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Industrial Espionage: A brief history

Thursday, May 28, 2015 - 11:08am

History professor Stephen Mihm uses his Bloomberg column to offer a heuristic for those who might get the vapors about recent "unscrupulous dealings in the global economy":

before getting into high dudgeon mode, the U.S., and for that matter, almost every Western nation, might wish to remember their own, no-holds-barred campaigns to swipe industrial secrets.

In fact, one of the first cases involved the theft of industrial secrets from China. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Chinese alone possessed the ability to produce high-end “hard-paste” porcelain, an expensive material beloved by Europe’s elites. In the 1680s, a French Jesuit, Pere d’Entrecolles, traveled to China, where he saw the kilns and likely read technical works on the subject.

In September 1712, he wrote that while visiting Jingdezhen, then known as the porcelain capital of China, he had compiled “a minute description of all that concerns this kind of work.”

Within a few decades, a porcelain factory in Sévres, France, was producing hard-paste porcelain on par with the Chinese product. In a further twist, the British managed to swipe the secrets from the French, inaugurating Britain’s own high-end porcelain industry.

That was just the beginning. 

Just so. While it might be easy to become righteous about another's 'perfidy' in Mihm's word, it is important to be able make distinctions about who exactly are the innocent lambs. Not to say that one cannot be outraged by this or that; rather, that informed outrage will always be superior. It sounds simplistic to say this is the kind of perspective we can only gain from history, but until another method is devised, it will be so. Thanks to Dr. Mihm for using his media platform in service of this reminder.

Image: hard-paste Porcelain, via wikimedia commons.


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