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Guest-Blog

Guest blog: Leading entrepreneurs on issues affecting the Cambridge technology cluster.


Horace Darwin the first Cambridge tech entrepreneur

Shai-VyakarnamWe know about Charles Darwin and his contribution to our understanding of evolution. A less well known contribution is that of his youngest surviving son – Horace Darwin.

I suggest he is probably the first technology entrepreneur of Cambridge because he started a business in 1881 with his friend (and business angel) Albert George Dew-Smith. This business was Cambridge Scientific Instruments.

Horace grew up in an amazing family, other than that many of them were rather sickly. He and his brother were encouraged to go and wander around the hills of Wales to develop themselves and their confidence. 

Horace also decided he did not want regular education and persuaded his father to have him individually tutored. Not having had a classical education he only just made it into Trinity having taken a Little-Go – an examination held at Cambridge University in the second year of residence and also known as ‘the previous examination’ because it precedes by a year the examination for a degree.

This is where he learnt physics and mathematics to build on his natural curiosity. His first instrument was actually for his father – to measure the growth rate of plants.

Horace was growing up at a busy time. It was the Victorian era, blazing ahead with inventions from all round England and Scotland. It was at the height of a self-confident empire. He was part of the environment, especially when he left Cambridge for a few years to work for a civil engineering firm in Kent. This is when, probably, he brought his training at Cambridge, natural curiosity and new skills in engineering together, so that when he returned to Cambridge he was able to start Cambridge Scientific Instruments on Lensfield Road.

The legacy of this company and its founders is quite amazing. It was a first and excellent role model for others in the University to grasp the notion of commercialising their research. This was slow – but it was a first seed. 

It also demonstrates the porous boundaries between pure and applied research and how scientific progress needed instruments and that instruments could only become available under market conditions. 

In 1886, W.G.Pye left Darwin’s company to set up a competing business and this grew in different directions, becoming a manufacturer of radios and later of televisions. People who worked at Pye learnt their management skills and eventually found their way into other new firms, especially after Pye was closed down by Philips. 

The talent pool, the culture and the deep links into science and engineering are probably the three main legacies because in due course all this spawned the Cambridge Phenomenon.

The red thread of the business history of Cambridge perhaps starts with Horace Darwin’s company in 1881, then progresses to Pye and via Chris Curry who worked at Pye migrates to Sinclair and Acorn – and then the rest is even more history!


@ShaiVyakarnam 

http://www.cfel.jbs.cam.ac.uk/

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