Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The First Factory

Last year, I was invited to go to a library in Derbyshire to speak, so I thought that while I was there I would visit a Derby Museum. It was reputed to be the site of the first factory in the world - a silk mill set up by a man called John Lombe.

Unfortunately, the talk was cancelled, so I put off going to the museum for a while, which is a shame because when I eventually decided to go I found that the whole thing had been shut because of the cuts. So, to console myself, I ordered a book called The Transformation of a Valley which gave me a little more information about the origin of this auspicious factory.

I learnt that the plans for the Derby silk mill came from Italy as a result of industrial espionage. In my efforts to find out more about this I came across Gavin Menzies's book, 1434,. Gavin Menzie is a controversial historian, but I found the main premise of the book not too far-fetched or surprising. It was this: that in 1434 a fleet of Chinese ships reached Venice, and it is this that started the Renaissance.

I know from my reading of Joseph Needham's work that the Chinese developed many things (including hydraulically powered silk mills) long before the west, and I also know that by 1434 there had been communication, albeit a slow and dislocated one, between China and the West for several hundred years.

What I didn't know was that Leonardo da Vinci's 'inventions' (including silk mills) were not really his, but simply elaborations of diagrams of predecessors like Giovanni Battisa Alberti, Francesco di Giorgio and Mariano di Jacapo ditto Taccola. Some of Francesco di Giorgio's diagrams (and therefore Leonardo da Vinci's) were strikingly similar to Chinese ones in the Nung Shu - a popular encylopedia written just a few years before di Giorgi's. How these Westerners got their hands on these presumably Chinese designs is a moot point, but I am quite happy to believe that it was via this fleet of ships - given any evidence. Unfortunately, Gavin Menzies has not yet found any that absolutely convinced me, but maybe some will turn up eventually . There certainly seem to be almost-convincing rumours.

I enjoyed reading this book and found it very interesting, especially since it led me to this: The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice by Luca Mola. This was a scholarly study about how the Silk Industry around Venice (and to some extent the whole of Italy) developed from what was a cottage industry before 1434 to an industrial enterprise (using these Chinese-style hydraulic silk mills).

The secret of how the hydraulic silk mills operated was jealously guarded, but from time to time, reckless Italian mill workers (maybe having got into debt) would run off to another town taking their secrets (on both milling and weaving silk) with them. Their home city would often have a price put on their head, and instruct agents to set their new homes alight. Clearly a lot of people knew of the mills, but it would make sense that the Lombe brothers would need plans of how the mills worked in detail in order to produce one of their own. Accordingly, Thomas Lombe was dispatched to Italy to find out exactly how the silk mills operated.

The Luca Mola book points out that the mills in Verona and Vicenza employed hundreds of people, just as (presumably) the Chinese mills had too. If this is the case, then John Lombe's mill in Derby cannot be the 'first factory in the world' (that crown must belong to the Chinese), but it was still a first for the British Isles, and the start of an industry that would, for a short while, become extraordinarily important.


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