Charter Cities Podcast Episode 36: The Royal Society of the Arts with Anton Howes
Today's guest, Anton Howes, is a historian of innovation, and his first book is "Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation", where he unpacks this organization and the significant roles it plays in influencing the social landscape of the UK.
Key Points From This Episode:
• What The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce is.
• Understanding a national improvement agency and the role it plays.
• Hear about what the draw of joining the RSA was.
• Precursors to the RSA and some of the problems with these organizations.
• Some of the changes the RSA undergoes in the 19th century.
• How the Great Exhibition of 1851 changed the landscape.
• How the 1800 utilitarian movement in the UK was similar to the progressive movement in the late 19th Century in the U.S.
• The influence that the utilitarian idea had on examinations and the long-lasting impact.
• The RSA’s work in conservationism and what the springboard for this was.
• Prince Phillip’s interest in conservation and how he influenced the RSA.
• What the RSA does today and what the future has in store for the organization.
• Opportunities Anton believes are being missed with the current structure of the RSA.
• How Anton would structure the new world fair and the sectors he would include.
• The importance of being able to showcase competing interests in public.
• Suggestions for how we can raise the social status of inventors.
• We should encourage innovation across all sectors of society.
• What Anton would do if he had 100 million dollars to change the status of the sciences.
• Which inventions were invented after their time and the consequence of this.
• What separates inventors from everyone else in society.
• How to build a culture of innovation and invention in a city or country.
• The reason that Anton left conventional academia.
• Unpacking the link between expertise and invention.
My guest today is Anton Howes. Is a historian of innovation and his first book is Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation.
Mark: Welcome to the show, Anton.
Anton: Nice to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Mark: To start, what is the Royal Society of the Arts?
Anton: The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce to give it its full 18th Century title. It’s still the title today, is basically Britain’s National Improvement Agency for the past 270 odd years. Founded in 1754 by a bunch of investors and scientists and a few other people –
Mark: What is a National Improvement Agency?
Anton: What is it? Well, I mean, that’s actually part of the question. One of the real challenges in writing my book about it was actually just to define what the hell this organization is, because there’s no easy way to categorize it. There’s nothing else quite like it that’s really existed that had such a broad range of activities. The first hundred years, I guess one way to put it is the subscription funded, but basically a kind of kickstart, 18th Century kick starter where you could pull your resources and then you could vote at the kind of meetings, general meetings as to what that pool of money would be used for, with the general aim of funding inventions, funding scientific advancements, funding the opening of new trade routes or creation of new business ideas and so on in a way that wouldn’t or that we kind of go beyond the sorts of things that we’re already covered by existing systems.
They had a rule that they, general speaking, wouldn’t give an award to something that was patented. The idea of being that if it was already commercial, commercially viable, that there’s already resources going towards it and they should try to find stuff that educates this, things that aren’t really upwards that can be done. With the overall effects that when they start giving out these prizes, sometimes it’s for sort of public goods kinds of elements. So safety improvements, consumer safety, worker safety, all sorts of safety cranes, ways to make steam engines safe so they don’t just blow up, ways to prevent horse and carriage accidents, train accidents, accidents and so on.
As well as giving awards to people who are to poor at the time to patent, taking other patents that’s really expensive back in 18th Century. People who were too rich to patent, we found it beneath them or to vulgar to be involved in things like commerce, and people who had inventions that weren’t necessarily worth commercializing, but weren’t necessarily public goods ones either. Kind of marginal improvements. They think it’s still worth publicizing, getting to some sort of credit for, maybe a bit of cash, maybe an honorary medal, that sort of thing. That’s the first hundred years. Then from the mid-19th Century, it gets involved in exhibitions.
Mark: Let’s say in the first hundred years and for those –
Mark: A bunch of people got together, pulled resources and said, “All right. Let’s kind of reward both financial, as well as with increases in status by kind of broadly define the set of public goods that are currently being rewarded by either the market or the state.” Why would somebody join this organization?
Anton: That’s a great question. I think part of the genius that the founders come up with is to make it a charitable organization, where being involved as one of the funders has seem to be something that in itself high status. From the very beginning, they would publish subscription list that’s telling you who exactly the other people funding on. The more famous people you manage to get upfront on that, famous scientists, aristocrats, the Duke of whatever the Duchess of what have you, all of these different people. Once they’re on the list, you’re like, “Okay. Maybe I should be on this list too” and that’s a good thing to be seen to be done.
Once you get that kind of critical mass, you then often get people who are a bit more commercial. People like Thomas Chippendale for example, the furniture maker who think, “Okay. If I go to these meetings, I get to sit next to a duke.” They’re not separated in the meetings themselves. It’s a much flatter kind of organization, much more democratic in that way. Maybe there’s an opportunity for me to wrap shoulders with these people and actually make connections as well. Actually, another great example being Adam Smith, who becomes a member seemingly when he comes down to London to publicize The Wealth Nations. Clearly, he’s gone there to try and get a few more book sales or try to get some more connections there.
That’s one element is that in some way from the very beginning, the founder, William Shipley. His idea is that, what it should be doing is, using prizes to take advantage of people’s self-interest for the public good. Then ingeniously, making the organization itself to take advantage of people’s self-interest that they even become subscribers in the first place . In many ways, that’s kind of continued to today, although one thing that happens in the 20th Centuries, they had in 1908 the Royal to the title. That kind of adds an extra bit of prestige with people becoming fellows or members for that reason as well. On my view, that’s actually I think a wrong term that it took and it probably shouldn’t have done that. But even for those early years, once you get all these people joining, especially high-status people, in itself becomes a high-status event to go in meetings.
Mark: Yeah. Because there aren’t like any kind of modern analogues that I guess I can think of, right? I mean, the closest kind of thing is maybe a charity that has an annual charity dinner, where you’ve got a handful of the large donors and a bunch of other people paid who came to dinner and hopes to sit next to the donor, get drink with them and be able to have a conversation. But that doesn’t seem to have the same kind of, like the society seems to have a much broader like scope of what they’re doing and kind of a broader vision. Were there any kind of analogues when it was for in other countries?
Anton: Yeah, to a certain extent. In some ways, it is itself inspired by an organization called the Dublin Society, now the Royal Dublin Society. In terms of the use of prizes – now this is basically a society of improvers, similar kind of public good kind of ways, not as in kind of the economics turned public good, but in the public, the good of the public kind of much broader supporting the commonwealth kind of way, concerned with the Irish colony. Also, a Scottish society of improvers, very short-lived of seemingly has a kind of similar idea behind it, which is to get a lot of the powers that and say, “We’re able to try and promote invention improvement, scientific technological advancement.”
Those are kind of the precursors and there is one version – one thing that’s interesting actually is that there are attempts to set this up earlier in London. There is associated desire in France, interested with set up by an Englishman and the Scotsman, who happen to be in France at the time. There are these attempts to do it, but one of the problems I think with those ones, is very often, they were commercial. Not the of the special society improvers, but the early ones in London. Their idea was that they’d be a bit like venture capitalist and you would be kind of funding these ideas, and then you’ve had a stake in the patents that would come out of the stuff that you’d fund.
I guess kind of similar to what the accelerators started, accelerators today where they maybe kept a little bit of a stake in these things . I think the problem there was it never got quite enough of a critical mass because it wasn’t high-status enough to be involved in that thing as one of the funders. Whereas by making it a charitable type thing, where you’re a subscriber, but you don’t get a stake, you just get the kind prestige of being someone who – like you’re on a list of public-spirited people, actually by being subscriber. That I think was what made the difference and made this one so much more successful. Such that by the 1760s, just about a decade after its founded, it has over 2,000 subscribers. That’s a lot for the 18th Century. Maybe today, that wasn’t very many people. But back then, that’s really a lot of people, especially when it includes basically every prime minister, almost all the ministers, almost all the civil servants and the best merchants, big industrialist and absolutely everyone who’s anyone pretty much is involved.
There are some points of inspiration there, at least the use of prizes is something that they take inspiration from and this idea of it being something for the public good. The founder, William Shipley, he don’t want a kind of small scale in North Hampton, where he tried to create a fund by the local gentry, and the merchants and so on. Where they would buy up cheap fuel in the summer when it was cheap, to then sell to the poor during the winter when it went up in price. The idea there being that he thought that the local merchants were kind of buying stuff when it was cheap and selling it when it was taking advantage of the poor for their own benefit. He has this kind of critique of what’s going, of what’s merchants doing, seeing them as being quite greedy of trying to find the way to use this kind of – a fund, the subscription fund for the public good.
But his real innovation there, beyond that is to combine that kind of charitable organization with a price fund for inventions and a kind of a general one that can use anything and everything. The fact that it’s a direct democracy where every subscriber gets one person one vote. Women as well as men interestingly, which is very, very unusual for the 18th Century. It’s basically one of the only organizations to have done that. That I think is kind of another element where, what it then chooses to fund is extremely broad, extremely diverse. Again, making it almost impossible to categorize as an organization, because there’s nothing really quite like it today.
Mark: All right. First I interrupt, after the first hundred years, it was focused on basically the prize for charitable improvements and relatively high dollar amounts of like high cost of subscription fees. Then it starts changing after the first hundred years,
Anton: Yeah. The subscription fees are large for the time, but they never – actually, it was interesting. They get small every time because they don’t adjust them for inflation. It’s two guineas in the 1750s and it’s still two guineas in the 19th and 20th Century. Only in the 20th Century they start kind of actually doing it for inflation. It does actually get much, much cheaper over time. Partly I think because the members never want to vote for the subscription fees to go up, and because it has maintained that democratic element to it.
In the 19th Century, what happens is that, essentially almost dies because people get less and less interested in being members. It loses some of that prestige maybe because it gets cheaper. Certainly, because there’s a lot more competition for other societies. In fact, a lot of societies that are themselves spinoffs from the Society of Arts itself where, for example, those of them who are interested in chemistry and maybe giving kind of chemical prizes, they start getting more like talking to one another, they go the pub or the coffee house after and they chat to another. They start to form a separate society, often even in the original rooms, which is just about chemistry and lectures of chemistry. It’s a bit more like infotainment, which is very common today, where people love to go to lectures on things and they like to stimulate their brains in the kind of entertaining kind of way. Podcasts is another great example.
That sort of thing ends up being much more popular than what the society is doing, where you’re turning up every Wednesday evening and maybe Tuesdays and Thursdays for the sub committee meetings and any member can go to them. What you’re doing is kind of administrative work. You’re looking at inventions that have been submitted to you. You’re assessing them. You’re working out whether or not they deserve a prize. You’re maybe consulting with experts as to how good they are and that’s not a boring work in a way. It’s not something that you kind of want to expect all of your members to be doing.
They kind of have this membership leader decide to become much more lecture oriented. They create these councils, they become a representative democracy as it’s so common in many charities today. You have lots of people who are kind of membership organization. They elect a council to do the admin stuff for them. They pivot in terms of activity towards exhibitions. But the idea here is that rather than trying to outdo the patent system, which itself is also improving in some ways, where patent are seen less and less as monopoly. It’s more as things that transmit information and make information public rather than secret.
Particularly because you get lots of journals that are actually publicizing, what is actually being patented with the drawings, with the specifications, which just didn’t happen in the early 18th Century and mid-19th Century. Because that’s become more common, because actually all the members are themselves investors who used the patent system all the time. They decide to pivot to exhibitions and the idea with exhibitions is, well, they look abroad. They look to what the French to try to catch up with the British industry revolution. But the French are basically looking at Britain and saying, “Oh my God! We’re going to start losing wars if we don’t start catching up. We’re going to start losing our industry to Britain. We’re going to start kind of losing economically, militarily, diplomatically, whatever, commercially to Britain if we don’t do something to catch up.”
From Napoleon’s time onward, they start setting up these exhibitions of national industry, where the government basically often actually have patent fees, funds and exhibition where they will pay for manufacturers from all over the country to send the best of the best to a central place, usually in Paris, where everyone, consumers can see what the latest technology is. They can start demanding stuff that I don’t know, is available in but isn’t available in Paris or visitors from Britain, they can see what’s available in Paris and start demanding that of their producers. You kind of have this kind of general raising of standards amongst consumers, the demand for new technology advancements. He was exposing them to the best of the best.
Also, most of the producers showing what the best is. In the same way that, for example, a technology fair today would be like and a kind of industry fair. Where you’ve got all these big tech conferences where you can see the latest technology that’s just been developed and producers can actually look at what the next person just down on the next store, or two store, or three stores down are doing and saying, “Damn! We need to be doing that. We need to be outdoing these people.” There’s a kind of emulative pressure there, a kind of emulative competition that starts taking place there as well.
In addition to that, from the government’s perspective, it actually gives them a snapshot before the era of National Statistics, where this stuff is being rightfully collected by bureaucracy to actually see what the state of technology is in the country. There’s a kind of additional element there, where then the government – because France is trying to do this in the very top-down way to try to emulate what practically Britain quite bought them up. Is to try and then work out where to focus its resources to try and encourage innovation further, where to kind of do its technology forces, seeing where they’re behind and where they’re ahead. They use these exhibitions in that kind of way.
The Society of Arts in England starts looking at these French ones and say, “Okay. We need to be doing that kind of thing too.” The big culmination of that pivot is after some smaller initial exhibitions, within just London itself. They organize the Great Exhibition of 1851, nowadays known as the first of the world’s fairs that really kicks off this idea of doing what the French has been doing nationally, but internationally. Where you don’t just kind of compare the regions of France and their industry, but you have the industry of all nations, right now as the official title is, The Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. Then you start seeing an emulate in 1855 in Paris. You’ve seen them in New York. There’s actually a second one in London, 1862, which again Society of Arts is involved with basically for the next 50 years, actually kind of bit longer.
The Society of Arts is involved with either organizing the exhibitions that takes place in London or being responsible for the British sections as some of the foreign ones. For example, the royal connection that organizes the British section, the Columbian Exhibition, the really big famous one in 1893. That’s all run by the Society of Arts basically. That becomes one of their main features.
Again, what happens is, exhibitions eventually go out of fashion and people start doing other sorts of things, and the society again has to pivot and start creating all sorts of new ways to encouraging improvement in the 20th Century ranging from stuff like buy an entire village to then restore it because they get very interested in the arts and crafts movement. Lots of their members turn out to be kind of William Morris accolades, all the accolades, his accolades and getting very involved in that sort of thing. Creating a new fund to restore private residences that weren’t being protected by planning commissions which was still at the time for just kind of official things like government property or ancient things like Stonehenge and what have you.
Then in the 1970s or 1960s getting involved with creating actually the modern environmentalist movement for a series of conferences. In fact, bringing together people from across a whole range of areas. The people who are involved in soil degradation, or looking at rivers, or looking at lakes, people who are looking at plastic waste. Then through those conferences, then we’ll realize, “Okay. This is actually a global thing.” This is much more kind of a holistic view of all these things. From that, creating I would say the early environmentalist movement. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
The Society of Arts, it’s a very difficult thing to characterize, hence when I say it’s a kind of subscription-funded national improvement agency, but improving anything and everything. Of course, anything is fair game in some sense. Because otherwise, I mean, you can’t really pick out a particular thread of activity that it has.
Mark: In the 19th Century, kind of a utilitarian scout like relatively involved in the Royal Society. What did that look like? What was their influence and how is that leveraged for some of these kind of libertarian goals? Not libertarian, utilitarian.
Anton: Yeah. The utilitarian is an interesting thing. I think this is where the pivoting to exhibitions is kind of a good example of this. People who are – so that the main figure here is a guy called, Henry Cole. He takes over the entire society, kind of gets known as King Cole’s parliament, where people are discussing his ideas and he would set the agenda, even though he’s not even technically in charge all the time. I think he’s a chairman for like a year or two of the council. But otherwise, he’s just sort of vice president, but he’s such an aggressive figure. But he’s such an aggressive for – his kind of domineering personality, it’s probably the best way to put it. But he really dominates the society’s agenda for almost have a century.
Cole was friends with John Stuart Mill, Luis Bentham, . I would say, the way to characterize him is, utilitarianism applied. He’s no great philosopher or thinker himself, but he loves to apply these things. The key tenants there are, the greatest good for the greatest number. Hence, exhibitions work well in a way that particular prices don’t because prices are focused on individuals and maybe sub groups where exhibitions are aimed at the entirety of the population, but potentially even the entirety of the world.
Cole’s particular twist is actually a bit more idiosyncratic in some ways like Mill where Bentham had kind of derided things like aesthetics as being irrational or things that aren’t what we’re really thinking about. Mill has this kind of at what point, basically has a nervous breakdown and becomes very with poetry and the arts, and aesthetics. Cole, I think also has that – to the extent that his mantra in some ways is the greatest beauty for the greatest number. He starts to find ways to use exhibitions to actually tell people what is better taste to raise the aesthetic standards. I imagine that Cole would think that Instagram is like the best thing ever invented because it literally puts like amazing examples of beauty right into people’s faces, right into people’s homes in a way that he was trying to do in a much more kind of unsophisticated way, given the technological constraints at the time.
He for example is doing stuff like running kid’s books where he’s taking old stories like old fairy tales, and not really changing much within the fairytales themselves. In fact, he’s doing something that’s quite peculiar for the Victorians and that he’s not trying to use them to moralize, teach kids particular virtues. Instead, he’s focused on the illustrations to make them as beautiful as possible, creating ways from childhood, invite kids to what captures this like good aesthetics, or creating kind of almost like a kind of early form of Lego out of clay tiles, where he gets his friend, Herbert Minton, one of the great potters of the industrial revolution, 19th Century, the guy who does the tiles in Palace of Parliament. He did like help him create this kind of game for kids to then use the tessellated bits of clay to create lovely mosaic patterns and so on.
He used these exhibitions in some way and actually even the prizes when he first started to get involved in the society, is to try to create prizes for good design rather than for necessarily for invention. Where in particular, his focus is on stuff that would put good design into the home. He’s actually a quite a religious person despite the utilitarian. But one of his best prizes is for the cover of the family bible, like what’s the best design to put in the cover there. Again, like even using people’s religion to insert beauty into that homes. Then using exhibitions the same way.
If you can create these examples of what the best design looks like from all over the world, people with then be inspired to do that. In some way, actually the William Morris kind of focus on arts and crafts. On aesthetics, it’s actually kind of culmination of that kind of thing, because he and other aesthetic reformers in some way, they’re very interested in trying to find the underlying rules of beauty. As utilitarian’s, they’re looking for the rational basis of what we find beautiful, what we found aesthetic. He uses, from the proceeds of the Great Exhibition because it’s such a profitable event. This is by the way – there is government involvement on the kind of strategic level, sitting up a real commission to oversee it, but it doesn’t use any tax funding at all. It is completely a kind of self-funded thing. They rate subscriptions and then based off promises of subscriptions, they raise a loan.
Because it has a huge profit, they then – actually, the Royal Commission for the Exhibition 1851 still exists to manage the money that they made because they had such a massive profit from it. They’re still disbursing prizes for like science post docs and PhD students and so on. But they also use that fund to buy a huge amount of land in West London, what’s now called South Kensington. In fact, a name created by Cole, because he didn’t like Brompton nearby, which is a much kind of less fancy name. As Kensington Palace just to the north. He creates the South Kensington Museum, nowadays known as the Victorian and Albert Museum, then actually renames the area.
You can really see his stamp there, in a way that places try to rebrand their district for city all the time and it never works. I’m sure you can think of examples from New York, from DC. Like my own area in London, actually try to do something similar, where it tried to call itself Midtown and that never took off. But he actually managed to get people to rename a whole area for his ingenuity essentially by naming the museum that way. That whole area becomes known as because of Prince Albert, the kind of figure head of the Royal Exhibitions, president of the RSA at the time, whom Cole manages to persuade to get involved with The Great Exhibition, to get involved in this whole project.
Nowadays, it’s the museum mile. It’s where you see the National History Museum, the Science Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, there’s the Royal Albert Hall. There’s all of this kind of – it’s an agglomeration of cultural institutions. Again, using that kind of utilitarian mindset there, which is, “Let’s have this concentrated center for all these things, then use it as the kind of hub to then have cultural spokes now to the country side.” Sending stuff that isn’t on display out to regional museums, trying to then spread culture or really aesthetics in his point of view. Then people like Albert add science to the mix as well to the rest of the country.
Mark: I don’t think this is in your book, but like one, was there are progressive moment in like the UK in a similar way there was in the US? And two, did the Royal Society play a role in that?
Anton: What do you mean by progressive moment in the US? I’m not familiar with US history as much?
Mark: Like basically in the late 19th, early 20th Century, there were a lot of reformers that took on kind of machine politics in major cities. In New York, it’s Tammany Hall and these reformers kind of wanted to apply like scientific management skills to government. They would come in and say, “Okay. We want there to be a budget.” I think in New York, running a budget to like the 1880s or 1890s or something like that. Like we want to know where the money is going. We want to set up like formal departments in bureaucracy. We want like all of the civil servants not to get fired every time there’s a change in administration, but have like a political layer on top and then kind of civil service layer that’s entrenched in a bureaucracy underneath it. They were also are associated with rallying against any of the major companies, like monopolies of the era.
Anton: I think to an extent then, the utilitarian movement from the 1810s, ’20s onwards is similar in that respect. One of the big features originally of that movement is actually trying to rationalize the law, so you get people like Henry Bruen who had been friends with Banthem or kind of invites elements of Banthem’s philosophy there, where they’re trying to kind of make the law more rational, have fewer of these crazy medieval exceptions and try to do it that way. You certainly have administrative changes, which I think they’re often pushing for, at least behind the scenes.
What’s interesting actually, there’s a tiny movement. I mean, there’s are few MPs, very few Lords and yet they have this actually huge influence, because they’re very, very good at taking over institutions and then suing them towards their own ends. They’re very good at setting up subcommittees that then stay around for years, and years and years. I mean, actually, another great example would be education. This is what I did mention in the book, which is the – effectively, they managed to build a state education system by taking over certain very obscure institutions that they can then leverage in that way.
Mark: When you’re saying they, are you referring to the utilitarians or –
Anton: Yeah, utilitarians. They’re very good at finding allies, so when they find allies, and if they can find common ground with someone, they’ll then use them to kind of bring them into the even though they have slightly different agenda. Cole is obsessed with aesthetics, but he often works with the free trade movement, which is quite large. People like Richard Cobden. He works with the peace movement to get support for the Great Exhibition because there’s this idea that this exhibition of industry by people competing peacefully with industry rather than through war. This will actually create better bonds between different countries. The more commerce you have between different countries, the less chance of them going to war there is.
There is a lot of these kind of ideas that he’s drawing from. But he isn’t actually – he doesn’t necessarily believe the stuff himself, he just pragmatically knows that these are people to target, that there’s a grounds full of support you can draw it from. But with education, one of the – the key issue here is that, a lot to get involved just after exhibition with setting up a union of mechanics institutions. These are essentially worker ran and worker created institutions for their own self-education. Where they pull their resources to invite lecturers to create libraries, to get scientific equipment, to essentially create their own education. It’s almost like community colleges, but bottom-up funds where it’s actually created by the students themselves. Often, having these things at night or at evening because that’s when they’re not working.
The science gets involved with trying to create kind of centralized hub that will help them. Buying textbooks on mass at cheaper rates, buying scientific equipment, they create the use of prize system to create kind of cheap art palates, the kind of the standard thing that you get for kids. Whereas like, a few paintbrushes and like different bits of paint that you can use, like a kind of standardized kit that can be produced in bulk. Also, touring various countries and creating the kind of – there’s a union effect of these institutions created for its management.
One of the kind of again, utilitarian ideas there is to – it seems almost impossible to create this education system, because schools at the time were dominated by religious groups. You have Anglican schools, you have Decenter schools to various other sect that are kind of controlling education. Whenever you have the idea of state schools being muted, people say, “What are they going to teach? Are they going to teach the established religion, which is Anglican Church? Are they going to teach one of these elements?” If you say you’re not going to teach any religion at all, that’s even worse. That’s like atheism. This is completely unacceptable. Both sides oppose that.
The utilitarian idea is to create examinations, where you can have state ran examinations based on the results of the students. It’s actually one of Cole’s idea as well to a certain extent, at least the further application for this. Based on the results of the students, you’ll then pay the teachers a bonus based on how many A’s they managed to get. In that way, you don’t actually need to control the schools at all. You just control the examinations. You make sure these examinations work in terms of the qualifications and then teachers will teach to those tests, whoever controls those schools. That’s a kind of reverse way of taking control of education from the state’s point of view.
They first applied this by the civil service itself. This is one of the Banthem’s kind of ideas. Bunch of utilitarians kind of pushed for that, then they worked out that they can do this by the universities, so Oxford and Cambridge. They persuade Oxford and Cambridge to set up school examinations. Because what was happening is a lot of people would take the entrance exams for universities. They would get an acceptance offer if they did very well, and then they wouldn’t actually go to the university. They would take acceptance offer and then show that to an employer and say, “Look. I’m good enough to get into the university, so how about you hire me as a clerk or something based on that.”
This is wasteful for the universities so they’re like, “Okay! We’ll just create a better system where we’ll have local exams for school leaders run by us. Then the Society of Arts itself adds to that system. This is all in the 1850s kind of all happening at once. Basically, the same groups of people, again, utilitarian reformers and using the Society of Arts. They do this for mechanics institutions. One of the ideas they have to revitalize and there was this concern that they were drifting towards infotainment and actually entertainment away from the kind of roots, working class roots that they used to have. They’re becoming two little class in some ways and that there’s not enough actual education going on within them.
There is this idea that okay, if we’re going to actually encourage people to take education seriously. We need to give them something lucrative at the end of it. The best way you can do that is with meaningful qualifications. The Society of Arts sets up an examination system, which actually runs as an examination board right up until the 1980s, before eventually hives it off. They actually – its decedent nowadays called OCR interestingly a re-merger of the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA examination boards, the original 1850’s ones. It’s still an examination board that handles like state qualifications today. It’s the kind of very long-lasting impact there of using kind of civil society. Civil society groups actually creating a state system.
The thing they also do is they – Cole ends up, because he’s a civil servant at the same time he’s doing all of this stuff. He ends up after the Great Exhibition being in control of his own Department of Science and Art, the kind of special department set up specifically for his own lens in some ways. What he does is he used the Society of Arts to do trial exams to see if there’s demand for certain subjects to be taught. When those work, the Department of Science and Art then takes over those examinations and offers the bonuses for teachers that they would have. He kind of uses the Society of Arts to kind of trailblaze a bit, test the waters, a bit of a kind of, like kind of little trial defense first before then bringing the government in and kind of creating, scaling things up to a much more larger level.
Mark: You talked a little bit about how the RSA influenced the environmental movement, helped to get it set up in the UK. I’m not familiar with kind of the UK history of the environmental movement. But in the US, it’s fascinated me because there’s basically like a ten-year period from the publication of – shoot, I’m forgetting the book.
Anton: Silent Spring.
Mark: Yeah, Silent Spring. The book is published, then 10 years later, you have the EPA, you have the Clean Water Act, you have the Clean Air Act, you have NEPA, all of this major environment kind of legislation is passed and these environmental principles are still really embedded in this huge amount of aspects in civil society today. Obviously, there was a lot of like great background before the publication of Silent Spring. You had Teddy Roosevelt doing conservationism. There were all these groups. There were all these discussions happening for a long time. Really, from the moment of like coalescing to massive impact was like very short if you look at the history of a lot of broad social movements.
I mean, one, is that like a proximately analogous to what happened in the UK and what was the process of the Royal Society of Arts in that? Just elaborate on that a little bit more.
Anton: Yeah. I think in some ways it’s the same spring board. It’s from Silent Spring. I think that is one of the major influences. But what really happens is there’s a kind of, I guess the way to put this, that in the 1950s or late 1940s, early 1950s, you start to see there are lot of conservationists, people who are – I don’t know. They love beetles, or they love particular kinds of birds or like a particular area of wetlands and they want to preserve its beauty. It’s often very aesthetically focused. For the society, it’s a kind of natural progression from being very concerned. Thanks to William Morris and his accolades and their accolades kind of inspired by the search for beauty through kind of bottom-up artisanal way.
I mean, one of the things is they’re inspired by – they noticed how the middle ages were full of all of this beauty from the artisanal way rather than kind of top down from the kind of high art kind of people, to the painters, architects and sculptors. The Great Exhibition solidifies that because people are amazed by the stuff that’s being created in terms of design by Indian artisans. They think, okay, clearly, they have an eye of beauty here. There’s something about craftmanship that’s really important there. In the 20th Century, that kind of merges I think to a concern not just the built environment but for the natural environment. But they’re not using the world environment, it’s still kind of natural beauty. People don’t really talk about like environment. If you’re an environmentalist in the 1960s, that means you’re probably someone who thinks that nurture is more important than nature in the raising of children. It’s nothing to do with conversation or like in nature in a kind of more general sense.
You start to get this concern about beauty of the countryside. England’s lovely green hills and trying to preserve a kind of very like talking kind of approach. The beauty of the shire versus like subjecting the stuff to industry, but it’s very segmented. What happens is that in the 1960s, you do have the publications on spring, you do have the founding of various organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and you have people interest in conservation but they’re not a movement with this kind of much broader conception.
Interestingly, this actually is something that comes from Prince Philip who recently died, the husband of current Queen who became president of the RSA in the 1950s after the Queen have pretty much – it was immediately when the Queen became the Queen. He’s kind of a young man at the time looking for things to do. One of his big interest is conversation of nature. He’s great friends with a lot of these people who are obsessed with birds in particular and he’s a bird watcher essentially. He gets kind of involved in some ways amongst some of these groups. They hold a series of – well, they hold this exhibition of wildlife. I think it’s 1960, 1961. I can’t remember exactly now.
Off the back of that, the story goes that he enquires, “Oh! Do you know each other?” Because there’s all these different stores of all these different groups. The answer apparently is no, but they don’t haven’t actually been talking together. They haven’t actually had a movement around conservation. He suggests that the Society of Arts gets involved with doing the kind of administrative element of organizing the conferences. There are series of conferences that’s called the Countryside in 1970, looking forward to 1970. They have a major, major impact. It’s just kind of putting people together in the same room and talking about these issues that are sort of related, they’re not quite related but they start to kind of form this much broader picture.
We managed to get the EU, not really EU at the time but the kind of the European community to designate 1970, looking ahead as the Year of Conservation. They do send delegates to the White House when it started to consult on conservation issues. They do manage to get in 1967 a new act passed to create more national parks effectively in the UK because they’re worried about with the rise of the motorcar, it’s proliferation, that people are all going to be going to visit nature and that will ruin nature. So they need to create more spaces to kind of take the burden of particular areas and natural beauty.
1970 becomes actually this threshold year where in the UK, you see the creation of the Department of the Environment where for the first time on a gallop pole ever, you see the environments being something that voters are taking seriously as an issue. Like it’s like even actually registering as an issue at all. You assume in the 1970s. See the founding of Greenpeace, and lots of early precursors to various green parties, not just in the UK but in the rest of Europe and in the US as well. It seems as though it’s from that kind of collection of people. It’s a difficult thing to prove history of ideas here. It seems as though this is where a lot of these ideas that are already being kind of floating around but in a very desperate, disconnected way. It’s through those connections that have been actually has this very global impact.
It strikes me that the UK seems to be the leader here interestingly. I think facts of those conferences and then its conference is sending those delegates, who are then influence of people in Europe as a whole in the United States and so on. But yeah, so Silent Spring, for listeners if they’re not aware of it. This is the book where DDT found the Californian mothers like breastmilk. The interesting twist there being that nature seems to be having impact on humans, not just on nature as the separate thing. Environmentalism is an idea kind of the big step in terms of innovating ideologically there or changing the ideas around things, is this idea that nature isn’t just nature and it’s something for nature lovers. It’s if that we don’t do something about nature, they have an impact on us and that survival of humans and species is also potentially at risk. That’s something that have – they’re not quite in those sorts of terms, and certainly not thinking of nature as a whole.
Mark: Good. What does RSA do today? What can we expect from it over the next 20 or 30 years?
Anton: I mean, it’s an interesting question. In fact, they’ve just – they’re about to have a new CEO. The person who’s sitting is Matthew Taylor where I was writing the book has just left. The new one’s coming in in September 2021. I think what’s happened to the organization is, it’s now very dependent on individual personalities of its leaders. Because of changes to the way that kind of charity law or company law work in this country, it is now much less like – it was representative democracy for years and years, and things have changed now that it actually has a much more formalized, more ordinary structure as charity. There’s a board of trustees, and yeah, there are fellows but they have sort of input. In some way, they can raise concerns, but they’re not actually the people who actually own the organization beyond things like AGMs, which is kind of very ordinary charity structure.
What that means though is that now I think that people who run it – interestingly, the CEO is a position emerged, is a director of evolution from what used to be the secretary’s role. Literally, the person who took the minutes of the democratic meetings of all the members in the 18th Century is now the person actually runs the thing and provides strategic direction. What we like to see, I have no idea. I mean, it really depends on what the incoming CEO wants to do with it. But my kind of impression is that for the last decade or so, the really big thing that people would notice is, there’s a lot of members or a lot of people who signed up to be fellows of the RSA.
Fellowship by the way, the unfortunately misleading thing is when, in the 1910s, they introduced the term fellow to the member. It started to create the impression and the use of Royal in 1908 rather than just Society of Arts. It created the impression that this is – that when you become a fellow, it’s like you’re being recognized for your achievement. That’s not the case at all. It’s exactly how it used to be in the past, and that you’re essentially just a subscriber to the fund that runs the organization. Just because you have FRSA after your name doesn’t actually mean a thing, because essentially, anyone could sign up right now. You could just go to the website and become a fellow just paying the subscription fees and becoming part of this network.
I think the missed opportunity of not just the incoming CEO but the last one as well is always that, there’s now about 30,000 of these people still very concentrated in UK, but now all over the world as well. The missed opportunities that we need to be doing something with those people, you’ve kind of already made pressure group right there but in such a – like it’s not clear what exactly that pressure group is going to do. Managing that pressure group or managing that group of people and then utilizing the members to do something. That’s the kind of big question. I’m not sure where that’s going to go.
The last chapter of my book, I will say is kind of, I think it was a social movement in search of a calls. Where there’s like, we don’t know quite what it’s going to direct itself to doing. I think that’s going to very much depend on those in charge, and also the members to make themselves heard. If they have a project, they should be like Henry Cole in the 19th Century and actually try to push the organization to do something towards their own end, because it’s so broadly constituted, encouragement of arts, manufacturers and commerce. That literally means everything and it has done everything. It’s done stuff with the environment. It’s done stuff with cooking. It set up the fourth plinth on Trafalgar Square, which is now a kind of rotating – it’s not a permanent exhibit there. It’s not a permanent statue that people – like there’s a new exhibit there to show modern art every few months.
Those are random things, so you could use these organizations to do something quite interesting there. But I think that full potential hasn’t quote yet being realized, even if I think in some way it’s on its way kind of infrastructurally towards .
Mark: Is Progress Studies a new RSA?
Anton: That’s a really interesting question, really, really interesting. The way I think about some of the roles –
Mark: Maybe before you answer, I can give my own take perhaps.
Mark: What I kind of see as the analogy is, you have at least when the RSA started, there are small number of people that were interested in this kind of general, broad level improvement that basically creating a social network obviously, RSA had some form of institutional structure where Progress Studies currently doesn’t. But there was this relatively small number of people who were interested in this, like very broad set of improvements and began to network to accomplish that. Where at least as, I interpret, you’re describing the RSA is kind of, after the first hundred years, it started to do a little less of this broad improvement and the kind of a little bit more focused and then all of these kind of splinter groups like split off.
But if we look at society today, like there aren’t that many like, I don’t know. There are handful of these, I have splinter groups, I call them but they’re mostly affiliated with the tech industry. Like there isn’t this broad desire for like technological innovation. When I lived in DC and I talked with people who aren’t like, I don’t know, very online and like progress or progress adjacent. Most people are just like completely unaware of like technological foundation. Or if they are aware of it, they are – it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because of like environment or sustainability or like whatever reasons.
Anton: Yeah. I mean, I think I can see some . One thing I’d say is that, in some ways, the society of arts becoming more and more narrow and having to find new niches all the time is actually a sign of success. Often, the splinters groups create institutions that are just as long-lasting and still with us. It just means that once they create a project and then it kind of goes off on its own, its job is done. Then it has to find a new thing to do with its fund and with its members. In some way, that’s a good thing. The world’s fairs still exist. They’ve continued to this day. They started the whole thing with the Great Exhibition now.
I think things have changed and one of my things right now is that I hope that there will be I’ve put out, I’ve written quite a few times about how there should be a new version of the Great Exhibition. There should be new exhibitions of industry that are focused on industry, a new with that the original one was. Because I think that kind of element has been lost from the recent world’s fairs. They’ve become much more bureaucratized and much more nation-focused. They’re much more about country selling themselves, kind of a touristy kind of ways or prestige reasons.
Mark: Yes, slightly different version of the Olympics now.
Anton: Yeah, the lighter kind of PR in Olympics in some ways. Sometimes they’re more interesting than that. I’m not going to say that that’s been kind of always the case, but I think there are big differences. Some of the best world’s fairs I think was still done in the 20th Century. But I think the 20th Century is where you start to see kind of a lost of that original vision for what the Great Exhibition have done.
Mark: Let’s say you organize a new world fair, what are the key exhibitions that you would include in it and how do you kind of structure that, the engagement?
Anton: The structure is a really interesting question. I think you want to show is broad as possible arrange of industries. You want to show as much cutting-edge stuff as possible. I’ll just kind of paint you a picture. Let’s say there’s one organized in ten years’ time. I want to see woolly mammoths that have been resurrected and kind of woolly mammoth petting zoo for kids. I want to see –
Mark: You’re right, kids. I mean, you have to miniaturize the word mammoth. Maybe a miniature woolly mammoths.
Anton: Okay, mini woolly mammoths. Yeah, sure.
Mark: Because they’re big .
Anton: One element is like Jurassic Park but without a danger. That’s all kind of with – a way from just not even woolly mammoths necessarily, just like a few species that recently went extinct but are now back and we’ve been able to . Thanks to advances, we know how to do that. Let’s show some existing technologies. Let’s show people in mech suits. This is something of Sci-Fi, but people literally use mech suits right now all the time to lift extremely heavy loads with kind of mechanical assistance. Let’s have people there using artificial limbs, which has now become extremely advanced, where they’re able to like read brainwaves and actually do extremely sophisticated things with their arms.
Let’s have like panel interviews with these people, talk about how the technology works, talk about where it’s going next. Let’s have a few stalls on that. Let’s have stalls showing literally like the latest stuff in aging research. Let’s actually literally have some mice there that might living some ridiculous amount of time, just to show that we’re already kind of already on the cusp of some of these things. The start of the event should coincide with the rocket launch, live streamed from – some massive stream. It’s not really actually there, there, but it could be something that happens to coincide with the opening event, unlike a particularly good one where we’re going to send someone to Mars or send someone to get into the Moon or do some kind of big high-profile thing.
Those are just a few examples, but – and then you can combine that with what’s the latest in, I don’t know, the most advanced toilet that’s just been invented or the most – like what’s the latest in not just the kind of more visible things like the latest phone, or things like that, but what’s the latest in augmented reality, virtual reality. Let’s have people having to go on all these things. Let’s have this kind of massive collection of different things from all different sectors of the economy, including things like agriculture, including the latest innovation in food, in beverages, in ceramics, in anything that you can think of. There should be an element of that there. You can kind of vary that with each iteration. It doesn’t have to be that you have everything, everything in the particular first one. But then, in five years’ time or four years’ time or whatever, you can then have a kind of snapshot of that. Then people can start to notice improvements. They can see, “Oh! I remember when it was just this like a few years ago and now I’m seeing it’s like advanced so much there.”
Whereas, what’s happened with kind of modern stuff, especially when governments get involved, you end up with things like the millennium dome, where there’s like these kinds of structured exhibits that are meant to be about some kind of theme like science or like technology. They will actually show you the technology itself and let you experience it. Yeah, let’s have the latest textile machinery. A show actually making t-shirts right there for people to see, because no one sees this anymore because stuff is so mechanized now. But like, maybe five engineers or something get to see these things actually in action. And people don’t even realize what that machinery is currently doing day after day after day and has been for actually for quite a few decades because it’s become so advanced.
I mean, I’ve seen videos. My favorite accounts to follow in Twitter is one called Machine Pix, where literally is just like a small GIF, like a small video of just machinery that currently already exists, working and it’s magical and it’s really incredible just to see the kinds of things that already happen. It’d be amazing to see that not just when scrolling through your phone, but seeing this stuff in person and seeing lots – having millions of people actually seeing this stuff in person.
Mark: Do you know Cameron Weiss?
Anton: Yes. Yeah, I do. We talked a little bit about the exhibition idea. He is very exciting to see what he’s doing because – well, I’ve thought a lot about this and I know a lot of the history and a lot of pitfalls to avoid. I think he’s the person to actually do it, given he has that energy behind it. I’m happy to help in anyway or consult on lessons there. Government I think maybe, there’s a role for involvement because I think it helps that you have kind of official credence to these things. But there’s always also a risk when governments – local governments as well when they get too involved, and then they have anti-commerce bias and so they’re not going to allow companies to essentially advertise by having stuff there.
You need a way to be able to manage the competitive interest of people who want to showcase their stuff to public. Because frankly, there are still limits in how much you can show it one time. Structuring it, kind of the curation element is going to be really important with these sorts of events, but let’s have loads of them. He should be setting up this one. Let’s have other attempts the same time and let’s see which ones works out the best. We should have national ones as well as international ones going all the time. We should have localized ones as well perhaps.
Mark: How do we raise the social status of inventors?
Anton: Yeah. This is a great question, something I thought quite a bit about. It’s interesting how much policy, innovation policy focuses on the advantages or rather incentives that how much money do we get to mentors, how much money they make from venture capital, or same things or from patents and so on. Then we rarely think about social status. Interestingly, I think the US does this quite well or in some ways, the technology sectors seems to be creating its own kind of status. In fact, a lot of people who are famous tech entrepreneurs, they’re very good at then becoming high-status people from their essays, become venture capitalist giving back to the innovation ecosystem in some ways.
It’s more of a challenge in other countries, which I think should be competing and really keeping the US on its toes, where status should be – we should be finding any way possible to raise the status of inventors in frankly, the whole world and in each and every country. I recently published a paper for the Entrepreneurs Network, where I did a bit of work on policy stuff, on how there should be a new order of shivery, specifically for recognizing inventors. We’ve got this kind of order of the British Empire, which is at Knighthoods, and memberships, and and their commander. Like there are different ranks of it. It’s quite well recognized within the British society if you say you’ve got an OBE, MBE, CBE Knighthood, people know what that means and it’s a mark of distinction.
But interestingly, even when entrepreneurs or inventors actually receive these things, it’s hugely for their philanthropy. It’s usually that they became rich, they gave all that money to charity, and then they get the award. It’s not that they actually get rewarded for the inventions and innovations themselves, even though those often are the things that actually have a huge impact in people’s lives. They create jobs. They advance the economy. They provide services that just weren’t available before. Those are the things we should be recognizing as well. Because a lot of other walks of like, if you’re an actor, or a musician, or spokesperson, or even a politician. These are things hat come with their own fame and prestige.
Whereas, I think in general, the innovation entrepreneurship don’t. Very few people become famous for those things. We should be celebrating the marginal improvers, as much as we are the kind of people who get the Steve Jobs, the Elon Musk and the .
Mark: If you have like – like entrepreneurship does, and gets some procedures for the winners, but innovation doesn’t. I mean, just really make history of 19th Century like inventors. They’re all insane, they all have like multiple screws loose in their head. Even if they do become very wealthy, they’re often times not people who would be like accepted the polite society tend to be very kind of brusk, very rude. They are unable to hold a conversation, kind of topics that interest the average person or the kind of current social elite.
In terms of like, I don’t know. Another kind of thing that pops in my mind in terms of raising the social status of investors, it’s just having a little bit more acceptance of kind of people and not trying to kind of beat everybody into the same box as I think a lot of our current education system do.
Anton: Yeah. I mean, there’s certainly at least some over a thing between those kinds of groups. Yeah, that’s actually another great point, is that a lot of innovation isn’t actually amongst entrepreneurs even. If someone makes an existing big company better or its products better, that’s still an innovator just because they didn’t set out on their own to create a startup, and then scale that up, it doesn’t mean that they’re any less innovative. The same with people who’re innovating within public service. If civil servant are creating innovations, we should encourage that as much as possible, because the ease of paying taxed, it already sucks to pay taxes. We should make that easier and a much – the UE of paying taxes, right, the user experience or user in space are doing, like involving a sort of government. There’s a lot of tweaks, a lot of improvement that could be done there. We should recognize the civil servants who are responsible for that sort of thing as well and rewarding them as much as possible.
This is entrepreneurs, extremely ugly word, but actually just innovators or improvers in general should be rewarded through whatever prestige systems we have because they’re not going to get, as you say, necessarily money from it. I doubt they’re going to get the fame from it either. It’s just not something that happens. I mean, this is something that should also be happening throughout civil society in general. It should be happening in the media. It worries when people become tech journalists. They seem to have a few years where they love technology and then eventually, they seem to hate technology, or at least technologists and what people they’re involved with. Maybe they become – they kind of become disillusioned with certain people. I don’t know what happens, but it seems as though there’s often kind of the sorts of places that originally start doing puff pieces, start doing kind of attack pieces that are often unwarranted.
We need something in between. You need something that’s covering technology and celebrating progress for when there is progress, but also kind of has a bit of steps, at least to be kind of a middle ground there. The same with the kind of culture media. It’s shocking how few films there are or TV shows that actually show invention or even improvement, as actual improvement, rather than just being – I’ve seen the research premises. I watched a whole bunch of shows now, Nikola Tesla. It was amazing. I mean, all of the movies about it are rubbish. I mean, honestly, garbage. They’re extremely boring because they focus overwhelmingly on his personal life, but not actually what he was doing, and to explaining, and telling us, and showing us what’s actually happening. That’s something that can be done.
I think even complex ideas, as you know, as everyone knows, one of the big talents of people who are involved in culture media was to take complex ideas and simplify them, make them understandable or make them legible to people more broadly. If it can be done with quantum physics, it can definitely be done with the sciences of the 19th Century. It’s just something you don’t see.
Mark: If you have a hundred million dollars, how do you change that?
Anton: Hundred million dollars, gosh. I think you should start at least some of that money should go towards producing TV shows I think probably is the medium that will work better than movies that aren’t specifically kind of – that meet certain requirements. Here are my requirements for TV shows.
Mark: We need progress tv studio.
Anton: Yeah, the 22nd Century Fox you’d call it. Here are my requirements. It should be a show that should show invention as improvement. It should show how marginal these things are. That’s really important I think because it shows accessibility just kind of second element, which is that, you shouldn’t have – it can’t just be that whenever you show an inventor, they’re just a genius who like – just looks at a whiteboard and is able to then just draw out the things just from that. You need to actually show the process, right? Showing the process needs to be marginal and it needs to be accessible. Often, I rate highly shows or movies that show invention where it’s just an ordinary person perhaps clever, but not like Tony Stark, that all genius where he works out time travel literally in the evening. That’s ridiculous and that’s inaccessible.
It actually harms I think the message that you want there, which is to make it something that more people become inventors by watching. And coolness factor, where Tony Stark does well and he’s pretty cool and people want to be like Iron Man and the kids want to be like Iron Man. You do want to have the coolness factor in there as well.
Mark: We need the wire, but focused on the first 20 years of the RSA.
Anton: Yeah, that would be a fun on, or even just like the engineers behind the steam engines, the early steam engines to show what they’re doing. Where’s our show about James? Where’s our show about the invention or the spread of inoculation or vaccination? Where’s our show like the original ones? Where’s our shows about Louis Pasteur? It’s not even necessarily that you need to find kind of great men, women of history who are investors. I think it’s actually even better perhaps to show that sometimes these people are in an ecosystem, that there are lots of inventors around and that they kind of grab some ideas off one another.
Focusing on the invention itself, and I think that can be done well. My go-to example for this by the way is a film called Pad Man, a Hindi film about the guy who became quite famous quite recently, sort of a national hero in India for inventing a way for villagers themselves, women in villagers in rural India to make their own sanitary pads, which is breaking so many taboos as well. I was like crying many, many times watching this movie. Unfortunately, it’s like half an hour too long. There’s a like a bit at the end where they get a bit too with it. There’s like a whole extra love story that’s like inserted in unnecessarily. But when it shows invention, when it shows the way he’s improving things, like he actually understands the technical limitations that he’s trying to overcome. You could see step by step how he’s going through the inventive process. You can see he’s improving mentality, that he’s someone who loves to see things and tweak for an improvement and perfect things to optimize things.
I think kind of getting across that mentality is the main things that I want. This is the background to all of my research, all of my work that I do, is that I want to find ways to spread these things so that people can learn from the institutions of the past, like the Society of Arts, like the Great Exhibition. Kind of pick out lessons and apply .
Mark: When did the industrial revolution start?
Anton: That’s an interesting question because, in some ways, the industrial revolution is a bit of a misnomers. Really, the better way to think about is the, there is in Britain in the late ’60s, especially by the midst 17th Century an acceleration of improvement. This optimizing mentality is spreading to more and more people, and more and more people are applying it to lots and lots of different industries. From aggregate culture, to watch making, to landscape gardening, everything in between, pottery and ceramics to food and to whatever, as well as steam engines and the kind of famous things like copper and iron and coal. That across the board, we see all sorts of improvement and then that kind of manifest itself later on as something that is called the industrial revolution, that certain sectors end up being the most successful ones, that we see this kind of economic growth that comes off the back of those earlier inventions as well.
Sometimes the worst as well. I mean, some of these inventions are used for increased in military capabilities and then the spread of colonies, and imperialism to the world as a whole. There are negative side effects sometimes of this acceleration of innovation. But ultimately, the kind of common course there is that there’s just more people improving things across the board.
Mark: Why didn’t the industrial revolution occur in ?
Anton: Yeah. I guess for listeners, the thing to capture there is that, there is this Dutch Golden age with the late 16th, early 17th Century, and even kind of a hundred years when Adam Smith looks at the world. He focuses on the Netherlands as being the height of opulence, like this is the country that’s done extremely well at kind of getting the maximum gains you can get from trade. Part of what happens in the Netherlands I think is that, partly, it’s just quite unlucky. It gets invaded quite a few times. It’s doesn’t have a great geographical position. Right next to a bunch of big enemies. France likes to invade it. Britain likes to invade it.
But also, it’s very, very focused on certain sectors of the economy. It’s being the ones that really get very large, kind of very merk, kind of focused on shipping, focused on trade. It doesn’t seem to have that breadth of different industries that you see being developed in Britain. In some ways though, while there is this stagnation of the economy in the 18th Century, that’s not to say that there isn’t quite a lot of technological innovation before then. I just think that in some ways, Britain takes institutions that are developed to the Netherlands and improves them. That’s the kind of key thing, is that, even had Britain not existed, I think the acceleration of innovation would have happened at some place. In Europe, perhaps in Japan. I think there are science of it happening all over the world actually to a certain extent.
But Britain is just a bit faster at applying these things, like it has the edge, sometimes a very a marginal edge in developing the kind of cheerleading institutions to support innovation. But that kind of ecosystem element where inventors are not just inventing things, but also supporting the next generation of investors, in a way that even today seems quite unique to parts of the United States, where the Silicon Valley ecosystem is kind of unique in some way because the inventors are not just getting rich and then kind of going after the country in big houses and kind of keeping themselves to themselves. They’re often using the proceeds of invention to then support the next generation of inventors and invest in them and kind of become venture capitalists and set up things like . Like the ecosystem creation element there is really interesting. I think just other countries in Europe are just not quite as good at doing this as Britain is. That’s kind of for a variety of almost accidental reasons in some ways because the British state is actually very bad at supporting inventions very early on, so a lot of bottom-up institution like the Society of Arts, the kind of civil society organization are created to fill those gaps and end up being much more robust and much more long-lasting than having to rely on state involvement, where currencies change and one ruler loves scientists and one of them is less interested and you kind of get these ups and downs.
Mark: What inventions were invented after their time and what does that tell us about the nature of invention?
Anton: You’re hitting all my best hits here. Yeah, for inventions after their time – this is a great question. One of the things that’s really interesting that I’ve noticed is that, nearly everything that’s been invented could have been invented earlier, nearly every invention. There are exceptions to this when they rely perhaps on a particular scientific breakthrough. But nearly every invention, like there are actually, the conditions are right at least economically or at least in terms of material capabilities, the understanding that we have for them to – my go-to example is John Kay’s flying shuttle. This is an improvement to the loom. Something that has existed since time in memorial, I mean literally shuttles are mentioned in the Bible in the Old Testament. These are really ancient things.
The weaving world, it’s the improvement of the weaving world originally. Although it becomes famous for its application to . Well, it’s the ancient, ancient like industry of England. This is something that could have happened for centuries at least in England itself. It literally involves adding a bit of wood in some string. Okay. There’s like a lot of details need to be worked out in terms of how you add that wood in that string, but there’s new materials, there’s no new scientific kind of advancements that need to be relied upon for this thing. This thing could have been invented for thousands of years and it just isn’t. Even in terms of the demand story, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in particular, because there was always an incentive to speed up weaving. There’s always been incentive to do that thing better, invest something and then become the rich person off of it.
There’s nothing about the economic structure at the time, it seems it’s suggested that it was unique in any way compare to 100, 200, 300,000 years earlier. It seems very unlikely that this wouldn’t happen at all. In fact, even in terms of social barriers. Maybe you might say, “Okay. Well, maybe this thing was invented in the past, but it was attacked by weavers who were threatened by the competition.” Actually, that happens in the UK as well. John Kay does end up leaving the country. A lot of these machines are broken by angry weavers, anyway even in Britain. It doesn’t seem that there’s anything special about it, and yet in the 1740s, he’s developing this new technology.
There are load of other examples. The other one I wrote about once was Dungeons $ Dragons. This is a game where you don’t actually require die. You don’t actually require any board or anything. Like it’s not even a board game. It’s a tabletop game. It’s literally people telling story but in a very structured way. It turns out there are some precursors from the 19th Century and so on. Perhaps it was invented at some point in the past, but this game is something that could literally have been invented for thousands of years. Maybe occasionally is, but it’s – to the extent that it really takes off in the mid-20th Century, that’s kind of striking that something can take so long to take off.
What that tells us I think about invention is that, invention is actually extremely rare. To the extent that inventors or people who are improvers are extremely rare, they also kind of devote their attentions to particular problems or developing particular things at particular times. What matters really for promoting innovations is to increase the stock of inventors in the world, and also then to kind of pay perhaps less attention toward they’re directing our attentions towards, but just the kind of increase of total number of people that we have working on many particular problem or problems in general as whole.
The thing that distinguishes an inventor from just anyone else is that, for me at least, they have this improving mentality where they’re kind of – they’re optimizers. They see the status quo even if the status quo seems very developed to everyone else. They see problems. They see room for improvements. They see that there’s a floor that can be fixed. They find from for greater perfection as it would have been put in 18th Century. They see room for improvement, as the kind of the common phrase that we might use today. But that seems to be one of the absolutely kind of fundamental features of an inventor’s mindset. What you find room for improvement and that could be applied to absolutely anything. This is something that inventors in general, they’re not just usually confined to particular specialisms. Sometimes they are people who don’t have a specialism at all or they’re entering industry for the first time without every having worked in it. They’re just kind of outsiders looking in and seeing, “Okay. Why aren’t you doing this? Why haven’t you optimized on this kind of level?” Really, those sorts of low-hanging fruit, those opportunities for improvement are everywhere. It’s just that we need more people kind of working and pushing out and kind of plucking those fruit to every stage.
See, I have kind of fundamental feature of what I think about inventions, that low-hanging fruits are ubiquitous, that we shouldn’t just kind of say, “Oh, well! If it was such a good idea, someone would have done it.” No. Actually, you should actually try and pluck that fruit because it may be that someone did try to pluck it a few years ago, but they failed for whatever accident, it had a bad loan, or they had a bad investor, or they didn’t market it properly, or the way in which they tried to implement didn’t quite work.
One of the most damaging possible things that people do I think in media at least is that, when you see people on Twitter saying X, you’ve invented X. When someone tries to come up with a new idea, and they just say, “Oh, buses. You’ve invented buses because you’ve created a shuttle for something.” It’s like, what are you doing? Like, no, these people have found, even if it’s a marginal improvement, it’s not like they’re claiming to have invented something from scratch. It’s that they’re finding an existing thing and trying to make it tiny bit better. Once you make it that tiny bit better, then the next people will come along and try to improve on that as well. That is really the ultimate route of progress and we really shouldn’t be deriving it.
Mark: If you’re building , how do you create a culture of innovation and invention?
Anton: I think to an extent, having a kind of concentration of people should in some ways come – they should come naturally that you’re going to get these interchanges of ideas. But I think, if you want to take kind of my research seriously in that respect, you should try to make sure that you seed it in a sense with inventors. Encourage, try to pouch existing entrepreneurs, whoever they are and literally bring them to your city. Get them to live in your city and interact with people in your city. Then the rest will happen. It’s through then inspiring other people to be more like them. Like if you live down the road from a famous investor, I think you’re much more likely to kind of talk to that person and then kind of interact with them and then adapt the mentality that they have.
Now, that may not happen to everyone they interact with, but if they’re there, that’s going to make the key difference. Because you see, the industrial revolution in Britain, you see tiny villages with very big concentrations of inventor, just because one inventor happens to retire to live in that village. You see this kind of exposure effect, if you like from particular inventors because invention is improving mentality, spreads from person to person almost virally. What you want is you want to get some super spreaders in essentially of invention rather of disease to your charter city to make sure that it kind of develops that culture.
I think to the extent that you can if you’re organizing a charter city, encourage them to set up societies, give them kind of spaces that they can use to interact with one another. Perhaps have municipality funded I suppose packer spaces and other kinds of resources available where you can kind of get over that activation energy if you like. That kind of that very slight barrier to them taking, just being kind of inventive people then actually staying within the city for a start and actually kind of trying to progress what that city is doing and it progresses industries.
Mark: Why did you leave academia?
Anton: Well, in some ways I’m still in academia but I’m not in formal academia. I still do historical research. I’m still publishing. I published this last book. I’m working on another book, again, for University Press. I don’t publish papers because I’m more interested in books and I publish on Substack because I like publishing for a wider audience. As I said, the key thing that really underlies everything I do is trying to spread that improving mentality further. I think the more we understand the history of technology the more lessons there are to be learned and things that we can apply to today. Also, just because I love the history of it. I mean, I’m just obsessed with the history of technology .
But what I found with formal academia is that, I was feeling the pressure, not necessarily in terms of kind of kind of thing. But definitely the pressure was to publish in outlooks of it. I tried publishing in a Gates journal. The chance of people reading it there are actually very, very slim. I’m publishing to satisfy these numinous people, some of who frankly don’t seem to be expert of the time and they’re reviewing stuff. I’m having to kind of jump through all hoops that are entirely artificial and seems like a massive waste of time and frankly were quite stressful for no good reason really. It was just to kind of take to get hired by an education institution.
I appreciate the freedom I’ve been able to get through the Substack and just kind of to work on the problems I think are important without having to worry about, “Okay. How am I going to repackage this to satisfy peer reviewers that’s in journal, that maybe it will be taken seriously, it will get any prestige within this very small group of experts?” But ultimately, if my aim here is to try and spread things in a much broader fashion, then I think it’s best to kind of create a niche of myself or a kind of career for myself that it’s much more kind of public-facing.
Mark: What questions could I have asked you that I did not ask you?
Anton: Oh man! That’s a really great question. I have no idea.
Mark: I have asked all the good questions. There we go.
Anton: You definitely covered a lot of the boxes. I’m trying to work out if there’s anything that – I think I have – I mean, the thing is, I guess I managed to shoehorn other points to – answers to questions you didn’t ask already into my answers. Okay. Here is a question you could have asked. You could have asked me, do you need to be an expert to be an inventor? In some way, I kind of agree to that a little bit, but what is the role of expertise in invention. My answer to that will be that, it helps to be an expert in something you’re trying to improve, but it’s not absolutely necessary or rather, you shouldn’t feel that there’s a barrier to improving something just because you lack expertise right now. Because the way you solve it is through two things. You either reach out to people who are experts and learn from them, but with this idea that you already want to improve something in that field or you’ve notice room for improvement so you can consult with people or you can just self-educate.
A lot of the people who, inventors of the industrial revolution, at least a third of the people who I’ve studied, and this a big sample of almost 1,500 people over 300-year period. This is in great, great detail. At least a third of the more in which they have no prior expertise, or training or even like their father’s profession wasn’t related to the thing that they ended up improving. The key thing that matters is this improvement mentality. I think to the extent that we make invention more accessible to people. I think that’s actually really cool message, is that expertise is not .
I think that’s a really worrying feature about modern society or some modern society is that we take things like credentialism very seriously. Like we notice who is an expert in something, who is in through the kind of hoops that they jump through in the past, rather than kind of just allowing anything, anyone to do anything. In fact, this may be even be the reason why we have that kind of skepticism in the media about the tech rows, or how arrogant these people are to try and reinvent buses, or to reinvent like train travel through boring massive holes in the ground or how arrogant people to try and reinvent the city, like why they did they just listen to the other planners. Like no, you want people, you want people to be going into new fields and telling people who are the incumbents, how they might do things slightly better.
The reaction that happens to that is I think in some ways natural. People like, “Well, get off my lore. How dare you come in this try to disrupt my field?” But it’s only for necessary disruption, like this is improvement. This could be marginal. It can work with people as much as it works against them. I think that there’s a natural protectiveness, which in a real field. I’m a historian of technology, when I see someone post something wrong about history of technology, it gets my back up. Or if they start to get on my turf a bit, there is that natural gut feeling which I then have to overcome to say, “No. Look, this is actually a good thing that someone is coming in as new voices here to engage with.”
So often, I see people who do have expertise to the exact opposite of that. They give in to that gut feeling and they try to denigrate people who are coming into a field or approaching it full, fresh eyes. I think that’s extremely negative. I think that’s one of the things that we need really to be massively conscious of as a kind of bias that exists in our society or the kind of – when we talk about all that kind of behavioral economic stuff about like biases that people have, I think incumbent bias is one that we need to be taking more seriously, because it manifests itself as . It manifests itself as opposition often to perfectly good innovations, perfectly good improvements.
Mark: Great. That’s all my questions. Thanks for coming on the show.
Anton: Thanks for having me.
Mark: Thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit chartercitiesinstitute.org. Follow us on social media, @cci.city on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter and thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast.