Where was stainless steel invented? Well, it wasn’t Sheffield according to new research reported in The Times, but medieval Persia. Almost a millennium ago, Persian smiths were using chromium to improve the hardness and durability of iron weaponry.
My heart sank reading the story. That’s not because it takes anything away from the achievements of British industry, but because of what a certain sort of liberal smartarse is going to do with the information. These are the bores who spend every April 23rd tweeting that Saint George wasn’t in fact English — as if that statement of the completely obvious was going to collapse the pro-Brexit worldview. (We also realise that dragons aren’t real).
The libsplainers are never happier than when pointing out that one of our national traditions is derived from somewhere else. Only this month, Gary Lineker felt it necessary to tell us the shocking truth about fish and chips. Well, thanks Gary, but we already knew. Several newspapers — including the Daily Mail in 2017, the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph (both in 2014) — have told the tale of how the chippy has French, Spanish, Portuguese and Jewish roots. And like Lineker, they highlighted the contribution made by immigrants to our national dish. Not too bad for a supposedly xenophobic Rightwing press that brainwashed us into Brexit.
Then there was The Sun, which did not stop at fish and chips; the paper featured the overseas origin stories of everything from Beef Wellington to the humble sandwich. Somehow, their readers coped. They might even think that we were a seafaring island nation with a long history of cultural exchange with other parts of the world!
When it comes to where things were first invented, is there anything new under the sun? I doubt we Brits can even claim national self-loathing as our very own. There was probably some scribe in ancient China who made smug asides about the “so-called” Middle Kingdom (“in the middle of what, exactly?”).
In any case, it’s not just the original inspiration that counts. Real innovation is as much about how you develop a new idea (or a borrowed one). For instance, with all due respect to the swordsmiths of 11th century Persia, it’s the steel masters of Sheffield who shaped the contents of our kitchen drawers.
In fact, looking back at our history it was inventors and entrepreneurs from across the North and Midlands who tinkered with existing ideas and techniques and turned them into an industrial revolution. They took knowledge slowly accumulated over centuries and millennia and literally made the modern world.
Let’s give ourselves some credit for that.