Josiah Wedgwood, an Industrial Revolution pioneer

One of the most remarkable and successful pioneers of the Industrial Revolution was born on July 12th, 1730. Josiah Wedgwood was born into a family of non-conformist potters, and showed early talent at 9 years old. He survived a bout of smallpox, but it left his leg too weak to work a potter’s wheel, so he turned to design rather than production.

Wedgwood took the trouble to learn chemistry, so that he could understand and refine the techniques of firing and glazing and the properties of clay. He was a friend of Joseph Priestly, a fellow member of the Lunar Society. He developed several unique glazes and new types of pottery, and found popularity for his products with the top nobility, including Queen Charlotte, whose patronage he traded on.

He virtually invented modern mass-produced pottery by industrializing the industry. He used specialized division of labour to produce high quality at low cost, and sold his wares in every European city as well as to the wider world. He produced less costly versions of his top ranges, to supply the growing middle classes of England. He satisfied the new interest in the classical world by producing works based on ancient designs of vases and plates.

Wedgwood is credited with inventing modern marketing, using mail order, a money back guarantee, and travelling salesmen. He even pioneered “buy one, get one free” and free delivery. Like many of his fellows leading the Industrial Revolution, he keenly promoted the idea of improvement, and of a commitment to making the world a better place. He was an avid campaigner for the abolition of slavery.

It was this notion that humanity could improve itself and that the world could become a better place that was a spur driving the Industrial Revolution. Instead of being content to live fulfilled lives, as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had sought to do, humanity embarked upon that upward curve that we have never left. The Industrial Revolution applied creative technology to doing things better and making things affordable to the masses that had previously been the prerogative of the well-to-do.

We are still living in that world, with creative intellects seeking every day to make it better. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are the spiritual heirs of Josiah Wedgwood, developing and promoting the new products and processes that will enrich our world with new opportunities. Instead of seeking to obstruct such people, we should be encouraging them to flourish. Instead of obsessing with how to make people more equal, we should be making it easier for them to expand the choices and the chances that they make available to others. Instead of trying to cut down the tall flowers, we should be seeking to have as many flowers grow as tall as they can. Josiah Wedgwood, whom we honour on his birthday, was one of the very tall ones.