The Age of the Projectors

Alex Keller describes how the closing years of the sixteenth century and the early decades of the seventeenth marked the first period in England of important technological advance.

Fitzdottrel: “But what is a Projector, I would conceive.”
Ingine: “Why one, sir, that projects wayes to enrich men or to make them great.”

(Ben Jonson, The Devil is an Ass, 1631).

The early years of the seventeenth century were frequently alarmed, amused or excited by reports of weird and ingenious machines, or quasi-chemical techniques, of devastating secret weapons and magnificent schemes for new canals, for draining swamps and for supplying water to great cities. It seems to have been an age bewitched by the possibilities of a mastery over matter just out of reach.

Sometimes it was perpetual motion, sometimes the philosopher’s stone for the transmutation of metals, or the universal dissolvent. The boundary between the feasible and the fantastic was still thin and uncertain. The name of projector was commonly applied to these mechanical inventors and the promoters of schemes for industrial expansion on the grand scale.

One might almost consider these projectors and their projects as typifying this phase in the history of technology—let us say, two or three generations up to about 1660. At least we may use this term of England and France, for it would not apply so well, and certainly not so exclusively to that period, if we were to look at countries technically and economically more advanced, like Northern Italy and the Low Countries.

It is, indeed, partly because England had been a backward region, that she could now hope to move forward more rapidly. But this progress might also be more painful, since there were more entrenched interests, more toes to be trodden on by this onward march. That those economies which develop later do so at a faster pace, which is, however, accompanied by a sharper sense of social dislocation, has by now become a platitude; and we need hardly be surprised to find it equally true three centuries ago.

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