By Gordon Rugg
The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution are often portrayed as a flowering of bright new ways of thinking about the world, shaking off the dull orthodoxy of previous centuries. Well, in some ways that’s true, but there’s also a fair amount of unglamorous practical underpinning that usually receives less attention.
This article is about those underpinnings.
One of the striking things about technological developments before the Renaissance is how many of them spread slowly, if at all. Why was that?
If you look at the question from the viewpoint of a mediaeval inventor who has just come up with a bright new idea, then you start seeing the importance of various factors that don’t get much attention in popular history.
One unglamorous question is how you plan to provide for yourself in old age. Post-retirement pensions are pretty much taken for granted now in industrialised societies. That wasn’t always the case; they’re an innovation that happened within living memory.
What happened before that? You had to fend for yourself. There were various widely-used strategies.
One was to view your children as your pension, with the expectation that they would look after you in your old age. That was fine if the children were okay with that idea, and if they had enough resources to look after you, and if you had children in the first place. With mortality rates the way that they were in the past, there were obvious risks associated with this idea.
Another was to make a lot of money, save it, and live off those savings. That was fine in principle, but if you were an inventor in the past, you rapidly hit a major problem. How could you stop people from stealing your brilliant new invention, and leaving you with nothing? In the days before patents, your options were limited.
One widely used option was to keep the key parts of your invention secret. This had obvious advantages for the inventor, but obvious disadvantages for the people who would have benefitted from your invention being more widely used.
A classic example is obstetric forceps, used by doctors and midwives in difficult cases of childbirth. These were invented in the 1600s, by the Chamberlen family. They kept the invention secret for over a century; they achieved this by requiring the room where the childbirth was occurring to be cleared of witnesses, and the mother to be blindfold, so that nobody could see the methods and tools that they were using.
The advantages for the Chamberlens were obvious, and the disadvantages to society at large were equally obvious, since the Chamberlens could only deal with a very small number of cases.
This is a classic example of how a patent system can change the world. With a reliably enforced patent system, inventors do not have to choose between the risk of poverty in old age and the well-being of millions of people; instead, they can reap the financial rewards of their invention, while society reaps the societal and medical rewards.
So, when did patents start to be used? As you may have guessed by now, they first appeared in roughly their current form in the 1450s, in Italy, at the heart of the Renaissance. Their spread was a bit uneven, and they overlapped with an often-abused system of royal monopolies in various countries, but they spread steadily, and are a key feature of modern technological society.
This story is well known to historians of technology and innovation, though it doesn’t get as much attention as it might in popular histories.
There’s another twist to the tale, though, which also deserves more attention. It’s about the low level practical issues involved in handling patents.
A key feature of most patents is the use of technical diagrams, to illustrate just what the invention was and how it worked. Technical diagrams are something that we take for granted now. But, if you stop and think about how they are produced, you realise that they’re critically dependent on printing technology.
Here’s an example.
By Peterlewis at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Teratornis using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7977869
This is quite a simple technical diagram. Imagine trying to copy it by hand, with quill and ink, the way it would have had to be copied before printing was invented. Now imagine trying to produce copies of a patent diagram that involves something significantly more complex. With mechanical printing, you only had to produce the master print once, and then you could run off hundreds of copies with minimal effort. This had huge implications not only for patents, but also for technical manuals and for textbooks for engineering courses. Without this technology, the Industrial Revolution would have hit some serious problems.
So, that’s how pensions and patents and printing fit together. It may not be as glamorous as the popular story of the benighted Middle Ages being eclipsed by the sheer unfettered genius of dazzling Renaissance geniuses, but it helps make more sense of how apparently unglamorous issues can have major impacts on the world.
Notes and links
Sources for banner images:
By Killian 1842 – Obstetric Forceps, Kedarnath DAS, 1929, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12969407
By Michelangelo, Public Domain,
You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.
There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:
Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese
You might also find our website useful:
Overviews of the articles on this blog: