Supply chains: lifting the lid on the scientific instrument trade

Posted on 16 March 2022 by Boris Jardine

On October 21, 1830, the Holborn optician and instrument maker William Harris confided to his assistant William Jonas that he was feeling ‘apprehensive’. The reason: debt. To the outside world, Harris’ business might have looked like it was booming: he had learned his trade from his father, an optician named Thomas Phillips Harris, who had managed to secure a valuable royal appointment. For a time, father and son had worked together at premises opposite the British Museum.

Trade card: Thos. Harris & Son, 52 Great Russell Street, Opposite the entrance to the British Museum, Bloomsbury, London. 1839. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

In 1827/28 the younger Harris, apparently ambitious to enlarge the business, had negotiated to take over both the stock and premises of the recently deceased Thomas Blunt, who had made his name in partnership with the inventor and Fellow of the Royal Society Edward Nairne. Now, in addition to the spectacles and optical instruments that his father had specialized in, William Harris offered a smorgasbord of scientific toys, serious experimental devices, elegant globes, and other gadgets. But behind the impressive shop window, all was not well.

Kaleidoscope, made by William Harris & Co., London, marked ‘W. Harris and Co. 50 Holborn, London’ active at this address 1816-1839. Floral design (paper?), varnished, gilded brass fittings and tube, 9″ long, max diam. 2″, lacks case, c.1825. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

By October 1830, when he confessed to his assistant William Jonas that he was ‘apprehensive’, William Harris had run up enormous debts – £2,577, 10 shillings and 1 pence, to be precise. These ranged from £4 (owed to a milkman named Hector) to more than £149 (to a timber merchant). Not to mention that Harris owed his own father more than £367, and exactly £220 to Lydia Blunt, the widow of the instrument maker Thomas. So it would seem that even a couple of years after taking over from the Blunt business, William Harris was still not quite independent either of his father or the previous owner of the Cornhill shop.

We know all of this because another of Harris’ creditors, John Cleaver, began proceedings against Harris in November 1830. Cleaver was a cement-maker, and had been working on two new cottages in Camberwell purchased by Harris. Remarkably, we know even more detail about Harris’s state of mind back in October: so apprehensive was he that he attempted to flee to his brother’s house, instructing the assistant William Jonas to tell any creditors who came to call that he was out of town. Before he could get his things together some creditors duly arrived, and Jonas tried to fob them off. Next, a Sheriff’s Officer was seen waiting outside, but Harris was able to flee out the back door and made it to the dubious safety of his brother’s house – dubious, because his brother was another creditor… By November Harris was in court, and his accounts were eventually settled, leaving him free to continue trading for at least a decade more.

Aside from some enjoyable derring-do, what does this incident reveal about the instrument trade c.1830? Quite a lot, in fact. If we look up Harris in the SIMON database that Tools of Knowledge is primarily working with, we find him unusually well-connected. This can be represented by looking at Harris ‘ego network’ in the graph analysis software Gephi:


Could it really be the case that Harris was as well connected as, say Robert Brettell Bate, a far better known instrument maker working around the same time? Probably not. But unlike Bate, we know, through the bankruptcy proceedings, exactly how Harris’ business worked. Here are Harris’ immediate connections, as represented in SIMON:


Here red lines show ‘visible’ business connections (for example Thomas Harris, bottom left, who was William’s father and briefly in partnership with his son). Green lines show supply relations, i.e. instances where William Harris supplied instruments or parts to other traders or, in the majority of cases, where he bought parts or instruments from others. In fact, it is perfectly possible that Harris was merely a retailer of instruments, rather than a maker. Given his father’s specialization as an optician, one would think he had trained in that craft – yet we find, amongst the creditors, no fewer than 15 optical instrument makers, suggesting that, while this remained a large part of his business, the work was sub-contracted to others.

There is much more to say about Harris and his network of suppliers – but the question this raises about the whole data-set of SIMON is tantalizing: is there a way of visualizing *all* of the supply networks, as distinct from master-apprentice relations and other visible business relations? The answer is, perhaps predictably, ‘yes and no’. Harris is unique in the level of detail we have. Although there are other bankruptcies recorded for instrument makers (perhaps most famously Benjamin Martin), Harris’ case is unusually well documented, through the survival of the full documentation of the case, and the exceptional work of instrument historian Anita McConnell, whose paper on Harris is the main source of this blog post

But there *is* another network of supply chains in SIMON, hidden for now but soon to be revealed. In the relation field ‘associated with’, plenty of supply information has been recorded, though this needs normalizing, in the manner already done with apprentice and family relations. We may not ever find a scene quite like William Harris hiding upstairs while his assistant fends off angry creditors at the front door, but (no less exciting) we may soon be able to visualize an entire hidden network of connections amongst the SIMON dataset.