|Artisans, Operative Skills and Labour Rationalities at the Beginning of the Industrial Revolution|
|At the beginning of the XIXth century, along with the machinery question, a new science emerged which was called “economy of manufactures” or “philosophy of manufactures”, as Babbage and Ure termed it. Marx said “technology” (“the new modern science of technology”), using the continental terminology, after the Cameralist Beckmann. Technology as the science of industrial arts, was to study how to mechanize all work, how to “[resolve] each process into its constituent movements, without any regard to their possible execution by the hand of man” (Marx). It aimed to establish the “exchange value” of all commodities, whatever their material and effective use, reducing them to a quantity of labour - that is, of time. In that meaning, technology was the science of processes, of “operative industry” (Ure) – of “human labour in the abstract”– and its purpose was to help cut down production costs by standardising work and products.
Nevertheless, the history of “technology” was not a straightforward stream leading from craftwork mysteries to rationalised and mechanised process of production. It also involved other understanding of value making, and technologists were sometimes ambiguous, like Babbage praising the variety – not the standardisation – of some processes, like copying (« by printing from cavities », « by printing from surface », « by moulding », « by punching », etc.). He was showing then how much he belonged to an economy of variety which had developed all along the XVIIIth century, especially in England. In that period, ingenuity and skills were national pride, and they were considered as the key to growing consumption and to economic growth (and it would still be so for radical critics to political economy, like Hodgskin). Division of labour, such as it had developed by intense sub-contracting, was not only a means to reduce production costs.
Since the second half of the XVIIth century, the burst of consumption among the middle ranks led to a growing variety of sophisticated goods, like scientific instruments, watches and clocks, “toys”, furniture, coaches etc. The entrepreneurs running comprehensive firms developed networks and clusters, hence a management of skills which no longer was based on traditional craftwork identities but on the coordination of tasks for answering the needs of the firms, fostering cross-skills and technological convergences. In that context, artisans were crucial in the birth of new rationalities of labour, based on agency and operation. In the shop floor - as business ledgers do reveal -, work was already understood as a labour process because it was seen as operative skills - although not yet as an “operative industry”.
By focusing on some artisan firms in France and in England, we will enhance the technological rationality of the Smithian growth, when expanding markets and differentiated demand led practitioners to integrate production and consumption as sequences and processes, well before any standardisation of labour. We will then question the impact of these artisan rationalities - deeply rooted into an economy of quality - on the development of mechanical engineering.