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Over the past 300 years, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has tried to improve British life in every way imaginable. It has sought to influence education, commerce, music, art, architecture, communications, food, and every other corner of society. Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation (Princeton University Press, 2020), written by the historian of innovation and the RSA’s resident historian Anton Howes, is the fascinating story of this unique institution.

Drawing on exclusive access to a wealth of rare papers and artifacts from the Society’s own archives, Howes shows how the Society of Arts has constantly reinvented itself to keep in step with changing times. The Society has served as a platform for Victorian utilitarian reformers, purchased and restored an entire village, encouraged the planting of more than sixty million trees, and sought technological alternatives to child labour. Arts and Minds reveals how a society of public-spirited individuals tried to make their country a better place, and draws vital lessons from their triumphs and failures for all would-be reformers today.

Matthew Jordan is a professor at McMaster University, where he teaches courses on AI and the history of science. You can follow him on Twitter @mattyj612 or his website matthewleejordan.com.

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