Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

While America Sleeps

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

While America Sleeps

Article excerpt

Slender threads of brownish smoke rose from a forest of chimneys and twisted upward into the winter mist. Collectively they wove a dark cloak that shrouded Edinburgh as a well-appointed carriage bearing an American family appeared in the gloom. The coachman's faint lamp barely penetrated the gathering darkness as the carriage rattled past the outlines of the city's tall, narrow tenements. In search of lodging, the Americans had found themselves in a damp, forbidding place, reeking of dung and smoke - a place that might have served as the perfect setting for a suspenseful spy story.

It was December 1811, and one thing distinguished Francis Cabot Lowell, his wife, and his young children from most other people navigating the city's narrow streets that afternoon. The Lowells had plenty of money, and it showed. Alert coachmen hustled them through the knotty traffic of downtown Prince's Street, and innkeepers always summoned up an extra bit of warmth.

Lowell came from great wealth, but he was no mere rich man's son. A Harvard graduate, he had used his skill as a mathematician to expand a Boston docking and warehouse business. Now, at 35, well dressed and studiously self-effacing, he was a man looking for a much grander venture. Lowell played to local prejudices about the inferiority of the American environment by letting it be known that he was in Scotland for reasons of health. Lowell's neighbors observed that as winter receded the Lowell family carriage appeared almost daily in front of the house, and Mr. and Mrs. Lowell, leaving their children behind with the governess, went on extended trips into the countryside. They often visited places as far away as Lancashire and Derbyshire to take the country air.

That was the cover story. In fact, Lowell was the most skilled economic spy of his generation, and he had ambitions to take in much more than country air. By hitching cotton-weaving machinery to the cheap, perpetual motion of waterpower, Britain had revolutionized the textile industry, transforming Lancashire and Derbyshire into places of phenomenal riches. The newly built mills had literally created the world's industrial age. Lowell plotted his tours as methodical explorations of this 18th-century Silicon Valley. Huge fortunes had been made there by replacing the skilled hand labor of many thousands of people with water-driven looms so simple and so reliable that they could be run by a handful of unskilled women and children. The perpetually humming, swishing, clanking machines changed cheap imported U.S. cotton into bolts of fancy calico that fetched fancy prices in Paris, Berlin, and Boston. They had made rural England and Scotland into a money machine that was the envy of the world.

Not surprisingly, His Majesty's Government was determined to protect the sources of the Industrial Revolution from outsiders. By the end of the 18th century, the British passed rigorous patent laws and banned the export of cotton-weaving technology. When foreigners found loopholes by recruiting skilled workers and luring them abroad, this was made a crime. So were the acts of making and exporting drawings of the machinery in the mills. Fortresslike walls topped with spikes and broken glass quickly grew up around the mills, and workers were sworn to secrecy. Skilled technicians who went abroad under false pretenses had their property summarily confiscated by the Crown.

Spies are normally associated with wartime and the theft of military technology. In the vast popular literature about espionage, there is hardly a mention of the peacetime industrial spy. One reason may be that spy stories tend to blossom when wars end. War is relatively clear-cut: there is a winner and an eventual loser, a beginning and an end. The end is normally the signal for the memoir writers to begin, but the economic struggle that attracted Lowell's stealthy genius is not clear-cut. Winners win quietly, and losers are often either unconscious of loss or too embarrassed to admit it. …

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