The History of 1720-1850


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The Age of Enlightenment, 1750 - 1820

Ramsden's Three-foot Theodolite, 1791

The Age of Enlightenment, 1750 - 1820
`In no former age was ever the light of knowledge so extended and so generally diffused'
James Keir 1789

Eighteenth-century philosophers displayed a new confidence in the power of reason and a will to understand the world through study and experiment. A belief in the rational order of the universe, which now could be revealed by experiment and measurement, went hand-in-hand with fresh ideas for rational systems of government, education, manufacturing and punishment.

This belief in experiment and discovery among their successors went far beyond scientific curiosity. Enlightenment thinkers believed that new knowledge would have a direct and beneficial effect on human affairs. Benjamin Franklin, for example, asked in 1761, 'What signifies Philosophy that does not apply to some Use?' and Erasmus Darwin argued that 'Experimental philosophy, by inducing the World to think and reason ... will overturn the empire of superstition.'

Economic interests drove the desire for better standards of weights and measures. Overseas trade and British naval power required more accurate astronomical tables and a practical method for finding longitude at sea. Military needs led to better mapping of the new colonies overseas, and also at home. The taxation of alcohol led to a new family of instruments. The development of insurance provided a reason to collect mortality records and to calculate life expectancy from them.

In England and France for much of the century the populations were spared devastating epidemics and crippling wars. An educated middle class emerged as living standards rose through overseas trade, including the slave trade, and improved agriculture. This emerging well-to-do sector of society took an interest in the new fields of scientific enquiry, patronised lectures and demonstrations, and bought microscopes and other scientific instruments for self-improvement and study.

Source: King's College, London
Inv: 1927-1634
Maximum machine, c.1740

Desaguliers, a lecturer and experimenter, was concerned with the efficient use of manpower. To measure this, he devised the 'maximum machine', of which this is a model. A man was to stand on the platform to raise a bucket of water. When he reached the bottom, the water was tipped into a chute while he ran up the stairs.

Source: Meteorological Office
Shelton's Regulator Clock, 1768

Regulators, precise long-case clocks with specialised dials, were used to take stars' or planets' transit times, by counting the ticks of the seconds pendulum. This example first went to the North Cape to observe the transit of Venus in 1769. It then went on Captain Cook's South Sea expedition from 1772 and it went on his third to the North Pacific from 1776.

Source: The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty
Inv. 1933-133, 1948-138-142, 1951-571 The Portsmouth Block-Making Machines, 1803
These machines, designed by Marc Isambard Brunel to make pulley blocks for the Royal Navy, represent the first purpose-designed and integrated system for quantity production in the world.

British power in the eighteenth century relied on the sailing ships of the Royal Navy. A single fighting ship such as Nelson's Victory needed over a thousand pulley blocks and, during the Napoleonic Wars, the Navy purchased about 100,000 a year. The pulley block was a natural subject for the early application of mass production.

Machines for cutting and shaping wood were not new, but the core idea behind Brunel's system was to design a suite of machines in which each did a particular job in sequence, and the workpieces were passed from one machine to the next. This idea of rational manufacture fitted in well with eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals. Brunel's system was adopted for the Navy by Sir Samuel Bentham, the brother of Jeremy Bentham, the Utilitarian philosopher.

The machines continued to be used for well over a hundred years. Perhaps the greatest puzzle behind the feat is why the system remained a notable and highly regarded 'one off', but did not lead to similar techniques in other industries. In spite of its successes British manufacturers and government largely ignored the principles it established until they awoke to the power of 'the American system of manufacture' over 50 years later.

General Life c. 1750-1820
This period, which witnessed the French and American Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars, also saw the beginnings of the complex changes we know as the Industrial Revolution. Some forms of manufacture, such as cotton yarn and cloth production, became concentrated in factories. Most others, including the clothing trades, continued in small workshops and in the home. Yet people in all walks of life were surrounded by manufactured products, embodying a knowledge of a diverse range of materials and hard-won knowledge of manufacturing techniques.

Timekeeping c. 1750-1820
In the seventeenth century, Samuel Pepys, the famous London diarist, told the time by using church bells or, occasionally, a sundial. This meant that he could only estimate the time to within a quarter of an hour or so. Sundials, sandglasses, watches and clocks were all available for those with the means to pay. Some were so finely made, from expensive materials, that they were intended only for rich customers, for example only the wealthiest could afford pocket watches. Other timekeepers, especially sundials, were made of wood and paper and sold cheaply.

Personal Transport c.1750-1820
Personal transport for most people in the eighteenth century was simple - they travelled on foot, mostly only travelling very short distances, many people never left the town or village where they grew up. Long-distance travel was difficult and slow - travelling by coach it was usual to allow at least two days for the journey from London to Newcastle, with several stops to change horses and rest. Only the wealthy could afford to travel by carriage or sedan chair around the towns.

Kitchen and Tableware c.1750-1820
Even the poorest households in the eighteenth century could afford some pewter tableware, although other materials were considered more desirable. Glazed and decorated porcelain was popular, whereas earthenware was seen as a lowly material. Silverware was extremely expensive, and out of the price range of most people. However, the development of Sheffield plate, a thin layer of silver fused to a copper alloy, enabled middle-class families to own some pieces of silver-plated tableware at a fraction of the cost of solid silver.

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