Industrial Espionage Fact #5 Espionage in the Age of Innovation

Industrial Espionage in the Age of Innovation: The Trailblazing Tales of Industrial Revolution Spies

Silk-spinning machine

During the onset of the 18th century, amidst Britain’s ascent to global industrial prominence, an English mechanic named Thomas Cotchett, along with engineer George Sorocold, constructed a water mill-powered silk-spinning machine. Unfortunately, Thomas faced bankruptcy, and it was his former worker, John Lombe, who embarked on a daring espionage journey. Aware of Italian silk-spinning machines dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, John sought employment in an Italian factory in 1716, clandestinely sketching the machine’s design before shipping it back to Britain in a bale of silk.

The twist of fate lay in the fact that the library held the very schematics John needed, found within Vittorio Zonca’s 1607 masterpiece, the “Heater of Machines”(Novo Teatro di Machine et Edificii). Upon his return, John Lombe secured a patent (No. 422) in 1718, setting up a prosperous factory on the Derwent River’s island in Derby by 1719. Although his patent eventually expired, the legacy of industrial espionage endured.

Spinning machine further development in 18th century

In 1767-1768, Richard Arkwright and others further refined the machine, enabling it to spin cotton, birthing the Water Frame spinning machine. This innovation fueled Britain’s textile industry, attracting the attention of German industrialist Johann Gottfried Brügelmann. Despite the threat of death for intellectual theft, Brügelmann’s partner, Delius, was resolute. Armed with sketches and spare parts, Delius skillfully smuggled the technology back to Germany in 1783, exemplifying his superior espionage prowess.

 “Father of the industrial revolution” in the United States

Simultaneously, Samuel Slater, a skilled specialist, sought asylum in America to exploit his knowledge. In 1790, he partnered with American industrialists Almy and Brown, establishing a factory in Rhode Island. From there, the technology proliferated across the United States, crowning Samuel Slater as the revered “Father of the industrial revolution.”

As the industrial revolution unfolded, these daring spies defied borders and punishment, weaving tales of innovation and espionage that continue to shape the course of history.

Industrial espionage is a global issue that transcends national boundaries and impacts various industries. The motivations behind such espionage can range from gaining a competitive edge to advancing national interests.

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