Monday, 27 May 2013

Review: On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures

On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures
On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures by Charles Babbage

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I write steampunk, and if steampunk has a great-grandfather, it's Charles Babbage, so when I saw this book on Project Gutenberg I immediately picked it up.

Babbage invented the Difference Engine, a mechanical computer which was never fully realized. In the course of trying to get it built, he spent a lot of time with manufacturers, and this 1832 book reflects what he learned, with a large helping of his own political and economic philosophy.

It's not particularly well-organized. Not only do the chapters not tell a clear, sequential story about a single subject, but he often goes off on tangents even within a chapter, talking about everything from how annoyed he is that the king's youngest son was made President of the Royal Society to the possibilities for changing over to a decimal currency (which Britain eventually did, a century and a half later) to a suggested reform of the medical system that would give less motivation to overcharge for inferior or ineffective drugs. Along the way he touches on the importance of such topics as branding, statistical analysis, maintenance of machinery and the teaching of technical drawing; the disruptive effect of specific taxes (while he states that taxes themselves are "essential for the security both of liberty and property" - he's no Libertarian); and the trickle-down theory of economics (he believes in it with reservations, but thinks it's not the best possible system). He proposes submarines, speculates on the possible effects of power transmission over long distances, and mentions the importance of light for health. He also speculates what might happen when the coal is gone (though he believes in the capacity of nature to adjust to industrial pollution).

His main theme, though, is the usefulness and importance of division of labour to produce efficiency in manufacturing. He's opposed to unions (or "combinations", as he calls them), not because he doesn't support the rights of workers to fair treatment but because he thinks unions have shown themselves to be a bad method to achieve that end. He proposes what still sounds like an excellent scheme, whereby part of the wages of factory workers come from a share in the profits of the factory. While believing that government ought to interfere as little as possible between workers and employers, he considers it more important that workmen should be paid fairly and not forced to buy from a "company store", and that hours of work for children, and the age at which they start work, should be limited, because in both cases this is protecting the weak from injustice.

Some things are the same 180 years later. Many of his points about what makes manufacturing profitable are still entirely valid. We still don't have a satisfactory patent or copyright law, and authors are still complaining about the division of profits in the publishing industry (though more about what the publishers get than what the booksellers get, which was Babbage's beef). The trustworthiness of reviews is still in question, though in Babbage's day the problem was that publishers owned the review magazines.

Other things may have been true in his time, when improvements were being made so quickly that machines were being replaced with better ones before they had time to wear out and the price of manufactured goods was dropping precipitately (he includes figures), but now that the industrial age has reached more or less its end state they are no longer applicable. They're applicable to the comparable advances in computers, though, and it makes me speculate about an end state there, when the rate of improvement eventually drops through the law of diminishing returns.

There have been social changes since Babbage's time, too, which I think we would all agree are for the better. No longer do 7-year-olds work 10- to 12-hour days in factories and get paid one to three shillings a month for it. (It wasn't a good time to be a child; even if you weren't working in a factory, you probably had lead toys.)

The Project Gutenberg ebook (I read the .mobi version) has some editing and formatting issues. A spellcheck would have caught a number of the editing problems, mainly missing spaces, although there are also commas read as full stops and the like. In formatting, the main problem is the many tables of figures Babbage includes, which are hard to format in an ebook even if you try (and I don't think the Project Gutenberg editor did).

Babbage's style is long-winded, with long sentences that you sometimes have to concentrate to get through, but the effort was worth it to me to gain a fascinating insight into both the early 19th century and the phenomenon of manufacturing as seen by a remarkable mind.

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