Excerpt from The Philosophy of Manufactures; or,
an Exposition of the Scientific, Moral, and Commercial
Economy of the Factory System of Great Britain
Published in 1835
"The grand object … 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."
By 1835 the Industrial Revolution—the process of introducing machines into manufacturing and of building new factories—was well established in Britain. Three years earlier, in 1832, a member of Parliament, Michael Sadler (see entry), had published a report documenting the abuse of children working in factories. Many factory workers had joined the Chartist movement, an effort to persuade Parliament to give more people the right to vote (at the time, only men with a minimum amount of property were allowed to vote) and to pass laws to guarantee a minimum wage and maximum number of hours people cold be required to work. (The Chartist movement lasted from 1838 to 1848, but it never persuaded Parliament to act.)
Despite the long hours and dangerous working conditions, the Industrial Revolution also had its positive aspects. Andrew Ure (1778–1857), a professor at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, laid them out in a book titled The Philosophy of Manufactures; or, an Exposition of the Scientific, Moral, and Commercial Economy of the Factory System of Great Britain, published in 1835. In this excerpt from his book, Ure points out what he saw as benefits to the country as a whole, such as an overall increase in wealth and greater productivity (more value produced by one person in a given period of time), while ignoring complaints by workers about low pay and harsh living conditions. Ure argues that factory workers were actually better off under industrialization (the system of machines and factories) than they would be living on tiny plots in the countryside, trying to make a living as farmers (as many factory workers had once done).
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Philosophy of Manufactures:
- Ure's view reflects the opinions and interests of Britain's business owners. They were a new class in British society, their wealth gained from the introduction of machines and factories that marked the Industrial Revolution. Many of these business owners had gained political influence just three years before Ure wrote his essay, as a result of the Reform Act of 1832. That act changed the British system of electing members of Parliament and gave more political influence to urban business owners at the expense of the older class of landowners.
- Perhaps in an effort to defend factory owners, Ure argues (not always convincingly) that workers should look on the bright side. For example, in response to complaints that workers were not allowed to take breaks, Ure says that breaks taken in the old system, by home-based skilled workers, only resulted in wasted time and therefore lower pay. Furthermore, he says, the steam engines that powered factory equipment made work easier than tasks using the older hand-driven equipment.
- Ure foresees the day when workers will become "mere overlookers of machines," doing jobs that do not require much skill. He sees an advantage in eliminating the need for highly skilled workers, such as weavers, because they tend to be difficult to work with and demand more money. This, in turn, drives up the price of manufactured goods.
- In Ure's view, people working in factories would in some respects become part of a mechanical process for turning out goods (he was primarily talking about textiles—yarn and fabric—in his book, but his principles apply to other industries as well). His view was shared by many business owners of his time.
- Ure argues from the viewpoint of society in general, and Britain in particular. In the international struggle between nations to achieve power and strength, the Industrial Revolution helped Britain become the wealthiest and most powerful country in the nineteenth century, even if many British workers suffered in the process.
Excerpt from The Philosophy of Manufactures
This island [England] is pre-eminent among civilized nations for the prodigious development of its factory wealth, and has been therefore long viewed with a jealous admiration by foreign powers. This very pre-eminence, however, has been contemplated in a very different light by many influential members of our own community, and has been even denounced by them as the certain origin of innumerable evils to the people, and of revolutionary convulsions to the state. If the affairs of the kingdom be wisely administered, I believe such allegations and fears will prove to be groundless, and to proceed more from the envy of one ancient and powerful order of the commonwealth, towards another suddenly grown into political importance [business owners], than from the nature of things.…
The blessings which physio-mechanical science has bestowed on society, and the means it has still in store for ameliorating the lot of mankind, have been too little dwelt upon; while, on the other hand, it has been accused of lending itself to the rich capitalists as an instrument for harassing the poor, and of exacting from the operative an accelerated rate of work. It has been said, for example, that the steam-engine now drives the power-looms with such velocity as to urge on their attendant weavers at the same rapid pace; but that the hand-weaver, not being subjected to this restless agent, can throw his shuttle and move his treddles at his convenience. There is, however, this difference in the two cases, that in the factory, every member ofthe loom is so adjusted, that the driving force leaves the attendant nearly nothing at all to do, certainly no muscular fatigue to sustain, while it procures for him good, unfailing wages, besides a healthy workshop gratis: whereas the non-factory weaver, having everything to execute by muscular exertion, finds the labour irksome, makes in consequence innumerable short pauses, separately of little account, but great when added together; earns therefore proportionally low wages, while he loses his health by poor diet and the dampness of his hovel.…
The constant aim and effect of scientific improvement in manufactures are philanthropic, as they tend to relieve the workmen either from niceties of adjustment which exhaust his mind and fatigue his eyes, or from painful repetition of efforts which distort or wear out his frame. At every step of each manufacturing process described in this volume the humanity of science will be manifest.…
In its precise acceptation, the Factory system is of recent origin, and may claim England for its birthplace. The mills for throwing silk, or making organzine which were mounted centuries ago in several of the Italian states, and furtively transferred to this country by Sir Thomas Lombe in 1718, contained indeed certain elements of a factory, and probably suggested some hints of those grander and more complex combinations of self-acting machines, which were first embodied half a century later in our cotton manufacture by Richard Arkwright, assisted by gentlemen of Derby, well acquainted with its celebrated silk establishment. But the spinning of an entangled flock of fibres into a smooth thread, which constitutes the main operation with cotton, is in silk superfluous; being already performed by the unerring instinct of a worm, which leaves to human art the simple task of doubling and twisting its regular filaments. The apparatus requisite for this purpose is more elementary, and calls for few of those gradations of machinery which are needed in the carding, drawing, roving, and spinning processes of a cotton-mill.
When the first water-frames for spinning cotton were erected at Cromford, in the romantic valley of the Derwent [England], about sixty years ago, mankind were little aware of the mighty revolution which the new system of labour was destined by Providence to achieve, not only in the structure of British society, but in the fortunes of the world at large. Arkwright alone had the sagacity to discern, and the boldness to predict in glowing language, how vastly productive human industry would become, when no longer proportioned in its results to muscular effort, which is by its nature fitful and capricious, but when made to consist in the task of guiding the work of mechanical fingers and arms, regularly impelled with great velocity by some indefatigable physical power. What his judgment so clearly led him to perceive, his energy of will enabled him to realize with such rapidity and success, as would have done honour to the most influential individuals, but were truly wonderful in that obscure and indigent artisan.…
The principle of the factory system then is, to substitute mechanical science for hand skill, and the partition of a process into its essential constituents, for the division or graduation of labour among artisans. On the handicraft plan, labour more or less skilled was usually the most expensive element of production … but on the automatic plan, skilled labour gets progressively superseded, and will, eventually, be replaced by mere overlookers of machines.
By the infirmity of human nature it happens, that the more skilful the workman, the more self-willed and intractable he is apt to become, and, of course, the less fit a component of a mechanical system, in which, by occasional irregularities, he may do great damage to the whole. 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,—faculties, when concentrated to one process, speedily brought to perfection in the young. In the infancy of mechanical engineering, a machine-factory displayed the division of labour in manifold gradations—the file, the drill, the lathe, having each its different workmen in the order of skill: but the dextrous hands of the filer and driller are now superseded by the planing, the key groove cutting, and the drilling-machines; and those of the iron and brass turners, by the self-acting slide-lathe.…
It is, in fact, the constant aim and tendency of every improvement in machinery to supersede human labour altogether, or to diminish its cost, by substituting the industry of women and children for that of men; or that of ordinary labourers for trained artisans. In most of the water-twist, or throstle cotton-mills, the spinning is entirely managed by females of sixteen years and upwards. The effect of substituting the self-acting mule for the common mule, is to discharge the greater part of the men spinners, and to retain adolescents and children. The proprietor of a factory near Stockport states, in evidence to the commissioners, that, by such substitution, he would save 50 pounds [unit of British money] a week in wages in consequence of dispensing with nearly forty male spinners, at about 25 shillings [unit of British money] of wages each.…
Steam-engines furnish the means not only of their support but of their multiplication. They create a vast demand for fuel; and, while they lend their powerful arms to drain the pits and to raise the coals, they call into employment multitudes of miners, engineers, shipbuilders, and sailors, and cause the construction of canals and railways. Thus therefore, in enabling these rich fields of industry to be cultivated to the utmost, they leave thousands of fine arable fields free for the production of food to man, which must have been otherwise allotted to the food of horses. Steam-engines moreover, by the cheapness and steadiness of their action, fabricate cheap goods, and procure in their exchange a liberal supply of the necessaries and comforts of life produced in foreign lands.
Improvements in the machinery have a three-fold bearing:
1st. They make it possible to fabricate some articles which, but for them, could not be fabricated at all.
2nd. They enable an operative to turn out a greater quantity of work than he could before,—time, labour, and quality of work remaining constant.
3rd. They effect a substitution of labour comparatively unskilled, for that which is more skilled.
What happened next …
Some of Andrew Ure's predictions came to pass. The industrial era did result in a much greater total output than had been possible previously. But workers did not agree to becoming "mere overlookers of machines." Both skilled and unskilled workers resisted this role and organized themselves into labor unions to demand greater pay and improved working conditions.
Ure also correctly forecast the gradual reduction in the cost of goods, at least in comparison to wages. Workers eventually received higher wages, but the cost of manufactured goods did not rise in proportion. In the end, the standard of living for workers and business owners alike rose enormously as a result of the continued success of the Industrial Revolution.
For more information
Langley, Andrew. The Industrial Revolution. New York: Viking, 1994.
McPherson, Natalie. Machines and Economic Growth: The Implications for Growth Theory of the History of the Industrial Revolution. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Stalcup, Brenda, ed. The Industrial Revolution. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2002.
Ure, Andrew. The Philosophy of Manufactures; or, an Exposition of the Scientific, Moral, and Commercial Economy of the Factory System of Great Britain. 1835. Reprint, New York: B. Franklin, 1969.
"Andrew Ure: The Philosophy of the Manufacturers, 1835." Modern History Sourcebook. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1835ure.html (accessed on April 11, 2003).