I have been reading a remarkable book about a remarkable period in British history – the mid- to late 18th century – when a group of entrepreneurs, gifted amateur scientists and political radicals helped create the foundations of much of our modern industrial world.
The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow, looks at the lives of a small but amazingly influential group of men, particularly the ceramics genius Josiah Wedgewood, pamphleteer and scientist Joseph Priestley, engineer Matthew Boulton, steam engine king James Watt, and medical doctor Erasmus Darwin. What jumps off the page is these men’s tremendous sense of drive and enthusiasm for acquiring and sharing knowledge. They were great polymaths, seeing no division between the pursuit of abstract knowledge and practical concerns of money making.
Most of these men were consciously outsiders, eccentrics and radicals ill at ease with the Anglican establishment. That sense of being ‘on the outside’ I think partly explains their drive to succeed. Most of them notably were unable for religious reasons to attend the main English universities of Cambridge and Oxford, often attending Scottish academies instead or bypassing such places altogether. And I was also struck by the sense of limitless possibility afforded by a country which at the time imposed very few restrictions and taxes on the public. 18th Century Britain was a bit like the Silicon Valley of the 1990s, with powdered wigs. Of course there were restrictive practises such as merchant gilds and duties on some imports, but that period surely came about as close to a genuine model of laissez faire capitalism as we have ever seen in our history.
There was much that was very bad and ugly about that period in our history, but also a great deal worth preserving and emulating today. The entrepreneurial gusto of these men is something we could surely use today. Glorious geeks indeed.