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(An extract from The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, by Matt Ridley, chapter 7 The release of slaves: energy after 1700 pp 220 – 222)

The burst of innovation which Britain experienced quite suddenly in the late 1700s was both the cause and consequence of mechanisation, of the amplification of one person’s labour by machinery and fuel. The tiny nation of Britain, with just eight million people in 1750, compared with twenty-five million in far more sophisticated France, thirty-one million in far more populous Japan and 270 million in far more productive China, embarked upon a phenomenal economic expansion that would propel it to world domination within a century. Between 1750 and 1850 British men (some of them immigrants) invented an astonishing range of labour-saving and labour-amplifying devices, which allowed them to produce more, sell more, earn more, spend more, live better and have more surviving children.

A famous print entitled ‘The Distinguished Men of Science of Great Britain Living in the Year 1807-8’, the year that Parliament abolished the slave trade, depicts fifty-one great engineers and scientists all alive at the time — as if they were gathered together by an artist in the library of the Royal Institution. Here are the men who made canals (Thomas Telford), tunnels (Marc Brunel), steam engines (James Watt), locomotives (Richard Trevithick), rockets (William Congreve), hydraulic presses (Joseph Bramah); men who invented the machine tool (Henry Maudslay), the power loom (Edmund Cartwright), the factory (Matthew Boulton), the miner’s lamp (Humphry Davy) and the smallpox vaccine (Edward Jenner). Here are astronomers like Nevil Maskelyne and William Herschel, physicists like Henry Cavendish and Count Rumford, chemists like John Dalton and William Henry, botanists like Joseph Banks, polymaths like Thomas Young, and many more. You look at such a picture and wonder, ‘How did any one country have so much talent in the same place?’

The premise is false, of course, because it was the aura of the time and place that drew forth (and attracted from abroad — Brunel was French, Rumford American) such talent. For all their brilliance, there are Watts, Davys, Jenners and Youngs galore in every country at every time. But only rarely do sufficient capital, freedom, education, culture and opportunity come together in such a way as to draw them out. Two centuries later, somebody could paint a picture of the great men of Silicon Valley and posterity will stand amazed at the thought that giants like Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin, Stanley Boyer and Leroy Hood all lived at the same time and in the same place.

Just as the Californian is today, so in 1700 the British manufacturing entrepreneur was unusually free, compared with both European and Asian equivalents, to invest, invent, expand and reap the profits. His huge capital city was unusual in being dominated by merchants, not the government, and always had been.

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