Go back to article: Reading, writing, drawing and making in the 18th-century instrument trade

Material connections

In the world of 18th-century instrument-making, the commercial tactics of the book trade facilitated the circulation of printed designs between distant workshops, each embedded in its own local networks of production. The availability of designs was one of many factors influencing the development of instruments in the 18th century. George Adams’s use of Mathematical Elements took place in a wider context of material production that cannot be addressed fully here. Designs were altered or improved according to local requirements, and executed in materials that had their own tempos and geographical patterns of movement. The ready availability of mahogany, from which many of George III’s instruments were made, was a direct result of British imperial expansion, the rapid development of British trading interests with an increasingly global reach, and the naval and fiscal policies that supported them. By the 1760s vast quantities of this exotic wood were arriving in London from Belize, and making their way into the joiners’ and cabinet-makers’ shops to the north of Covent Garden (Bowett, 1994; Finamore, 2004). The fusibility of brass, another key material in this collection, gave it a distinctive pattern of movement around London, where foundries concentrated in clusters between Aldersgate Street, Moorfields and Bishopsgate to the east; north of Fleet Street in Snow Hill and Shoe Lane; and near the cabinet-makers of Covent Garden[8] (Mortimer, 1763). Its circulation was only semi-regulated, with tradesmen settling their foundry bills in part through credit for old metal, while a brisk trade in stolen brass, often along the same routes, was fed by theft from workshops and storerooms[9].

Much work remains to be done on the practical aspects of how printed designs were put to use in the networks of trade that crisscrossed London in the mid-18th century. Between the printed image and the new version of any instrument that George Adams made, a whole range of other things, such as drawings, patterns, moulds, jigs and tools, intervened[10]. These mundane but powerful objects have, in the main, been lost. But comparisons between related collections, such as Adams’s instruments, manuscripts and printed books; and ’s Gravesande and van Musschenbroek’s instruments at the Museum Boerhaave, can illustrate both the creative and material dynamics of the 18th-century instrument trade, as well as the historic links between the holdings of modern institutions.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140103/026