Chapter 13: The Factory System
The principles of mass production at large worksites – through a combination of technological innovations and improved methods of organizing labor – was applied to a variety of industries in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.
In this episode, we’ll cover:
Matthew Boulton and the Soho Manufactory
Arthur Guinness and the St. James’s Gate Brewery
Josiah Wedgwood and the Etruria Works
The Portsmouth Block Mills – built by Marc Isambard Brunel, Henry Maudslay, and Samuel Bentham
Sources for this episode include:
Allitt, Patrick N. “The Industrial Revolution.” The Great Courses. 2014.
Cooper, Carolyn C. “The Portsmouth System of Manufacture.” Technology and Culture, vol. 25, no. 2, 1984, pp. 182–225.
Hopkins, Frank. "The Man Behind The Black Stuff." The Herald [Dublin]. 17 Sept 2009. https://www.herald.ie/entertainment/the-man-behind-the-black-stuff-27925384.html
Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. University of Chicago Press. 2010.
Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. 4th Edition. Westview Press. 2013.
Weightman, Gavin. The Industrial Revolutionaries. Grove Press. 2007.
Yenne, Bill. Guinness: The 250 Year Quest for the Perfect Pint. Wiley. 2009.
This week’s episode was made possible thanks to the recent Kickstarter campaign. As you may remember, one of the perks available to donors in that effort was to get me to tell listeners about a charity close to their heart.
This week I want to tell you about the Independent Labrador Retriever Rescue of Southern California. This organization is dedicated to taking in and re-homing Labs, Golden Retrievers, and similar dogs in Los Angeles County, Orange County, and the Santa Barbara area. As they help these pups find their forever homes, they need to feed them, give them proper medical care, and more. And for that, they rely on donors like you.
To make a donation – or if you live in Southern California and would like to adopt one of the dogs – please visit IndiLabRescue.org.
Today, Matthew Boulton is remembered for really one thing: His partnership with James Watt. Together, they advanced steam technology and brought a new form of power to production and transportation, changing the world forever.
But at the time he partnered with Watt, their venture couldn’t have seemed like more than icing on the cake of his already illustrious career.
Boulton was born in 1728 in Birmingham, which by that point had become a city known for its metallurgy, particularly of metal toys. Now, a “toy” in those days meant any small good – buckles, buttons, snuff boxes, dishes, pieces of jewelry, etc. Only later did the word come to mean plaything.
Boulton’s father was just such a toymaker, specializing in buckles and, to a lesser extent, buttons, graters, and small tools. His business was relatively successful, and he was able to afford to send the young Matthew to a good school. By the time he was 17, Matthew was making waves inside the family business, inventing a way to put enamels in buckles that proved quite popular with customers.
When his father died in 1759, Boulton took over the business, made the changes he always dreamed of making, and rapidly expanded. By 1761 he leased 13 acres on an enclosed estate outside Birmingham. The old gentile residence of the estate was called Soho House, and it became the center of the new Soho Manufactory – a monstrous 3-story workshop slash warehouse with 19 loading docks for bringing in raw materials and shipping out finished products.
He also expanded the product line to include luxury goods, including silver and Ormolu dishware. By the 1780s, he became interested in minting coins, and he was soon contracted by the British East India Company to mint the coinage used on the British-controlled subcontinent. By 1797, he was also minting coins for British government, and came up with innovative ways to prevent counterfeits.
How did he do all this?
Well, first of all, he understood the power of lobbying. That’s how he eventually got the contract to mint British coinage, after all, as well as how he got his patents.
Boulton was a great innovator, who came up with many new production processes to create stylish new goods that attracted buyers.
He also took over a lot of economic functions that he’d otherwise have to outsource to contractors. When the business was large enough, he in-housed the transport of raw materials and finished goods, bringing down his costs. Even more importantly, he did his own sales and marketing, which he was quite good at.
But nothing explains his success quite like his ability to scale his business. Remember in Chapter 10 how Adam Smith commented on the productivity to be gained through the division of labor – that is, labor specialization? Well, even before the Wealth of Nations was published, Boulton intrinsically understood this principle, and took it to a new level.
Instituting an early version of what we would now call an assembly line, Boulton was able to mass produce goods of luxury quality at affordable prices. This was a system that would forever change the world’s economies and, in the process, our political and social orders as well.
This was a system you could suddenly find employed in all kinds of productions. You see, Boulton wasn’t alone.
This is the Industrial Revolutions
Chapter 13: The Factory System
Before we get into it today, I want to make some administrative notes.
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Okay, on with the program.
Now, I think it might help to drill down on the concept of a factory. The word is short for “manufactory” – basically, a manufacturing plant. At these locations, manufacturers produce manufactured goods – sometimes as semi-finished products, sometimes as finished goods for the end users, the consumers.
Factories have existed since ancient times. Paper factories, mills, and arsenals all used mass production principles throughout history. But until the first Industrial Revolution, they were the exception – not the rule – of the economy. The powerful guilds of antiquity and the Middle Ages hated them because they threatened guild control of various industries. And often times governments wanted to avoid a factory system, due to the difficulties in taxing it in the old days.
But as proto-industrialization picked up; and the economy stabilized under constitutional monarchy and the Bank of England; and more and more examples of its success popped up; industrialists started investing more and more into factories for mass production.
The most glaring examples in the 18th Century were the textile mills, which I discussed at length in Chapter 5, with Lancashire at the epicenter. Then there were the metalworks, including foundries like John “Iron-Mad” Wilkinson’s and those of locksmiths and toymakers, like Boulton. And when it came to metallurgy, England’s West Midlands region was the epicenter.
But the Factory System went beyond these kinds of manufactured goods. The principles of mass production at large worksites – through a combination of technological innovations and improved methods of organizing labor – would also be applied to a variety of industries. Today, we're going to see that system in action in a brewery, a pottery business, and a shipyard. It’s going to be a longer-than-normal episode, so buckle in.
We're going to begin, today, in Ireland.
Beer has been brewed since the Stone Age. We’ve actually found a 4000-year-old brewing recipe from ancient Sumeria. And, along with wine, it had a pretty big impact in the ancient world.
Well, up in the British Isles, cultivating grapes for wine was a bit more challenging. Instead, they mostly stuck to brewing ales. In fact, the native Celtic peoples of Great Britain and Ireland were brewing ales since before the Romans showed up.
This continued through the Middle Ages and into the “Industrious Revolution.” A Stuart Dynasty survey of Ireland estimated there were almost 100 breweries in Dublin and 1,100 alehouses - at a time when the city had a population of just 4,000 families or so.
Now, something I’ve neglected to mention in episodes so far is the impact that brewing had on the development of industrialization. As timber resources began running low in England, brewers had to switch to coal for applying heat in the brewing process. But it gave their beer a horrible taste. As a result, they began experimenting with coke in the 1640s – which, you may remember from chapter 6, was a form of coal baked to remove impurities. And it was the development of coke that led to Abraham Darby’s innovations with iron-smelting in the early 1700s.
And it was during the early 1700s that breweries began expanding. Small brew pubs were gradually being replaced by larger, commercial brewers in England and Ireland.
This was the reality of the beer world in 1725, when Ireland’s most famous brewer was born.
Arthur Guinness hailed from the town of Celbridge in County Kildare, about a 14-mile trip west from Dublin. His father, Richard, was a clerk to an affluent Protestant vicar in town. It’s believed that the Guinnesses had native Irish heritage from the Magennis clan. But after the Jacobite defeat in the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, they dropped the gaelic “mac” from their name and converted to the Protestant Church of Ireland.
Among other things, Richard Guinness managed the vicar’s landholdings and brewed a dark beer on his estate. And as he made the vicar more and more prosperous, Richard and his family became more and more prosperous too. Eventually, the cleric was advanced to the position of archbishop, and when he passed away in 1752, he left Richard the enormous sum of £100 in his will, with another £100 for his son, Arthur, the archbishop’s godson.
With their small fortunes in hand, both Guinnesses went into the beer business. Richard opened an inn and Arthur leased a small brewery in the ancient town of Leixlip in 1755. Four years later, he re-located to the growing, nearby city of Dublin.
There, on the River Liffey, he leased a shuttered-up brewery from a guy named Mark Rainsford. Rainsford’s grandfather, the alderman Sir Mark Rainsford, had bought the brewery back in the 1690s, but the family never made it commercially viable. So, the brewery was leased to Guinness for a down-payment of £100 plus a £45 annual payment. What was striking about the deal was that the term of the lease was for a whopping nine thousand years.
The location of the brewery was at the edge of the Medieval city of Dublin. 25 years before Guinness arrived there, the old gate to the city – by that point severely deteriorated – had been pulled down. But the name of the location stuck: St. James’s Gate. It’s still the site and the name of the brewery today – they’re only about 9% of the way into that lease, after all.
Just kidding – the Guinness company bought out the property a long time ago.
St. James’s Gate had a lot going for it. It was an impressive four acres, and it was right off Ireland’s new Grand Canal, which linked Dublin with the River Shannon. That gave Guinness access to Irish markets all the way to Limerick on the west coast of the island, and cut down the costs of transporting in raw materials like barley.
At first, Guinness made the same kind of beer most Irish brewers made at the time, an Irish ale. But exporting Irish ale was very difficult under the protectionist trade laws of the British Empire. English Mercantilist interests passed heavy tariffs on Irish beers, but forced the Irish to accept tariff-free imports of English beers. On top of this, the English imports included a newer kind of beer that was very popular with Ireland’s working-class: Porter.
It’s not known exactly when, but some years into brewing at St. James’s Gate, Arthur Guinness added several varieties of porter to his portfolio. By doing so, he hoped to tap into the Irish market for porter, so far dominated by English breweries.
It was also this trade imbalance that gravitated Guinness toward politics. In 1777, he and his Dublin-based trade association successfully lobbied the Irish Parliament to stop subsidizing the import of English porter. In 1790, they got legislation passed that allowed Irish beer to compete freely and fairly with English beer…in England. As a result, Guinness became a major exporter and started rapidly expanding in the 1790s.
Guinness had other nationalist sympathies beyond his beer. Despite his protestant affiliation, he was a supporter of Catholic emancipation in Ireland, as well as traditional Gaelic arts and culture, including indigenous music and poetry.
But when Irish rebels rose up in 1798, inspired by recent revolutions in America and France, Guinness was opposed. The uprising failed and, in 1801, a new “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” was created, so as to not let the Irish get away from British overrule. Guinness supported the union. As a result, his beer became colloquially known for a time as Guinness’s Black Protestant Porter.
In the generations to come, the Guinness family would continue to consolidate the beer industry in Ireland and grow in political power, with several descendants serving as Conservative MPs and even getting the Earldom of Iveagh.
Now, when it came to his porters, Guinness was quite experimental. Brewing in those days was more an art than a science. This was years before Louis Pasteur was born. There weren’t, like, laboratories for analyzing samples of wort yet.
But over time, a few clear favorites emerged.
One was called “West Indies Porter” – which had a higher-than-usual alcohol content. That’s because it would help preserve the beer when transported overseas. This is the precursor to today’s Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, which is the kind of Guinness you’re most likely to find today in Africa (where it’s quite popular), the Caribbean, and parts of Asia.
Another was “Extra Stout Porter”, the precursor to today’s Extra Stout. Sold today in Ireland, the UK, and North America, Extra Stout can only be bought in bottles. In fact, bottled beer is a mass production phenomenon that Guinness Brewing made big. It’s a tradition of Guinness that’s sort of surprising. This was the kind of beer you would have associated with the Guinness label, right up until the 1960s.
But in the late 1950s, a scientist named Michael Ash figured out how to introduce nitrogenation to Guinness, giving it a much longer-lasting froth at the top. As a result, the company was able to introduce a new recipe – Guinness Draught – a more bitter beer, made to taste rich and smooth thanks to the froth.
With his market acumen, Guinness grew his business into a massive operation. He consolidated his recipes, and by 1799, had stopped brewing ales altogether. With his adult sons assisting him by this point, Guinness was producing thousands upon thousands of barrels of porter each month, much of it for export.
As the first Industrial Revolution progressed, it was impossible to ignore the Guinness family. The output at the St. James’s Gate Brewery had grown so large, that by the time Arthur Guinness died in 1803, it overshadowed all others in Dublin.
How they did it is uncertain. It was a private family business at the time and only limited records survive. But they were almost definitely following a new brewing model that had developed in the British Isles by this point. The raw materials – including barley, hops, and yeast – would be hoisted to the top of the brewery, where gravity would carry them down to the appropriate vats in an assembly line process.
Few other industries were as well poised to reduce labor – and specialize what labor there was – as brewing. The economies of scale produced in breweries would not be realized in other industries until the adoption of strong steam power.
And it was one of the few industries that could reach this level of mass production in Ireland, where the Catholic majority was barred from many industrial pursuits, and where the availability of capital and mechanical learning was fairly limited, almost entirely to the cities of Dublin and Cork.
But it was the demand side that gave Guinness his edge over competitors. He produced the most popular beer in Ireland, and it even eclipsed other porters in England. Despite the family’s politics, Guinness also became a brand closely associated with the Irish identity, which the company was happy to take advantage of. Irish art and music regularly espoused love of the rich, dark stout. Take, for example, this song by the Dubliners.
Not only did all this help in the increasingly nationalist market within Ireland, but also with exporting the beer in the aftermath of the Irish potato famine and the subsequent worldwide Irish diaspora.
Next, let’s head back to England – back to the West Midlands.
Back in Chapter 8, you may remember I told you about a guy named Josiah Wedgwood. Honestly, I’m kind of amazed how limited the mentions of him have been so far, because his name constantly pops up in the history of the first Industrial Revolution.
As you may recall, Wedgwood was a Unitarian pottery maker, and a member of the Lunar Society – which, funny enough, called themselves the “Lunartics.” Hahaha.
Among his fellow Lunartics were Matthew Boulton and James Watt, as well as the radical scientist / poet Erasmus Darwin. In fact, Erasmus’ son Robert married Wedgwood’s daughter Susannah, and they had a son you may know about, by the name of Charles Darwin.
But I digress.
Josiah Wedgwood was born in 1730 in Staffordshire, the last of 11 children in his family. Staffordshire was a hub for pottery due to its abundance of clay and proximity to coal mines. Wedgwood’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been potters, and pottery was to be Josiah’s profession as well.
He received a basic education and was then apprenticed to his brother. The apprenticeship contract is full of all the stuff the teenage Josiah would be prohibited from doing in his personal time, like drinking and gambling. He was neither allowed to get married, nor to fornicate. I can’t say I know how exactly they enforced all the clauses of this contract.
Now, like beer, pottery has been around for a long time. Since the stone age. Hell, it was pottery in which you stored your beer back then. And also much like beer, the pottery trade was going through some major changes in the first half of the 18th Century.
At some point around the year 1700, people started to realize that powdered flint had the effect of making red clay whiter. And the technique of salt-glazing – that is, throwing common salt into the kiln to give the pottery a harder glaze and more glossy texture – had recently been imported from the continent and it took Staffordshire by storm.
Wedgwood’s apprenticeship made him an expert in pottery, but it was a personal tragedy that would turn him into a tycoon.
When he was 17, Wedgwood contracted small pox, and the disease nearly killed him. It severely damaged his right knee, making him unable to use the foot-pedal of a potter’s wheel. Eventually, his leg had to be amputated, which must have been fun in the days before anesthetics. He sat there in a chair as a doctor hacked his way through the bones with a saw.
No longer able to use a potter’s wheel, Wedgwood had to learn to be creative, in terms of both production techniques and management. He became much more proficient in finishing skills than his contemporaries, which required delicate work on handles and whatnot.
And so, by the time he was 29, he had made a name for himself in the pottery world and he opened up his own business. And the focal point of this business was always about…quality and luxury.
He learned techniques from as far as France, Germany, and even China, and soon, repairing and replacing pieces from high-quality sets became a specialty. As a result, not only did word of Wedgwood’s work spread, but it spread among the right kind of people. Rich people. And with that, Wedgwood had created his brand.
Not only did he market his goods to the aristocracy, but he went out of his way to sing their praises in the most over-the-top language when they gave him their patronage. After one MP from the Liverpool area paid him to repair some china, Wedgwood wrote to him, saying, “I should be utterly unworthy of your further notice if I did not double my diligence in prosecuting any plan you are so kind as to lay out for me.”
And with the snooty-ass aristocracy of 18th Century England, that was exactly the correct tone.
As a result, business boomed for Wedgwood in the early 1760s – so much so, that by 1765, he landed his crowning achievement – a creamware set for the crown. King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, commissioned Wedgwood to produce it. And, with her permission, Wedgwood renamed the style “Queensware.”
Ever the businessman, Wedgwood understood this was a dream-come-true marketing opportunity. From now on, all his letters, bills, etc., carried the header, “Josiah Wedgwood, Potter to Her Majesty.” He did something similar years later, when he was commissioned to produce a 952-piece tea set for Catherine the Great of Russia. Before shipping it to her in Saint Petersburg, he first had it shown off in a display in London.
In fact, Wedgwood was something of a pioneer in the field of marketing. With the aristocracy living half their lives in London, he decided to open a warehouse in the capital city and – brilliantly – showrooms. He also published an illustrated catalog of his work – maybe the first in history – and even tried something that we now call direct mail.
He kept up with fashion trends with these marketing techniques, and he invented new sales pitches, like “buy one, get one free” and “your money back, guaranteed” for those not completely satisfied with their purchases.
But Wedgwood’s success with sales and marketing was also the product of good data collection and analytics. He developed a sophisticated accounting system so that he could closely track his sales, inventory, and the variables associated with them. In this way, he was able to gauge demand better than his competitors.
Wedgwood’s meticulous record-keeping also allowed him to analyze production. In this way, he was able to catch bottlenecks in the production process and maximize efficiencies. From the moment the raw materials entered his shop, he could time how long each step would need – and how much labor each step would require – so as to divide up his machines and workers for optimal productivity. Mixing, firing, painting, and glazing were being done on a scale previously unimaginable.
With this division of labor, he wasn’t just able to speed up production, within his factory he was also able to destroy the old Apprentice/Journeyman/Master system the Medieval guilds held so dear. The guilds had long enforced this system – a system which allowed them to earn livable incomes – with the argument that it upheld standards of quality.
But in Wedgwood’s factory, he controlled those standards. Today we call this the de-skilling of labor, a major theme in the factory system of the First Industrial Revolution. Workers didn’t need to be proficient potters, they just needed to learn one repetitive task to do over and over for hours and days and weeks and months and years on end.
Now, adults might know better if they see this going on, so Wedgwood liked to hire children. His philosophy was to get them in young, train them, mold them like clay pottery, and they’ll always be loyal to you.
And yeah, Wedgwood was like, the world’s most horrible boss.
He’d regularly walk around his workshop, scrawling little messages in chalk on his employees’ workbenches, like “This will not do for Josiah Wedgwood!” and sometimes pick up their work and smash it in disgust. He was also on the forefront of the commoditization of labor, firing people on a whim sometimes, and sometimes putting up with their crap if he was afraid of losing them to a competitor. He wasn’t so interested in them as human beings though.
In Wedgwood’s defense, workers back then were not used to this factory system yet. If you worked for him, you needed to show up on time, keep clean, etc. And they were like, “What do you mean I have to be here the minute my shift is scheduled to begin? What do you mean I can’t have Monday off when I’m hungover? What do you mean I have to work AND not get drunk while I do it? I’m painting the same damn thing on pot after pot, do you know how boring that is?!” But Wedgwood did not have a lot of patience for them as they got with the program.
Nevertheless, he did make a lot of money off their work, and he was able to expand the business. But the biggest expansion came as the result of his marriage to his distant cousin, Sarah, in 1764. She brought with her a massive dowry, which he had big plans for. What a romantic.
With this injection of financial capital from his new wife, Wedgwood built a new factory and workers’ village. Completed in 1769, he named it Etruria, after the Etruscan style of pottery fashionable at the time. He set up the factory in a village that would later grow into the city of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire.
At Etruria, not only was the division of labor enforced through management, but also (quite intentionally) by the layout of the factory. Each room had an individual purpose, and there was no reason for a worker to be in a room he wasn’t assigned to. This all very much reinforced the de-skilling of labor.
The other thing he wanted to control at Etruria was supply chain management. And so, he became an investor in – and volunteer treasurer of – the Trent and Mersey Canal. (Shout out to Chapter 11! Boy, this episode sure has a lot of call backs). Anyway, this gave him insider knowledge about where the canal was going to be built ahead of time. As a result, he knew exactly where to build Etruria. And so, Wedgwood had incredible access, through shipping on the canal, to the rest of Great Britain and the world.
And Wedgwood was an early adopter of another major development of this industrial revolution: Steam power. In 1782, he bought a Watt steam engine, which he used to automate the potters’ wheels at uniform speeds. Not only did this create the consistency he demanded, but also eliminated some very dangerous jobs – grinding and flinting – which create toxic dust the workers would otherwise be breathing in.
Now, Wedgwood also invented a lot of new production techniques for pottery and a new type called jasperware. I’m not going to really go into those, but just know they enabled him to do some really interesting stuff, design-wise. However, he only obtained one patent in his career, because he knew full well that patents in the 1700s were just always ignored. He figured his intellectual property was more likely to be stolen if he got a patent. So instead, he kept his innovations secret.
Nevertheless, he was a man of science who believed strongly in scientific advancement. And so, in 1783, he joined the Royal Society. And over the years, he presented papers to them on things like the high-temperature thermometer, and analyses of clay samples.
And, like Guinness, Wedgwood was quite political. A strong Whig, he was a vocal proponent for the abolition of slavery. He opposed the tax policies of the British government in the aftermath of the Seven Years War, and he was sympathetic to the American revolutionary cause those policies sparked. Then again, his clientele was the aristocracy, so he usually kept it on the DL.
Also like Guinness, Wedgwood’s brand is still going strong today. They sell all kinds of dinnerware, tea sets, etc.
But we’re not done. Next, let’s head down to the coast, to a harbor on the English Channel, and the docks there, at Portsmouth.
As an island nation, England always felt some need to maintain a strong naval force. Well, substantial investment in it really started picking up in the late 1600s. As the British Empire grew, the Royal Navy needed an ever-growing fleet. And shipyards across the island – especially in southern England – supported that endeavor.
By 1700, the Chatham shipyard near London employed about 800 people – at a time when most jobs were in workshops or cottages of, like, 3 employees. Managing those shipyard workforces required serious forward thinking, as did the bulk purchasing of raw materials, and the role of R&D.
As I mentioned in Chapter 4 (shout out, chapter 4!) the advent of war capitalism had a major role in the development of industrialization. And not just in England – but in the Netherlands too. There, the shipbuilding industry was undergoing massive innovations in the lead up to the industrial revolution. They were making interchangeable parts to use in construction, and they were using windmills to power the saws that cut the wood for their ships.
Well, the British took note and started introducing similar shipbuilding innovations. And then some.
You see, most wood for ships was pretty easy to produce. But there were some wood parts that were anything but: the blocks.
A block, in sailing, refers to a pulley contraption – that’s an important concept to understand for what we’re talking about today. The block would consist of a shell, cut with several slots. In each slot would go a pulley, fitted with bushings that spin around on an axle pin.
Now, the blocks would get worn down at sea and need to be replaced regularly. A typical naval vessel of the time required upwards of 1,500 blocks, and at any given time, there’d be something like a thousand ships in the fleet. And yet, up until the mid-18th Century, blocks were still being made individually by hand. Not only was it time consuming, but expensive.
Block makers knew perfectly well that a way to mass produce blocks would be a game changer, making them rich and their competitors fail. The first to introduce a means of mechanization was a father and son duo – Walter Taylor Sr. and Walter Taylor Jr. – in 1754. After some experimenting, they built a horse-powered engine that spun a lathe, sawed the pieces, turned in the screws, and did some other stuff. I had to read the patent and contemporary descriptions of it, and see pictures to get a vague sense of how it worked, and – trust me – it’s not worth me trying to explain.
But work it apparently did. After Taylor Sr. died in 1759, Junior and his son continued to improve the engine and produced a lot of blocks. They were virtually the sole suppliers of blocks to the Royal Navy for about 4 decades, churning out a good hundred thousand blocks per year as the Napoleonic Wars got underway.
But keeping up with the Admiralty’s demand was easier said than done. While they were able to mechanize several steps of the block-making process, tasks like shaping and scoring the blocks still needed to be done by hand. And the Admiralty got increasingly frustrated. So much so, that word about the bottleneck made its way across the ocean, where it came up in conversation at a dinner party in New York City. And attending that party was a French immigrant by the name of Marc Isambard Brunel.
Historians today refer to him as “Marc” so as not to confuse him with his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. That’s what I’ll be doing today. The younger Brunel’s accomplishments actually outshined the rather great ones of his father. And yes, we’ll talk more about the son in a future episode.
Marc was born in 1769 in rural Normandy to a middle-class farming family. As the second son, he would not receive an inheritance and was expected to instead join the priesthood. But like our friend William Symington from Chapter 12 (shout out chapter 12!) he had a greater knack for mechanics than ministry, and he had no interest in joining the clergy. So instead, he joined the French Navy.
Shortly after the conclusion of his service, the ongoing French Revolution took a violent turn on the Royal Family and the nobility. As a royalist sympathizer, Marc decided to get the hell outta there, and left for the United States. By 1796, he became an American citizen and was appointed Chief Engineer in New York City. But he never forgot what was going on back in his home country. And perhaps he was waiting for an opportunity to play his part in restoring the monarchy.
It was 1798 when he attended that dinner party, and he got to thinking about the problem. Then one day as he was “roaming the esplanade of Fort Montgomery” up on Lake Champlain, a vision of a machine came to him. He imagined a moving line of blocks being cut by chisels – “two or three at time” – as they moved up and down. And so, he went home, sketched out his idea, and in January 1799, set sail for England.
He arrived there 18 days later, armed with a letter of introduction from another guest at that dinner party – the recently-ousted Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton – and he used it to meet with the First Lord of the Admiralty. The First Lord immediately arranged for Marc to meet with the Inspector General of Naval Works, Samuel Bentham.
The younger brother of Jeremy Bentham, Samuel had more of a mind for mechanics than utilitarian philosophy. In particular, he was obsessed with woodworking, and had even invented what could be best described as a universal woodworking machine – it had every kind of saw you can imagine, as well as different guides, gauges, routers, etc. The patent application for the machine was so intense, the Patent Office called it, “A perfect treatise on the subject.”
So, needless to say, Bentham was excited for Marc’s unexpected arrival.
They agreed to put Marc’s ideas into motion, and Marc convinced Bentham to use the navy’s largest dockyard, at Portsmouth, as the worksite.
Along with a guy by the name of Henry Maudslay – who I’ll be telling you more about next week – Marc and Bentham went about building the new Portsmouth Block Mills. Maudslay received the handsome fee of £12,000 – which would come out to well over a million dollars today – to make Marc’s vision a reality. But it was done under the condition that the annual cost savings for the Navy would amount to at least £24,000. For additional savings, they came up with a super-complicated royalties scheme for Marc – which, in the end, the Navy totally screwed him on.
The Block Mills improved on the machines used by the Taylor family, mechanizing just about every facet of production. Marc actually did the decent thing, and offered his designs to the Taylors before meeting with Bentham. But they turned him down, and as a result, they went on to lose their contracts with the navy.
In their place, the Portsmouth Block Mills produced more blocks than had previously been supplied by the six largest dockyards combined. It took six years to build all the machines, but when completed, it was – by far – the most advanced industrial factory in the world.
To saw and chisel the wood, the mill was just full of metal machinery, which up until this point has been limited in factories. Frankly, it was the type and extent of technology that could only a military could afford.
Also, the way it was powered was advanced. It didn’t rely on horses or water like the Taylor’s machines. The 45 machines of the Portsmouth Block Mills – some of which could cut 10 blocks at a time – were moved by 2 steam engines. This had long been a dream of Bentham’s, who had introduced the first steam engine to the Royal Navy before Marc even showed up.
Maudslay moved on to new ventures. And Marc, well, he got a lump sum payment of £17,000 from the navy – but not nearly enough to cover the debts he had built up in the process. He soon found himself in debtors’ prison.
Bentham, meanwhile, saw the Portsmouth Block Mills as not just a great feat for the Royal Navy, but also as shining example of industrial progress. He went out of his way to publicize the factory and encourage journals and encyclopedias to write about it. Despite objections from his engineers, he even opened it up to the public. This is kind of ironic because, since it’s still on the site of a Navy shipyard, it’s one of the few pilgrimage sites of the first Industrial Revolution closed to the public today. But Bentham hoped it would inspire the private sector to take their own steps toward mass production.
And to expand mass production and this factory system, the British would need to build more and more machines of the future. And to build them, a generation a tool-makers with a hyper-focus on accuracy had to come along – next week on the Industrial Revolutions.
A special shout-out this week to Tiffany Mayville and Ryan Beaver for their support. Thank you for helping me make the podcast possible.
I’ll be sharing all kinds of stuff from this episode on social media this week – including images of the characters we met today, the stuff they made, and that song about Guinness beer. So, follow @IndRevPod on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
By the way, if I got any facts wrong, I do want to know about it! Please DM me about it, or shoot me an email via the website, www.IndustrialRevolutionsPod.com.