Gallery: A History of Data Theft #3

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and  Dan Nosowitz

1708: Europe Steals the Secret of Porcelain


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In the grand tradition of Robert Ludlum novels is the story of Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles, a French Jesuit priest who also happened to be an industrial spy who stole and then disseminated one of the premiere manufacturing processes of his time. And d’Entrecolles wasn’t even the only one to steal the process for creating porcelain.

Hard-paste porcelain, or, as it was called then, “true” porcelain, is a ceramic material highly prized the world over. The technique for creating it was pioneered sometime in the 9th century in China, and kept secret for many centuries, even as hard-paste porcelain was discovered by the western world. The material is bright white and translucent, brittle but strong, and needs no glazing, unlike “soft-paste” porcelain, so it is just about impervious to water.

Back in the early 18th century, porcelain was extraordinarily expensive and trendy, but no westerner had figured out the precise blend of kaolin, feldspar, and quartz, let alone the complex firing process, that gave true porcelain its strength and beauty. It was even known as “white gold,” and was just as expensive as gold and silver. So there was no small amount of interest in stealing the secret formula and method for creating true porcelain.

Enter, first of all, an inventor named Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, a German who is reported to have reverse-engineered at least the first few steps of the porcelain process. His work was inherited by Johann Friedrich Böttger, a German alchemist, who after trips to China finally figured out some key ingredients in porcelain and created his first batch in 1708. These two are widely regarded as the European creators of porcelain, and their work led to the Meissen factory.

But Meissen was a secretive enterprise, keeping its recipe under wraps and improving it in-house. That’s why Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles was sent to China where he engaged in some classic industrial espionage: d’Entrecolles ventured to modern-day Jingdezhen, where he personally inspected the kilns at the porcelain factories and even relied on the advanced knowledge of some of his new Jesuit converts. D’Entrecolles sent his findings back, in very detailed form, to his boss in France in 1712. By the 1730s, the letters were widely published throughout Germany, and the secret of Chinese porcelain–along with the monopoly the country enjoyed–was out.