A well-meant Wake-Up Call to Britain — which failed

The Great British Exhibition of 1851 — an inspirational idea of Prince Albert in order to show off British engineering and science — actually contained more German machine tools than British. That came as a bit of a shock when I first read it many years ago and it’s always been a puzzle.  I’ve never researched the problem because I’ve always been prioritising other matters but it has been grinding away in the back of my mind.  I hoped that one day I might read an historian who would explain why. But I never did and the question kept on nagging away.

Gradually, however, one or two facts dropped into place. The first one was that a Copyright Act was passed in 1825, so the German could have legitimately copied British engineering in the preceding years of the industrial revolution period 1785-1824.  But then that fell by the wayside because that left insufficient time for the Germans to have developed the advanced machines ab initio in time for the 1851 Exhibition.

Some tkime later, I gathered that Count von Bismark, when Prime Minister, had established free state schools for the sons of German Army officers.  Those schools, surely, would have been concentrating hard on science and engineering.  But that idea didn’t solve the problem  because they wouldn’t have been established until the 1870s at the earliest.

Already in this country some of the northern cities in England such as Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham, together with some industrialists, had already established new universities with the emphasis on science and engineering in order to compensate for the only two other universities in England at that time, Oxford and Cambridge which were little more than collections of theological training colleges for the Church of England.

Very recently indeed, I came across the fact that Alexander von Humboldt– a polymathic German scientist —  who has been described as “the genius you have never heard of” with tremendous influence throughout Germany, had pushed hard that German universities, heavily classical at the time — just like our Oxford and Cambridge — should teach more science and, furthermore, in association with experimental labs.  But, on reflection, that didn’t wash either.  His dates (1767-1835), and his many years of scientific travel in the southern hemisphere, were such that his influence in strictly German affairs didn’t really start until the 1820s.

Being English, my own bias has prevented me from realising from the beginning that, of course, Germany was more advanced in engineering 1851.  The fact that Germany didn’t initiate the Industrial Revolution (IR) is beside the point.  It was sheer luck in the conjunction of several simultaneous factors in 1785 as described in my post of 27 December (“The Hudson Theory of Economics”) that launched the IR. It was not our engineering superiority.  The first factory cotton spinning machine was made, not by an engineer, but by a carpenter!

Germany has, of course, been at the head of the engineering game and at least a co-leader in science ever since the scientific writings of the genius, Leibniz (1646-1716) — the big rival of Isaac Newton (1642-1725) — who were both at the head of their packs of new breed of brilliant German and English scientists during the so-called  ‘Western Enlightenment’ as a follow-up to the Reformation for which we have Martin Luther — a German — to thank.

So there we are !  Had I been an historian, and not an industrial chemist (and a Jack of All Trades ever since !) then I should never have been surprised in the first place by the Germans appearing agt the Great Exhibition.  M’mm . . . perhaps that was Prince Albert’s original plan anyway.  He was, of course, German, when he married Queen Victoria — that was why he was never allowed to be King — so he probably knew that German industry would be very visible in the Exhibition.  Perhaps it was a well-meant Wake-Up Call to British industry.  Unfortunately, it didn’t.  It was another few decades until our elite universities, Oxford and Cambridge — the ones that really influenced the government — started taking a serious interest in science and engineering.

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