STARRED REVIEW
March 2018

How things are made

By Joshua B. Freeman

Factories conjure up images of William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” and the claustrophobic, dangerous and soul-killing multistory buildings of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Joshua B. Freeman’s Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World weaves these grim visions of factories into a broad and compulsively readable cultural history of the birth and development of factories and their impact on society.

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Factories conjure up images of William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” and the claustrophobic, dangerous and soul-killing multistory buildings of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Joshua B. Freeman’s Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World weaves these grim visions of factories into a broad and compulsively readable cultural history of the birth and development of factories and their impact on society.

In 18th-century England, John and Thomas Lombe erected the first modern factory, their Derby Silk Mill—a “five-story, rectangular brick building, its façade punctured by a grid of large windows”—and filled it with a large workforce engaging in coordinated production using machinery, which was powered by a waterwheel. Freeman deftly chronicles the coming-of-age of factories and the changes, both positive and negative, they brought to the world. The advent of steel mills in mid-19th-century western Pennsylvania, for example, increased the production of steel but also resulted in bloody battles between workers and owners over working conditions. When Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in his factories, productivity increased; however, workers were engaged in repetitious, mind-numbing tasks. By the mid-1980s, large factories in the U.S. were shutting down, causing a decline in manufacturing jobs. In the present, big factories continue to turn out products in China, and electronic firms such as Pegatron have more than 100,000 people working in their factory near Shanghai, with over 80,000 of them living in crowded factory dormitories.

Freeman’s fascinating history of factories, even with its darker chapters of labor unrest, illustrates that humans have persistently searched for ways to reinvent the world, striving to find ways to make their lives and work easier.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Behemoth

Behemoth

By Joshua B. Freeman
Norton
ISBN 9780393246315

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