Mr. Owen, meet Mr. Colt: a wide-ranging if overlong history of the role of arms manufacturing in the Industrial Revolution.
The rise of mechanized industry in Britain, writes Satia (History/Stanford Univ.; Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East, 2009), corresponded to a period of “more or less constant war.” There was always France to fight, of course, but also the rebellious American Colonies and uprisings elsewhere in the empire, and the Dutch and the Spanish. An economy flourished, therefore, in the manufacture and sale of armaments and other military provisions. One of Satia’s perhaps unlikely case studies is Samuel Galton, a nominally good Quaker who managed to reconcile that belief system with making a fortune in weaponry. Then as now, the arms merchants were not especially particular about where their products wound up. As Satia observes, in the 18th century alone, millions of guns sprang forth from workshops and factories in the Midlands and London, winding up in the hands of buyers everywhere in the world; in 1715, “the government discovered that London gunsmiths were making 15,500 guns,” with some 4,000 of them “for Service not Known,” as a contemporary document put it. A century later, and more than 151,000 British guns were bound for India, Indonesia, and China. This early military-industrial complex also valued interchangeability, standardization, and mass production, which would come to define the manufacture of nearly everything else. While standardization was not commonplace until after the Crimean War, it was at a premium well before. After 1815, Satia writes, the gun business faded somewhat as slavery wound down, for the slave trade was bound up part and parcel in armaments. She closes with a sharp look at today’s mass shootings, which she considers “historically specific”—i.e., the product of a time in which guns are used for private grievances more than empire-building.
A solid contribution to the history of technology and commerce, with broad implications for the present.