Plenty of today’s technological arms races involve an element of industrial espionage. An executive from Uber has been accused of stealing autonomous car-related data from his old employer, Google. Just this month, the same company was accused of using hidden tracking software to keep tabs on their chief ride-hailing rival, Lyft. And China is trying to partner with the European Union on a suite of new moon bases partly because they can’t work on scientific projects with the United States, thanks to laws meant to prevent secret-stealing.
But intellectual property theft hasn’t always involved elaborate software programs and moonshots. Back in the 17th century, all it took to steal trade secrets was a Jesuit missionary with an eye for detail who was fluent in Chinese and willing to spend a lot of time in a ceramics factory.
When Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles joined the priesthood in 1682, he probably didn’t plan to become the world’s first industrial spy. As the historian Robert Finlay writes in The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History, d’Entrecolles was a skilled translator with “a passion for the curious and unusual, along with a gift for sifting and marshaling information.” Known for his friendliness and wisdom, he was sent to China in 1698, along with nine other missionaries.
As Finlay explains, Jesuits at the time saw their missionary work as a kind of back-and-forth—as they spread the teachings of Christianity and Western science to other countries, they gathered valuable local knowledge in return. Priests came back from their missions with everything from technological plans to bags of malaria-curing cinchona bark. Carl Linnaeus developed his system of classification with the help of Chinese plant samples that were sent to him by a Jesuit missionary.
Although many of these were lucky discoveries, d’Entrecolles’s experience was slightly different. When he set out from France, he did so with a particular assignment. At the time, much of Europe was seized with a mania for imported porcelain— in the words of the English journalist and author Daniel Defoe, everyone who could afford to was “piling china up on the tops of cabinets, escritoires and every chimney-piece, to the tops of the ceilings… till it became a grievance.”
Virtually all of this valuable material came from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, where it had first been invented, and which roared all day and night with fires from the kilns. Although Europeans guessed at how the people of Jingdezhen made this “white gold,” they were pretty far off. (One account diagnosed it as an eggshell-and-fish-scale mixture that was shaped into plates and vases, and then left underground for a century to cure.) Attempts to reverse-engineer the process had likewise been unsuccessful….