Plagiarism and the Ideas Economy: Addendum
Posted by Doug Walters on 17th July 2015
This week, a repeat of Michael Portillo’s “Great Train Journeys of Britain” took in the mill towns of Lancashire, the engine room of the Industrial revolution. When he visited Bolton, he focussed on the story of Samuel Crompton, who in 1779, invented the Spinning Mule. The Spinning Mule was the bedrock of the supremacy of the Lancashire Mill towns in the linen trade, and made vast fortunes for mill owners and supplied full (if hard and poorly paid) employment to the population of the North-West of England.

The spinning mule was so-called because it is a hybrid of Arkwright's water frame and James Hargreaves' spinning jenny in the same way that mule is the product of crossbreeding a female horse with a male donkey.

Portillo focussed on the invention, and the fact that “friends” of Crompton (encouraged by favours from the mill owners) persuaded Crompton to forgo a copyright, and instead, he charged a “subscription” to mill owners and their engineers to come and study the new wonder. Of course, they studied it and built their own copies in thousands, thereby sowing (pardon the pun) the seeds of great fortunes. In contrast, Samuel Crompton died in poverty, and a shamed Bolton erected a token statue to him just over a century later.

Portillo then cleverly juxtaposed the example of Port sunlight, another stop on his Lancashire journey, where the owner of Lever Brothers (William Lever) built a “model” village to house the workers at his soap factory. This was in sharp contrast to the mercenary attitude of the mill owners, and I got the impression that this “benevolent stewardship” sat easily with the brand of Toryism which Michael Portillo supports, but he also noted that William Lever placed very clear injunctions on the lifestyle of his workers who lived in Port Sunlight – with benevolence came control, and a demand for obedience and orthodoxy.



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—17th July 2015
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