Factory system

Procedures of manufacturing, consolidated along the nineteenth century, based on three main elements: machinery, organization and control. It is considered one of the basic inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Among the three components mentioned, some authors stress the importance of the first aspect, and speak about mechanization and technological innovations powered by water or steam as the key factors of the new system. Others instead, such as the historian of technology A. Pacey, focus the attention on the second and especially on the third dominion. The Industrial Revolution was then, according to Pacey’s perspective, a radical change in the methods of control and discipline of workers labor. In this regard, the factory system represented an entirely new vision and an alternative that in the long run would replace the domestic and the putting-out system. Besides these effects, new procedures meant a serious challenge to artisan skills which were displaced by machinery innovations. This was the motive behind the luddites’ protests and sabotage actions against factories. The innovative spirit was nevertheless an ever increasing tendency connected to internationalization of markets, competition and the deregulation measures.

One of the most influential advocates of the factory system was the Scottish professor of chemistry Andrew Ure, who expressed his enthusiastic points of view in The Philosophy of Manufactures (London, 1835). He was completely persuaded of the advantages of the automatism pushed by technology advances, and in this regard stated that the ideal manufacture was the one that excluded absolutely the contribution of manual workers. The following quotation contains authors’ optimistic confidence in the social benefits of the factory system, in contrast with reformers’ opinions of labor conditions:

I have visited many factories, both in Manchester and in the surrounding districts, during a period of several months, entering the spinning rooms, unexpectedly, and often alone, at different times of the day, and I never saw a single instance of corporal chastisement inflicted on a child, nor indeed did I ever see children in ill-humour. They seemed to be always cheerful and alert, taking pleasure in the light play of their muscles, enjoying the mobility natural to their age. The scene of industry, so far from exciting sad emotions in my mind, was always exhilarating. It was delightful to observe the nimbleness with which they pieced the broken ends, as the mule-carriage began to recede from the fixed roller-beam, and to see them at leisure, after a few seconds’ exercise of their tiny fingers, to amuse themselves in any attitude they chose, till the stretch and winding-on were once more completed. The work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport, in which habit gave them a pleasing dexterity. Conscious of their skill, they were delighted to show it off to any stranger. As to exhaustion by the day’s work, they evinced no trace of it on emerging from the mill in the evening; for they immediately began to skip about any neighbouring playground, and to commence their little amusements with the same alacrity as boys issuing from a school. It is moreover my firm conviction, that if children are not ill-used by bad parents or guardians, but receive in food and raiment the full benefit of what they earn, they would thrive better when employed in our modern factories, than if left at home in apartments too often ill-aired, damp, and cold (300-301) […]

Mr. Hutton, who has been in practice as a surgeon at Stayley Bridge upwards of thirty-one years, and, of course, remembers the commencement, and has had occasion to trace the progress and effect, of the factory system, says that the health of the population has much improved since its introduction, and that they are much superior in point of comfort to what they were formerly. He also says that fever has become less common since the erection of factories, and that the persons employed in them were less attacked by the influenza in 1833, than other classes of work-people (398) […].

These ideas were the target of criticism by Karl Marx, who analyzed working conditions under the premises of the alienation theory. Other disagreements came from liberal positions, such as the ones maintained by John Stuart Mill. He asserted that so far technology hadn’t made any sound contribution to relief human fatigue. Assuming the social consequences of automatism and technology innovations, other theorists (e. g. David A. Wells in the second half of the nineteenth century) saw the factory system under the capitalist rule as the best option to generate wealth, the supreme factor that guarantees prosperity in the free market model. A step further in the evolution of the factory system was the scientific approach of labor organization in the workplace undertaken by Friederick Winslow Taylor and exposed in his Principles of Scientific Management (1913). The purpose in this case was the improvement of productivity and the reduction of useless tasks by the precise examination (with chronometers) of workers movements. Scientific management studies have nevertheless evolved significantly through the twentieth century, particularly in order to modify the initial crude engineering methodologies.


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