Noah Brier | March 22, 2019

Why is this interesting? - Friday, March 22

On knitting machines, Luddites, and the research high

Recommended Products

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

A book that explores the reasons why some nations develop and prosper while others lag behind.

Thanks for sticking around through the first week. We are obviously still messing around with this thing and we appreciate you all coming along for the ride. Today’s write up stretches a little longer than usual and is even more esoteric than the others this week, but I did my best to land it. As always, appreciate the feedback and have a great weekend. - Noah (NRB)

I sometimes get a little obsessed with the source of an idea or quotation. With quotes specifically, I have a significant distrust for anything that sounds too polished, especially if it was supposedly said more than fifty or sixty years ago. (If you’re not familiar with Quote Investigator, it’s an amazing resource and proof that many of the world's most famous quotes are misattributed.)

This week I was doing some research into the invention of the first knitting machine (the “stocking frame”) and something attributed to Queen Elizabeth I caused a raised eyebrow. When William Lee, the machine’s inventor, came to her for a patent in 1589 she purportedly replied, “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.” Which sounds good and particularly prescient to modern conversations, but almost definitely wasn’t something she really said. In researching, I found a version of the story in the book Why Nations Fail, written by a professors at MIT and Harvard. It seemed like a safe bet for a good citation, but their only sourcing for the quote was this 2003-looking website all about Calverton, England, the village where Lee grew up. (See below for some sweet button shadows from the site.)

Anyway, after digging around in journals and getting nowhere, I tried some more Googling and … landed on the blog post of another research obsessive who had the same hunch and did all the research two weeks ago! Amazing. The answer, as it turns out, is the quote comes from a history of framework-knitting originally published in 1831 which almost definitely couldn’t have known for sure Queen Elizabeth said that (though it makes historical sense).

Why is this interesting?

Well, at this point I’m guessing if you’re still reading you’re asking the same question. But there’s a few things here that fascinate me. First off, the internet is amazing. We spend a lot of time talking about the atrocities social media has wrought, but when this thing works it really works. There’s something fully magical about reading a thing someone wrote just a few weeks that fully answers the absurdly specific question you were just grappling with.

Second, I was researching this because as far as I can tell this is a reasonably good a moment to consider the start of modern times. The knitting machine helped kick off mechanization, the precursor to automation. In fact, the Luddites, who showed up two hundred years later, worked “stocking frames” in the textile industry and were protesting unfair labor practices made possible by the machine. Whether or not the Queen actually said the thing attributed to her, isn’t it fascinating that we’ve been grappling with the effects of modern technology on the livelihood of people for 450 years? (Obviously it’s been longer than that, but you can draw a pretty direct line between Lee’s knitting machine and the computers and robots of today.)

Third, there’s something here about research that I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Since I was a kid in middle school I’ve been hooked on the research high (I think I just made that up). It’s a feeling you get when two things just don’t quite fit together and there’s real thrill in the chase of finding the missing pieces. Robert Caro articulated it better than anything I’ve read in his New Yorker piece from January about how he does research:

"Going back over my notes, I put them in chronological order, and when I did it was easy to see that there had indeed been such a time: a single month, October, 1940. Before that month, Lyndon Johnson had been invariably, in his correspondence, the junior to the senior. After that month—and, it became clearer and clearer as I put more and more documents into order, after a single date, November 5, 1940, Election Day—the tone was frequently the opposite. And it wasn’t just with powerful congressmen. After that date, Johnson’s files also contained letters written to him by mid-level congressmen, and by other congressmen as junior as he, in a supplicating tone, whereas there had been no such letters—not a single one that I could find—before that date. Obviously, the change had had something to do with the election. But what?"

That little opening is the research motivation. In fact, it’s probably also the inventors and entrepreneurs motivation. There’s some gap and a real possibility that very few people, if any, have actually filled it. (NRB)

Quick Hits:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

© WITI Industries, LLC.