The History of Manufacturing

03 May 2017

As humanity began to settle down into pastoral communities dedicated to agriculture near the end of the Neolithic Era, society as we know it began to form. Humans slowly began to produce their own crops and domesticate animals for a variety of purposes, reducing the pressure on humans to hunt or forage for their only supplies of food. Several generations later, small farming communities grew into cities, with a grain surplus allowing people to do things other than farming all year round. It is here that many things we take for granted, such as writing, mathematics, government and manufacturing becoming a part of society.

At the dawn of civilisation up until the Middle Ages manufacturing was usually on a small scale, by artisans organised into guilds. Without the modern concepts of division of labour and automation, new manufacturers were taken on as apprentices, with the apprenticeship lasting up to a decade. Everything was built by hand, and new industrial technology was slow to roll out, with things like ironworking taking hundreds of years to spread across Europe and never being developed in the Americas until European colonists arrived.

For millennia, this system of manufacturing was the only system possible. However, as population numbers in Europe began to bloom and new industrial technologies were being shaped in the 17th and 18th century, it soon became theorised that individually skilled craftsmen like blacksmiths, clothiers, cobblers and others can be replaced with several unskilled workers, working on one aspect of the whole manufacturing process.

This division of labour meant that training didn’t have to take so long, ensured mass participation in the national economy and, in a way, created a new ‘working class’, separate from the feudal system of the ‘labouring class’, the land owners/aristocrats and the church. This drastic change in society influenced the development of new governmental systems such as Socialism, Communism and modern capitalism, which have played a vital role in shaping the modern world.

It propelled small island nations like the United Kingdom to global prominence, and gave all of Europe the power to subjugate and colonise most of the known world, with mass-produced rifles and machine guns turned on natives armed with matchlock guns, bows or spears being a grim symbol of late-era European imperialism. The power of industrialisation was to play a key role in both World Wars, with the industrial output of the Allies, particularly America and the Soviet Union proving crucial to beating the Axis Powers.

Beyond the role that industrialisation plays in politics and warfare, a new identity was developed in those who now worked in factories and mills: the working class. The first decades of industrialisation was a Wild West when it came to regulation: children and women were frequently given long, tiring and dangerous jobs in mines and cotton mills, where the horrifying conditions resulted in public scandals, the formation of labour unions and eventual government intervention through much-needed legislation. Trade unions became a common aspect of the manufacturing industry by the 20th century, agitating for better pay, safe working conditions, worker’s rights and the overall welfare of the workers, which as criminally unrepresented for most of the 19th century.

Trade unions commonly had socialist or communist elements within, which provided a convenient justification for ignoring or persecuting them after the October Revolution toppled the Russian Empire and created the first long-lasting socialist state. New political parties, such as the UK’s Labour party were formed through British trade unions and provided a counterbalance to the Tory party. Labour were frequently accused of being Soviet informants and sleeper agents by reactionary politicians, which only further radicalised the socialist and communist elements of the unions,

leading to a brief but large-scale General Strike in 1926. Although unsuccessful, it provided a pattern of union strikes that were common around the UK up until the collapse of the mining industry in the 1980s. Although the UK can now consider itself a post-industrial economy, nations such as China, India, Bangladesh and South Korea are still in the throes of rapid industrialisation and workers suffer from similar conditions that America and Europe’s working class suffered during the Industrial Revolution. It remains to be seen whether this industrialisation of the developing world will result in new political systems or repeat history once again.