Stories of Technology Adoption in the 19th Century

The Royal Society of Arts, formerly the  Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and sometimes just knows as “the Society” was founded in 1754 to encourage new technological innovations. They did this by hosting competitions to invent certain things and then giving out prizes (called ‘premiums’) to the winners.

It was one thing for the Society to encourage technological innovations. It could be quite another for those innovations to achieve mass adoption. I’m going to share stories about:

  • eliminating the need for child chimney sweeps and
  • introducing public toilets.

to show how things that can seem so obvious to us now, were once highly contentious and radical ideas which took a lot of work to become part of daily life.

I’m taking these examples from “Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation” by Anton Howes.

CHILD CHIMNEY SWEEPS

One of the Society’s most significant campaigns to promote the invention and adoption of a technology came in 1796, when it offered a premium for a mechanical means of cleaning chimneys. The Society’s aim in this was to abolish the employment of children, sometimes as young as 4, who were forced to climb up inside chimneys in order to clean them.

The Society of Arts’ premuim was won in 1805 by George Smart, a timber merchant and engineer. His tool, the ‘scandiscope’, could be operated from the fireplace, was cheap, effective on all but the bendiest of flues, and weighed ‘no more than a musket’… Yet the existence of an effective invention was not enough to abolish the use of climbing boys.

At first, … campaigners tried to cooperate with the sweeps, offering prizes for the number of flues swept using the scandiscope, subsidising their purchase of the machines, and advertising the reliable sweeps who used them. But the sweeps took advantage of this generosity, purposefully misusing the scandiscopes in an effort to turn customers against them. By 1809, the campaigners had had enough…. They encouraged brand new entrants into the sweeping trade, extolling the modest profits that might be made by using the machines. They also encouraged the owners of larger homes to buy their own machines (to be used by domestic servants), so to actively remove customers from the market.

The campaign eventually met with success. The scandiscopes were gradually brought into use, in London as well as further afield, and the lot of the climbing boys improved. Crucially, the scandiscope made laws banning the use of climbing boys possible, although this took decades of more campaigning as well as further improvements to Smart’s machine.

(pages 76-79)

In this story, the Royal Society thought that chimney sweeps would flock to using a new tool that meant they would no longer need to use little boys to go up chimneys.

The author suggests that the chimney sweeps actively tried to subvert the new invention. You don’t even need to go that far. I can easily imagine a sweep battling with his first use a scandiscope for half an hour before giving up and just going back to the old way of doing things.

Either way, it’s interesting how in the end the campaigners stopped trying to convert existing chimney sweeps. They took a completely different approach by appealing to chimney owners or brand new market entrants.

PUBLIC TOILETS

This was a different story. In this case the resistance to change came from the powers that be, in whose view it was a ridiculous idea. So the Royal Society or Arts was forced to create a massive proof of concept to show the value of the idea. This took place at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Henry Cole of this story is this person: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Cole

In mid-nineteenth century London, the options for going to the toilet were limited. There were only a few facilities available to the public. Wealthy people might buy a small item from a shop, and ask to use the shop’s toilet… Most people, however, just relieved themselves in alleyways, doorways and on walls… To the reformers in the Society of Arts, it was obvious that there needed to be a system of public toilets. With the expected influx of people for the Great Exhibition, the campaign gained a sense of urgency.

The Society suggested a ‘general system’ of what became known, euphemistically, as ‘public conveniences’ … The suggestion was ignored, but this did not stop Henry Cole. He reasoned that the exhibition itself might help ‘reconcile the public to the use of a convenience’. Exposing the public to novelties was, after all, one of the Great Exhibition’s main purposes. They simply did not know they wanted them, Cole decided, because the concept was so unfamiliar. He arranged for the Crystal Palace to have its own toilets, for which entry was charged at a halfpenny or penny, depending on the services required. Over the course of the Exhibition, these ‘waiting rooms’ were visited by over 700,000 women and 820,000 men. The figures did not even include the use of urinals, which were free. For Cole and the reformers, this was evidence that their suggested system of public conveniences for London might be self-supporting.

(page 150)

It’s hard to imagine a time when the idea of public toilets could be considered such a radical notion. Indeed, Henry Cole’s view that the public didn’t even know that they wanted these is very similar to the familiar quote associated to Henry Ford about faster horses. It took quite an epic spectacle to get people to see the benefits of this new approach.

TAKEAWAYS

On one level these are interesting case studies of bygone times.

But look a bit deeper and you’ll see some lessons for workers in ‘change’ roles that will resonate through the years:

  1. The Chimney Sweeps story shows people resisting a new technology, perhaps because they fundamentally disagreed with it, or perhaps because they didn’t see how it could compete with the status quo. In this case the Royal Society had to give up getting them on board and work around them instead of working with them, and
  2. The Public Toilets story shows one relatively common objection to change: “if this new way is so much better, then someone would have done it already”. To convince these people the Royal Society had to come up with an industrial strength proof of concept within an environment that they could control.
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