Bacon v. the Projector: Vernacular Perspectives on Technological Invention in Early Modern England
Visiting Scholar, Department of Science & Technology Studies, Cornell University
Visiting Scholar, Unit for History & Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney
Judging from their depiction in the vernacular literature, inventors in early modern London were about as well regarded as Wall Street executives are in the United States today. Seventeenth-century stage comedies, poems and pamphlets present, on the whole, a distinctly negative attitude—a cynical and derisive attitude—towards technological inventors. One character type in particular that embodied this negative stereotype: the projector (or projectress)—“one whose head is full of projects”. Following the literary trail of the projector brings the historian to a little-used vantage point from which to consider the place of invention and inventors in the culture of the period. Far from being the exclusive domain of savants, it seems anyone might try his or her hand at invention. Reports and claims about new inventions were commonplace—common enough, at least, to be the subject of parody. And inventors themselves were closely associated with the Crown, capital investment schemes, and, above all, the much maligned patent system. Overall, what we get is a clear picture of the challenges that would have been faced by anyone seeking to establish authority, expertise, or trustworthiness in the realm of technology-making. On a different level, this vantage point is in direct contrast to that which one obtains by following the trail left by the influential work of Francis Bacon and Samuel Hartlib. Opposing they may be, the two perspectives were undoubtedly in dialogue. I would argue that these widespread negative portrayals of invention are key to explaining why Baconian rhetoric gained the force that it did among the elite of mid-seventeenth-century London.