Commemorating our past, creating our future
Birmingham has always attracted great and innovative minds. The Midlands Enlightenment began in Birmingham during the 18th century, when the city was home to many of the world’s leading scientists and inventors of the time. Their technological innovations drove the subsequent Industrial Revolution – an era in which prevailing principles were low wages, efficiency, and economy of scale. However, Birmingham’s transformation was instead marked by specialisation, flexibility, and innovation. During this period, local entrepreneurs registered over three times as many patents as any other city in the country.
Throughout its industrial ascension, Birmingham’s low economic barrier to entry fuelled social mobility, which helped build a soul of entrepreneurship in the region. This spirit continues to thrive today, with the startup-to-population ratio the highest of any city in England. Yes, even higher than London.
Clearly Birmingham has produced – and is producing – a great deal of technical novelty and business leadership, so let’s commemorate its past achievements and explore its ongoing success.
At the core of the Midlands Enlightenment was the Lunar Society of Birmingham; a dinner club and informal learned organisation so called because it convened every month during the full moon. Perhaps most notably its members included business partners Matthew Boulton and James Watt.
Boulton opened the famous Soho Manufactory in 1765, which pioneered the combination of separate processes into a system known as “rational manufacture”. This became the largest manufacturing centre in Europe and eventually gave rise to the modern factory system. With help from Boulton, Watt developed his eponymous steam engine in 1775, which most historians consider the main driving force behind the Industrial Revolution. He drastically improved existing steam engines and, importantly, enabled them to be used in mining, manufacturing, and transportation.
The Lunar Society’s members also made major advancements in other fields. Chemist Joseph Priestley discovered ten different chemical gases and invented carbonated water, whilst James Keir developed the manufacture of alkali and founded his plant in Tipton. Along with John Roebuck’s earlier invention of the lead chamber process to produce sulphuric acid, this sparked the beginning of the modern chemical industry.
The prime mover behind this explosive era of innovation was the application of rational science to manufacturing processes. The resulting economic prosperity attracted subsequent generations of entrepreneurs to the area during the 19th and 20th centuries, where they were looking to make their own mark.
Early 19th century Birmingham was dominated by artisan workshops producing high-value specialised goods, such as buttons, guns, and locks. This earned it the moniker “City of a Thousand Trades”. When large factories eventually became common towards the end of the century, they were driven by the flourishing engineering industries. Birmingham was a major centre of bicycle manufacturers and had the largest number of cycle-makers and accessories firms in the UK by 1900.
As motorised transport became increasingly popular at the start of the 20th century, many of these factories pivoted to making motor-vehicles. Birmingham was a manufacturing centre for several successful companies, including Wolseley Motors, the Austin Motor Company, and of course, BMC’s Mini. However, more than a mere centre of mass production, new inventions were continually emerging, including the fuel-burning engine, bicycle bell, and the electric car horn.
And advancements kept coming in other industries. The inventions are too many to list here, but included the first medical x-ray in 1896, the first portable vacuum cleaner in 1905, the first mass spectrometer in 1919, the immersed heating resister (enabling the creation of the electric kettle) in 1922, and the Mellotron in 1963 – made famous in the introduction to Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles.
As we enter into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterised by technologies such as automation and digital interconnectivity, Birmingham’s entrepreneurial atmosphere is moving right along with it, remaining at the forefront of innovation. For example, Cal Henderson, Co-Founder of Slack Technologies, graduated in software engineering from Birmingham City University in 2002. He was the chief software architect of Flickr, the photo-sharing application, and also worked on critical open source standards which power the modern World Wide Web: OAuth and oEmbed. In 2009, Henderson went on to develop Slack, the business communication platform which currently has 12 million daily active users.
To help continue Birmingham’s legacy as an entrepreneurial hotspot, Birmingham City University and Eastside Projects founded STEAMhouse in 2018, which provides free resources and collaborative spaces to help budding entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground. Its members are already using it to capitalise on their innovations.
Hausbots co-founders Jack Cornes and Harry Smith had the idea to automate painting using wall-climbing robots. On discovering that tens of thousands of people accidentally fall from height each year whilst painting and decorating, they realised that taking scaffolding out of the equation would make painting buildings both safer and easier. STEAMhouse had the equipment they needed to test and prototype their robots, and the space in which to “make a mess”. After this boost to its development, Hausbots is now offering paid painting services.
Another STEAMhouse member, Sonia Michelle Reynolds, is an award-winning designer
and textile researcher who is creating clothing using Zephlinear – a unique material
nicknamed “Space Cloth”. Zephlinear is a novel fabric which does not unravel when cut,
and is not produced by knitting or weaving. Instead, it is manufactured using a process
called FOYSE (Fibre On Yarn Surface Entanglement). This next-generation cloth has strong
potential to become a ‘smart material’ because its structure enables objects to be
embedded within it. Sonia is working with STEAMhouse to develop the FOYSE process,
with a view to creating fully-automated production.
Clearly Birmingham has a special ingredient that drives innovation, so whilst we celebrate
its past accomplishments, we should also ensure that innovative spirit endures into the
Located in central Birmingham and now operating through online services, STEAMhouse has been designed with budding entrepreneurs in mind. So, if you have a business idea and want to tap into our resources, and the unique culture of the city, get in touch today.
Feeling inspired? Apply for our fully-funded STEAMhouse membership today. APPLY NOW.