Go back to article: Philip Carpenter and the convergence of science and entertainment in the early-nineteenth century instrument trade

Industrial organisation

It is not clear how Carpenter attained the Kaleidoscope production contract. Brewster is known to have had connections with a number of significant instrument makers in Edinburgh and London (Taylor, 1966, p 357), but Carpenter was a Birmingham optician. It is most likely that he was accepted as manufacturer because of his integration into the Birmingham workshop economy. Little is known of his pre-1817 manufacturing practice. We know that he was a practicing optician on Inge Street by 1808 and that he moved to a manufactory on Bath Row in 1813 (Roberts, 2016a, p 10). Several historians claim that he was a leading supplier of lenses and telescopes to the instrument trade (Talbot, 2006, p 17; Timmins, 1866, p 534; Morrison-Low, 2007, p 225; Davidson, 2011, p 13), but it is unclear how they know this. We gain some sense of the size of Carpenter’s workshop from surviving documents. An 1813 leasehold document shows that he acquired 1,041 square feet of land for building (MS 3375/407007). This is a reasonable sized property, but as a later mortgage document shows, it included a dwelling house and outbuildings, as well as the manufactory building (MS 3375/407009). This means that Carpenter worked from a relatively small workshop, large enough for lens grinding and assembly work, but certainly not for brass moulding or metalwork. It also means that he worked as a wholesale optician and not yet as a retailer himself. Carpenter did not acquire his shop on New Street until at least 1819 (QS/76/3; Wrightson’s Directory, 1823, p 27). There is no way of knowing the extent of Carpenter’s early manufacturing practice, but it is reasonable to expect that he was competent and reasonably successful already, given that he was capable of attaining Brewster’s Kaleidoscope contract and that he produced enough Kaleidoscopes to provoke a popular media craze (although not enough to continue as sole maker after 1818).

Examination shows that the Kaleidoscope was assembled from multiple serially-produced parts. Given the volume of Kaleidoscopes produced, this would have required an efficient production system in line with the usual Birmingham subcontracting networks. In the early nineteenth century, Birmingham was one of the biggest manufacturing cities in the world. It had not mechanised, as had key industries in the northwest of England, because it had developed a highly-efficient network of workshops that individually manufactured small items (such as buckles and buttons), individual parts (such as gun parts and screws) and metals (principally tin, iron and brass) (Hopkins, 1989, pp 60–61). This manufacturing economy functioned through the putting-out system, where many different workshops would participate in the production of parts, to be bought and assembled elsewhere (Berg, 1991; 1993). The Birmingham trade was organised around individual workshops that each focused on a few specific tasks and outputs. Berg describes this as ‘a workshop economy built on specialisation and the division of labour, on dispersed units concentrated in specific locations and on close networking among these units’ (1993, pp 20–21). Subcontracting was common, as it was elsewhere, but without the drive towards increased capital and large, one-site manufacture. The instrument trade was small in comparison with other industries. There were few appreciable benefits to be had by mechanised production, or the production of industrial quantities of goods, because it had already attainted a high degree of efficiency through the use of hand-technologies and workshop organisation. There had previously been little need to produce instruments in bulk, but the Kaleidoscope was a different kind of enterprise.

Due to its broad non-specialist appeal the Kaleidoscope could claim a larger market than was typical of other instruments. By exploiting the rapidly expanding manufacturing networks of early-nineteenth century Birmingham, Carpenter could produce a greater volume of instruments than previously possible. The instrument workshops themselves did not require an industrial base, but through efficient subcontracting they could make use of industrial expansion in the metalwork and toy trades.

As an optician, Carpenter would surely have been a skilled lens grinder, but it is doubtful that he would have had the means to produce the tin cases, brass tubes and wooden boxes required for his instruments. Indeed, there would have been no need for him to do so, as the local workshop economy could have provided ample tinsmiths, brass founders and box makers to supply his own manufactory. Given Carpenter’s location, it is highly likely that his manufacturing practice was fully integrated into the putting-out system. His own workshop would have most likely contributed only lenses, assembly and finishing (engraving, polishing, painting, packing, etc.).

This explains the design of the early kaleidoscopes. Dismantling the Carpenter Kaleidoscope shows that its body is constructed out of two brass tubes and circular brass fixings. The brass tubes used for scientific instruments were made by drawing sheet brass through a mould under considerable pressure (2006, pp 178–183; Barclay, 1993). The Kaleidoscope required two tubes of slightly different width (so one could slide into the other), plus several moulded and cut fixings to hold the tubes together. The Commercial Directory for 1818 lists 82 brass founders and 19 brass workers. John Benton of Livery Street specialised in making ‘plated and brass tubes of every description’ (Commercial Directory, 1818, p 62; Wrightson’s Directory, 1818, p 12), which strongly suggests that he acted as a subcontractor to the instrument trade. He was part of an existing network of specialists who could have moulded and cut brass tubes for many of Carpenter’s instruments. With this in mind, it is likely that Carpenter would have made use of this established manufacturing network. The ends of the Kaleidoscope were pressed in the same process used for button manufacture (Morrison-Low, 2007, p 225), which was a key part of the Birmingham toy trade. This was simply achieved by stamping a supple disk of brass with a maker’s mark. That these practices were embedded in the surrounding workshop economy is indicated by Brewster’s own complaints that ‘tinmen and the glazers began to manufacture the detached parts of [the Kaleidoscope], in order to evade the patent’ (Brewster, 1830, p 410). Professional artisans were capable of pirating the instrument because it was designed with their existing skills in mind.

The instrument would then require assembly and would need to be fitted with mirrors and a lens (for the telescopic version) or object cells. This would likely have been done in Carpenter’s workshop as there were no cognate skills available in surrounding workshops. A local Japanner would have applied an enamel covering to the outer tube and Carpenter would then have polished and boxed the finished instrument (in a cardboard tube or wooden box bought in from elsewhere).

All of Carpenter’s instruments would likely have been integrated into the surrounding workshop economy in this way. Indeed, this was true of most instrument makers. Even among the most gifted manufacturers there is no need to duplicate skills provided by other trades. The core skills of the optician or mathematical instrument maker would also have required access to certain key materials, thus integrating their workshop into a broader network of industrial practitioners. What is interesting about the Kaleidoscope is that it was one of the first instruments to exploit the expanding industrial base in the early-nineteenth century. Through efficient design choices Carpenter could utilise the greater production capabilities of the Birmingham workshops to produce a far larger volume of instruments than was typical. The Kaleidoscope appealed to popular interest in spectacle, so it had a larger potential market than other instruments. That the manufacturing contract had to be extended to sixteen other makers only a year later shows that neither Brewster nor Carpenter fully anticipated just how successful the Kaleidoscope craze could become.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170707/004