Timothy Taylor, the Conversable Economist, tracks down the oft-told story of William Lee and his knitting machine....the 2019 World Development Report from the World Bank has a mention near the start of Chapter 1: "In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I of England was alarmed when clergyman William Lee applied for a royal patent for a knitting ...
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...the 2019 World Development Report from the World Bank has a mention near the start of Chapter 1: "In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I of England was alarmed when clergyman William Lee applied for a royal patent for a knitting machine: `Consider thou what the invention would do to my poor subjects,' she pointed out. `It would assuredly bring them to ruin by depriving them of employment.'”It's really a lovely story, presaging this fallacy passed down through the ages, to Milton Friedman's famous "let them use spoons" story (on being told a Chinese dam was being made by hand and shovel rather than bulldozers to provide employment) to the current hullabaloo that AI will take all the jobs. (And today. On a KQED (NPR) "forum," show last week, on while I was shaving, a caller expressed just how great it is that Mexico uses people not machines to sweep streets, thereby providing employment, and we should do the same. Fallacies live a long time.)
Lovely as it is, Taylor is "inherently dubious about direct quotations from conversations held in 1589," took a "journey through libraries and archives," to track down the actual story. It is an interesting note on the very beginnings of the industrial revolution.
As I read Taylor, it seems the story is actually pretty suspect.
"The underlying source seems to be in an 1831 book, History of the Framework Knitters, written by Gravenor Henson....Henson was an important British trade union leader in the early 19th century. As Stanley D. Chapman notes in his "Introduction" about Henson's purpose in writing the book: "His main theme was that hosiery, lace and all other industries should be regulated by the government so as to maintain a decent living standard for the workers and fair conditions of trade. British industries must be protected from direct foreign competition and, more particularly, from industrial espionage, migration of skilled workmen to other countries, and export of machinery."So, as I gather indirectly, the story passed on from a source was definitely trying to make a point, and (again reading only Tim) has precious little primary evidence for the famous conversation.
The first lesson: beware these apocryphal stories passed on through secondary, tertiary and ultimately gossipy sources.
This lesson was brought home to me by Peter Garber's great "Famous First Bubbles" book (I had a lot of fun reviewing it). Garber went back to look at actual primary sources behind stories that though apocryphal are passed around as true among economists, such as the famous tulip "bubble." They aren't true either. Though they make good stories.
I got a deeper lesson, on just how economies worked in early modern Europe. Early economies were so pervasively regulated, that the only thing to do with an innovation was to run to get a Royal monopoly.
William Lee invented a stocking-making machine. (Apparently, to put out of employment a woman who spurned his advances while knitting stockings.) So, what does he do with his newfound knowledge?
Having now discovered the method of knitting by machinery, his next effort was directed to obtain the golden harvest which had flattered his imagination. He removed his invention to London for the purpose presenting it to the Queen,...Lee now imagined himself certain of a handsome remuneration,...[but] she refused to make either a grant of money or secure him a monopoly or patent.Here is where the famous quote enters
Her answer is said to have been to the following purport: -- My Lord, I have too much love to my poor people, who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting, to give my money to forward an invention which will tend to their ruin, by depriving them of employment, and thus make them beggars.It goes on, interestingly. The Queen was interested in cheaper silk stockings, which she wore:
Had Mr. Lee made a machine that would have made silk stockings, I should, I think, have been somewhat justified in granting him a patent for that monopoly, which would have affected only a small number of my subjects. but to enjoy the exclusive privilege of making stockings for the whole of my subjects is too important to grant to any individual."But it gets much more s economically interesting
Apparently Lee ran into a different problem: Queen Elizabeth has been granting lots of monopolies to court favorites, and there was a widespread sense that it had gotten out of hand. Thus, the granting of unwarranted monopolies became a reason to deny Lee a monopoly as well. Henson writes:
"The time which Mr. Lee had chosen to make an application to the government, though to his sanguine mind very propitious for remuneration. was in reality the reverse; the treasury of Elizabeth was extremely low, owing to the enormous expenses which she had incurred in preparations to meet the Spanish armada in the preceding year. Already had the Parliament begun to express their decided umbrage at the grant of the privileges of patents for monopolies; which, as they were then conducted, were justly considered national evils, and the most odious means of rewarding court favorites, by an excessively tyrannical mode of private taxation. Nearly all the nobles enjoyed a patent for the most useful and general articles of consumption, such as iron, lead, saltpetre, salt, oil, glasses, &c. &c., to the amount of more than one hundred articles, which were sold, imported, or exported by virtue of letters patent. These patent rights, were sold to persons who farmed the profits, and thus demanded what prices they thought prudent for their commodities. [my emphasis] When the general list was read over in the House of Commons in 1601, a member, indignant at the the extortions, exclaimed, " Is bread amongst the number?" "Bread?" cried the house, with astonishment, "Yes I assure you," he sarcastically replied, "if we go on at this rate, we shall have a monopoly of bread before next Parliament."Actually, I believe they did. Most trades were restricted to guild members and you couldn't just bake bread and sell it. (Historians, let me know if I'm confusing place and time here.) "Patent" in 16th century England also seems to mean more a general monopoly right than our current understanding, as in a "patent" to sell iron. Lee went on to the French court, to try to get a patent and monopoly there too.
Lee never, apparently, made a bundle actually making stockings. He died unhappily in France, though his machine did get adopted. Just how long it took a simple stocking machine to be adopted may tell us something interesting about why economic growth was so slow to break out.
The interesting observation here: it's 1589, and you invent a cool new machine, say for making stockings. What do you do with it? You and I might answer, "start making stockings." You can undersell the competition and make a bundle. Or, we might answer, "start selling stocking-making machines." Sure, others will follow, but you have a big first-mover advantage. Yes, if a modern patent system were up and running it might be useful to get a patent and try to slow down competitors. But first and foremost, get the business going.
That Lee did not do this -- that it seems not even to have occurred to him - is telling about just how controlled and regulated economies apparently were at the time.
It brings to mind two other recent histories I read, Dava Sobel's Longitude and Charles Coulston Gillispies' book on the Montgolfier Brothers.
Longitude: In the 1700s, it was a major problem to know how far east or west a ship was. After painstaking work, John Harrison came up with a solution: a clock that could tell time accurately, even at sea. What did he do with it? Start selling clocks to ship captains, you might say! And you would be wrong. He spent his life trying to get the prize established for that purpose, mostly unsuccessfully.
Balloons: The Montgolfier Brothers invent the balloon. What do they do with it? Start selling balloons? Start selling balloon rides? No, immediately off to Paris to get royal dispensation.
I don't know enough about these early economies, but that running off to get a Royal monopoly seems to be the only thing anyone even considers to do with a new invention seems interesting evidence on just how rigidly controlled economic affairs were.
Guilds, patents, monopolies, and the primary function of economic regulation being to create rents in return for political support, seems a pattern with deep roots.