by Gillian Cookson (University of Leeds)
The Age of Machinery: Engineering the Industrial Revolution, 1770-1850, is published in February by Boydell Press for the Economic History Society’s series ‘People, Markets, Goods’.
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Early machine-makers have always seemed tantalisingly out of reach. This was a localised, workshop-based trade whose products, methods, markets, skill-sets and industrial structure remained ill-defined. Yet out of it, somehow, was created the machinery – especially textile machines and steam engines – fundamental to industrial change in the eighteenth century. There are questions of great significance still unanswered: How could a high-tech mechanical engineering industry emerged from the rudimentary resources of a few localities in northern England? What can be known of the backgrounds and careers of these pioneering mechanical engineers? How did they develop skills, knowledge and system to achieve their ends?
As a research topic this was clearly a winner. But what is the historian to do when faced with such a dearth of substantial sources? Here is the explanation of why the subject has not hitherto been addressed. Evidence of early engineering was seriously lacking, business records almost entirely absent. It turned out, though, that the industry was hiding in plain sight. We’d been looking in the wrong places.
An early breakthrough came in the Hattersley of Keighley papers. Enough of Richard Hattersley’s early accounts and day books have survived, the first from 1793, to demonstrate a thriving pre-factory industry with Hattersley at its hub. He engaged a wider community in specialist component manufacture, using sub-contracting and various other flexible working practices as circumstances demanded. Hattersley’s company did not itself build machinery at that time, but he fed those who did with precision components, vital in making workable machines. The earliest production systems rested on networking, and can be most neatly described as a dispersed factory.
It wasn’t that archives had gone missing (though one or two are known to have been lost); but that businesses were so small scale that by and large they never generated any great weight of documentation. It was community-based sources – directories, muster rolls, parish registers, rate books, the West Riding deeds registry, and a painstaking assemblage of all kinds of stray references – that came to the rescue. While this may not exactly be a novel approach to industrial history, it turned out to be the only realistic way into exploring these small, workshop-based ventures in close-knit communities. Remarkably, too, it shone a light on aspects of the industry which business records alone could not have achieved. Community sources bring forward more than an account of business itself, for they set the actors upon their stage, placing engineers within their own environment. In particular, parish register searches, intended as no more than a confirmation of identities and movements, ultimately exposed remarkable connections. As short biographies were constructed, intermarriages and relationships were revealed which seem to explain career changes and migration (often from south to west Yorkshire, or Scotland to Lancashire) which otherwise had seemed random. So this context, which proved so influential, was not confined to engineering itself, but embraced surrounding cultures that were social and familial as much as industrial and technical. Through this information, we can infer some of the motives and concerns which impacted upon business decision-making.
All this, then, is central to The Age of Machinery. For a fully rounded account, other contexts needed unpacking: Which were the seminal machines, in terms of using new materials and parts that demanded different kinds of skills? Where did technological concepts originate, and how did technology move around? Why did engineering lag a generation behind its customer industry, textiles, in moving into factories? How did bans on machinery exportation and artisan emigration impact upon textile engineering, and why were they abandoned? And in an environment generally very welcoming of innovation, how to explain Luddism?
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 See Gillian Cookson (1997) ‘Family Firms and Business Networks: Textile Engineering in Yorkshire, 1780–1830’, Business History, 39:1, 1-20