This article investigates the representation in the Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900) of inventors and inventive activities during the British industrial revolution. We analyse a data-set of all individuals born in the period 1650–1850 whose entry credits them with at least one invention, in order to interrogate the late Victorians' concept of invention and its influence on successive narratives of the British industrial revolution. Our study suggests that the DNB's selection of inventors reflected various Victorian biases and preconceptions about the role of technology in the transformation of contemporary society. Consequently, the use of collective biographies as a source for the history of technology is open to several methodological pitfalls, of which historians need to be aware.
The Dictionary of National Biography was a triumph of Victorian literary engineering and private enterprise. Its original sixty-three volumes contained 29,120 entries. 1 They were produced in "eighteen years of unremitting labour" between 1882 and 1900, and published at the formidable rate of one volume every three months (precisely). 2 The Dictionary (henceforward DNB, as it is affectionately known in Britain) was intended to provide "full, accurate, and concise biographies of all noteworthy inhabitants of the British Islands and the Colonies (exclusive of living persons) from the earliest historical period to the present time." 3 [End Page 757]
In order to investigate the representation in the DNB of inventors and inventive activities during the British Industrial Revolution, we have constructed a data-set of all individuals born during the period 1650–1850 whose entry credits them with at least one invention. These individuals number 383 and account for slightly more than 1 percent of all original entries. 4 If this seems a small proportion, we need to remember the inclusiveness of the enterprise and "the rich tapestry of British history" that the DNB represented. 5 It was the editors' goal to include all those who had achieved distinction in "any walk of life"; their list of examples mentioned "inventor" sixth, after "statesman, lawyer, divine, painter, author." 6 Certainly, if the DNB had been compiled a century earlier, the representation of inventors (as well as engineers and scientists) would have been negli-gible. The high regard in which inventors and engineers were held in Victorian Britain was a novel phenomenon that peaked during the second half of the nineteenth century. The men who selected the entries for the original DNB grew up in a society that celebrated the achievements of the inventor and the engineer in literature, museums, and public art as never before or since. 7 The second half of the nineteenth century began with the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace and ended with the unprecedented elevation to the peerage of such inventors and engineers as Joseph (Baron) Lister, Samuel Cunliffe Lister (who took the title Baron Masham), William (Baron) Armstrong, and William Thomson (Baron Kelvin). It witnessed the erection of statues in city centers and major public buildings to men such as these and other inventors, and saw the opening in South Kensington of the Patent Office Museum (later part of the Science Museum), which attracted 4.5 million visitors between 1855 and 1878. 8 The period was [End Page 758] awash with biographical studies, of which those produced by Samuel Smiles represented only the tip of a publishing iceberg.
The aim of this article is to scrutinize the criteria adopted by the Victorian edition of the DNB when selecting British inventors born during the period 1650–1850. 9 We work with this first edition in order to interrogate the late Victorians' conceptualization of invention and its influence on successive narratives of the British Industrial Revolution. Simultaneously, we seek to raise methodological issues about the selection of historical sources for prosopographical studies.
This is a timely exercise for two reasons. First, the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), while...