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THE INGENIOUS TIMELINE

18th Century

1751-1776

Tynemouth Lighthouse resists crashing waves

John Smeaton has a passion for figuring out construction that will survive the most hostile conditions.

North Shields Pier at Tynemouth
Photo: Sirimo@istockphoto.com

BUILDING TO LAST,
THINKING
OUTSIDE THE BOX,
CREATING PROSPERITY

1750s BUILDING TO WITHSTAND THE ELEMENTS

John Smeaton builds the first lighthouse that can withstand the terrific force of pounding waves. He discovers the best mortar for underwater construction; introduces cast-iron shafts and gearing for windmills; designs atmospheric pumping engines; and advances underwater exploration by fitting the diving bell with an air pump.

Young boy playing violin

John Shore is Handel’s trumpeter in London, and all too aware of the havoc that out-of-tune symphony instruments will wreak on music.

Photo: mammamaart@istockphoto.com

1752 JOHN SHORE HELPS MUSICIANS TO PLAY IN TUNE

Shortly before he dies, John Shore invents the tuning fork so musicians can accurately tune their instruments. He jokingly calls the narrow, two-pronged steel bar a "pitchfork." It is a marvellous tool that retains a specific pitch and produces a nearly pure tone. Shore's tuning fork also proves useful in experiments in the physics of sound.

British Museum

Early morning: Waiting for the British Museum to open.
With art and antiquities spanning two million years, the British Museum welcomes five million visitors and scholars to its collections every year.

Photo: diveteam@istockphoto.com

1753 PARLIAMENT ESTABLISHES THE BRITISH MUSEUM

Sir Hans Sloane, physician, naturalist and inveterate collector, offers his collection of 71,000 objects, his library, and his herbarium to King George II for the nation.

A slightly flabbergasted Parliament pays Sloane's heirs £20,000 (a substantial sum at the time), and establishes the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London. The mission is to promote universal understanding of science, natural history, and the arts.

It is the first museum in the world to be administered by a body of trustees and, in 1759, to become open and free to the public.

Over the years, further collections pour into the Museum. Sir William Hamilton's collection of Greek vases and objects arrives in 1772. The Rosetta Stone, originally found by the French, is shipped from Egypt in 1802 after the French defeat by Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile. The Townley collection of classical sculpture makes its debut in 1805. And in 1816 the Parthenon Marbles, controversially known as the Elgin Marbles, made their sensational appearance.

The marbles were sold to Lord Elgin by the Turks who had conquered Greece. Today Greeks would like to see the Parthenon Marbles returned to Athens. Perhaps they might thank the British, first for saving the beautiful works from Turkish target practice and then for helping to liberate their country from the Turks in 1827.

At this time the British Museum continues to preserve the marbles, and all of its vast collections, for all people everywhere.

The Museum also continues to collect. Exceptional Anglo-Saxon sword hilt fittings, set with large garnets and dated between AD 600-650, were recently dug out of a field in Lincolnshire and are on display.

1761 CREATING A WATER NETWORK

Led by engineer James Brindley, Brits build a web of navigable inland waterways and canals across Britain. The first canal carries coal from Worsley to Manchester. Inland waterways connect producers with markets that will sell their goods and contribute to their prosperity. An intricate system of locks and lifts is engineered and constructed to cope with changes in water level.

1762 WESTMINSTER PAVING ACT INSPIRES STREET IMPROVEMENTS ACROSS NATION AND EUROPE

Before the Westminster Act, the maintenance of the street and paving belonged with each individual householder. One can imagine just how varied, and poor, road surfaces as a consequence were. The Westminster Act calls for gutters at the side of road, regular rubbish removal, and the paving of streets with Purbeck stone. Westminster's street plan includes commissioners to make sure the work gets done. Manchester and other major cities follow suit, and street lighting is inaugurated, developments which meet with some envy in Europe. As a tourist observes, "In Oxford Road alone there are more lamps than in all the city of Paris."

1762 JOHN HARRISON HELPS TO SOLVE PROBLEM OF NAVIGATION AT SEA

The Brits were sailing all over the world, but they were often lost. Sometimes they died of starvation before they found their way to port. Consequently a national cash prize is promised to the first person who can solve the longitude problem of navigation – east-west position at sea. The north-south position of latitude can be easily determined by the position of the sun, but the east-west cannot unless the exact time is known.

This means building a clock that will tell Greenwich Mean Time to the second even while a ship is rolling, and tell that time accurately for the length of a sea journey, which could be years. A poor carpenter, John Harrison begins designing and building an accurate marine chronometer at age 35. After repeated attempts, he succeeds in building a clock that keeps accurate time and is impervious to temperature and humidity. He is 80 before he finally obtains the prize, worth perhaps £1 million today, and only after George III intervenes and insists he be paid.   

1767 THE ASTRONOMER ROYAL PUBLISHES LUNAR ALMANAC AS NAVIGATION AID AND HELPS TO ESTABLISH GREENWICH MEAN TIME

Astronomer Nevil Maskelyne was interested in the Parallax of Sirius, the transits of Venus and the tides at Saint Helena, and he travelled western seas to observe these phenomena. On his voyages he learned firsthand that sailors had a desperate problem - they often had no idea where they were.

Maskelyne realized that by calculating lunar distances, which he knew could be done, sailors would have a guide to their longitude. Working at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and using the convention of longitude zero degrees, he singlehandedly developed the Nautical Almanac, an invaluable annual published by the British government.

John Harrison and Nevil Masekelyne were competitors in figuring out how to establish east-west position at sea, and much has been made of the ill-will between them. Harrison’s exquisite clocks were expensive. Maskelyne, the astronomer royal, provided his lunar computations free of charge. Their competition proved helpful to sailors.

Maskelyne's Almanac helped to keep mariners off the rocks and sailing safely home well into the 19th century. It also helped to establish the tradition of Greenwich Mean Time.

1760s-1790s BRITS LEAD IN BREEDING FARM ANIMALS

The population in Britain is growing, and Robert Bakewell decides to expand the food supply by selectively breeding his farm animals for desired traits. This revolutionises sheep and cattle-raising. George Culley, the Colling brothers, and many other Brits join him in improving breeds. Information is shared when the Board of Agriculture, established in 1793, publicises scientific advances.

The selective breeding of animals takes generations. It requires dedication, and a stable society where people and animals are not being blown to bits. Cows and sheep bred by Brits for preferred characteristics are now raised in India, Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe, and America, and include Angus, Hereford, and Jersey cows and Leicester Longwool sheep.

1764 THOMAS BAYES' PROBABILITY THEORY PROVES ESSENTIAL TO WEB SEARCHES AND MEDICAL RESEARCH

Thomas Bayes, a nonconformist minister and mathematician, proves that the likelihood that something will happen can be plausibly estimated by how often it has occurred in the past. A quiet man who exchanges letters with the great scientists of the day, Bayes is a member of the Royal Society, which publishes his theory after his death. Two hundred years later web developers seize on Bayes' theory to create search engines, and Bayes' little-known theory comes into its own in a computer and data-driven age.

Today web browsers exploit Bayesian principles to help provide likely results to data searches, and medical researchers use them to determine correlations between genetics, symptoms, and diseases. Unlike many theories propounded by pundits, Bayes' Probability Theory is self-correcting.

1764 HARGREAVES BUILDS SPINNING-JENNY, AND MAKES CLOTHING MORE AFFORDABLE

James Hargreaves does not know how to read or write, but he has mechanical genius. According to folklore he is a weaver working at home whose daughter Jenny accidentally knocks over his spinning wheel. The fallen spindle continues to revolve, and Hargreaves grasps that a whole line of spindles could be worked off one wheel.

He builds a machine that uses eight spindles. By turning a single wheel, he can now spin eight threads at once. When Hargreaves begins to sell his machines, spinners who are afraid they will lose their jobs march on his house and destroy his equipment. But Hargreaves perseveres, and builds a small spinning-mill. Soon the number of threads being spun increase from eight to eighty, thousands of spinning machines are running, and people are closer to having affordable clothing.

Steam engine pulling into station

James Watt makes an improved steam engine that works so well it propels the Industrial Revolution.
The Revolution was not without its negatives, but better medical care, the ability to travel, and machines that ended drudgery were among its positive results.

Photo: National Railroad Museum »

1765-1800 JAMES WATT'S EUREKA EXPERIENCE TRANSFORMS TRANSPORTATION

Watt shares a curious childhood circumstance with scientists Robert Hooke, James Bradley, Joseph Priestley, and James Gregory. Like them he is too ill to go to school so he studies on his own, pottering around his father’s shop trying to make machines work. His health gets better, and he leaves Glasgow for London to learn how to make instruments. When he returns, he buckles down to improving Newcomen’s and Savery's steam engine.

He is walking across Glasgow Green when he has a Eureka! experience and realises how to keep steam very hot and very cold at the same time. His insight, based on understanding the relationship between steam’s density and its pressure and temperature, helps him to make an improved steam engine that will power boats, trains, and machines.

The process takes several years, but Watt’s new design has steam jacketing, oil lubrication, insulation, and four times the power, and it changes the world. Watt goes on to figure out how to convert up-and-down piston movement to rotary to power machines. He invents a steam pressure indicator, a governor to regulate engine speed, and the term horsepower, as well as a letter copying press that is an early photocopier. The British Association gives his name to a unit of electrical power, and his name now appears on millions of light bulbs as Watt, or simply W.

1766-1798 AN ECCENTRIC GENIUS, HENRY CAVENDISH DISCOVERS SECRETS OF HYDROGEN AND GAS PRESSURE AND CALCULATES "G"

A rich recluse, Henry Cavendish proves that gases can be weighed and that hydrogen, which he describes as inflammable air, forms water on combustion. He uses a torsion balance to measure the gravitational attraction between lead spheres. This allows him to calculate Newton’s gravitational constant, G, and to make one of the earliest accurate calculations of the mass of Earth.

Cavendish's unpublished work on electricity and heat will amaze scientists a century later. He leaves enough money to endow a laboratory, which Cambridge University names Cavendish Laboratory in his honour. The lab will become the site of major modern scientific breakthroughs.

1768 WILLIAM JONES LAUNCHES INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGE THEORY

As early as the 16th century, European travelers had noticed affinities between Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Baltic and Slavic language families and the "Aryan" languages spoken in distant India. William Jones, a jurist preoccupied with the law by day, studies Eastern languages and cultures. Based on his findings he proposes that all these languages share a common, Indo-European ancestor. His Indo-European theory shocks and resonates, and catalyzes historical linguistics.

Tall ship at port under moonlit skies

Courage, skill, and the ability to lead men take James Cook on three voyages to the Pacific in a tall ship similar to the one pictured here. Sent on secret orders to discover whether the great southern continent of Terra Australis really exists, he maps the entire coastline of New Zealand, and makes landfall on Australia.

Photo: Flashworks@istockphoto.com

1769-1779 CAPTAIN JAMES COOK EXPLORES AND MAPS THE PACIFIC

The son of a farmhand, James Cook is apprenticed to his grocer. When the grocer realises James is never going to make it selling vegetables, he takes him down to the docks, and gets him a place on a merchant ship, where the teenager learns about sailing in the dangerous waters of the North Sea, and teaches himself algebra, trigonometry, navigation, and astronomy.

Cook seems born to sail. Though he is advancing professionally he leaves to volunteer as a seaman with the Royal Navy, which he thinks will be more interesting. With the Navy he surveys the reaches of the St. Lawrence River. This gives General Wolfe the information to make his surprise attack on Quebec (Cook takes part in the amphibious assault), and ultimately allows Britain, rather than France, to gain possession of Canada. Cook also surveys the entire coast of Newfoundland, honing his abilities under extremely adverse conditions.

Defying danger, James Cook sails to the Pacific as master of HMS Endeavour. He keeps his ship clean and ventiliated and his men supplied with vegetables, and the health of his sailors becomes a byword. With Cook are astronomers and botanists, including rich plant collector Joseph Banks. Thousands of plant specimens are discovered, and brought back to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for further research, and the principle of sending scientists on naval voyages is established. Cook surveys all of New Zealand, and charts the east coast of Australia.

On his second voyage Cook, now a commander, takes one of Harrison's pocket-sized chronometers to help him navigate. He discovers New Caledonia and South Georgia Island, and explores the ice rim of the Antarctic. On his third voyage, sent to look for the Northwest Passage, Captain Cook maps the coast from California all the way to the Bering Strait. He develops charting and marine surveying to a level of sophistication not superceded until modern echo and satellite technology, and singlehandedly transforms the map of the world. After an unfortunate misunderstanding, he meets with a bloody death at the hands of natives in Hawaii.

1770s-1804 JOSEPH PRIESTLEY INVESTIGATES AIR; MAKES SODA POP; AND DISCOVERS ERASERS AND THE ELECTRICAL PROPERTIES OF GRAPHITE

When he is a teenager, and forced to leave school because he is ill, Joseph Priestley teaches himself French, Italian, German, Chaldean, Syrian, and Arabic. (He already knows Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.) He never studies science at school, but philosopher and inventor Benjamin Franklin meets him, and urges the young Priestley to experiment to prove his scientific ideas.

Priestley takes up the challenge, and discovers that graphite can conduct electricity, an insight which will prove crucial to the use of carbon as the main component in modern electrical resistors. Living next to a brewery, he notices that gas is produced, and isolates and describes carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrous oxide, later used for anaesthesia. (When he tells Lavoisier about his discoveries, the Frenchman repeats his experiments, and names the gas oxygen.)

Priestley is responsible for making the first soda pop (with carbon dioxide), and shows that oxygen is given off by plants and is essential for animals. A people that has invented pencils had better come up with erasers, and Joseph Priestley does when he finds that India rubber will rub out pencil marks.

Another religious dissenter and clergyman, Priestley flees to America when a mob incensed by his support for the French Revolution sets his home on fire. He continues his experiments in America.

1771 ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA EMERGES FROM THE HEADS OF THREE MEN

The Brits are fascinated by the cascade of new discoveries occurring daily. To get a grip on it all – and they do mean all – Andrew Bell, William Smellie, and Colin Macfarquhar create a systematic plan for compiling and sharing accurate information. The result: The world-renowned Encyclopaedia Britannica, written by experts on a worldwide range of topics – from the latest physics to the philosophy of Buddhism, from the art of medieval Prague to modern medicine. Britannica has been continuously published for more than 200 years.

1776 ADAM SMITH CREATES A BLUEPRINT FOR ECONOMIC SUCCESS

Born in Fife, Adam Smith teaches and writes about moral philosophy, then moves to London where, at the age of 53, he creates a sensation by publishing a book on economics: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Adam Smith is not writing about capitalism or capitalists, but about what might more accurately be called free markets and free economics. (The words capitalism and capitalists would not be coined until 1792.) He is writing about how people can freely make a living, which was what the Brits had been trying to do with some success for hundreds of years. He sees that many Brits are not seeking jobs, but creating jobs. He sees that in order to create jobs, people need capital. He understands that when people can freely choose the terms of their business or their work, and trade freely, unafflicted by government and monoplies and protected by the rule of just law from unprincipled exploiters, they can prosper.

Smith describes the problems that occur when government or monoplies reduce freedom. He discusses theories but is free of ideology, believing that freedom provides the energy and ideas that will give rise to inventions and prosperity that no ideology can create. He is the first in the world to describe free enterprise, to examine the results of economic freedom, and to explain the role of self-interest, the division of labour, the rule of law, and free markets. Tongue slightly in cheek, he ponders the need for division of labour and the need for imports by examining the trading of French wine for English hardware - to avoid an undersupply of wine and an oversupply of pots and pans in Britain!

Adam Smith demonstrates that individual interest guides economies efficiently and produces prosperity and personal fulfilment on a scale unprecedented in human history. He uses the somewhat infelicitous term "invisible hand" to describe how this kind of economy works. In fact, it is many hands and the wisdom of many free minds that make for prosperous economies. After Smith's death it is discovered he had an unusual and endearing way of spending his money. For more about Smith, see Liberty! The Timeline

1777

 

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