Industry in Voltaire’s Time

  • Florian Schui


Industry is like a chameleon. It constantly changes its appearance: nineteenth-century observers wrote about steam-engines, smoking chimneys, deafening noise and inhumane working conditions in Manchester’s cotton mills. Visitors of today’s car plants in Wolfsburg or Rüsselsheim see computerised machine tools which operate more or less silently on clean factory floors. The appearance of these concerns could hardly be more different and yet they are both industry. It is virtually impossible to understand contemporary comments about industry in any period without familiarising oneself as much as possible with the specific economic reality of the day. This is particularly true of the eighteenth century which saw the birth of many of our political, social and economic institutions but which was still a world strikingly different from ours in many ways. It already contained the seeds of modernity. ‘Much of what was modern in France’, Michael Sonenscher points out, ‘was already there, many generations before Marx wrote the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’.1 At the same time the economic world of the eighteenth century was still dominated by many traditional institutions, technologies and behaviours. It will, therefore, be useful to remind ourselves of the development of French industry at the time, before going on to examine the contemporary comments about industry.


Eighteenth Century High Quality Product Wool Fabric Early Debate Contemporary Comment 
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© Florian Schui 2005

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  • Florian Schui

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