Edit History
Search Keywords
Simon Schaffer
Charles Babbage
Difference Engine
Andrew Ure

The Moral Economy of the Factory System
part 8

By the 1820s the programme of political economy and philosophy of mind promulgated among the Scottish elite was dominated by the Edinburgh professor Dugald Stewart, Adam Smith's earliest academic expositor and a primary source and personal support for Babbage's own work on analysis and economics. Under Stewart's leadership, reformers urged the close relationship between the design of machine systems and the systematic gaze to which they should be subject. In the new colleges and mechanics institutes, the new periodicals and Benthamite professional committees, this model of intelligence and vision remained a crucial topic of debate for the designers and observers of the early nineteenth century factory system. [56]

A locus classicus of "Scotch knowledge" applied to the factories was The Philosophy of Manufactures produced in 1835 by the Scottish consulting chemist Andrew Ure, a veteran of reformist Glaswegian technical education. His disastrous performances as lecturer to Glasgow artisans prompted their secession from his courses, the establishment of independent mechanics' institutes and his own permanent alienation from the workers' movement and sustained support for the "Proprietors of our great Factories". In 1830 he arrived in London from Glasgow. His Philosophy, distributed through the same useful knowledge network as Babbage's Economy, was the first work to include the phrase "factory system" in its title. In a survey of what he baptised the "moral economy of the factory system", Ure spelt out the point that such information about factory economy and machinery was often lacking amongst the mill-owners themselves. "Such complex mechanisms, like the topography of an irregular city, are most readily comprehended by the inspection of a plan, in which the mutual bearings and connections of the parts are analytically shown". Ure made the modish Scots analogy between the "organic systems" of manufacture, mechanical, moral and commercial, and "the muscular, the nervous and the sanguiferous systems of an animal". His systematic analysis, which Marx famously castigated as "his apotheosis of large-scale industry", depended on a tour taken after being advised by his physician "to try the effects of travelling with light intellectual exercise". His philosophic survey was ultimately a carefully-judged polemic on the openness of the factory system and the systematic expropriation of manual labour by industrial and self-acting machinery. When he had finished his survey he even tried, unsuccessfully, to gain access to Babbage's workshops. Babbage was told that Ure had "drawings of the most delicate parts of the machinery at Manchester, etc., some of which machinery nobody has hitherto been permitted even to see, but the proprietors have nobly sacrificed the vulgar prejudice in favour of secrecy in order to promote science". This moral, and this philosophic, pose, came to dominate the observers of the factory system from the 1830s on. [57]

Such observers were liberally supplied with handbooks. Literary companions were produced as a skilful mixture of travel diary and tourist guide. Readers were repeatedly instructed on the right mode of deportment when on tour in the manufacturing districts. Representative was the work of the Irish journalist William Cooke Taylor, a well-connected client of the Christian economist Richard Whateley, Dugald Stewart's principal interpreter south of the border. Cooke Taylor was a notable propagandist for free trade and the manufacturing interests of Manchester, and an amateur ethnographer, the author of a treatise on The Natural History of Society (1840), in which class struggle was explained in terms of mutual ignorance and a devotee of the statistical movement - he attended its debates at the same British Association meeting in Manchester where Bessel and Jacobi discussed the Analytical Engine with Babbage. In his Factories and the Factory System of 1844, a work dedicated to the Tory premier and reluctant free trader Robert Peel, Cooke Taylor noted the contrast between hasty visions of the industrial sublime and philosophical meditation on the systematic benefits of the factory. "It is not surprising that many false notions should prevail respecting the influence of machinery; the tourist, visiting a factory district for the first time, cannot contemplate without wonder and even some emotions of involuntary fear the....mighty steam-engine performing its functions with a monotonous regularity not less impressive than the enormous force which it sets in motion. His earliest impression is that fire and water - proverbially the best servants and the worst masters - have here established despotic dominion over man, and that here matter has acquired undisputed empire over mind". The prosody was significant and owed much to Scottish philosophical discourse. Gothic imagery was linked with intemperate confusion and, above all, hideous materialist power. Such errors, which Cooke Taylor reckoned had bred unfortunate evangelical efforts to limit and control factory conditions, could only be corrected by "time and patience, repeated observation, and calm reflection". The philosophic gaze would see that "the giant, steam, is not the tyrant but the slave of the operatives, not their rival but their fellow-labourer, employed as a drudge to do all the heavy work, leaving to them the lighter and more delicate operations". Under Cooke Taylor's wizardry, steam power was fetishised as human labour, and human labour transformed into a form of delicate leisure. [58]

These careful transformations were hammered home in the tour guides produced in the 1830s and 1840s. A handbook for visitors to Manchester, the "metropolis of manufactures", produced in 1839, counselled all tourists to read Ure thoroughly and then obtain letters of introduction to the mills run by Fairbairn and Nasmyth, the bastions of mass-production engineering and the deployment of machine tools on a large scale. Amongst almost one hundred various machine firms in the city, walking through Fairbairn's ironworks, or travelling on a specially-built train through Nasmyth's Bridgewater foundry, a "gratifying treat", would give the appropriate sense of wonder together with the understanding of regular system. "The visitor should take a walk among the mills, and whatever his notions may be respecting their smoke and steam and dust, he will be compelled to indulge in feelings of wonder at their stupendous appearance". But in troubled times such feelings, as Cooke Taylor also stressed, should be immediately tempered by the sense of regular order. The Bridgewater Foundry, for example, was established in 1836, where major strikes of Lancashire engineers soon erupted in protest against harsh wage rates and the destruction of the apprentice system. From summer 1838, Chartist demonstrations in Manchester demanding the enfranchisement of the working class commanded more than fifty thousand marchers. In contrast, the ideal tourist would expect to see Nasmyth's "straight-line system" of throughput and the widespread application of self-acting machine tools. At Fairbairn's works "in every direction the utmost system prevails, and each mechanic appears to have his peculiar description of work assigned with the utmost economical subdivision of labour". Once again, the power of mind over matter was much lauded. "It is by means of these admirable adaptations of human skill and intelligence that we are giving to the present age its peculiar and wonderful characteristic, namely the triumph of mind over matter". [59]

This triumph was at once a claim about the machine tool system, and thus the control of matter by human intelligence, and a claim about labour discipline, and thus the control of the workforce by its masters. Ure stressed the relation between "the automatic plan" and "the equalization of labour". "On the handicraft plan, labour more or less skilled, as usually the most expensive element of production - Materiam superabat opus; but on the automatic plan, skilled labour gets progressively superseded.... The grand object therefore of the modern manufacturer is, through the union of capital and science, to reduce the task of his work-people to the exercise of vigilance and dexterity". It was precisely for this reason that in his tours Ure judged the factory as a form of laboratory, a potentially utopian site devoid of strife and replete with scientific truth. "The science of the factory" was at once a means of disciplining labour and an object-lesson in thermal physics, "better studied in a week's residence in Lancashire than in a session of any university in Europe". The Manchester guide explained that the self-acting principle applied to slide control in machine lathes "is that which enables a child or the machine itself to operate on masses of metal and to cut shavings off iron as if it was deprived of all hardness and so mathematically correct than even Euclid himself might be the workman!" In teaching inquirers how to interpret the relation between labour unrest and mechanization, Nasmyth also struck the Euclidean theme. "Those wonderful improvements in automaton machinery that produce you...the piston rod of a steam engine of such an accuracy as would make Euclid's mouth water to look at" were immediately prompted by the "intolerable annoyance resulting from strikes". The tour guides agreed. "The frequent and insufferable annoyances which engineers have experienced from trades unions" produced "those admirable contrivances which are enabling mechanicians to perform such wonders in overcoming the resistance of the material world". [60] In their accounts of this resistance, a characteristic series of themes were developed in the literature of factory tourism. The apparently overwhelming power of the works should rightly be understood as labour discipline within a system of division and co-ordination, producing geometrical precision out of mere manual skill in despite of proletarian resistance.

About the site