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  • Scale and Skill in British Print Culture: Reading the Technologies, 1680–1820

In the long eighteenth century, a technology was something to read—a printed treatise or manual of skills that encompassed the whole range of what were then called the mechanical arts. The OED marks this meaning of the word as obsolete after 1860 (sense 1), but it flourished far and wide before then. Some of these works hewed closely to the ground of traditional artisan labor, like Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises (1683). Others deployed sophisticated idioms of mathematical measuring, like Benjamin Martin’s Logarithmologia (1740), and later, more spacious versions like Thomas Martin’s The Circle of the Mechanical Arts (1813) began to register the impact of steam technology on older and newer kinds of British skilled labor. At least one special case, Jeremy Bentham’s Chrestomathia (1816), would raise the level of these print technologies to an influential mode of social theory and a mapping of emergent disciplines of modern knowledge.1

Such works can be hard to read today (and are often not easy to find), but for us they have a two-fold importance. On the one hand, they speak to the new forms of modern work that were emerging in the long eighteenth century in what recent economic historians classify as lower, medium, and higher-skilled British labor, kinds of skill about which the print technologies [End Page 89] could teach readers during the early industrial revolution. Such books did not tell their readers about the wider theory of the division of labor adumbrated by Adam Smith, nor did they offer any critical (let alone radical) perspective with which to measure the increasing inequality of labor and rewards put in place by 1800 (fig. 1).

Figure 1. The third 1703 edition of Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises focused on six occupations, ECCO; Thomas Martin’s 1813 The Circle of the Mechanical Arts explored sixty-six fields of labor, GOOGLE.
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Figure 1.

The third 1703 edition of Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises focused on six occupations, ECCO; Thomas Martin’s 1813 The Circle of the Mechanical Arts explored sixty-six fields of labor, GOOGLE.

But with their microscopic attention to the rapidly shifting skills being empowered or disempowered by new technologies and capital investments, these books offer a rare inside look at the language of vocation and practice. This language did not provide the high-minded sense of vocation now usually associated with a calling to one of the modern professions, but the gritty vocabulary now customarily assigned to vocational schools and to everything beneath what colleges and universities have, since the nineteenth century, been calling the arts and sciences. The discourse of mechanical arts largely fell out of this latter category by the mid-nineteenth century, but it was robustly at the center of arts and sciences during the long eighteenth century.2 [End Page 90]

Meanwhile, these print technologies were among the first to adapt an old word to a new modern usage: scale. Today we grapple with complex questions of scale in such realms as the digital, with its problematic of scalability in computing and visualizing; or in globalization, with what cultural geographers have called a “rescaling of social life.”3 With the advent of the Anthropocene, there is also the sense of scale-shock we experience when trying to grapple with the implications of climate change, pondering with Dipesh Chakrabarty the challenge to “think human agency over multiple and incommensurable scales at once” (earth’s history, human history, industrial history).4 This essay uses early-modern print technologies to begin to answer a more preliminary question: where did we get the modern language of scale from in the first place? And what did this language have to do with problems of scale posed by emerging disciplines in the nineteenth century, or by capitalist modernity more broadly?

From the Latin word scala (or ladder), scale or scales had once denoted a fixed and balanced order of things: the great scale of being, the immutable scales of justice. Our historical print databases show the rise of a new and different sense of scale from the seventeenth- to the mid-nineteenth century: to measure weight, then space, then time. For natural philosophers of the Royal Society, there was little possibility of experiment without using a scale. Robert Boyle is typical here: “We took (to make the experiments the more exactly) a small pair of scales, such as goldsmiths use to weigh gold coin in; and weighting the tube and the water in it, we found them to amount to one ounce thirty grains and an half.”5 A great many scientific uses of the language of scale in the future would turn out, like Boyle’s small pair of scales, to be traceable to the skill of the goldsmith, the carpenter, or the instrument-maker. In these realms lay the origins of the modern idea of scale.

In his Cyclopaedia, Ephraim Chambers devised the definition that would be reprinted over the next century in British encyclopedias:

SCALE, a mathematical instrument, consisting of one or more lines drawn on wood, metal, or other matter, divided into equal or unequal parts, of great use in laying down distances in proportion, or in measuring distances already laid down. There are scales of several kinds, accommodated to the several uses: the principal are, the plain scale, the diagonal scale, Gunter’s scale, and the plotting scale.6

Edmund Gunter’s scale was first published as a paper model in 1624 (fig.2). It was then materialized in such devices as the two-foot boxwood scale shown here, a logarithmic instrument more advanced than the simple carpenter’s measuring rod and not far from the invention of the modern slide rule.7 This [End Page 91] was the most widely-cited scale in the eighteenth century, and it proved essential to all manner of mechanical arts, as well as to British navigation of the oceans well into the nineteenth century. Dedicated to mapping zones of particular kinds of work (carpentry, navigation, millwrighting, and many others), scales like Gunter’s became integral to the practices and the differentiation of modern labor, my topic in the first half of this essay. As recent cultural geographers have put it, measurable scale was already becoming “the most elemental form of spatial differentiation, from the demarcation of the home to that of the globe.”8

Figure 2. A paper sketch of Gunter’s Scale, published in 1623, pictured above the wood version used by nearly all the mechanical arts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. ().
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Figure 2.

A paper sketch of Gunter’s Scale, published in 1623, pictured above the wood version used by nearly all the mechanical arts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (

From its early-modern quantitative sense, scale would then develop, in the later eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, into a more conceptual language rooted in, but often in practice far exceeding, its mechanical-arts origins, one that gravitated towards scales of time and towards deep histories of evolution, capital, and culture. Scale became not only the measure of fixed spaces but also of moving and multipliable spaces and times as well. It thus became one of modernity’s fundamental (and until recently, most taken-for-granted) keywords for addressing an increasingly vast set of shifting relationships across the space and time of capitalist development and global reach. Thus, the question for this essay is not only where we got the language of scale we now use, which can appear to us in newly daunting and unfamiliar shapes and contexts (such as the Anthropocene). The question is also what problems of scale in cultural and economic life this language could be adapted to confront. In the second part of this essay, I will point more briefly to the way the early-modern language of scale could be adopted into the language and concepts of the human sciences—political economy, historiography, evolutionary biology, or the theory of capital. I [End Page 92] will also indicate how the more technical language of scale migrated into the language of everyday life. Whenever we now say “on a wider scale,” “a larger scale,” “the greatest scale,” or “on a new scale,” we use language to orient us to the world that emanated from the print technologies of the eighteenth century—the incubators of the modern language of scale.

Skill and Scale in the Division of Labor

To whom did the early-modern print technologies speak? Considered as a project of knowledge, they claimed to reveal the long unexpressed language of skilled labor by answering to the complaint made in the Royal Society by Robert Hooke: “the Arts of Life have been too long imprison’d in the dark shops of Mechanics themselves, and there hindered from growth, either by ignorance, or self-interest.”9 These works offered practical instruction on the one hand, and promised to expose long-hidden secrets of human practice on the other, effectively spanning the division of labor between hand-work and brain-work. Manuals like Henry Coggeshall’s Art of Practical Measuring Easily Perform’d addressed the carpenter, the joiner, and the wheel-wright, guiding their practice. In Mechanick Exercises, Moxon broadened this group to include bricklayers, smiths, and instrument makers (and in a second volume, printers). Reappearing in dozens of updated new editions over the eighteenth century, such manuals were likely to be used for instructing apprentices or journeymen on their way to becoming master craftsmen in workshops across Britain.10 Moxon also took pains to greet “Gentlemen in this Nation of good Rank and high Quality” who wish to be “conversant in Handy-Works.” As the first tradesman elected to the Royal Society, Moxon showed a keen understanding of how to mediate between practical craftsmen and the interests of natural philosophers, and a key means he used to do so was the instrument of scale.

In place of Moxon’s half dozen early-modern occupations, The Circle of the Mechanical Arts, published by the civil engineer Thomas Martin in 1813, presents a range of sixty-six mechanical arts representing nearly all levels of British labor skill. This book (which should be required reading for Romanticists who think they know what it means to speak of the “mechanical”) gives a fairly definitive picture of what the term mechanical arts could encompass during the long eighteenth century (fig. 3).

The Circle offered one of the most detailed portraits of skilled British labor—and indeed of the social division of labor itself, from comb-making to printing—to be found anywhere in the period.11 Appealing to Moxon as a precursor (there is a certain literariness to Martin’s self-consciousness about his genre), Martin boasts persuasively that he is enlarging the genre [End Page 93] to encompass an encyclopedic range of occupations, though it is not always clear how he gained knowledge of them. Like Moxon and Chambers, Martin complained that “persons engaged in trade [are] extremely unwilling to communicate the processes and manipulations which distinguish their several arts.”12 Yet the sheer breadth and knowledgeable detail in the Circle attest to the long-term impact of mechanical-arts manuals on making the multivarious forms of British labor visible to a wider public. For Bentham’s far-reaching use of this genre in organizing the intellectual project called utilitarianism, this visibility of skills and scales would prove crucial, as we will see.

Figure 3. Table of contents for Thomas Martin, The Circle of the Mechanical Arts (London, 1813), GOOGLE.
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Figure 3.

Table of contents for Thomas Martin, The Circle of the Mechanical Arts (London, 1813), GOOGLE.

Martin’s quarto volume looks and sounds encyclopedic, reminding us that the discourse of mechanical arts bordered natural philosophy on the one side, the encyclopedia-makers on the other. Still, at least two features of the Circle separate it from what had appeared in the wake of Ephraim Chambers. Unlike the Encyclopédie or the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Martin’s articles on the mechanical arts are not set alongside entries on painting (the entry [End Page 94] is “Painting [House]”), poetry, or music, though there is a brief article on architecture. The circle formed by the mechanical arts in 1813 is legible as a figure of disciplinary separation, dissociating mechanical arts from the fine arts that were once closely associated with skilled labor, and this figure is one sign among many that, in the early nineteenth century, the mechanical arts were rapidly falling outside the older circumference designated by the expression arts and sciences.

Martin also registers a technological watershed: twenty-two of these articles depict the impact of steam engines on trades from brewing to cotton manufacture. For the most highly-skilled occupations (joiners, wheel-wrights, engineers, instrument makers), Martin writes with gusto in articles that run from thirty to over one-hundred pages. On the lower-skilled trades—those that are the most rapidly declining partly because of steam technology—he is brief (six pages) and sometimes elegiacally lyrical (the art of weaving tells “the fabulous story of Penelope’s web,” 596). Thus, inscribed in Martin’s choice and treatment of occupations was a vast alteration in the social division of English labor.

Before the steam engine, British labor skills were classified, as E. P. Thompson long ago pointed out, by “the distinction between the artisan and the laborer” that separated the skilled from the unskilled. The impact of industrialization registers in the evermore complicated subdivision of occupations, produced by the early twentieth-century distinctions among “skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled” labor. In a line of argument running from Marx to Harry Braverman, these categories also had to explain the historical process of “deskilling,” or how capitalist development privileged some skills (like those adaptable to machines) from others, like weaving, that were deskilled by being mechanized.13 Today, a new rethinking of the industrial revolution has begun to produce schemas such as the division among high, medium, and low skilled labor that I am tentatively using here. Astute critics of such classifications have pointed out why any ranking of skill levels has always been socially and ideologically freighted.14 Still, despite its hierarchical-sounding terms, the high-medium-low ranking of British labor skills has the advantage of having a firm-empirical and statistical measure: time to skill, or the degree of education or vocational training that defines each level.15

Research on this basis is showing that primarily low-skilled trades like weaving and tanning declined almost 67 percent from 1650–1850, and that the medium-skilled labor of metalsmiths, needlemakers, engravers or tailors and related trades lost roughly 50 percent of their workers during the long eighteenth century. This long-term proletarianizing of customary labor skills helped swell the ranks of unskilled labor from roughly one-third [End Page 95] to two-thirds of all English labor over the same period.16 Joel Mokyr’s case against the deskilling thesis argues that the eighteenth century’s technological transformations enabled, rather than devalued, British labor by creating a class of “high-quality workmen”—engineers, mechanics, millwrights, chemists, clock and instrument makers, skilled carpenters and metal workers—who were equipped with new technical skills that would produce an “enlightened economy” rather than the dark Satanic mills of Blake and Marx.17 Yet, as Alexandra de Pleijt and Jacob Weisdorf argue in their richly nuanced response to this market-centered account of the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain, it is more likely that both processes occurred: a “massive deskilling” and a small yet important rise and new intensification of high-skilled labor increasingly attuned to machines—and, for my present purpose here, also to the deployment of scales.

From Joseph Moxon to Thomas Martin, the genre of print-technologies seems to have both reflected and mediated the long-term decline of low- and medium-skilled British labor and the intensifying of high-skilled labor at this critical juncture of the early industrial revolution. By so minutely inhabiting the moment-to-moment procedures of these occupations, they paid especially keen attention to the skills they expected or stimulated workers to acquire. Yet insofar as they were strongly tilted toward high-skilled workers, such texts also helped to intensify both the new-skilling of the most technical workers and, more indirectly, the deskilling of others. It was for those high-skilled workers, all across the eighteenth century, that the print technologies most pointedly used the new language of scale:

If you make every half quarter of an inch to be a Scale of two inches, a sheet of Paper will contain 20 Foot in length: and if you make every half quarter of an Inch to be a Scale for four Inches, a sheet of paper will contain 40 Foot. And thus by diminishing the Scale, the sheet of Paper will contain a greater number of Feet.18

Since then every different Rumb is a Logarithmic Spiral, or determines a peculiar Scale of Logarithms for the Tangents of the Half-Complements of its Latitudes, therefore any Canon or Table of Logarithm-Tangents…is the Scale of the Differences of Longitude on some determinate Rumb or other. 19

Take the Scale of six Hours, and set from A to D, draw AD and BD…draw Lines from Center C, and they shall be the true Hour Lines required.20

One importance of this new discourse on scale was that it could measure degrees of skill while becoming a new skill to learn. The more one used [End Page 96] or developed a scale, any number of scales, the more skilled one’s practice measurably became. In this respect, it might be plausible to claim that skilled labor in the eighteenth century would, on the whole, tend to decrease to the extent that it did not correspond to an intelligible scale, but that it would tend to increase when it did thus correspond. While that ratio can be hard to measure in practice, it seems at least fair to propose that these print technologies were often dedicated to showing exactly how, when, and under what conditions this sort of correspondence occurred between skill-levels and learning to scale by using a scale. Labor in the form of what we might call “scaled productive practice” thus begins to become a more measurable kind of expertise. Labor itself could begin to be scaled—either by devising new measures of labor skill, or by reinforcing the hierarchies of labor as such—even as the actual dimensions of what labor produced, from handcraft to steam-driven technologies, would be seen to fall or rise at unprecedented rates.

I turn now to what has been implicit in this discussion of skills and scales thus far: the modern language of scale emerged both to register and to articulate a widespread sense of the emerging problem of scale during the long eighteenth century. A good many problems became visible—from the social division of labor (between trades) to the technical or pin-factory division of labor opened up by Adam Smith; from small-size changes in polity to the massive scale of transformation in the century’s political revolutions; from local machines extending human work to a massively connected, steam driven system in the wake of James Watt.

Watt’s case may be especially instructive. In the 1750s and early 1760s, Watt learned the art of scale-making during his apprenticeship with scientific-instrument maker John Morgan in Glasgow. As he created scales on paper, wood, and brass—a skill which he later applied to moving Gunter’s scale toward the modern slide rule—Watt also read the print technologies and connected their local expertise with more ambitious studies like J. T. Desaguliers’s lectures collected in A Course of Experimental Philosophy (1734)—one of the most compelling works to connect natural philosophy to the new sense of extensible scale in the early eighteenth century.21 This apprenticeship in scale-making and scale-thinking would culminate in perhaps the most singly consequential act of “scaling up” by any mechanical artist of his time, Watt’s revision of the Newcomen Atmospheric Engine, a massive steam apparatus in use since 1700 for siphoning off water from coal mines. Rather than “inventing” the steam engine, Watt effectively rescaled one by realizing that the laboratory model of the Newcomen engine worked worse than the giant original simply by being scaled down. Once reconfigured as his own engine (Watt had added a steam condenser and recalibrated the [End Page 97] Newcomen engine’s dimensions), the new and now more precisely-tooled engine could not only keep its heat cycles intact; it also became, as we would now put it, fully scalable. It could, with subsequent revisions, drive in a nail at the small end of its scalable range and power a huge cotton manufactory at the high end. And since it was fully scalable, Watt’s engine could be linked up to any other tool or machine, and thus become what Marx would later call a truly Cyclopean machine. By scaling up or down, it could transform all other machine operations over the next century, to become a central mechanism for what Marx called, often within a context of precision, “the colossal scale” of capital’s productive forces.22

Scale in the Human Sciences

Over the long eighteenth century, the language of scale stretched across the print technologies at a rate far exceeding that of any other genre before the mid-nineteenth century. It appeared, on average, about every seven pages in works like Martin’s Logarithmologia, Leadbetter’s Mechanick Dialling, or Desaguliers’ more scientific Course in Experimental Philosophy. This contrasts, again roughly, with the appearance of these idioms every 250 pages or so in major late-eighteenth century works of moral philosophy, political economy, or historiography. Along this rising curve of usage—which can be confirmed by tracking the language of scale across eighteenth century texts in Eighteenth Century Collections Online or the HathiTrust database—the technical uses of scale I have thus far indicated are accompanied, after 1760, by a dramatic expansion of the language of scale across the broader expanse of British print culture.

Table 1. Measure of the word frequency of scale, 1760–1860. (HathiTrust Bookworm).
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Table 1.

Measure of the word frequency of scale, 1760–1860. (HathiTrust Bookworm).

[End Page 98]

This figurative or metaphorical extension of the precise or technical language of scale would appear in such expressions as “on a large [or larger] scale,” “on an extensive scale,” “a greater scale,” “a useful scale,” “a liberal scale,” sometimes “on a stupendous scale,” that increasingly circulated in the wider print culture beyond the mechanical arts into the nineteenth century.

Still, it is remarkable in retrospect how few major eighteenth-century works in organized fields of knowledge deployed the language of scale. The Scottish Enlightenment hardly engaged this language at all. Theorizing modern civil society, Adam Ferguson used it only three times in 360 pages, and British historians found it of little use. Edward Gibbon is the exception; the language of scale appears about every 230 pages in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1774). Adam Smith never used the term at all in the four volumes and 1200 pages of The Wealth of Nations (1776), a work that posed so immense a problem of scale, between the market and the division of labor, that it may seem strange that his major printed work never engaged with this notion. Compared to the rich frequency of scale in mechanical-arts print culture, these are sparse usages in the eighteenth-century’s leading intellectual disciplines.

Shortly after 1800 this paucity of the language of scale in established and emerging disciplines would alter irreversibly. Thomas Malthus’s first edition of An Essay on Population (1798) referred to scale only three times, even though he was comparing very large numbers to alarmingly small human prospects; but, his second edition of 1803 used it five times as often. Jeremy Bentham in Chrestomathia (1816) used scale sixteen times, each in a highly specific way, to support a theory of knowledge formation and disciplinary rigor (see an extended analysis of this work in the next section). Darwin’s first edition of The Origin of Species (1859) deployed the word scale eighteen times (rising in subsequent editions), often in the broad sense of comparing largest and smallest. But at crucial moments, the term begins to specify the core of Darwin’s theory, such as the concept of a “scale of organization” that appears in Origin as a precise measure of bio-evolutionary change. Probably no one would use the language of scale more often or intensively than the political economists. It appears fifty times in John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (1860), and up to 120 times in each volume of Marx’s Capital (translating his German term der Umfang).

Thus, across the frontier of 1800, we find a striking increase in the pertinent language of scale over eighteenth-century precursors in moral philosophy, political economy, and related fields. One measure of this intensifying of scale-thinking in such disciplines, which I only have brief space to point toward in this essay, was that emerging or developing disciplines in the nineteenth century would define and distinguish themselves by formulating [End Page 99] conceptual scales that clarified their domains of knowledge and tended to separate them from others. Evolutionary biology’s “scale of organization” would have little meaning in psychology or history, but it would be a precise way to calculate the differing rates of evolution among organisms with greater or less internal organization of organic functions. Following Lamarck and Herder, Robert Chambers would deploy the language of scale over thirty times in Vestiges of the History of Natural Creation (1844); and the broader transformist argument for evolution was making the “scale of organization” a conceptual measure of considerable precision.23 The same could be shown for nineteenth-century political economy, where the language of scale proliferated in the works of Andrew Ure, Charles Babbage, and John Stuart Mill. For Marx, the “scale of the productive forces” (or “scale of production” [Umfang der Produktion]) belonged to a precise calibration of the long-term dialectical relation between the productive forces and class relations of production. Or we could take as an example the slowly-built yet powerfully normative measure called the Geologic Time Scale that began appearing in the 1820s and that now serves to adjudicate the scale of the Anthropocene.24 In nineteenth-century physical and human sciences, then, the increasingly figurative or abstract trajectory of the language of scale also produced new kinds of scale-construction to serve the internal needs of a disciplinary procedure and to differentiate it from others.

Meanwhile scales of the biggest and smallest, highest and lowest, nearest and farthest away, appeared with increasing frequency and profusion within the disciplines mentioned above, as if to mediate between the more specialized senses of scale deriving from the early-modern mechanical arts and the emerging disciplines of specialized knowledge and idioms of everyday life. This broader language of comparative scaling of all dimensions—national, international, transatlantic, urban, animal, human, vegetable, astronomical—might be said to have worked as a kind of discursive Global Positioning System, a language of comparative scale that helped orient users and readers to the increasingly prodigious temporal and spatial dimensions of capitalist modernity and to its unsurpassed momentums of change.

Jeremy Bentham: Scale of Use, Scale of Knowledge

I want to conclude by bringing the strands of my argument together in a single telling case. Composed shortly after Martin’s Circle of the Mechanical Arts, Jeremy Bentham’s Chrestomathia (1816) does not look or read like the print technologies I have highlighted in this essay. It is usually understood as an educational treatise that first modeled the utilitarian-education rationale for the University of London and later the polytechnic schools across England.25 [End Page 100] Yet it could also be said to have effectively scaled up the mechanical-arts genre into a new kind of discourse providing a familiarity with the range of English occupations, from joiners and millwrights to philosophers and encyclopedists, which enabled Bentham to try to reconfigure the modern order of knowledges. Chrestomathia undertakes a critique of Diderot’s and D’Alembert’s order of knowledges in the Encyclopédie, and reconfiguring this meant that Bentham would first have to redefine the great encyclopedic categories of art and science:

In the Latin language, both are with great advantage comprehended under one common appellation, viz. disciplinae, from disco to learn: disciplines, with which our English word discipline agrees in sound as well as in derivation; but, by the narrower import which has been attached to it, may probably be regarded as having been rendered unfit for this use.26

The disciplines treated in Chrestomathia range from chemistry and geology to statistics and geography. Yet what most separated Bentham from other architects of rational utilitarian reform like James Mill was his canny engagement with material technology, in the modern sense that, as Simon Schaffer observes, Bentham’s book was one of the first to articulate: “the aggregate body of the several sorts of manual operations directed to the purposes of art.”27 Strikingly also, his definition of technology does not point to the print-culture mediation of technologies in the genre I have been defining as the early modern “print technology,” rather it tends to efface it. (Thus Chrestomathia will appear an intellectual exercise, not a skilled-manual-arts treatise.) The extraordinary scope of Bentham’s thinking, in which the social and technical divisions of labor expand to inform his critique of the Enlightenment encyclopedia, also gives us reason to think that the early-modern manuals on the scales of British labor had long-lived effects.

Bentham proposes the building of a “Chrestomathic Day School” as the new institutional mode of accomplishing what the older print technologies did. This would be “a school of Technology…a source of general communication: a channel” for connecting all the knowledges previously practiced without awareness of the others (italics in original). Having reconfigured the meanings of Chemistry, History, Physics, and other disciplines on D’Alembert’s map, Bentham comes—armed with his signature torrent of italics—to “the field of the Technologist:”

The Carpenter, the Joiner, the Cabinet Maker, the Turner in wood, the Ship-builder, &c.;—The Whitesmith, the Blacksmith, the Metal Founder, the Printer, the Engraver, the Mathematical [End Page 101] Instrument Maker, &c;—The Taylor, the Shoemaker, the Collar Maker, the Saddler, &c.;—The Distiller, the Brewer, the Sugar-Baker, the Bread-Baker, &c;—of all these several artists, the respective tools and other implements,—together with the operations performed by means of them,—will thus be to be confronted together: and a comparative and comprehensive view will thus be to be given of their points of resemblance and difference.

(60, italics in original)

Bentham emphasizes the connectivity of these mechanical arts, “the mutual information, capable of being by this means derived from one another by the artists themselves.” Nor do these knowledges remain only a matter of mechanical-arts exchange within that sphere. They extend “to the scholars,” for whom “the effect will be that enlivening consciousness of mental vigour, and independent power, which is the fruit of learning in general.” Like Moxon in 1683 or Martin in 1813, Bentham’s project is to encompass the knowledges for a single privileged spectator: “the more extensive the view, thus obtained by the scholar, of the field of Technology, the more usefully…will he thus find the field of his livelihood enlarged” (61). Far from equalizing British labor, the Chrestomathic argument offers the division of labor dramatically scaled up. Bentham is adept at using the language of scale both in its wider, increasingly idiomatic or figurative sense and in a newly precise sense that is no longer the scale of local measurement but of a conceptual principle. The meaning of “utility” itself is transformed in Chrestomathia from an all-purpose principle to a precisely scaled one:

Immediate utility admits not of degrees: but of unimmediate utility, as above, degrees may have place in any number. The scale, to which these degrees belong, may be termed the scale of vicinity to use. Instruments, the station of which is on the highest degree of the scale—say the first degree— the degree nearest to immediate use—may be termed instruments of the 1st order: those, next to them, i.e. next below them, instruments of the 2d order; and so on, through any number of degrees, which, in any system of connected instruments, may, at any time, be found exemplified.


In “the scale of vicinity to use,” Bentham effectively scales all the devices of labor from the most immediate hammer or chisel (“1st order”) to the most elaborated, complex, multipart “system of connected instruments” for which the greatest contemporary example was the steam engine’s capacity to connect to virtually all earlier instruments of work to vastly scale up the productivity of labor. What the larger scenario of Chrestomathia attempts [End Page 102] to show—and the text is nothing if not a cornucopia of disciplinary vocabularies, neologisms, and redefinitions aiming to accomplish this—is how the intellectual division of labor can be homologously scaled in ways inconceivable to the French encyclopedists. The Chrestomathic method of education can be used on the smallest scale, but it is far more important for its capacity to scale large—“so unexamined a magnitude could be given to the scale.” That is the controversial landmark model called the Lancaster method of teaching, where “instruction could be administered to so prodigious a multitude of scholars by the same person at the same time.”28 This was the model of “scaling” human thought and practice that was bitterly opposed by Coleridge and Shelley as authoritative voices for the humanities, albeit for contrasting cultural and political reasons, with consequences that were felt into the nineteenth century and beyond.

For it would become clear in Bentham’s work, as elsewhere in the nineteenth century, that the humanities would not “scale” this way, and that the bifurcation between mechanical and fine arts or sciences and humanities, so evident after the Romantic moment, would translate into dissonant categories—those disciplines with the conceptual mechanisms I have been calling scales, and those, like the study of poetry or fine art, that were held to be immune to them. Romantic polemics against Bentham’s utilitarianism pointedly contrasted the principle that “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge” (Wordsworth) or “the centre and circumference of knowledge…which comprehends all science” (Shelley) with the scalar mechanisms of the eighteenth century that would at least imply measuring the humanities against other scales of knowledge already in motion.29 It is likely that this long-argued immunity of the humanities to scaling (in historiography, the visual arts, literature, and concepts of culture) may help to explain the understandable frisson occurring now as the humanities more explicitly confront the concept, language, and dissonance of scales for the first time.

I have been trying to suggest in these last pages that the language and conceptuality of scale that intervened in the social division of labor in Britain during the long eighteenth century would, by both devious and straightforward pathways, help configure the order of knowledges in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and link the structuring of human skilled labor to the organized work of knowledge production. [End Page 103]

Jon Klancher

Jon Klancher is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches book history and the long eighteenth century. Most recently he has published Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences: Knowledge and Cultural Institutions in the Romantic Age (2013) and co-edited Blackwell’s Concise Companion to the Romantic Period (2009). He is currently working on a study of the imagination of scale across disciplines, 1700–1900


For valuable advice on earlier drafts of this essay, I wish to thank Dena Goodman, Noah Heringman, Mimi Kim, and Jonathan Sachs.

1. One of the first uses of technology in this sense appeared in Edward Phillips, The New World of Words (London, 1706): “Technology: a Description of Arts, especially the Mechanical.“ The hundreds of such works issuing from London included: Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises: or, Doctrine of Handy-Works (1683; rpt.1703), Henry Coggeshall, The Art of Practical Measuring Easily Perform’d (1706); Venterus Mandey and James Moxon, Mechanick Powers: or The Mistery of Nature and Art Unvail’d (1696); Nathaniel Colson, The Mariner’s New Kalendar (1711); Charles Leadbetter, Mechanick Dialling, or the New Art of Shadows (1737); Benjamin Martin, Logarithmologia: or the Whole Doctrine of Logarithms (1740); John [Johannes] Beckmann, A History of Inventions (1797); Thomas Martin, The Circle of the Mechanical Arts (1813); and in a special sense, Jeremy Bentham, Chrestomathia (1816). To this partial list can be added works of natural philosophy that bridge in detail to the mechanical arts, as. J. T. Desaguliers, A Course of Experimental Philosophy (1734–44) or Thomas Young, Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts (1807), along with a wide range of early-modern encyclopedias.

2. On the pivotal role of mechanical arts in the eighteenth-century meaning of arts and sciences, see Jon Klancher, Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences: Knowledge and Cultural Institutions in the Romantic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013) 13–16.

3. See also Andrew Herod, Scale (New York: Routledge, 2011); and Eric Sheppard and Robert McMaster, Scale and Geographic Inquiry: Nature, Society, and Method (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004).

4. These terms derive from Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcolonial Studies in the Era of Climate Change,” New Literary History 43.1 (2012) and “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry (2009).

5. Robert Boyle, New Experiments Physico-Mechanical (1662) in The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle (London, 1772), I: 22.

6. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia (London, 1749), entry for scale.

7. Edmund Gunter, De Sectore & Radio: Description and Use of the Sector, the Crosse-staffe and other Instruments, (London, 1623), 67.

8. Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990) 173. For a good discussion of issues in cultural geography, see Andrew Herod and Melissa Wright, Geographies of Power: Placing Scale (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002) 1–15.

9. Robert Hooke, “Preface,” Micrographia (London, 1667), n.p.

10. On handwritten fifteenth-century artisan manuals and their role in apprenticeship, see Pamela Smith’s valuable study The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2004), 81–82, 95–98, 108–10.

11. Martin’s range of sixty-six occupations may remind modern readers of Richard Campbell’s better-known The London Tradesman (London, 1747), which surveys over one hundred British occupations from weaver to merchant. Unlike Campbell’s, Martin’s guide is almost scholarly in its near-encyclopedic depth, focus, and attention span.

12. Moxon, “Preface,” Mechanick Exercises, n.p.; Martin, Circle, iii. This recurring theme in the print technologies echoed an older question of translatability from The Body of the Artisan to the readable text: a “failure of the written word,” as Pamela Smith has put it, “to describe artisanal understanding” (Smith, 81).

13. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1963) 240–41. Margo Anderson Conk traced skilled, semiskilled, unskilled to the 1910 American Census, where the category of skill first emerged as central to the classifying of modern industrial labor and began replacing the older distinction between artisan and laborer. See Anderson Conk, The United States Census and Labor Force Change: A History of Occupational Statistics, 1870–1940 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980), 46–56. On the deskilling thesis, still controversial now, see Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).

14. For the most influential new thesis on the industrial revolution as a knowledge economy, see Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700–1850 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2009). As Anderson Conk points out, the skilled-semiskilled-unskilled classification of the early twentieth century “fell back on the ‘social’ component of its definition of an occupation, in short, on the ethnic, racial, sex and age divisions within the American population” (41). For further reflection on the ideological dimension of skills-classification, see also William K. Storey, Guns, Race, and Power in Colonial South Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008).

15. For a definitive account of these high-medium-low labor categories, see Marco H.D. van Leeuwene and Ineke Maas, HISCLASS: A Historical International Social Class Scheme (Leuven: Leuven Univ. Press, 2011) 49–75.

16. See Alexandra M. de Pleijt and Jacob Weisdorf, “A Human Capital Formation from Occupations: The ‘Deskilling Hypothesis’ Revisited.” Center for Global Economic History Working Papers 57.

17. Ralf R. Meisenzhal and Joel Mokyr, “The Rate and Direction of Invention in the British Industrial Revolution: Incentives and Institutions,” in J. Lerner and S. Stern, eds., Bureau of Economic Research Books (2012): 443–79.

18. Moxon, Mechanick Exercises, 126.

19. Martin, Logarithmologia, 66.

20. Leadbetter, Mechanick Dialling, 8.

21. For ample evidence of Watt’s voracious reading in scientific and mechanical-arts books, see John Muirhead (his first biographer), The Life of James Watt (London: John Murray, 1858); for accounts of his scaling up the Newcomen engine, see Ben Russell, James Watt: Making the World Anew (London: Reaktion Books, 2014) 61–75; and Richard L. Hills, Power from Steam: A History of the Stationary Steam Engine (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), 51–69.

22. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Vintage, 1975), 496–97.

23. I am indebted to Ian Duncan for pointing me to the 1800 English translation of Johann Herder’s Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, which anticipates Lamarck, Darwin, and Chambers in citing scale of organization, progressive scale, and related terms. For discussion of how animal organization displaced the older theological scale of perfection, see Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1982), 201–14.

24. For new work on scales of time, which began to be conceptualized much later than spatial scale, see especially Jonathan Sachs, The Poetics of Decline in British Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018), and Noah Heringman, “Deep Time at the Dawn of the Anthropocene,” Representations 129 (Winter 2015): 56–85.

25. See Mark Canuel, Religion, Toleration, and British Writing 1790–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), 41–44; Klancher, Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences, 166–83; Robert J. C. Young, Torn Halves: Political Conflict in Literary and Cultural Theory (Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press, 1996), 188–92

26. Bentham, Chrestomathia, 10.

27. Simon Schaffer, “How Disciplines Look,” in Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences, ed. Andrew Barry and Georgina Born (New York: Routledge, 2013), 57–81; Jeremy Bentham, “A Sketch of Technology,” Appendix 6 to Chrestomathia in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. John Bowring (London: William Tait, 1841), 8: 148.

28. Bentham in Bowring, Works, 8: 14.

29. William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1802) in William Wordsworth: The Major Works, ed. Stephen Gill (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000), 606; Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” (1820) in Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works, ed. Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2003) 676.

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