Espionage, assassination, and the modern factory

27th August, 2021

Piedmont, in North West Italy, is celebrated for its fine wine. But when a young Englishman, John Lombe, travelled there in the early eighteenth century, he wasn’t going to savour a glass of Barolo. His purpose was industrial espionage. Lombe wished to figure out how the Piedmontese spun strong yarn from silkworm silk. Divulging such secrets was illegal, so Lombe sneaked into a workshop after dark, sketching the spinning machines by candlelight. In 1717, he took those sketches to Derby in the heart of England.
Local legend has it that the Italians took a terrible revenge on Lombe, sending a woman to assassinate him. Whatever the truth of that, he died suddenly at the age of 29, just a few years after his Italian adventure.
While Lombe may have copied Italian secrets, the way he and his older half-brother Thomas used them was completely original. The Lombes were textile dealers, and seeing a shortage of the strong silk yarn called organzine, they decided to go big.
In the centre of Derby, beside the fast-flowing River Derwent, the Lombe brothers built a structure that was to be imitated around the world: a long, slim, five-storey building with plain brick walls cut by a grid of windows. It housed three dozen large machines powered by a 7-metre-high waterwheel. It was a dramatic change in scale, says the historian Joshua Freeman in his book Behemoth. The age of the large factory had begun with a thunderclap.
It’s a testament to the no-nonsense functionality of the Derby silk mill that it operated for 169 years, pausing only on Sundays, and for droughts – when the Derwent flowed slow and low. Over that period, the world economy grew more than fivefold, and factories were a major part of that growth.
Intellectuals took note. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, came to gaze in wonder at the silk mill. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, begins with a description of a pin factory. Three decades later, William Blake had penned his line about ‘dark Satanic Mills’.
Concerns about the conditions in factories have persisted ever since. The ‘Round Mill’, built in 1811 not far from the Derby silk mill, was modelled after Jeremy Bentham’s famous ‘Panopticon’ prison, a place where you never knew whether you were being watched. The circular design did not catch on, but the relentless scrutiny of workers did.
Critics claimed that factory exploitation was a similar evil to slavery – a shocking claim then and now. After visiting the mills of Manchester in 1832, the novelist Frances Trollope wrote that factory conditions were ‘incomparably more severe’ than those suffered by plantation slaves. Indeed, the factory recruiting wagons that toured the rural areas of 1850s of Massachusetts, hoping to persuade ‘rosy-cheeked maidens’ to come to the city to work in the mills, were dubbed the ‘slavers’.
Friedrich Engels, whose father owned a Manchester factory, wrote powerfully about the harsh conditions, inspiring his friend Karl Marx. But Marx, in turn, saw hope in the fact that so many workers were concentrated together in one place: they could organise unions, political parties, and even revolutions. He was right about the unions and the political parties, but not about the revolutions: those came not in industrialised societies but agrarian ones.
The Russian revolutionaries weren’t slow to embrace the factory. In 1913, Lenin had skewered the stopwatch-driven, micromanaging studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor as ‘advances in the extortion of sweat’. After the revolution, the stopwatch was in the other hand. Lenin announced: ‘We must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system.’
In developed economies, the dark satanic mills gradually gave way to cleaner, more advanced factories. It is the working conditions of factories in developing countries that now attract attention. Economists have tended to believe both that sweatshop conditions beat the alternative of even more extreme poverty in rural areas – and that they have certainly been enough to draw workers to fast-growing cities. Manufacturing has long been viewed as the engine of rapid economic development.

The Next Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy

So what lies next for the factory? History offers several lessons.
Factories are getting bigger. The eighteenth-century Derby Silk Mill employed three hundred workers, a radical step at a time when even machine-based labour could take place at home or in a small workshop. The nineteenth-century Manchester factories that had horrified Engels could employ more than a thousand, often women and children. Modern factories in advanced economies are much larger still: Volkswagen’s main factory in Wolfsburg, Germany employs over 60,000 workers; that’s half the population of the town itself.
And the Longhua Science and Technology Park in Shenzhen, China – better known as ‘Foxconn City’ – employs at least 230,000 workers, and by some estimates 450,000, to make Apple’s iPhones and many other products. These are staggering numbers for a single site: the entire McDonald’s franchise worldwide employs fewer than 2 million.
The increase in scale isn’t the only way in which Foxconn City continues the arc of history. There are – as there were in the 1830s – fears for the welfare of workers. In Shenzhen, they are dissuaded from suicide by nets designed to catch anyone who leaps from the factory roof.
But Leslie Chiang, who has interviewed many Chinese factory workers, notes that they know what they’re doing and don’t need the guilt of Western consumers. One of them, Lu Qingmin, had developed a career in the factories, met her husband, brought up a family – and saved enough to buy a second-hand Buick. ‘A person should have some ambition while she is young,’ she declared.
Large strikes are commonplace in China, as Marx might have predicted. The Chinese government, in one of history’s great ironies, is cracking down on the young Marxists who try to get the workers unionised.
And as in the West many decades before, there is progress: the journalist James Fallows, who has visited 200 Chinese factories, notes that conditions have dramatically improved over time.
Trade secrets kick-started the first factory, and have shaped factories ever since. Richard Arkwright, whose cotton mill was modelled on the Lombe brothers’ silk mill, vowed, ‘I am Determind for the feuter [future] to Let no persons in to Look at the wor[k]s.’ Chinese factories are still secretive: Fallows was surprised to be allowed into the Foxconn plant, but he was told that he must neither show nor mention the brand names coming off the production lines.
There is one clear break from the past. Factories used to centralise the production process: raw materials came in, finished products went out. Components would be made on site or by suppliers close at hand. Charles Babbage, factory enthusiast and Victorian designer of proto-computers, pointed out that this saved on the trouble of transporting heavy or fragile objects in the middle of the manufacturing process.
But today’s production processes are themselves global. Production can be coordinated and monitored without the need for physical proximity, while shipping containers and bar codes streamline the logistics. Modern factories – even behemoths like Foxconn City – are just steps in a distributed production chain. Components move backwards and forwards across borders in different states of assembly.
Foxconn City, for example, doesn’t make iPhones: they assemble them, using glass and electronics from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and even the USA. Huge factories have long supplied the world. Now the world itself has become the factory.

This essay is an extract from “The Next 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy” which was published in UK paperback yesterday.

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