A number of this week’s milestones in the history of technology connect accidental inventors and the impact of their inventions on work and workers.
On March 11, 1811, the first Luddite attack in which knitting frames were actually smashed occurred in the Nottinghamshire village of Arnold. Kevin Binfield in Writings of the Luddites: “The grievances consisted, first, of the use of wide stocking frames to produce large amounts of cheap, shoddy stocking material that was cut and sewn rather than completely fashioned and, second, of the employment of ‘colts,’ workers who had not completed the seven-year apprenticeship required by law.”
Back in 1589, William Lee, an English clergyman, invented the first stocking frame knitting machine, which, after many improvements by other inventors, drove the spread of automated lace making at the end of the 18th century. Legend has it that Lee had invented his machine in order to get revenge on a lover who had preferred to concentrate on her knitting rather than attend to him (as depicted by Alfred Elmore in the 1846 painting The Invention of the Stocking Loom).
Lee demonstrated his machine to Queen Elizabeth I, hoping to obtain a patent, but she refused, fearing the impact on the work of English artisans: “Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars” (quoted in Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson).
Another accidental inventor was Alexander Graham Bell. His father, grandfather, and brother had all been associated with work on elocution and speech and both his mother and wife were deaf, influencing Bell’s research interests and inventions throughout his life. Bell’s research on hearing and speech led him to experiment with the transmission of sound by means of electricity, culminating on March 7, 1876, when he received a US patent for his invention of (what later will be called) the telephone. Three days later, on March 10, 1876, Bell said into his device: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” Thomas Watson, his assistant, sitting in an adjacent room at 5 Exeter Place, Boston, answered: “Mr. Bell, do you understand what I say?”
Later that day, Bell wrote to his father (as Edwin S. Grosvenor and Morgan Wesson recount in Alexander Graham Bell): “Articulate speech was transmitted intelligibly this afternoon. I have constructed a new apparatus operated by the human voice. It is not of course complete yet—but some sentences were understood this afternoon… I feel I have at last struck the solution of a great problem—and the day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid to houses just like water or gas—and friends converse with each other without leaving home.”