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Saturday, August 04, 2012

To see the world in a grain of epsom salt...


To see a world in a grain of sand is, admittedly, a grand thing; to see it in a grain of Epsom salt is perhaps more to the purpose when seeking to understand the capillary relations between imperial trading companies, print culture, and the revamping of the notion of property that occurred in the 18th century as a mental prelude to the industrial revolution in the sphere of production.

The story of the first patented pharmaceutical method is crisply told in Adrian Johns’ history of intellectual property wars. Briefly, Nehemiah Grew, the secretary of the Royal Society, developed a process for extracting a mineral salt from the spring near Epsom. Formerly, the water there had been bottled for resale; this, however, was an unsatisfactory mode of distributing the health-giving waters, because the water spoiled quickly, primo, and secundo, the druggist was not averse to adding regular water to the bottle, adulterating the product. Grew, with the help of a “trusted operator” named  Thomas Tramel to extract the mineral salt, which could then be added to whatever liquid one wanted. The process differed from that of simple distillation – as it had to in order to preserve the healing power of the salt.

However, Grew’s attempt to exploit his scientific discovery came to nought. This was due to the enterprise of another pair of druggists, Francis and George Moult, who acted, in Johns’ terms, as pirates. Investigating Grew’s method, they decided that they could reproduce it. Soon they were producing more salt than Grew. They also had a firmer sense of the print culture than sheltered Grew. Instead of appealing to lumberous worthies from the Royal Society, they advertised and found local worthies in various towns to vouch for their product. They even sponsored a cherrypicked translation of Grew’s Latin treatise on the the salts. Grew took out a patent, but the Moults, undeterred, spread rumors about Grew’s originality. Grew then tried to sell them the patent, but they didn’t need it – the Moults, it appeared, didn’t spend money when they could simply eliminate the middleman – and so Grew sold the patent to one Josiah Peter, who wrote a book against the “counterfeit salt”. Johns rescues Peter’s book from oblivion, observing that it presents four arguments for medical patents that have since become classic: from invention, from public benefit, from public confidence – which increased the use of a product – and finally from national trade.

These arguments continue to be in play today. It is the first argument that interests me the most: the argument that invention must be conceived broadly.

“Peter conceded that virtually all inventions were “grounded upon some precedent Invention.”
Yet he insisted that in some cases the new device gave rise to whole new fields of knowledge or endeavor, and in such cases one could indeed speak of real creation. He cited as an example a proposition in Euclid’s Elements that had become the basis for land surveying; this proposition had certainly  rested on its predecessors, but that hardly invalidated its status as an invention with respect to the new discipline.”

Peter’s argument in the book concerning invention is rooted not in truth or fact alone- rather, it is truth governed by use. The field of knowledge is in this sense still a commons; what Peter claims, rather, is that a combination of novelty and utility underlies the broader sense of invention – to the point that Peter employs what seems, to the modern reader, to be a pleonasm: the term “new invention”.

Invention, in Peter’s terms, is not some product that comes ex nihilo from the inventor’s brain, but is part of a process of improvement – is, in a sense, the transmutation of an affordance, to use the lingo of modern design:

“There is hardly any Invention,of the greatest use, but what is grounded on some precedent Invention.The 41 proposition of the 1st of Euclid, which is the chief Rule for surveying of Lands,is but a Button shewed upon the Coat made up of several precedent Propositions. Which Propositions, are yet of no use at all in the measuring of Lands but this only. And this is an Invention of that great use, as it hath given the Name of Geometry, to the whole Science so called.

So Microscopes and Telescope, may be said to be Improvements grounded on a pair of Spectacles: yet allowed to betwo Inventions, as much more noble; as the discovery of new Heavens and a new Earth, is above the being enabled, to read a small lettered Book.” [Peter 19]

Which, indeed, does take us up to the cosmic peaks of the Blakean grain of sand. Blake, of course, wagered his grain against the whole Newtonian cosmodamonium. Grew, and Peter, were on the other side. I was about to say the winning side, but in retrospect who won is unclear – for Blake represents a disquiet in the artificial paradise that at the same time assumes it – Blake is revolutionary, not nostalgic. Meanwhile, in 1709, the  Great Chain of Being is visibly  passing  away in Peter’s text, and another chain, the chain of Utility, is being forged – but out of materials from the old chain, the old hierarchy.


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