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Touring the Factory System
part 7

"You wish to make yourself acquainted with the state of affairs in England. You drop a remark or two as to the condition of the workers. The manufacturer understands you, knows what he has to do. He accompanies you to his factory in the country. The presence of the employer keeps you from asking indiscreet questions. You begin to be converted from your exaggerated ideas of misery and starvation. But...if you should desire to see the development of the factory system in a factory town, you may wait long before these rich bourgeoisie will help you!" Friedrich Engels, 1845. [50]

Babbage's survey of machinery and manufacture took its place in a vast genre of such works, texts such as James Kay Shuttleworth's Moral and physical conditions of the working classes (1832), Andrew Ure's Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), Peter Gaskell's Artisans and Machinery (1836), Robert Vaughan's Age of Great Cities (1843), William Cooke Taylor's Factories and the Factory System (1844) and, of course, Friedrich Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), which were both products of well-publicised tours of the new factory system and also producers of intelligence about the factory system which flowed from the steam-presses in the 1830s and 1840s.

These publications emerged at a novel cultural moment which saw a tense encounter between literary tourists and the violent changes of industrial society. "I went, some weeks ago, to Manchester, and saw the worst cotton mill", Babbage's friend Charles Dickens noted in November 1838. "And then I saw the best. Ex uno disce omnes. There was no great difference between them". Babbage's predicament appears in its relation to manufacture at least twice in Dickens' fictions: notoriously in Little Dorrit (1857), in the guise of the frustrated inventor Daniel Doyce, a victim of government circumlocution and the evils of patent laws, and, more tangentially, in Hard Times (1850), the novel which Dickens always promised to write against the industrial interest after his Manchester visit, in which the utilitarian Thomas Gradgrind inhabits an "Observatory" stocked with parliamentary reports and statistical tables amidst the nightmarish industrial cityscape of Coketown. Dickens' description of this Observatory - "a stern room, with a deadly statistical clock in it, which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin-lid" bears a remarkable similarity to Babbage's account of his Difference Engine in his Economy of Machinery, in which the tabulation of the values of polynomial functions using the summation of constant differences was analogized to "three clocks placed on a table side by side, each having only one hand and each having a thousand divisions instead of twelve hours marked on the face". [51] Faced with easy satire and stern moralising, the genre to which Babbage's Economy belonged steered an uneasy course between sensational journalism, sober but politically charged parliamentary reportage and the analyses of political economists, and the incendiary imagery of gothic horrors and unimaginable power. Often stunned by the unprecedented formation of industrial capital and labour power, and lacking a reliable vocabulary with which to analyse or account for the rapidity of population growth, economic concentration and worldwide trade networks, these writers produced accounts which were as significant for their omissions as the details which they contained.

As Maxine Berg notes, "the factory system itself was a term which frequently concealed more than it revealed". [52] Babbage's tours were no exception. Babbage often appealed to the traditional romanticised imagery with which the factory tourists all larded their stories. Visiting the blast furnace of an ironworks at Leeds he reported that "the intensity of the fire was peculiarly impressive. It recalled the past, disturbed the present and suggested the future...Candour obliges me to admit that my speculations on the future were not entirely devoid of anxiety, though I trust they were orthodox". It was characteristic that such pictures drew attention away from conditions of labour towards the orthodoxies of apocalyptic. Nasmyth described the Coalbrookdale forges in exactly the same terms: "the workmen within seemed to be running about amidst the flames as in a pandemonium, while around and outside the horizon was a glowing belt of fire, making even the stars look pale and feeble". At least as important, however, was vigilance in restricting access to the workplace. In Bradford, for example, seeking information about labour co-operatives, Babbage was bluntly refused access to the secret codes of the local trades unions. At exactly the same moment, in 1833, agitators such as the Owenite James Morrison reckoned that while "these ceremonies [are] so many relics of barbarism", it was necessary to preserve proletarian ritual to recruit members to the new socialist unions. The seclusion of the workplace was at least as important for the managers. In London, Babbage self-consciously reported the "inconvenience" which tourists posed to managers: "when the establishment is very extensive, and its departments skillfully arranged, the exclusion of visitors arises, not from any illiberal jealousy, nor, generally, from any desire of concealment....but from the substantial inconvenience and loss of time throughout an entire series of well-combined operations which must be occasioned even by short and casual operations". He also made much of the problem of public access to his own workshop. In 1835 he told one aspiring tourist of the calculating engine that "if I were to admit the numerous claimants I should not have one moment left in which to finish it". Even as strenuous a journalist as Harriet Martineau, who printed reports in Dickens' magazine about the Birmingham glass-works which supplied the Crystal Palace, was discouraged by the managers' instructions to suppress the news that female labour was used instead of men. It was very much in the interests of the artisans' culture of the workplace to maintain the closure of their world in the name of the custom of their trade. The very lack of systematisation of the rituals which surrounded the workplace made it rather opaque to the bourgeois tourist, evangelising missionary or government inspector, and thus promoted the conflicting images of the newly systematic and transparent factory and the ancient, secretive and subversive workshop. [53]

The system was, by definition, visible to the instructed viewer. Orthodox authors of factory tours routinely appealed to platitudes about the systematic character of the industrial economy. It was thus that the very term "factory system" was produced through these texts. The writers exploited an exceptionally powerful account of the production of systems developed in eighteenth century Scotland by philosophers such as David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Smith had famously argued that the benevolent "invisible hand" which truly guided the economy was apparent to the wise philosopher, even if obscured from economic and self-interested agents themselves, subject as they were to the tyranny of the division of labour. As culture, so nature. James Hutton, Smith's literary executor, had argued very similarly that events in earth history, such as earthquakes or volcanic explosions, might seem random or miraculous to the uneducated or superstitious observer, but to the enlightened philosophic naturalist they could be accounted as elemental parts of a rational and providentially planned system of earth history. [54] In an early essay by Smith which Hutton published in 1795 it was argued that "when we enter the work-houses of the most common artizans, such as dyers, brewers, distillers, we observe a number of appearances, which present themselves in an order that seems to us very strange and wonderful. Our thought cannot easily follow it, we feel an interval betwixt every two of them, and require some chain of intermediate events to fill it up and link them together". Smith argued that artisans themselves would never see the need for such a systematic chain and that casual observers would merely be astonished by the conduct of the workshop. In good Humean spirit, Smith reckoned that only philosophic observers, "those of liberal fortunes, whose attention is not much occupied either with business or with pleasure", would construct systems which made sense of the conduct of everyday labour. Significantly, Smith made the analogy between such explanatory systems and the machines they were designed to explain:

"Systems in many respects resemble machines. A machine is a little system, created to perform, as well as to connect together, in reality, those different movements and effects which the artist has occasion for. A system is an imaginary machine invented to connect together in the fancy those different movements and effects which are already in reality performed." [55]

 
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