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Innovation Travels


  Alberto Mingardi

5th in a #ReadWithMe series.


Henry Robinson Palmer was a trained engineer. As Matt Ridley writes:

“In 1826 he was appointed to oversee the extension to a dock in east London. Having finished the excavation and construction of the locks he turned his attention to the buildings. He seems to have hit upon the idea of using an iron sheet for the roof an open shed, but to make the sheet stronger, he passed the wrought iron through rollers to give it a sinusoidal wave. On 28 April 1829 he patented the use or application of fluted, indented or corrugated metallic sheets or plates to the roofs and other parts of buildings”. This “immensely strengthened the iron sheet, made it more rigid and capable of spanning a wide gap without extra support while supporting a load such as snow. Crinkly tin was born”.


Corrugated iron is mentioned by David Edgerton in his book The Shock of the Old, as one of those innovations the so-called “first world” takes for granted but are proving very useful still in developing countries. “In the nineteenth century”, writes Edgerton, “it spread around the world to areas of British Army operation as transportable housing. … It was hugely important In the twentieth century as a truly global technology. Its cheapness, lightness, ease of use and long life made it a ubiquitous material in the poor world in a way it never been in the rich world”.


Writes Ridley: “in the slums of today’s expanding megacities, where property rights are uncertain, corrugated iron is not only affordable and available but buildings made of it can be easily dismantled and moved. It is one of the first things shipped into earthquake zones to provide shelter in short order”.


Innovation travels, so to say. It may be received differently in different contexts. Its success depends on the circumstances, and on people’s needs, more than on the sheer brilliancy of a certain invention or of a given inventor (though Palmer was clearly brilliant: he also imagined a monorail system and conceived something similar to containerization, an improvement which was to come to fruition one century later).


Read the earlier posts in this series herehere, here, and here.

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