1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 4:
Magdeburg, on the Elbe River
Capital of the United States of Europe
“Short handed again,” Thorsten Engler muttered to himself, as he counted those still out sick. Fortunately, all they had to do at night was keep the furnace running until morning. The day shift loaded the retorts once in the morning, and once again just before the night shift started. Things were usually pretty quiet, although one time the gas had started to run out, and he’d had to scramble to unload the coke and load new coal in several retorts. That could be the case tonight, with the cold and the snow increasing demand for heat.
Being the recently promoted foreman for the night shift at the coal gas plant—which was almost as new as he was—Engler always tried to walk around the plant every hour, whether it was clear, rain, or snow. It was the only way to make sure everyone was awake, and it tended to keep him awake as well. Despite the snow falling, the plant was mostly clear. That was probably due to the heat of the furnace, and maybe some shoveling as well. He’d have to make sure that they continued that during the night, or he’d look bad in the morning when the plant manager arrived.
He walked around the plant, looking at the furnace and the machinery. As he had many times by now, he wished he knew more about the manufacturing processes involved in the operation. It had only been a month since the plant officially opened. He had trained for it and even helped build it, but no one here had ever seen such a collection of machinery before.
To make the situation worse, his training had been narrowly focused on the job of repairman he’d been originally hired on for, not the more general training a supervisor should get. Neither he nor the plant management had expected him to become a foreman almost as soon as he started. That was another effect of the influenza that was ravaging the city. The original foreman had been a much older man. He’d died from the disease just three weeks ago.
Everything looked good, though, so far as Thorsten could tell. He was about to head inside when he heard a faint high-pitched whistle. That was odd, he thought. The wind didn’t seem strong enough for that.
But, not seeing anything amiss, he went into his office to catch up on his paperwork. With all the men out sick because of the influenza, the work records were more of a tangle than usual.
A couple of hours later, one of the workman came into the office. That was Eric Krenz, who served the night shift as its crane operator. Since they still didn’t have a full-time repairman on night shift, he also helped Thorsten in that capacity. Both single men in their mid-twenties, they’d become quite good friends in the short time since they’d started working together.
“Something’s wrong, Thorsten,” Krenz said. “The street lamps seem to be going out.”
Thorsten quickly went outside. The lights were indeed dimming. Some along the road, those further away from the plant, were already out.
“Shit. There’ll be a lot of pissed people if we don’t get gas going soon. Did we run out of gas?”
“I don’t think so,” said Eric. “It’s only been two or three hours since we started this batch. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Engler decided to start at the beginning, with the coal loading operation. That was being handled by Robert Stiteler these past few days. Stiteler was an Alsatian, one of the many immigrants who’d arrived in Magdeburg over the past year. He normally helped Krenz operate the steam-powered crane that moved the kegs containing the coal tar products and ammonia water. But with so many of the men off sick, he’d agreed to handle loading the coal instead. It was back-breaking work, using a shovel instead of a steam crane, but he’d done a fine job with it. He’d kept the coal going in and the coke going out, which was what mattered.
When Engler appeared in the furnace room, with Krenz in tow, Stiteler broke off from his work and leaned his shovel against one of the stanchions that supported the furnace room’s walls and roof. As a safety measure, the stanchion was much thicker and sturdier than it really needed to be. The furnace “room” was really a big shed, with walls and a roof made of thin planks just thick enough to handle rain and snow.
“Evening, Thorsten,” he said pleasantly. As was true of the most of the men working in the plant—anywhere in Magdeburg—the Alsatian immigrant had quickly adopted the informality favored in work places by the American up-timers. All the more so since the Committees of Correspondence who were almost a separate, informal government in the capital city insisted on it as a matter of principle. They had members everywhere, especially in the ranks of the industrial workers and their unions. Thorsten wasn’t a member of the CoCs himself, simply because he’d been too busy for the meetings involved. But his friend Eric Krenz belonged, as did perhaps a fourth of the workmen in the plant.
“Evening, Robert,” he said, trying to be just as pleasant but wanting to get on to the problem at hand. Normally, he would have taken the time to chat idly with Stiteler for a minute or two, just to give the man a legitimate excuse to take a rest from the grueling labor of shoveling coal down the chute into the furnace. “We seem to be losing gas somewhere along the way. Are you having any problems?”
Stiteler shook his head. “No, nothing.”
Thorsten inspected the furnace, which seemed fine. Then he headed toward the gas main.
the the series is becoming slower and slower paced Its starting to get very boring. To bad the orginal book was grate.
Just a note: one reason factory discipline was so ferocious in early industrial-era plants was that the habits of mind needed were so alien.
People disliked working in factories even when the money was pretty good by the standards of the day; they hated working to the clock, they hated working at a pace set by machinery, and they hated close detailed supervision. (When time-and-motion studies came along, they hated _those_ even more.)
Preindustrial work was usually spasmodic rather than continuous — bursts of intense effort separated by a slow amble, with long but not very intense working days and lots of holidays; reducing Saint’s Days and the like was one of the main goals of early industrialists. Not to mention getting people accustomed to the idea that you couldn’t treat a machine like an ox.
The first-generation factory labor force mostly didn’t want to be there and didn’t want to be doing what they were doing and didn’t like the way they were forced to do it; they were pitchforked into it by stark necessity and social changes beyond their comprehension or control, and they mostly loathed the whole process. They’d really have preferred to stay home in the village, except that there wasn’t work or food enough there, or the common had been enclosed, or something of that sort.
Hence also the pervasive demoralization and mass drunkenness of early-industrial factory towns; “gin is the easiest way to get out of Manchester”, as the saying went. They were collections of strangers thrown together in a lousy environment, with sullen hostility and grinding homesickness the most common emotional states. Not to mention the extreme hostility between the classes.
Before the Industrial Revolution, even if people were poor they usually set the hour-by-hour pace of their own labor — a weaver, for example, could get drunk on Sunday, loaf around with a hangover on “Saint Monday”, then make up for it with a frantic burst of effort towards the end of the week before the agent came around to collect finished cloth and drop off yarn. The idea of having to work hard and regularly _all the time_ was repellant, not simply for its own sake but because it meant the loss of all remaining independence.
Goofing off and things like drinking on the job were cherished rights, especially among skilled workers. There are a couple of illuminating studies of what happened in the 19th century when new management tried to impose rational methods and precise accounting on, for example, small-arms plants in the US; sabotage, work-to-rule and even assassination were the response. In fact, our word “sabotage” comes from this period — textile workers in Belgium used to toss their wooden shoes (“sabots”) into the machinery occasionally to force a slow-down.
Also, standards of “business morality” back then were extremely low, from top management on down to the shop floor; fraud and theft were omnipresent.
_That’s_ an important reason why most business units were so small and so family-based. Even fairly big ones like shipyards or ironworks were broken up into smaller units by sub-contracting nearly everything. You could (sometimes) trust your relatives or members of the same close-knit ethnic or religious minority; you couldn’t trust, eg., a hired accountant or manager not to rob the till and abscond. Most workers were intensely hostile to technical innovation, and often rioted or killed people who tried to introduce innovations. They’d only work well if given the hairy eyeball 24/7 by someone with an immediate interest in keeping them up to scratch.
It took generations to produce a labor force used to industrial conditions.