On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures By Charles Babbage

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.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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21 Responses to On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures By Charles Babbage

  1. It’s £14-56 on Amazon UK in hardback or £12 in paperback, and is now on my wishlist. Babbage is one of my pet heroes, along with Mark [yes, Mark] Brunel, Joseph Bazalgette and Ada Lovelace. Oh, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Trevithick etc etc. I had no idea he had extrapolated so much in his researches for the differencing engine, nor written it up. Thank you! I have to say, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find costs and values across the Regency period, and wages too, basically to have some idea how much things should cost when the hero buys things for the heroine, what things were out of the means of the daughter of the manse, and what they meant in terms of labour for those crusading young ladies railing against frivolity on the backs of the poor….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The price you found is fairly reasonable in comparison with other prices for that title which I have seen quoted on the web.

      I have a soft spot for Babbage myself. He could be a bit of a curmudgeon at times, but he was very good to Ada Lovelace. He constantly encouraged her to continue her studies in mathematics and she eventually developed the very first computer program for his next computer, the Analytical Engine. There were not many men at that time who would have shown such respect for a woman’s intellect, let alone encourage her to pursue her studies in what was considered to be a man’s field.

      Don’t expect massive tables of prices in this book, there are only a few short ones scattered through the text. But they are more than I have found anywhere else, so I do consider them of value. You might want to look over one of the online copies before you commit to buy a paper version, just to be sure you are not disappointed.

      However, another interesting part of this book is Babbage’s views on industrialization in general, and the treatment of workers. From what I understand, this book was very popular not only with many businessmen and industrialists at the time, but also with flocks of politicians, who used his data to their own ends.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • It’s a book the hubby and I will both find interesting… I’ve tabulated some of the things I found on my blog previously, adding to the research that post was taken from will be handy, as will the background, and interesting too. So I need to do some more online surveys for those Amazon vouchers!

  2. Wow, I want that book, too. It might contain useful information about the production of something I use in my novel (I have employed Samuel Bentham, mechanical engineer and naval architect, as a minor character). I believe adding a little bit of economic or social history, class or politics – in an entertaining way – is an added bonus to every Regency novel. A good example for successfully doing so is of course the unbeatable Georgette Heyer with her novel “Frederica”: Ballooning, a mint, steampower, a first version of the bicycle – just great. Thank you Kathryn. I will follow the google-link to the book this weekend.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      If you have any interest in industrial or manufacturing history, I think you will find it useful. Just remember, it was written in 1832, so the issues and attitudes are very much of that time, not this one. You will probably read a few things which would not be considered politically correct today, though at the time no one thought anything of it.

      =^..^=

  3. junewilliams7 says:

    I would think that men like Darcy and Mr Gardiner would study this book to stay ahead of investment opportunities. Caterpillar-made veils — now you’ve got me stumped!

    • Silkworms, June!
      and if he’s doing things in textiles, I’m particularly interested, as it’s my field… Kat’s posts are brilliant, always so inspiring, I’ve already published with chalked ballroom floors, have been dabbling with cottages orné in several books, and will be using the matched carriage horses. I’m keen to get my nose into one of her inspirations!
      and I have enough plot bunnies to start breeding…

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        In this case, not silkworms, though I think these caterpillars must be related to the species. The caterpillars did not spin the thread for the lace and veils, they actually made them, based on patterns set down by a human, in their favorite food!

        You can read all about it at the bottom of page 110 in the 4th edition of Babbage’s book at Google Books. I think you will enjoy it, since it is a completely unique form of textile production. So far as I can tell, it was not done in England, but there is no reason it could not occur in a fictional version of Regency England. Yet another plot bunny hopping around?

        =^..^=

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I don’t want to spoil that part of the book for you, so I won’t spill the beans here. But if you go to the 4th edition of the book, on Google Books, and scroll to the bottom of page 110, you will see how both lace and veils were made by caterpillars. The process was developed by an engineer in Munich. I suspect it did not become widespread since it is labor-intensive for both the caterpillars and the human!

      Regards,

      Kat

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am not sure if the book would have been of use in terms of staying ahead of industrial investment, since Babbage’s observations were at least a decade old by the time he published them as a book. But I can see where they would be useful to manufacturers looking for better, more efficient ways of doing things from how other factories worked. A factory owner might read about different production methods which could be used to improve those at his own factory.

      I don’t want to spoil the caterpillar veil part of the book for you, so I won’t spill the beans here. But if you go to the 4th edition of the book, on Google Books, and scroll to the bottom of page 110, you will see how both lace and veils were made by caterpillars. The process was developed by an engineer in Munich. I suspect it did not become widespread since it is labor-intensive for both the caterpillars and the human!
      Regards,
      Kat

  4. Oh, my goodness, added to my Google Books library RIGHT NOW.

    Thank you for sharing this resource!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I learned about this book five or six years ago, when I was working on a project about computer history. I recommended it to a couple of former colleagues who study material culture, but for some reason, they did not think it was of much value.

      Over the years, I have mined it for various industrial topics and it has always provided useful, if sometimes surprising, information. It occurred to me that it was not fair to keep this little gem to myself. I am glad you also think it of value.

      However, a word to the wise. Tthough a great many books in the public domain can be found on Google Books right now, they are slowly disappearing. It seems that some of these print-on-demand publishers are demanding that Google only provide snippets or less of those books which they have chosen to publish, and for the most part, even though these books are no longer under copyright, Google seems to be accommodating them. So, if you like this book, and you have the storage space, I would strongly suggest that you download a copy for yourself while it is still available.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Thanks for the tip, done! I want to get a dead tree format one as well but during the meanwhilst, as they say…

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I have taken to doing that with any complete book on Google Books which I need for research, since there is the chance it won’t be there when I go back. Fortunately, I have a large external drive, so I have the space to keep them.

          =^..^=

      • Tanks, I will. I suppose I’d better do that with Cary’s New Itinerary, too, just in case. That was my latest primary source treasure.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Cary’s New Itinerary is a very useful reference, and hard copies are quite expensive. You might also want to check out the works of John Ashton. You can find a list of them at the bottom of my article on Ashton’s books. A number of them are available at Google Books. One in particular, Social England under the Regency, may be of interest to you.

          Regards,

          Kat

  5. tiffany says:

    Thanks for the information about Charles Babbage’s On the Economy of the Machinery and Manufactures . It really help me on my theses 🙂

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am delighted to know you found it useful. I think it is a wonderful source of information on products and industry during that era which is overlooked by too many scholars. Thanks for taking the time to let me know it helped you.

      Regards,

      Kat

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