The success of the new technologies developed in Britain in the late 18th century attracted much attention in other European countries for both commercial and strategic reasons. Ironworking technology was of particular interest because other countries, in an age when metallurgical knowledge was unsophisticated, were anxious to reproduce cannon of the quality made in Britain. Knowledge of ship-building technology, and of the manufacture of sailcloth also had clear strategic implications. Governments were also concerned that their countries should be able to apply new technology to produce their own textiles and hardware, and to export them competitively to other countries.

For several decades John Holker, born near Manchester in 1719, a Roman Catholic and a Jacobite, was involved on behalf of the French government, working through Daniel-Charles Trudaine, director of the Bureau de Commerce, and, after his death in 1769, his son and successor, Troudaine de Montigny, in discovering details of the technology used in industries in England, with obtaining samples of products, tools and minerals, and with enticing experienced English workmen to take their skills to France. The British government responded with a series of Acts of Parliament forbidding the export of essential tools and machines, and restricting the travel overseas of skilled workers. Holker was involved with the transfer of textile technology, particular that of finishing fabrics, calendaring, dyeing and bleaching, and with the manufacture of sulphuric acid, but he was also concerned that the French should gain expertise in making steel, and steel files, leather processing, furnace-building, and the manufacture of effective firebricks.

Many Englishmen were attracted to France, some with their families. Most were  anonymous skilled workers of whom little is know, but they included John Kay, inventor of the flying shuttle, who emigrated in 1746 and apart from a few return visits remained in France until his death in the winter of 1780-1, and William Wilkinson, brother of John Wilkinson the ironmaster. The transfer of technology posed many difficulties. Even when industrial spies were welcomed in other countries, difficulties of language and lack of knowledge inhibited their understanding of what they observed, and when skilled workers were persuaded to travel to other countries, differences in raw materials and the availability of appropriate tools and constructional techniques often made difficult the replication of processes to which they
were accustomed.

Technology was transferred in the 18th century in many directions, not just from Britain to continental countries. The growth of alkali manufacture depended on the process invented by the Frenchman Nicolas Leblanc (1742-1806), and the
technology used to cast glass at the celebrated works at Ravenhead, Lancashire was also imported from France. Porcelain was made at Meissen near Dresden in Saxony from 1710, before knowledge of its manufacture passed to France in the 1730s and then to England.

[Extract from: Barrie Trinder "The Industrial Revolution in Europe"]

Related Biographies

John Holker 
John Kay
William Wilkinson