industrial espionage -- 10/13/20

Today's selection -- from The Industrial Revolution in World History by Peter N. Stearns. Countries sending spies to steal business secrets is not a recent phenomenon. During the Industrial Revolution, spies swarmed across Britain in attempt to steal its secrets:

"There were spies everywhere in eighteenth-century Britain. Though they disguised themselves in a variety of ways, they all had one ambition -- to unearth the secrets of Britain's industrial success. They came from many different European countries, from Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Prussia, but the most eager of the spies were from Britain's greatest rival, France. Many were very erudite men who posed as disinterested tourists, compiling reports which they presented as purely academic treaties. Others posed as workmen in the hope of getting close to some fiendishly clever piece of machinery. And wherever the spies failed to gain entry, they were often reduced to lurking around local inns, hoping to engage knowledgeable workmen in conversation and induce them to cross the Channel for some splendid reward.

"It was already evident to the French and other Europeans that Britain was gaining an industrial lead in the first half of the eighteenth century. There was, for example, the newly acquired technique of smelting iron with purified coal or 'coke' instead of charcoal, a fuel which was becoming prohibitively expensive. There were processes for the preparation of raw wool which were trade secrets and much sought after, as were some of the arcane skills of watchmakers. In the absence of any really reliable textbooks or journals which might disseminate information on how things were done, the most effective way to steal an innovation was simply to bribe a skilled workman to leave his employer.

"Indeed, in 1719 the British government had passed a law forbidding craftsmen to emigrate to France or any other rival country and put a penalty on attempted enticement. At that time the chief concern was the loss of iron founders and watchmakers. But after the mid-century it was the astonishing developments in textiles which were the chief target of foreign spies and the subject of protectionist legislation outlawing the export of tools and machinery as well as skilled men. It was in this trade that the English turncoat, John Holker, the master of all French spies, began an extraordinary career which spanned half a century of rapid innovation."



Peter N. Stearns


The Industrial Revolution in World History


Westview Press


Copyright 2013 Taylor & Francis


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