In their expansive account of economic history, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson provide a vivid glimpse of the cost of overweening power in Elizabeth I’s faintly menacing reaction to the resourcefulness of a man who must surely have counted as one of her most innovative subjects.

William Lee, home from Cambridge in 1583, was mulling over the queen’s injunction that all her people should wear knitted caps, when — watching his mother and sisters knitting away furiously — it struck him that a far more efficient way of making the mandatory caps would be to use not just two needles per thread, but many. So was born the idea of a revolutionary machine, the stocking frame...

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