For Ada Lovelace Day: Eleanor Coade, technology entrepreneur of the 18th Century

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. In previous years I’ve written about Elizabeth Montagu, Lizzie Le Prince and Laura Willson.

This time I want to highlight the unique achievements of Eleanor Coade, creator and entrepreneur behind one of the most durable and effective building materials of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the eponymous Coade Stone.

This remarkable survivor by London’s Westminster Bridge is a fine example of Mrs Coade’s artificial stone, the ingredients of which are simple but the production process apparently fraught with complexity. Others at the time tried to make the material, but Coade’s London factory was the only one to produce it successfully at scale.

Examples can still be seen outside the John Soane Museum, Somerset House, Castle Howard and elsewhere.

Eleanor Coade was born in Exeter in 1733, and moved to London around 1760. She was unmarried, the title Mrs being accorded to her as a businesswoman rather than as a wife.

In late 1769 she bought a struggling artificial stone business sited on the South Bank where the Royal Festival Hall now stands. Her Wikipedia entry notes:

Coade’s success as a business woman was very rare in the Georgian era. She was a hard-working individual who concentrated on methodical procedures to produce consistently high quality products. She was the first and only person to succeed in the artificial stone business thanks to a combination of managerial skills, entrepreneurial flare and a talent for marketing and public relations.

She closely supervised both the preparation of clay mixtures and the firing process for all her products. Having bought Daniel Pincot’s struggling business within two years she took the decision to sack him for disciplinary reasons, and confirmed her decision on September 11 and 14 by adverts in The Daily AdvertiserGazetteer and The New Daily Advertiser.

She cultivated strong business relationships with respected architects and designers, including Robert Adam, James Wyatt, Humphry Repton, John Nash and Sir John Soane, because she could produce multiple copies of their designs. Her success may be gauged by Josiah Wedgwood’s complaint that he ‘could not get architects to endorse his new chimneypiece plaques’

And those are the reasons why Elanor Coade stands out to me – the combined qualities of attention to detail and to the bigger picture make her a true Georgian technology entrepreneur.

Read more about Ada Lovelace Day at findingada.com.

Mr. SMEATON IN UR RIVR FIXIN UR BR1DGE

On opening the great arch at London Bridge, by throwing two arches into one, and the removal of a large pier, the excavation, around and underneath the sterlings of that pier, was so considerable, as to put the adjoining piers, that arch, and eventually the whole bridge, in great danger of falling. The previous opinions of some were positive, and the apprehensions of all the people on this head were so great, that many persons would not pass over or under it. The Surveyors employed were not adequate to such an exigency. Mr. SMEATON was then in Yorkshire, where he was sent for by express, and from whence he arrived in town with the greatest expedition. He applied himself immediately to examine the bridge, and to sound about the dangerous sterlings, as minutely as he could. The Committee of Common Council adopted his advice; which was, to re-puchase the stones of all the City Gates, then lately pulled down, and lying in Moorfields, and to throw them pell-mell, (or piece perdu,) into the water, to guard these sterlings, preserve the bottom from further corrosion, raise the floor under the arch, and restore the head of water necessary for the water-works to its original power ; and this was a practice, he had before, and afterwards adopted on other occasions. Nothing shews the apprehensions of the bridge falling, more, than the alacrity with which his advice was pursued : the stones were re-purchased that day ; horses, carts and barges were got ready, and the work instantly begun, though it was Sunday morning. Thus Mr. SMEATON, in all human probability, saved London Bridge from falling, and secured it till more effectual methods could be taken.

Life of Mr John Smeaton, in Reports of the Late John Smeaton: F. R. S., Made on Various Occasions, in the Course of His Employment as a Civil Engineer, 1812

View – History – Flatten layers: Part 1. The Russell Square Aeroplane

One summer morning a jetplane flew south over central London, gear down, seatbelts on, devices off. Thousands of feet below, traffic flowed around Russell Square. An open top bus turned into Bedford Way, plunging its passengers into the shade of the tall university buildings.

Thanks to the aristocrats whose names the streets wear, this part of the city between Euston and Oxford Street is the closest London gets to a grid structure. I know it quite well, but still use the crutch of a map to find my way round. It’s a marauder’s map with me at the centre, surrounded by a shaded circle of confidence that pulses bigger and smaller as my phone singles out satellites, cell towers and WiFi points in the radio spectrum cacophony.

I was not there that day, the day of the jetplane and the tour bus. Yet every time I cross Russell Square, Google satellite map in hand, I walk under the left wing of the jetplane.

Frozen in time, the Russell Square aeroplane looks as though it has landed in the park. The scale is about right. Besides, how without forward motion can it be anywhere but on the ground?

Like saving an image out of Photoshop, the satellite view flattens the layers. The people in the sky (who knows where they came from or how long their journeys?) are suddenly on the same plane as the people on the bus, for whom the passenger jet was nothing but a streak of sound or a vapour trail in the clear blue sky.

I can imagine the bustle when I walk though the square, squinting at my phone screen in the daylight. Not a crash landing for there are no signs of panic around the plane.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Russell Square where the time is forever 10am British Summer Time. Please remain seated until the pilot has switched off the seatbelt signs. On behalf of the airline and our partners may I thank you for flying with us and wish you a pleasant onward journey.

And please mind the picnickers as you disembark the plane.”

History is the handrail

History is the handrail for which we reach when knocked off balance by the present day.

Therefore it seems apt that at the Museum of London a “timeline handrail”  runs from 1688 to 2012, around the new Galleries of Modern London.

At first sight this is a cute way to lay out the span of years through the expanse of the gallery, surrounded by some excellent exhibits that bring past generations of the capital’s people back to life.

But the handrail left me feeling queasy, unsteady on my feet, because here London’s past is for sale.

I don’t mind the principle of sponsorship so much as the way it is done. Critically, for £5000 corporations and wealthy individuals can not only affix their names to a year, but also dictate the very events with which that date should be associated.

It’s a strange price, £5000 – beyond the reach of mass participation by ordinary Londoners, yet chickenfeed for the City’s many firms and institutions. And, the website boasts, it counts as gift aid so…

if you are a 50% higher rate taxpayer, your donation could cost you even less at £2,500.

In other words, the rich may occupy a year of London’s narrative for half the sum that their history-loving cleaners or chauffeurs would have to scrimp and save.

Regular followers of my ramblings will know that I have a special thing for the year 1794. I wondered which of the various happenings of that eventful year might have made it onto the timeline.

From the latter…

London

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe. (1-4)

You’ll see where this is leading.

Now I know nothing of Norton Rose LLP and their business. Well done them, I say, for 217 years of lawyering in London.

Yet this entry inadvertently speaks volumes  – more even than those lines of William Blake – about the nature of power in the City of London. The structure of this sponsorship scheme guarantees a history written by the victors. It underwrites the narratives of the already powerful.

When you place your hand on a rail it does more than offer support; it also guides your direction of travel. Where do you want it to lead you?

Blakewalking back to 1794

Tim Wright’s ‘Harrison Fraud’, the tale of a practical joke gone too far, was a highlight for me of last year’s The Story. Now he has worked with another favourite project of mine, Bookleteer, to make ‘The Second Book of Urizen‘, a walk around London in the footsteps of William Blake.

It’s a booklet, not a book, and it leads the walker on a perambulation around Lambeth, accompanied, through QR codes, by Audioboo clips of Blake’s work read aloud there.

Why blog this?

First because I find this stuff fascinating. I believe a story is extra powerful in the place where it actually happened. This sense of story literally beneath our feet motivates a lot of the stuff I do with history in Leeds.

Secondly because the year of this Blakewalk is 1794, one significant for many other reasons that I tried to capture in my own fragmentary ‘1794: a Small Story‘. I used Blake’s ‘Europe, A Prophecy’ to set the scene for the terrible events that befell some of my real-life characters.

Now thanks to Tim I can fill in some gaps in my knowledge, and discover the works Joseph Haydn composed while staying in London that same year.

Tim describes ‘The Second Book of Urizen’ as a work in progress. I can’t wait to see where William Blake takes him next.

King Chaunticlere; or, the Fate of Tyranny

An Anecdote, related by Citizen Thelwall, at the Capel Court Society, during the discussion of a question, relative to the comparative Influence of the Love of Life, of Liberty, and of the Fair Sex, on the Actions of Mankind.

You must know then, that I used, together with a variety of youthful attachments, to be very fond of birds and poultry; and among other things of this kind, I had a very fine majestic kind of animal, a game cock : a haughty, sanguinary tyrant, nursed in blood and slaughter from his infancy — fond of foreign wars and domestic rebellions, into which he would sometimes drive his subjects, by his oppresive obstinacy, in hopes that he might increase his power and glory by their suppression. Now this haughty old tyrant would never let my farmyard be quiet; for, not content with devouring by far the greater part of the grain that was scattered for the morning and evening repast, and snatching at every little treasure that the toil of more industrious birds might happen to scratch out of the bowels of the earth, the restless despot must be always picking and cuffing at the poor doves and pullets, and little defenceless chickens, so that they could never eat the scanty remnant, which his inordinate taxation left them, in peace and quietness. Now, though there were some aristocratic prejudices hanging about me, from my education, so that I could not help looking with considerable reverence, upon the majestic decorations of the person of king Chaunticlere — such as his ermine spotted breast, the fine gold trappings about his neck and shoulders, the flowing role of plumage tucked up at his rump, and, above all, that fine ornamented thing upon his head there — (his crown, or coxcomb, I believe you call it — however the distinction is not very important) yet I had even, at that time, some lurking principles of aversion to barefaced despotism struggling at my heart, which would sometimes whisper to me, that the best thing one could do, either for cock and hens, or men and women, was to rid the world of tyrants, whose shrill martial clarions (the provocatives to fame and murder) disturbed the repose and destroyed the happiness of their respective communities. So I believe, if guillotines had been in fashion, I should have certainly guillotined him: being desirous to be merciful, even in the stroke of death, and knowing, that the instant the brain is separated from the heart, (which, with this instrument, is done in a moment,) pain and consciousness are at end — while the lingering torture of the rope may procrastinate the pang for half an hour. However, I managed the buisness very well; for I caught Mr. Tyrant by the head, and dragging him immediately to the block, with a heavy knife in my hand, separated his neck at a blow : and what will surprise you very much, when his fine trappings were stripped off, I found he was no better than a common tame scratch-dunghill pullet: no, nor half so good, for he was tough, and oily, and rank with the pollutions of his luxurious vices.

From Politics for the people; or, A salmagundy for swine, number 8, 1793, published by Daniel Isaac Eaton.

For telling this farmyard story, both Eaton and Thelwall (who had rooms on the Strand, near today’s Trafalgar Square) were tried for sedition.

Aramis, or the Love of Pedalling

Interesting North presentations by James Boardwell and Toby Barnes plus an all-too-short chat with Tom Armitage in the pub after the event prompted me to rescue this post from my blog’s permanently-in-draft folder. I’m not sure it’s finished yet, but make of it what you will.

Originally it was going to be a sober and constructive service design account of my experiences on London’s cycle hire scheme: a tale of how my most regular London trip takes precisely 30 minutes and 19 seconds thus costing me an extra pound; of how the supply of bikes to major train stations at rush hour could make or break the scheme; and of how the chosen shade of blue now evokes a Pavlovian pedalling response.

But then I fell into reading the story of a different mode of urban transport, every paleo-futurist’s dream machine, the Personal Rapid Transit system. Specifically, on the recommendation of a colleague (thanks to that person, you know which Matt you are :) I got a copy of Bruno Latour’s 1993 work, ‘Aramis, or the Love of Technology,’ which traces the ill-fated 18-year journey of a guided transport project.

It’s a gem of a book, part documentary, part ethnographic meditation, part fictionalised romance of technology, a post-modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where we cannot tell if the monster is the creation or its creator.

“It’s typically French. You have a system that’s supposedly brilliant, but nobody wants it. It’s a white elephant. You go on and on indefinitely. The scientists have a high old time…”

Aramis was a prototype at Orly Airport in the early 1970s and a network planned for southern Paris in the 1980s. It was made up of moving pods, each carrying a few passengers, which could link up electronically to form ad hoc trains along busy routes then disband as they headed for their various destinations. The idea was that you’d hop on, take a seat, select your destination, and be whisked straight from A to B without having to change at C, or even wait a few minutes at D, E and F while other passengers boarded or disembarked.

In addition to the application of a revolutionary new motor, Aramis relied on “non-material coupling” by which its cars would travel packed together as if in a train, yet contactless…

“Aramis, the heart of Aramis, is nonmaterial coupling. That’s the whole key. The cars don’t touch each other physically. Their connection is simply calculated.”

I half-remember seeing Aramis on Tomorrow’s World. It was definitely the transport of the future, or at least of a future, the one depicted in books with titles like ‘The City of the Future’.

Ultimately the technology proved too complex and the political will too weak: the project was canned in 1987, having swallowed up half a billion francs of research and development costs and half the careers of some fine engineers along the way. All that we’re left with is an object-lesson in institutional inertia, a warning of how big businesses and governments can waste a fortune when they become too fixated on the technlogical solution at the expense of the user need.

But it struck me that in a funny way the French did get their Aramis. Because before London got its blue bikes Paris deployed Vélib’, a network of cycles for hire from docking stations dotted around the city.

And looking at the requirements (not the solution) that Latour discerned for Aramis, Vélib’ matches pretty well:

Requirement Aramis Vélib’
no transfers On board software determines the most efficient direct route Rider gets on bike at start of journey and gets off when they get where they’re going
no intermediate stops Cars peel off from train to drop passengers at station, so other pods can continue uninterrupted Rider stops only to buy a litre of milk or something. Other riders are not affected
passengers control the destination By pressing a button at the stop or in the car By steering with the handlebars
passengers don’t have to think They trust the car’s navigation computer to take them where they’re going They achieve a dream-like state of flow while following a well-marked cycle route

Watch the bike lanes of Paris or London in the rush hour, especially on a strike day. Cyclists link up subconsciously to form ad hoc trains along busy routes then disband as they head for their various destinations. The bikes don’t touch each other physically. Their connection is simply calculated. Yes, I have seen the future, and what it lacks in non-material couplings and variable-reluctance motors, it makes up for with a basket and a bell.

We don’t notice these things though. As James Boardwell so smartly put it in his Interesting North talk, we’re unable to picture something as simple as a bike playing a role in a radical vision of the future.

In this respect the pushbike is like Frank Chimero’s tiny horse in the Apple Store (as referenced by Toby): we’re too busy looking at the new shiny to even register the glaringly wonderful.

What really fascinates me about the cycle hire schemes, however, is the way they turn the bike into just a small part of a bigger system. To the hardware of gears and chains and brakes are added official and unnofficial services that multiply the bikes’ utility.

  • The access control systems and kiosks at each docking point…

  • The mobile apps that help users find a bike to use and a place to leave it…

  • The route planners that tell them the best way from A to B (without a care for C, D, E or F)
  • The GPS apps that records data trails for future reference.

These things may not be as obvious as Trondheim’s spectacular escalator (and I’d vote for one of these up Chapeltown Road) but they are real nonetheless.

Aramis’ body may have long since been scrapped, but its spirit lives on in the emerging software of the city.