the one hand, I looked at the information systems contained in printed pictures, such as advertisements, or explanations in periodicals and 'how-to' leaflets) ; and on the other hand, I considered new approaches by examining exhibitions of inventions stored in repositories. Based in urban archaeology, the scenes I focused on took place in various settings: for instance:
1) at the Royal Society of Arts, the applicant to a contest is required to provide a small-scale model which could be viewed by various audiences;
2) many inventions were also displayed in the shops of inventors 'to be seen from the maker' (such as ironmonger Pinchbeck, and optician Storer, or mechanic Beetham, who invited the public to judge their improvements and creations).
I found that this interaction was essential in selling strategies but also in order to convince audiences of the relevance of the improvement, especially in the case of a new prototype for instance.

The second and main part of my investigation examined the constitution of consensus and support for projects, especially focusing on wide calls to the public for subscription and schemes. Part of the transition from a client economy to a mass market, has seen this system be considered in the wake of speculation at the beginning of the 18th century, and relates to huge lucrative projects linked to insurance, joint-stock companies and so on. However, this relates more to patronage than to the constitution of an anonymous capital because people revealed specifically their commitment, often with a printed list. The system which permits limitations of financial resources of projectors (such as the inventors and entrepreneurs concerned) to be overcome can be defined as a collective investment which represented a purchase in advance. Looking beyond local differences in both countries, these practices offered great flexibility in regard to the policies for inventions. However, if this was not generally or systematically required, it still offered an alternative process which was used consistently during the whole period, from the reflecting telescope in 1700 London, to the steam engine in Scotland in 1814 and so on. I gathered a sample of 47 cases; although 25 % are related to aerostatic machines, it does reveal 35 other cases for various projects such as prints (method, know-how), instruments, prototypes, infrastructures etc. for which I built a typology.

I found that participation at the workshop 'Innovation without patents' (Macleod, Novulari, Pérez, Brusland in August 2009) organised as a session of the World Congress of Economic History in Utrecht, provided a turning point in understanding various strategies of commercialisation for invention which also enabled previously opposed inventors to work together. Several stimulating ideas were initiated through this workshop and highlighted the fact that the absence of patents, and even the option to use them, was far from being a brake on inventive activity: in fact they reveal less of a technical evolution, and more about the strategy and attitude of entrepreneurs changing in response to the difference of the laws and rules at the time. My enquiry outlined the fact that the gap between both countries is not important in terms of innovative activities, even if their economies are differently structured. By opening a subscription, it was certain to gain local consensus which also challenged any negative academic report, for instance. The subscription system provided a local public sphere around the innovation, and involved administrative networks, trades, guilds, council and local state, gentry inspectors and intendancy. For the public, there were lots of ways to receive returns from investments, I summarised the arrangements according to different subscriptions because the contract was based on common rules: to have its name printed as benefactor of progress, possibilities to access new knowledge, information, secrets (visits, demonstrations, leaflets), transparency of the practice and so on. However, the success of these processes depended on advertising the proposal and on the drive of an influential person championing it. There were also other certification processes which involved the public, such as names printed on advertisements in lists attesting the efficiency of an invention, or certification cited as evidence provided at the Royal Society of Arts by village communities to attest the erection of a new innovative buildings such as saw-mills, tide mills etc.

Strategies of legitimising and funding inventions were also based on the rhetoric of the public good and patriotic issues. The inclusion of technology in the public sphere (via periodicals and examination contests) plays a fundamental part here in the relationship. The point at which the reforming ideals of enlightenment meet the emergence of industrial manufacturing methods is where the interest in technological novelties materialises from the ideals of progress. Therefore recent history, with its interest in forms of credit, has been the source of a new prolific perspective for understanding how trust is built up through confidence and reputation by emphasising the inter-personal impact of economic transactions. By seeing the economy as social interaction, these approaches encourage us to revisit the analysis of investment through a process of improvement that was risky for 18th-century men. The recognition of improvement as a social 'value' gradually emerged, and therefore generated many aids and resources by producing symbolic capital'. This presents stimulating new approaches to analyse the economy of innovation in the past, explored on a micro scale.

It has been the unearthing of this issue, through the Marie Curie fellowship at Warwick, which has led me to develop a new project called economies of improvements, firstly by setting up a network and exchanges among scholars through a first workshop held in May 2010 at Warwick, and consequently by exploring the topic further with a view to future grant applications (such as ERC, etc.). This research area focuses on modes of investment, whose nature could be as much civic, or cultural, in crossing different realms of concern and endeavours. Crossing cultural history of technology while opening up promising issues with articulation between economic and social issues, the analysis would be carried out on a European scale based on local surveys in urban spaces within different cultural areas (British, German, French and Dutch). The purpose would be to recapture the worlds of invention culminating in mapping the areas of innovation in Western Europe (1750-1820) and would focus on three main areas:
1. Invention in everyday life (commercialisation of inventions, fluids and metals, textiles), especially focusing on a 'Culture of steam, fire and new chemistry';
2. From share company to charitable business: a comparison of economies and;
3. biography of inventors to the building up of prosopographies.