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A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World


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A sweeping, global history of the rise of the factory and its effects on society.

Factories, with their ingenious machinery and miraculous productivity, are celebrated as modern wonders of the world. Yet from William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” they have also fuelled our fears of the future.

Telling the story of the factory, Joshua B. Freeman takes readers from the textile mills in England that powered the Industrial Revolution to the steel and car plants of twentieth-century America, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, to today’s behemoths making trainers, toys and iPhones in China and Vietnam. He traces arguments about factories and social progress through such critics and champions as Marx, Ford and Stalin. And he explores the representation of factories in the work of Margaret Bourke-White, Charlie Chaplin and Diego Rivera.


“An insightful history of giant factories... Mr Freeman rolls up his sleeves and delves into the nitty gritty of manufacturing. He successfully melds together those nuggets with social history, on the shop floor and beyond the factory walls, from union battles to worker exploitation and, in the case of Foxconn, suicides.” — The Economist

“... [Freeman] lay[s] out two centuries of factory production all over the world in ways that are accessible, cogent, occasionally riveting and thoroughly new. The history of large factories, as Freeman outlines it, is the history of the modern world and most everything we see, experience and touch.” — International New York Times

“Freeman has written a superb account... The author’s sympathy, insight and exemplary anecdotes make this a marvellous book.” — The Guardian

“Carefully researched and energetically written, Freeman’s book takes in the first factories in Britain and New England, the great mills of late-Victorian Pennsylvania, the rise of Fordism in the 1920s, the world of the industrial Soviet Union and today’s colossal factories in China and Vietnam.” — The Sunday Times Ireland

“... Behemoth is a tour de force, a powerful liberal retelling of the factory narrative at a time of Trump and all he represents, when it badly needs to be retold.” — Times Higher Education

“Freeman does an essential service by publicising the continuance of a system whose foundations rest on a banal evil.” — The Spectator

“... fascinating book...” — The New Statesman

“Rich and ambitious... More than an economic history, or a chronicle of architectural feats and labor movements, Behemoth depicts a world in retreat that still looms large in the national imagination.” — Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

“Fascinating... Freeman shows how factories have had an overwhelming influence on the way we work, think, move, play and fight.” — Scott W. Berg, The Washington Post

“You may have no detailed knowledge of factories except that they can be converted into cool lofts. In that case, you’ll learn much from historian Joshua Freeman.” — Jonathan Rose, The Wall Street Journal

“It is a book of epic scope.” — 5 Star Review, The Telegraph

“[Joshua Freeman] handles his material 'with the seriousness it deserves' and if it 'can feel a little slow-going at times, that's partly because of the knottiness of the history Freeman lays out, as well as his honourable refusal to resort to simplistic notions of grand progress or portentous doom'.” — The Oldie


Short-Listed — Cundill History Prize, 2018