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

The instrument makers

Throughout the eighteenth century scientific instrument makers served several distinct markets: they produced precision instruments for scientists and experimental institutions; surveying instruments for building infrastructure and transport networks; navigational instruments for maritime transport and overseas trade; tradesmen’s tools for measuring or dividing; and luxury domestic instruments that conferred cultural prestige on curious amateurs (Morrison-Low, 2007, pp 249–283; Bedini, 1964, pp 3–13; Sorenson, 1995, p 264). After several hundred years of development, the instrument trade was extremely diversified. Few manufacturers produced only experimental instruments for scientists. This range of different markets was exploited to sustain consistent profits through separate income streams.

It was natural that skilled lens-grinders, as the optical instrument makers were, would turn their hand to any instrument that could be assembled using their skill-set, regardless of its field or application. If we consult the trade cards for different manufacturers we see a plethora of different instruments and devices. John Cuff of Fleet Street (see Figure 1) advertises reading glasses, refracting and reflecting telescopes, several different microscopes, barometers, thermometers and speaking trumpets. John Bennet of Crown Court (see Figure 2) advertises microscopes, telescopes, rules, globes, sundials, theodolites and compasses, among a jumble of other instruments. Nathaniel Hill of Chancery Lane (see Figure 3) advertises a similar range of professional and analytical instruments and announces that he ‘makes and sells all sorts of mathematical instruments in silver, ivory and wood, very curious and true graduated for sea or land, with books for their use and the best black-lead pencils’. Many of the items on offer would have been bought in for retail, but each maker would also have maximised their own manufacturing skills to produce all kinds of different instruments.

Figure 1

Advertising leaflet for John Cuff Optician Spectacle and Microscope maker

Trade card for John Cuff, 1731–1770

Figure 2

Advertising leaflet for John Bennett maker of mathematical philosophical and optical instruments

Trade card for John Bennet, 1740

Figure 3

Advertising leaflet for Nathaniel Hill globe makers and engraver

Trade card for Nathaniel Hill, Globe Maker & Engraver

But these markets were not stable. At different times the relative importance of each would rise and fall and manufacturers would react through specialisation. Occasionally, a large precision contract would become available and several makers would scramble to claim the work. John Bird produced a large set of astronomical instruments for the Radcliffe Observatory in 1771 (Morrison-Low, 2007, p 137), and Troughton and Simms held a long relationship with the Royal Observatory throughout the nineteenth century, supplying precision equipment, making repairs and developing new instruments (McConnel, 1992, p 39). These periodic associations were important, but quite rare. Only the best-regarded makers could secure a prestigious contract with a professional scientific institution. Towards the end of the century professional navigational and measuring instruments became increasingly important with the expansion of trade and manufacture in the industrial revolution (Morrison-Low, 2007, pp 258–267; Bryden, 1972, pp 10–15). Similarly, an expanding market for luxury goods encouraged instrument makers to sell increasing numbers of off-the-shelf objects, intended for novelty rather than experimental use (Morrison-Low, 2007, pp 271–274). By the turn of the nineteenth century relatively few instruments were being sold to scientists. The majority of consumers were part of these other markets.

In the later years of the eighteenth century the market for consumer instruments was rapidly expanding. Scientific instruments were increasingly sold as consumer objects, as Berg suggests, ‘ornaments of consumption as much as they were tools of engineering’ (1998, p 154). Scholars have described this age of expanding luxury retail as a consumer revolution (Berg, 2004; 2005). This continues into the nineteenth century. Consumption increased because of greater wealth circulation, but this is only secondarily related to the industrial revolution. As Dorothy Davis identifies, retail was driven by industrial manufacture only from the second half of the nineteenth century (1966, p 252). In the early years consumer retail remained much as it had in the eighteenth century – slowly expanding due to greater affluence in the middle classes, but mostly unaffected by industrial production. Instrument manufacture, even for the larger domestic market, remained largely artisanal in organisation. There was no industrial production of instruments, but the trade became gradually more integrated into the workshop economy that had driven the early expansion in fancy goods. The first popular media devices took advantage of a longstanding network of manufacturing workshops to efficiently produce larger volumes of popular instruments. This is one reason for part of the trade’s successful shift into popular optics; even before true mass-production factory methods were applied.

Earlier makers had long produced instruments for ostensibly entertainment purposes; both the Hill and Bennett trade cards include a magic lantern and camera obscura among their wares, while the Cuff trade card advertises: ‘THE CAMERA OBSCURA for exhibiting Prospects in their natural Proportions and Colours, together with the Motions of living subjects: MAGIC LANTHORNS; Convex and Concave SPECULUMS or Looking Glasses, MULTIPLYING GLASSES, […] and many other curiosities.’ There had always been instruments sold for novelty consumption. What changed in the nineteenth century was the approach to retailing curiosities. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170707/002