Engines of Knowledge in the First Information Age: The Factory and the Machine

By Hamish Robertson


In this piece I ask the reader to consider the rise of the factory and its associated processes and systems as not just centres of early capitalist production or engineering and technical development, but as knowledge engines. We know that factories of many kinds, starting quite early on in the 18th century, were aiming for what we now consider quite modern concepts such as mass production and standardisation. These practices, as I have mentioned elsewhere in this series, developed their own conceptual schemata that influenced further developments in not only industry but society at large. The implications of this approach to knowledge production, its validation and institutionalisation had a variety of socially significant effects. We can see that these had transformational effects in the 19th century, becoming accepted forms of knowledge and also techniques for understanding the world more generally. The factory and its associated machine metaphors persist today as do many of their tangible effects.

The Factory as Laboratory

One of the crucial aspects of the 18th century factory that has become institutionalised as part of modern technology and manufacturing is its experimental nature. The owners of many factories, and many types of factories, were concerned with what we now think of as quite modern ambitions such as innovation, quality control, economies of scale and workplace efficiencies. The factory was often, in a very particular way, a laboratory in its own right because it produced products through people and processes which could all be observed, documented and measured. This pattern long precedes the locus of the university or similar institutional settings for what we now see as research and development activities.

The potter, dissenter and abolitionist Josiah Wedgewood is often credited with industrialising the manufacture of ceramics in the United Kingdom. He regularly introduced new glazes and forms, with his innovations being copied almost as soon as they became available. He also pioneered much of what we now think of as the marketing of luxury goods, by sending packages of new, and more expensive, settings to Europe’s elite without prior payment. He also developed a series of show rooms before there were department stores so that potential buyers could view and order the goods they coveted. This was a logical but still innovative strategy in a time of rapid social change and financial expansion because the rich had the money to buy and the growing middle classes were sure to follow the trends set by their social ‘betters’. In this we can see the precursor of modern marketing psychology.

Wedgwood researched advances in the emerging sciences and frequently followed his own manufacturing processes for data collection and analysis purposes. His Etruria laboratory was established expressly to permit this kind of flexibility and experimentation. He would run test firings of uniform pottery pieces with different glazes and at different temperature settings to determine the results. This became the norm in the 19th century but we can see here that the idea of experimentation was already forming in the early mass manufacturing sector. He also sought out new clays, both from within the UK and overseas, and would test their properties for use in the manufacturing process. And of course he corresponded with other interested parties about these knowledge development processes and his findings. He effectively used his potteries, design studios and kilns for knowledge production purposes.

Mass Production and the Factory System

Ken Alder’s work on engineering in the French Revolution illustrates a variety of ways in which the design and manufacturing processes began working towards regulation and uniformity in, firstly, the industrial and then, secondly, the social spheres. Perhaps not surprisingly, a key origin point for this demand for regularity, uniformity and reliability lay in demand for weapons, as the French Republic fought to defend itself against dynastic European armies and navies. This programme declined in France due to a conflict between different approaches to innovation – one promoting the ancient, established artisanal small-scale manufacture and one the emergent focus on uniformity, massive scale and

The ‘factory system’ emerged more fully formed in the United States because, in part, Thomas Jefferson had observed these French efforts at innovation during his posting to France and took the concepts home with him. The emphasis on measurement and uniformity in complex systems appealed to the ‘modernist’ American view of itself and, of course, because French military innovation was also directed at defending the Revolution against foreign powers. The logic of this form of production also extended to the workers producing the goods and often aimed at a reduction in artisanal or craft skills and an expansion in lower skilled work, and workers, where labour replacement was easier and faster. Many of these developments relied on the rise of engineering and its own instruments of regularisation and calibration.

Here too the maker and the machine metaphors began to converge. We can see this in such notions as defective manufacture, low productivity, inefficiency and so on – all generated from machine processes and subsequently applied to social domains. Prior to this many products were genuinely unique even when manufactured in large numbers. The logic of mass producing, say, swords in a village smithy is of a different order and type than in an industrial furnace environment. Similarities between the two obviously exist but the change in magnitude and scale make for a difference in the logic of production and the knowledge and understanding that logic produces.

We can perhaps more easily see a version of this distinction in the Japanese tradition, a nation that embraced modern industry at a phenomenal speed in the late 19th century (after an earlier attempt that was halted by the authorities), but which also maintained much of its own artisanal aesthetic (e.g. wabi-sabi and kintsugi) which readily accommodated uniqueness, imperfection and even breakage as aesthetic virtues. The virtues of the artisan are not the same virtues as those of the engineer or industrialist.

These processes were in turn supported by a growth in methods of and instruments for increasingly precise measurement. To ensure uniformity required a keener focus on calculation, measurement and active engineering than had been the norm. Armies and navies had previously often had to rely on the weapons they could get access to and not on a guaranteed source of supply producing uniform products with easily replaceable or even interchangeable parts. To ensure bullets were exactly the same calibre or that gun barrels were all rifled correctly requires a high level of acquired precision and consistency. Pivotal in these emergent processes was the idea and practice of quantification. This was a new way of thinking about production and, as with other aspects of the industrial revolution, it produced its own knowledge and, to paraphrase Hacking, ‘styles of reasoning’.

Modern management theory often references the railways as the mythical origin point for mass production manufacturing, standardisation and productive logics. Much of the US railway system was in fact pioneered by West Point graduates whose skills emphasised both civil and military engineering, and related activities, at what was the first engineering school in the United States. The truth also involves an earlier and more involved explanation. Simplified piece-work, casual labour payment schemes and outwork long preceded the factory and existed alongside it for decades to come. The railway metaphor emphasises the technology of the track and the steam engine at the expense of the interconnections between the workforces that laid the track, excavated the tunnels, dug the cuttings and also who ultimately made the rails, spikes and steam engines themselves.

In the United States, the emergent production system of the slave plantation, especially in oits continued westward expansion, and engineering and industrial innovation in factories, created a system in the midst of massive population growth, acquisition of vast lands and natural resources, and a corresponding expansion of international trade. Foreign investors could and did finance various parts of this system, on top of which they participated in it as immigrants in its extension, development and administration. Technological innovation was central to the expansion and profitability of this system and factory models were increasingly central to its design and operation. As a knowledge factory in its own right, the plantation can be observed as not only a producer of knowledge about certain types of labour relations but also as one in which technology was gradually introduced to replace human tasks where more reliable or profitable.

The Slave as Machine

Even today the phrase ‘master and slave’ is still in common use in technology. The obvious nature of the relationship being expressed has a much longer history and one which is not quite as simple as the image of plantation field hand working under the whip might suggest. The slave was frequently characterised as a machine for work in general or specific tasks if more specialised (such as blacksmithing). This notion of the slave as machine had its own consequences on the plantation, and elsewhere, because it could and often did reduce work to the minimal skill level required to meet quantitative targets. Slaves shared some characteristics with what we now think of as machines: they were property and had owners; they could not leave their work by choice; they were unpaid; and their work could be and was monitored, often in great detail – especially their productivity.

The slave codes actively worked to make slaves ‘things’ – less than people and subordinate to the socio-political system under which they laboured. Of course, slaves could and did resist their place in the plantation machine and elsewhere. This resistance was another managerial problem to be ‘overcome’ by various means and the methods for doing so constitute some of the earlier developments in what we now think of, more abstractly, as ‘workplace relations’ or ‘human resource management’. Fear of revolt drove much of this reaction, indicating that owners knew the repression their system truly involved.

The North American slave plantation system and the United Kingdom and its investors including individuals, banks, shipping companies, mill owners, brokers, and even churches, (many owners were absentee just as in the Caribbean plantations) were deeply enmeshed in the system even after the official cessation of the slave trade in the British Empire. This was promptly replaced, or at least supplemented, by the indentured labour system, which rose again to fill the cheap labour vacuum left by emancipation. The American plantations also introduced the concept of the field hand as an objective, quantifiable and calculable unitised measure of production. Counting and accounting were central to this system including the introduction of directories, periodicals and forms for tracking and improving labour management and production.

Inventing Scientific Management

The appeal of data collection, quantification and experimentation is so marked in modernity that it needs to be remembered that this too was a development during a particular period in time. One outcome of the rise of quantification and related scientific undertakings was the rise of ideologies pf production as a virtuous undertaking. The morality and political economy of the 19th century were no less deeply embedded than in our present neoliberal world. Ideas about the production of physical goods and financial surpluses would, as Marx illustrated repeatedly, produce their own particular ideologies because the values inherent in the approach replicate themselves (profit is good, so more profit is better and thus the promotion of profit as a virtue; slavery is highly profitable so slavery is good and so it goes). The process has the capacity to produce its own logic and once established can acquire social and political authority including ideas about the value and worth of different groups of people.

The clock was easily as important as the whip in ensuring measurable outcomes on the slave plantation which traditionally ran as seasonal, quasi-natural system. The introduction clock-time transformed this approach into a system to which both slaves and their owners became increasingly enmeshed. And this idea, linked as it was directly to productivity and profitability, could only expand in importance as society itself became more regulated by clock-time. Factories could operate for longer, workers could be made to work at set times, and the time required for tasks could be calculated, monitored and compared. Many factories had their own clocks towers to ensure conformity to this system. The clock, a product of growing technical experimentation and mass manufacturing, became a regulatory mechanism in its own right extending outwards to all, slaves, workers and management alike. The clock and the uniform time it enabled became central to related industries such as the railways but also a foundational component of modernity.

From Artisan to Worker

The control of the lower social orders was central to the English (and most others) social and political system regardless of historical period but especially in periods of rapid change. Feudalism might have given way to early modernity but social control remained central to both periods and one of the ways of achieving this goal was, and remains, limiting the skills, capacity and value of workers within the system (another is to dismantle alternatives but that is for another discussion). Whig theories aside, competition for available work and reduction in payment rates for skilled labour both served the factory system and its correlates very well indeed. Slavery, as discussed above, was one more laboratory in which theories of value, extraction and ‘motivation” could be trialled and tested. No wonder then that during the industrial revolution, many British factory unions and their members felt more in common with the enslaved than they did with the factory owners. They knew where the cotton came from and they could see for themselves the excesses of the system in their own factories and communities.


Understanding how we came to ‘progress’ through different forms of production and work to the situations we see today requires more than a linear, progressive view of history. The complexity of the past is easily as deep as that of our present time. The factory was a highly versatile creation and produced not only ideas about products, production and its management but transferable ideas that had a wider social, economic and political impact. The sociological perspective requires of us an understanding that the factory and the machine produced more than goods, they produce social relations and, sooner or later, an increasingly naturalised way of viewing the world. The values of the factory system are obviously beneficial for some and the ideology of the factory has come to assert itself beyond its point of origin. Even now the factory remains a locus for innovation and industrial ‘progress’. It is in this sense, as with the hospital and the garden, that I propose we think of the factory and the machine not only as factual elements and metaphors but as engines of knowledge in their own right.

Hamish Robertson is a geographer at the University of New South Wales with experience in healthcare including a decade in ageing research. He has worked in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors and he has presented and published on a variety of topics ranging from ageing, diversity, health informatics, Aboriginal health, patient safety and spatial science to cultural heritage research. Hamish is currently completing his PhD on the geography of Alzheimer’s disease and recently finished editing a book on museums and older people.

Categories: Digital Sociology

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