Historical Notes: A nation no longer interested in invention

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BRITAIN POSSESSED an inventive society in the 18th and 19th centuries. From the first use of steam power to pump water out of mines in 1712 to the turbine-powered power station of 1892, a staggering sequence of inventions of outstanding quality was made in Britain. They were also exploited. Invention of course begets invention. Invent a steam engine; someone invents a device to make the engines; then someone invents machines to be driven by the engines, which leads to setting new performance criteria and so on. Newcomen's clanking pumping engine evolved by stages into a Rolls- Royce turbo-jet. The process is a cumulative one, continuously diversifying and, of course, it is what drives industrial economies.

My interest is in those inventions which required a profound scientific discovery before they could be conceived, and which then went on over a considerable period to develop widespread utility.

One key 19th-century invention was the electro- magnet. Following the discovery of the interaction between electric currents and magnetic fields by the Danish scientist Hans Christian Oersted, Abraham Sturgeon invented an electro-magnet in 1825 for which he received the Royal Society of Arts gold medal. The next development was the electro- magnetic relay, invented by Professor Joseph Henry at Princeton, which ultimately led to electric motors and generators, and the electric telegraph. It was the first revolutionary application of the electrical discoveries of Galvani and Volta in the 18th century.

Starting with small beginnings in many countries, the electric telegraph spread its cable around the world, first as land lines in the 1850s, then by submarine lines - the Atlantic was crossed successfully in the 1860s. The decade 1870 to 1880 probably represents the peak of the dramatic innovations in the telecommunications revolution.

In September 1877 the telephone, invented and patented in 1876, was described with diagrams in the RSA Journal. The ability to transmit the sound of human speech was referred to as "being of the highest practical utility". In 1879 W.H. Preece, the Electrician to the General Post Office, gave a series of lectures to the RSA covering the state of development of telegraphy.

It has struck me forcibly that we are in the middle of a revolution in telecommunications of a similar nature and magnitude to that of the 1870s. When Max Planck proposed his "quantum theory" in 1900 he opened as well- endowed a Pandora's box as Oersted had done in 1820. The quantum theory enabled the conduction of electricity inside crystals to be understood and out of that understanding came the transistor, the integrated circuit and then the micro-processor. With these extraordinary assemblages of millions of microscopic gadgets it became possible to do things cheaply that had previously been either impossible, or impossibly expensive. The introduction of satellite transmission, optical fibres, solid-state electronic switching and computer-to-computer messaging has transformed telecoms in the past decade.

Today the electronic technology which dominates our lives is being largely invented and exploited in the United States. And as a Fellow of the RSA I have to look elsewhere to find out how the Internet works; what a website is, etc. I wonder if Fellows today are not interested in learning about new inventions which change our lives. Although there may be other sources available, it is difficult to find descriptions of modern technical devices which are written for intelligent, non-specialist, adult readers, which give enough detail to provide understanding without overwhelming the reader.

If such an important group of people - Fellows of the Royal Society of Arts - is no longer interested in invention, how can we hope to get back to being an inventive nation, a nation which contributes to driving the economy of the world instead of being driven by it? The sort of nation we invented in the 18th century.

John Pitts is a contributor to the 'RSA Journal'