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Lives of the Philadelphia Engineers: Capital, Class and Revolution, 1830-1890

Author(s):Dawson, Andrew
Reviewer(s):Fones-Wolf, Ken

Published by EH.NET (August 2004)

Andrew Dawson, Lives of the Philadelphia Engineers: Capital, Class and Revolution, 1830-1890. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004. xii + 302 pp. $94.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7546-3396-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ken Fones-Wolf, Department of History, West Virginia University.

For years, historians of American business and technology were fascinated with the development of interchangeable parts and the “American System” of manufacturing. David Hounshell, Merritt Roe Smith and Alfred D. Chandler — through their impressive studies of such industries as sewing machines, small arms, and textile machinery — shaped a generation of scholarship on American business history. Then, in the last two decades, a flood of new work, starting with Philip Scranton, forced historians to revise their narrative of industrialization on the way to mass production. Indeed, there was more than one path to capitalist accumulation in the nineteenth century, including sectors of numerous industries where companies made products to customers’ specifications, either individually or in small batches. Machine building was no exception. As Andrew Dawson demonstrates, Philadelphia’s machine-building companies in the early nineteenth century began specializing in steam engines, locomotives, machine tools, turbines and even iron ships — the heavy, custom-made products that would come to define the “Philadelphia Style” (2). By the 1830s, these firms had made the city the center of the machine building industry in the United States, a position it would hold for half a century.

Dawson does an admirable job in distinguishing what separated “Philadelphia Style” from other centers of engineering in the United States, namely the mass production of small machinery perfected by New England firms. At the same time, he provides a transatlantic perspective on the industry, placing the Philadelphia factories in the global struggle for markets over which English firms exerted technological superiority and dominance. Although Philadelphia firms survived the early competition from the British, the Panic of 1873 and the emergence of a domestic challenge ultimately started the decline of Philadelphia Style engineering. Particularly interesting is the chapter on “industrial biography.” This is a miniature prosopography, exploring the “cultural, religious and social characteristics of machine builders” (79). These entrepreneurs were not a “rags-to-riches” group. Instead, they were principally of British or German stock from families that had the means and the connections both to secure adequate technical training for their sons and to help them get established with the right partners. This is also reflected in the religious attachments of the machine builders to the pious and respectable Presbyterian, Episcopalian or Quaker churches. Importantly, these young men turned away from mercantile pursuits, drawn by the “lure of profit and the promise of making a reputation” (82).

Both their culture and the competitive nature of their industry drew Philadelphia engineers to a particular political economy, an ideological perspective that marked their strategies for success. As they rose in prominence, machine builders came to believe in the superiority of the “free labor” system, particularly since they needed skilled and educated mechanics. At the same time, they demanded protective tariffs and immigration restriction to insure that machine building could flourish as a high-wage industry. Finally, these industrial entrepreneurs sought government commitment to maintaining order and protecting property. They led the movement for the consolidation of the city and the establishment of a modern police force. Such beliefs placed them in opposition to the wealthier and more powerful mercantile elite in the years before the Civil War. Dawson is at his best when describing the ascendance of the “subaltern class” of machine builders in tandem with the triumph of the Republican Party. Borrowing from the older interpretation of Barrington Moore, Dawson makes the case anew for the Civil War as a capitalist revolution and the engineers as the Jacobins.

The post-war years promised to unleash the power of industrial capital to remake the world. Having assumed leadership through such institutions as the Union League, Republican engineers expected to destroy the slave power and “create a harmony of interest [between employers and mechanics] by suspending the laws of capitalist development” (157). Philadelphia’s engineers hoped to achieve national economic self-sufficiency (autarky) through tariffs, social science and currency reform. Instead, they abandoned flexible currency to their growing personal interests in banking and gave up reform for the corrupt political machine’s willingness to support the protective tariff. An era that began with such promise for Philadelphia machine builders rapidly devolved into a narrow defense of their industry and markets. Although Dawson argues that the industrialists, once in control, “never let go of the reins of local power” (186), his examples suggest that their program was more one of defensive accommodation than of political leadership.

By the end of the 1870s, the “revolutionary” bourgeoisie of Philadelphia’s workshops faced forces that doomed its future. Apprenticeships, which had reproduced not only the skills but also the culture of machine builders, no longer attracted the sons of the upper middle class. As a result, engineering firms slowly abandoned apprentice programs and began exploring scientific management as the tool to sustain their shop-floor control and productive vitality. Taylorism, however, could hardly promise the harmony of employer and mechanic that had been the hallmark of “Philadelphia Style.” Nor could Philadelphia machine builders keep pace with either the British or even new domestic centers of production like New York and Chicago.

Throughout, Dawson is largely successful in his effort to interweave business history with a “wider social reality” (247) featuring equal attention on society, politics and ideology. At times he perhaps overstates what is new in his work. For example, his separation of machine building from other studies of “flexible production” posits a somewhat idealized portrait of characteristics that some historians have identified in other industries. Certainly, there were deskilling and cost-cutting impulses present in virtually all industries engaged in flexible production. Furthermore, Dawson’s attempt to draw generalizations about northern employers from his machine builders is a bit premature. However, his exploration of capitalist class formation and political antislavery is convincing in this specific case, and warrants the further investigation of other industrial entrepreneurs. This is a thought-provoking work that goes a long way toward providing the total history of an important industrial group at a critical moment in American history.

Ken Fones-Wolf is Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University. He is completing: “Glass Towns in the Mountain State: Industry Restructuring and Political Economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s.”

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century