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  • Adrian J. Boas

On Industrial Espionage

Updated: May 4


The Hope Goblet, British Museum [1894.0804.1 AN298054001]; Islamic beaker, The Walters Art Museum [creative commons]

Operation Shady RAT is the name given to a series of cyber espionage attacks widely assumed to have been carried out by the People's Republic of China, that commenced in 2006 and infiltrated the computers of at least 71 businesses including defence contractors. The delightful name derived from an acronym that is frequently used by the computer security industry for Remote Access Tools, or Remote Administration Trojans. Shady, I suppose, was the obvious choice of attribute. The no less colourful name, Night Dragon, was given to another series of attacks also occurring is 2006, also targeted against around 71 organizations, including large businesses and defence contractors as well as the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee. In the Internet age cyber espionage has enhanced the possibilities of infiltrating manufacturers and stealing secret information, as well as causing other damage. It is a new and highly effective form of an age-old crime.


François Xavier d'Entrecolles (1664–1741) was a French Jesuit missionary in China who, aided by Chinese Catholic converts, “my neophytes, several of whom work in porcelain", learned the secret technique of manufacturing porcelain, which he described in detail in letters sent back to France. He is consequently sometimes regarded as an industrial spy. He also examined and wrote about how the Chinese manufactured mercury, artificial flowers and synthetic pearls and raised silkworms, although the latter, and the secrets of the silk industry had famously been stolen from the Chinese by two monks who smuggled silkworm eggs to Constantinople way back in 552 A.D.


In 1720 the Venetian Vezzi family established a porcelain factory that operated for only seven years before being forced into closure by having its supply of the basic raw material, kaolin from Saxony, cut off, and due to the fears of other Venetians that the factory was a potential fire hazard. The factory had been founded by Francesco Vezzi (1651–1740) a goldsmith who visited the famous Meissen factory in Vienna and then set up his own factory in Venice, run by his son Giovanni with a Viennese, Christoph Conrad Hunger as partner. Hunger, a gilder, had been employed at the Meissen factory until 1719 when he moved to Vienna, where he joined the new Vienna porcelain factory. He had apparently managed to acquire some of the secrets of the Meissen industry, which he now brought to Venice.


Another notable example of industrial espionage in which Venice was once again the benefactor, appears to relate to its acclaimed glass industry. In the thirteenth century glass-making was isolated on the island of Murano, again the fear of it as a potential fire hazard being behind this, but also perhaps in order to protect the industry’s secrets.* Venetian artisans had been making glass prior to the crusades but the establishment of the crusader states in the ancient glass manufacturing region of the Syrian coast and the strong presence of the Venetians in precisely the glass manufacturing region from Acre north to Tyre, Beirut and Tripoli, boosted the industry in Venice beyond recognition. It benefited from the transfer of technological know-how, of artistic influence and of raw materials; most notably the alkali (plant ash), but also the fine sand from the region of the Belus River and cullet (broken glass) from the Levantine workshops. A treaty of 1277 between Doge Giacomo Contarini and Bohemond VII of Antioch, records the transfer of technology and raw materials, including the cullet that was acquired at Tripoli and shipped to Venice, and also the expertise of Syrian-Arab craftsmen.**

Enamelled glass beakers manufactured in Venice and elsewhere in Europe, belong to a distinctive type of glassware that has long been regarded as having derived from the enamelled glass manufactured in Syria and Egypt in the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods. In 1929-30 the German scholar, Carl Johan Lamm attributed the enamelled beakers of the famous so-called, Aldrevandin glasses, named for a beaker in the British Museum that bears the inscription "Magister Aldrevandin me fecit" (Master Aldrevandin made me) to a workshop in crusader Acre.*** Under Frankish rule such beakers were supposedly being produced for both the Muslim and Christian market, displaying both Latin and Muslim inscriptions and designs. Lamm gave them the title "Syro-Frankish beakers". Opponents to this view have noted, among other things, the very few examples of these vessels found in the former crusader states. But it is hard to escape the similarity of many European examples to the eastern enamelled vessels (see above illustration), and it seems indisputable that they owed their design, decoration and technology, if not their manufacture, to the Syrian industry. That said, there are certain substantial differences between aspects of some of the European examples and the eastern vessels (thickness and colour of the glass, use of different pigments) and this has led some scholars to strongly oppose a connection and prefer to see the two as "coincidental developments".**** Taking into account the similarities of the western and eastern vessels and the above-mentioned evidence for the transfer of materials and technology, I think it far more likely that these western beakers were indeed the end result of a successful case of medieval industrial espionage.


* Rosamond Mack, From Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300–1600, Berkeley, 2002, p. 113. ** Ahmed al-Hassan and Donald Hill, Islamic Technology, New York, 1987, p. 153. ***Carl Johan Lamm, Oriental Glass of Mediaeval Date Found in Sweden and the Early History of Lustre-Painting, Stockholm, 1941, pp. 77-99. **** Rachel Ward, "Coincidental Developments? The Aldrevandin Glasses and Ayyubid-Mamluk Glass", Journal of Glass Studies 57, 2015, pp. 137-46

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