From the title, you may think this sounds like a rather boring book. Well, it is not a riveting, action-packed account, I will admit, but do not discount its value to for those writing novels set in the Regency. Are you planning to feature a telegraph in your tale? (A type of telegraph did exist during the Regency). Does one of your characters need a method by which to measure the oscillation of the earth during an earthquake? Or, do you need an accurate description of how vermicelli is made? You will find all that, and so much more, within the pages of this book.
Some reasons why you might want to peruse On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures …
On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures was written by Charles Babbage, the man who designed the first programmable computer, which he called the Difference Engine. The problem was that in the early nineteenth century, one did not just buy parts for making a computer off the shelf. It was a completely new concept, for which no parts existed. Babbage knew each part would have to be custom-made, using the manufacturing technology available to him at that time. So, before he could build his Difference Engine, Babbage decided that he needed to have a better understanding of the various manufacturing techniques and machinery which were currently available. Once he had provided himself with that information, Babbage believed he would then be able to take advantage of the best equipment and methods by which to build his revolutionary new machine.
Charles Babbage began his research into the many manufacturing techniques and processes in use across the British Isles and the Continent in the early 1820s. For the next three or four years, he visited hundreds of workshops and factories around Britain, France and other industrialized European countries. He made copious notes as he observed all these different methods of manufacturing and the many machines which were used for these diverse purposes. Initially, Babbage planned to present a series of lectures based on his notes, but friends and colleagues urged him to write a book based on his research
Due to his many other commitments, Charles Babbage was only able to work on his book in between his other activities for the next few years. Therefore, it was not until June of 1832 that On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures was finally published. Despite the fact that his publisher spent very little on advertising this new book, and that many booksellers refused even to carry it, the first print run of 3,000 copies sold out within a few months. Since Babbage had heard rumors that some booksellers were unwilling to order the book for customers who requested it, he went to one of these bookseller’s shops and tried to order a copy. The bookseller, unaware that Babbage was the author of that book, refused point blank to order a copy. However, Babbage got a bit of his own back when the second edition was published in November of 1832. In his preface to that edition, he not only noted that he had made a number of corrections to the original work, of errors which had been pointed out to him by colleagues and his readers, but he also took both his publisher and the booksellers to task for their treatment of his work. The second edition sold out again in less than six months, and On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures eventually went to four editions by 1835.
Though On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures was not published until the early 1830s, the majority of Babbage’s observations were made during the first years of the 1820s, just at the end of the Regency and into the reign of George IV. Manufacturing processes did not change very quickly at that time, which means that the methods and processes which Babbage recorded in his book are most probably the very same as those used in manufacturing during the Regency. I found a great deal of information in this book about the manufacture of pins for my article on Regency pins. If you want to know the processes employed in printing oil-cloth, which was a widely used water-resistant material during the Regency, you can find the details in this book. You can also learn about how buttons and military ornaments were made, as well as wooden snuff boxes and horn knife and umbrella handles. Not only can you learn about how watches and even alarm clocks were made, you can discover how the then popular watch and jewelry decoration, rose engine turning, was accomplished. But I think my favorite is the description of how veils were made by caterpillars.
Babbage has also included a number of useful tables in his book, many of them on the prices of various commodities. There are also a couple of tables in which he provided the prices of various items over the course of several years, including the decade of the Regency. He does not include prices for everything ever used, but these tables do give the reader some idea of the cost of commonly used items and how their prices increased over the course of time. One table shows the increase in population of some of the larger cities of Great Britain over the first three decades of the nineteenth century. There are also lists of workers’ wages for some industries. One I particularly like is a table on the weights of various fabrics, including those caterpillar-made veils.
Charles Babbage’s On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures is a unique, and in my opinion, an under-appreciated source of contemporary detailed information on a wide range of manufacturing methods and processes which would have been current during the Regency. Whether an author is planning to give their story an industrial setting, or simply wants to know how a particular product was manufactured, they may find just the period details they need to add a sense of realism to their story in Babbage’s book. Perusing its pages will not only reveal details on the manufacture of many products of the era, but also furnish an author with a flavor of the writing of the time, perhaps yielding just the words or phrases which will enhance the historical flavor of their story.
Original copies of On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures can run into the multiple thousands of dollars. There are print-on-demand copies available, but many of them are priced in excess of $100. Not to mention the fact that many print-on-demand books are of very poor quality. But there are alternatives for those who would like to have a peek inside On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures without wreaking havoc with their pocketbook. Though I am not a fan of ebooks in general, they can be the best way to gain access to rare and out of print books. Fortunately, there are multiple locations online where electronic copies of On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures are available.
The fourth edition can be found at Google Books. There are a couple of advantages to using the fourth edition. It includes all four prefaces which Babbage wrote for each edition, including his criticism of his publisher and the booksellers when his book was first published. But more importantly, the fourth edition is the only one which has an index, a very handy feature for research purposes.
The third edition is available at the Internet Archive, in multiple formats.
The second edition is available, also in various formats, at Project Gutenberg.
Dear Regency Authors, you do not have to be an economist or entrepreneur to find value in Charles Babbage’s observations of the industries of his time in On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. It is a unique and fascinating snapshot of the state of industry and manufacturing which was taken just as the Regency was coming to a close. The majority of the methods and processes recorded in its pages were just as they had been during the decade of the Regency. This book can be a rich source of information should you have a character involved in industry, or if you need to include the details on how a specific item in your story was actually made. Take a little time and browse through one of the online copies of On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. Who knows what ideas it might spark.