Philosophical Pirates

Thursday 16th September, 3-4.30pm

Venue: MB146, Aston University       Booking

Professor Peter Jones, Department of History, University of Birmingham

In the late eighteenth century, as today, a great deal of leading-edge technological knowledge was transferred by means of industrial espionage. Nowadays most of this kind of knowledge is codified and therefore can be moved around quite easily – indeed electronically – once security has been breached.

But in the late eighteenth century this was not the case. Potentially valuable ‘know how’ was not written down; it often took the form of what historians of science called ‘tacit knowledge’ or skill. Therefore, with the science of technical drawing in its infancy, it could generally only be transferred by person-to-person contact.

The Boulton, Watt and Murdoch Statue, Birmingham (Credit: Simon Russell)

Birmingham was one of the places which free lance snoopers and government-backed spies therefore had to visit. Why Birmingham? Because it was one of the leading centres in the late eighteenth century of scientific knowledge accumulation, technological innovation and consumer-orientated industrial inventiveness.

The neighbourhood of Birmingham was also, of course, the place where foreign visitors (and spies) could see the technology of James Watt’s improved steam engine put to work.

Thus when Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), the town’s leading industrialist and science innovator, warned fellow manufacturers of the imminent arrival of another “philosophical pirate”, a Dane “of sallow complexion, rather down-cast look and waddles pretty much in his manner of walking”, he was sending out an alert that an episode of  industrial espionage was under way.

My talk discusses this and several other such episodes as a way of exploring the characteristics of knowledge transfer, both as an historical and as a modern-day phenomenon.

To explore this topic further, why not visit:

Birmingham Science Museum – includes the world’s oldest working steam engine

Soho House Museum – Matthew Boulton’s former residence

Centre for West Midlands History

Revolutionary Players – explore the Industrial Revolution in the West Midlands in Britain, 1700-1830

Books on this topic include Peter M. Jones, Industrial Enlightenment: Science, Technology and Culture in Birmingham and the West Midlands, 1760-1820 (Manchester University Press, 2009), and M. Dick ed., Matthew Boulton: a Revolutionary Player (Brewin Books, 2009)


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