Caught in the Machinery

Review: Luckin on Bronstein

Jamie L. Bronstein. Caught in the Machinery: Workplace Accidents and Injured Workers in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008. 222 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-0008-5.

Reviewed for H-Albion by Bill Luckin, Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester

Published by [mailto][/mailto] (April, 2008)

Industrialization, Trauma, and Tragedy in the Nineteenth-Century Workplace
About twenty-five years ago, it was possible to detect the beginnings of a meaningful history of occupational health. However, individual and tragic misadventures--the horrifying experience of being mangled by machinery; knocked down in the street; or falling, unprotected, from a clapped-out fishing vessel into mountainous seas--remained _terra incognita_. The main problem was, and remains, how, in the words of Roger Cooter, to frame and contextualize the "moment of the accident,"the instant when the world stands still and then stands on its head.[1] Unequal conflict between soft human tissue and unguarded, scything machinery can only make social and cultural sense if the sub-second of personal disaster is located within larger social and cultural frameworks. The history of the accident needs to tell more than we already know about the total society and culture in which such incidents have occurred, or in Paul Virilio's phrase (in _The Original Accident_ [2007]), were "produced." In recent years, we have had large-scale studies of warfare, violence, and crime that have transcended the parameters within which each of these topics has been traditionally investigated.[2] As yet, however, there is no overview of the accident in history.

Now, in a well-documented and organized monograph, Jamie L. Bronstein joins the small number of historians who have engaged with workplace death and injury during the peak period of industrialization in nineteenth-century Britain. Focusing on an overview of the incidence of accidents, "options for injured workers," the cultural meanings of workplace death and injury (an excellent and densely argued chapter), and the shift from the ideology of "free labor" to the beginnings of state-backed compensation, the author follows a broadly chronological path. The main thrust of her argument is that, between the early nineteenth century and the 1880s, "workplace accidents were ideologically reconstituted, from individual human tragedies into a social problem that could only be solved by government intervention" (p. 170).

This Bronstein achieves by juxtaposing British against North American experience during the peak period of nineteenth-century industrialization. Her chapters on legislation, compensation, and the state draw on industrial accidents to highlight differences between the development of the two societies, and particularly differentials in the pace and intensity of protective intervention in a federal as opposed to a nonfederal system of government. Bronstein's foray into [...]