From the December 1934 issue of the Socialist Standard
It is claimed on behalf of capitalism that the most important part played in the production of wealth is that of outstanding men who made possible the highly-developed civilisation of to-day. Inventors, painters and literary men are held up as examples of this, the implication being that the present capitalists or their forefathers were of this select band.
On previous occasions we have shown the baselessness of these assertions and in general have pointed out how each generation simply adds its little bit to the achievements of the past, and the discovery or production put to the credit of one individual exaggerates his part in the business. Briefly, the position is similar to that of a footrace. Society or production sets a problem and one of the participants gets there first.
We do not propose going into the matter any further at the moment, but it may be interesting to give a short list of outstanding figures in various walks of life who are accepted as having made considerable contributions to the wealth and the happiness of modern society. At the same time it may also be interesting ta show how capitalism has rewarded its “men of genius."
John Kay.—A weaver and mechanic. Inventor of the fly shuttle, one of the most important inventions in the textile industry, as well as other inventions. He took his case to the courts in the endeavour to obtain recognition and recompense for his work: was beggared by litigation, and starved to death in France.
Joseph Marie Jacquard.—Inventor of the silk-weaving loom that brought about a revolution in the art of weaving. He could obtain no recognition until he was an old man. He sacrificed all he possessed to carry on his inventions, and became a labourer and a soldier.
Henry Cort.—Invented “puddling" process for converting pig-iron into malleable metal, as well as other inventions. He patented his inventions and became involved in law suits—like so many of his kind. He was eventually utterly ruined. The Government took up his invention and granted him a pension of £200.
James Hargreaves.—A carpenter. Invented the spinning jenny, but died a poor man. He suffered from dishonest manufacturers.
Samuel Crompton.—A cotton spinner, combined the old water frame and spinning jenny into the mule, and is considered to have been practically the organiser of modern industry. He died in poverty.
Richard Roberts.—Inventor of the self-acting mule: was left to fight poverty in his old age.
Richard Trevithick.—Inventor of high pressure d the steam locomotive; died in poverty.
Gutenberg.—Inventor of printing: was in financial difficulties all his life.
Bernard Palissy.—A French potter. Discovered the process for manufacture of enamel. Struggled for sixteen years in the lowest depths of poverty, having to burn his furniture to keep his fires alight. He was arrested, and died in the Bastille.
John Harrison.—A mechanic. Invented the marine chronometer. He was in necessitous circumstances all his life. Struggled for years to obtain the reward that had been offered for such an invention, and after considerable difficulty finally obtained it when eighty years old.
Frederick Koenig.—Inventor of the steam printing-machine. Had his patents infringed. After a long struggle and illnesses he died in poor circumstances.
Eugen Turpin.—Inventor of melenite and over forty other inventions: was always in poor circumstances.
General Shrapnel.—Inventor of the explosive that bears his name and that helped to build up many rich armament firms, as well as blowing thousands to eternity: died in 1842, a poor and bitter old man.
Antoine Laurent Lavoisier.—Described as the father of modern chemistry: had to accept a position as tax-farmer in order to carry on his experiments, and perished under the guillotine.
Rev. Hannibal Goodwin.—Invented film photography, and after a long fight obtained a patent in 1898. When he was about to put the film on the market, he died in 1900. His widow formed a company and carried on a fight with the powerful interests opposed to her, and finally obtained a judgment in the United States Supreme Court in 1914 that the Goodwin patent was the basis of film photography. Success, however, came too late, for Mrs. Goodwin was 81 and in failing health.
Franz Schubert.—A schoolmaster, whose musical compositions have delighted myriads of people and whose life has provided material for films. “Left the world," as one biographer puts it, "a rich heritage of considerably more than a thousand works of extreme brilliance, and who received in return £575 as the sum total of his life's earnings "! !
Count de Chardonet.—Inventor of artificial silk: died a poor man. In 1928 M. Heriot unveiled a statue to him at Lyons. No doubt he would have preferred a little more bread while he was alive!
Horace van Ruith.—A famous artist, who painted a study of Nurse Cavell that was greatly admired. At the age of 80, when living in poverty, an exhibition of his works was held covering a period of nearly 70 years, and he pathetically expressed the hope that some of them would find purchasers and so allow him to spend his last days without depending on friends.
Henrick Heine.—Germany’s leading lyrical poet: had a struggle for existence all his life.
Herbert Spencer.—The philosopher of individualism: could only complete his Synthetic Philosophy by means of the subscriptions of friends.
Linnteus.— Described as the father of modern botany: had to work his way to the Universities of Lund and Upsala, living on £8 a year, and making his own boots from the bark of trees. Had he not attracted the notice of a man of similar tastes, the famous Classification of the Animal and Vegetable Kingdom might have had to find another author.
The above are only a few of the illustrations picked out of a large field and placed in a handy form for reference.
There was one inventor, however, who realised fame and fortune while his brothers struggled and starved. That one was Sir Richard Arkwright, sometime barber and horse-dealer, to whom is attributed the invention of the water-frame, which he patented in 1767. But Arkwright has the unique distinction of not having invented the contrivance that bears his name. The invention in question was actually the work of Thomas Highs, who built a spinning machine in 1767 at the village of Leigh. This was known to Arkwright, who had married a woman from Leigh. The case was fought through the courts, and Arkwright never produced any satisfactory evidence of the origin of his invention. When the case was tried in 1785 Arkwright’s patent was declared lapsed. However, he died in 1792, a knight, a high sheriff of the County of Derby, and left half a million pounds!
A full account of this case will be found in Mantoux’s “Industrial Revolution” for those who are interested.
Just a word of warning before concluding. The writer is not concerned with whether all the inventions named above were in fact the work of those to whom they are ascribed. The point is the inventions in question are ascribed to them by the capitalists and their paid writers, and the reward such pillars of modern society received for their work was, in the main, worry, toil and misery, while those who owned the means of production profited by their work and amassed fortunes.