The Imposition of Technology

Kirkpatrick Sale

(This is a chapter excerpt of Kirkpatrick Sale's Rebels Against The Future: The Luddites and their War on the Industrial Revolution)

The steam engine, especially as it was perfected by the Watt and Boulton shop in the experimental years after 1776, was the iron heart of the Industrial Revolution. No matter that it was surrounded by thousands of other ingenious machines and inventions, some more immediately practical--294 patents were issued in Britain in the 1770s, 477 in the 1780s, and 647 in the 1790s, almost twice as many as in the preceding hundred years of patenting--it was the first manufacturing technology in human history that was, in a sense, independent of nature, of geography and season and weather, of sun or wind or water or human or animal power. It allowed humans for the first time, restricted only by available supplies of coal (and metal), to have a constant, unfailing source of power at their command, capable of producing an almost infinite variety of objects with a minimum of personal effort or time. And thus it permitted the extraordinary shift from what had been an organic economy based on land and labor and local exchange to a mechanical economy based on fuel and factory and foreign trade, an empowerment of the machine in human society such as had never before been attempted.

All technologies have consequences, inevitable and built in, and imperatives, just as inevitable, essentially separate from human dictates and desires. Norbert Wiener, the mathematician who was the founder of modern cybernetics, has written about "technical determinants" dictated by "the very nature" of machines, and of the steam engine he noted that it automatically leads to large and ever larger scales because it can power so many separate machines at once, to ever increasing production because it must pay back its high investment and operating costs, and to centralization and specialization because factors of efficiency and economy supersede those of, say, craftsmanship or esthetic expression. He might have added that it also necessarily leads to a reduction in face-to-face contacts, social discourse, human autonomy, individual choice, and personal skills, none of which is especially important as far as the operation of the machine goes.

There is, then, a kind of technological logic connected to this iron monster with a pulse of steam"--what Clark Kerr and his team in the 1960s called "the logic of industrialism," which they say is why all industrial societies look pretty much alike--and by extension of course to the other machinery of the Industrial Revolution. It did not take more than a few decades for contemporaries to start observing where it led: large-scale units of production governed by regimentation and control, increasing refinement and complexity of machinery, a division of labor and hence of training and hence of social status, expanding markets, expanding resources, expanding wastes--all phenomena that the Kerr investigators found wherever they followed industrialism a century and a half later. It also led, and leads, though Kerr lays less emphasis here, to social and political consequences: the squeezing of farm populations and the uncontrollable growth of cities, the evisceration of self-reliant communities, the enlargement of central governments, the enthronement of science as ruling ideology, a wide and increasing gap between rich and poor, and ruling values of profit, growth, property, and consumption. It was so in the early 19th century of Britain, the late19th century of the United States, the 20th century of Japan, and seems indeed to be so in the process of industrialism everywhere.

That may seem like a lot of weight to load on Watt's simple machine--a restatement in metal, by the way, of a device known to the Greeks two thousand years before*--but contemporaries who lived within the sound of its roar had no doubts. "One of the most striking revolutions ever produced in the moral and social conditions of a moiety of a great nation," said Peter Gaskell in his survey of The Manufacturing Population in EngLand in 1833, "is that which has been consequent to the application of steam to machinery." By then steam power was doing what Gaskell calculated to be the work of 2.5 million people-and since the 1831 census had identified no more than 3 million people engaged in manufacturing overall, that meant steam machinery was nearly equivalent to the whole manufacturing workforce, just four decades after its introduction.  Indeed, Gaskell warned, "vast and incessant improvements in mechanical contrivances, all tending to overmatch and supersede human labour [threaten] ere long to extirpate the very demand for it," making the English worker, except for those making the machines, obsolete.

Steam made its impact primarily in the textile industries, most of them traditionally located in that Luddite triangle where streams running from the Pennine hills had long provided the water needed to wash and prepare yarn and the weather systems in from the Irish Sea had long provided the damp climate suit-able to its processing into cloth. When the first factories appeared they used the Pennine streams for power, but since this source was so uncertain--many mills were idle in the summer months when the streams dwindled to trickles--the attraction of the steam engine and its ceaseless energy was irresistible, especially since by a whim of Albion the region was replete with coalfields to fire the steam. By 1800, a little more than a decade after their introduction into the factory, some 2,191 steam engines were thought to be at work in Britain--those "Stygian forges, with their fire-throats and never-resting sledge-hammers" that Carlyle wrote of--some 460 of them in the textile trades and responsible for as much as a quarter of all cotton production. By 1813 there were an estimated 2,400 textile looms operating by steam, but that burgeoned to 14,150 by 1820 and exploded to more than 100,000 just a decade later, as factory production came to dominate cotton and moved steadily into wool, silk, and other branches. By then, according to a contemporary expert, one man could do the work that two or three hundred men had done at the start of the Industrial Revolution, "the most striking example of the dominion obtained by human science over the powers of nature, of which modern times can boast."

Although large industrial organizations had been known for some time--the famous arsenal in 16th-century Venice was in most respects a factory, right down to division of labor and mass production~it was the Industrial Revolution, driven by the steam engine, that produced the first factory system--an operation both immense and intense, in which not only the machine but the entire production process, humans included, was made up of more or less isolated and interchangeable parts. Very shortly it took this shape, as a German visitor wrote from Manchester in 1823:

The modern miracles, my friend, are to me the machines here and the buildings that house them, called factories. Such a block is eight or nine stories high, sometimes has 40 windows along its frontage and is often four windows deep. Each floor is twelve feet high, and vaulted along its whole length with arches each having a span of nine feet. The pillars are of iron, as is the girder which they support. . . . A hundred of them are now standing unshaken and exactly as they were erected thirty and forty years ago. A number of such blocks stand in very elevated positions which dominate the neighbourhood; and in addition a forest of even taller boiler-house chimneys like needles, so that it is hard to imagine how they remain upright; the whole presents from a distance a wonderful spectacle especially at night, when thousands of windows are brilliantly illuminated by gaslight.

The human appendages to the machines thus housed were leaden drudges. A Leeds doctor said in 1831:

While the engine works, the people must work. Men, women, and children are thus yoke-fellows with iron and steam; the animal machine--fragile at best, subject to a thousand sources of suffering, and doomed, by nature in its best state, to a short-lived existence, changing every moment, and hastening to decay--is matched with an iron machine insensible to suffering and fatigue.

This is the factory system, these two machines working together in "a vast automaton," in the words of the great apologist for it, Andrew Ure, in 1835, "composed of various mechanical and intellectual organs, acting in an uninterrupted concert for the production of a common object, all of them being subordinated to a self-regulating moving force."

"Subordinated" is the key word here, though Ure seems to feel there is no distinction to be made between the mechanical and intellectual kind. The task for the factory owner was to make sure that workers would be disciplined to serve the needs of the machines-"in training human beings," Ure said, "to renounce their desultory habits of work and to identify with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton"-and for this the principal strategies were threefold. First, long and inflexible hours, behind locked doors, twelve and fourteen hours a day being the rule for the first several decades, sometimes as many as sixteen or eighteen, and never less than ten; next, a regimen of shop-floor penalties, such as these (out of a list of nineteen) posted in a cotton mill in 1824--

Any spinner found with his window open                                   1 shilling

Any spinner found dirty at his work                                           1 shilling

Any spinner heard whistling                                                       1 shilling

Any spinner being five minutes after the last bell rings           2 shillings

--and assessed on wages that averaged no more than 24 shillings a week; and finally by outright physical force, more commonly used against women and children but available to all, typified by the foreman "kept on purpose to strap," whose job was continually walking up and down with the strap in his hand," as a Parliamentary inquiry was told in 1833, beating children "late at their work" in the morning or falling asleep at their work in the afternoon--"very cruel strapping," too, and "some have been beaten so violently that they have lost their lives in consequence.

But there was another, wider discipline of the labor force as well: by government policy, sanctioned somehow by laissez-faire ideology, the workers of Britain were made effectively powerless to resist the demands of their employers. Laws passed in 1799 and 1800 that consolidated long-standing antiunion statutes made it illegal to organize, or "combine," to try to get higher wages or shorter hours or better conditions, even to raise funds or attend meetings as a unit; and though certain trades in certain towns could evade some of these restrictions, many employers made full use of the laws (or threat of them) whenever they felt resistance mounting among their workers. Government policies also helped expand the labor pool, especially during the first decades of industrialism (largely by facilitating the immigration of Irish laborers and forcing agricultural workers from the countryside), which worked as it always does to undercut any functional bargaining power of the workers. This was compounded by the fact that there were no restrictions on employing women and children, starting at ages as young as 4 and 5, who came to make up roughly four fifths of the textile labor force by 1833, a population both easier to exploit and cheaper to hire than adult men. Taken together, all this served quite well to make the workers, particularly in the large manufacturing towns where numbers were greater and owners more powerful, for the most part effectually "subordinated" to the larger interests of the new industrialism.

Thus did the "logic of industrialism" work, following out the imposition of its technology with a sweep and power that transformed lives and landscapes within just a few decades to a degree never seen, not even imaginable, before The steam engine was, as Andrew Ure boasted, "the controller general and mainspring of British industry, which urges it onwards at a steady rate, and never suffers it to lag or loiter, till its appointed task be done."


* Hero of Alexandria designed, and probably built, a steam engine in the first century B.C. that used fire-heated cauldrons and tubes. The Mediterranean world of the time, however, had all the labor power it needed in slaves, and Hero's machine was ignored; in an England of the 18th century where slaves were outlawed and cheap labor hard to control and manipulate, great energy was put into creating just such a device.