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Charles Morel: Un constructeur dauphinois sous la III Republique.

Jean-Pierre Borgis has written an informative monograph on the inventor Charles Morel (1848-1914) and his machine-making ventures in Third Republic France. Morel was a classic self-made man. Son of a truck gardener, he displayed an early interest in machinery and apprenticed himself to a mechanic in his native Vienne. Within a few years he progressed to managing small machine shops in southeastern France. Morel quickly revealed himself to be a gifted inventor: he secured seventy-one patents during his career, beginning in 1874 with one for a wool-combing machine. He went on to file patents for folding bicycles (for use by army cyclists), an automobile (the "Victoriette," named in honor of Queen Victoria), tire patches, and even a proto--self-service restaurant. However, Morel's greatest success came with his decision in the early 1880s to abandon textile machinery for the invention of machines to crush and sift minerals for the cement and lime industries. He pioneered in the replacement of millstone crushers with machines using steel pellets and centrifugal force (still the basis of many modern crushers).

The most interesting section of Borgis's book chronicles Morel's early efforts to profit from his inventions. Initially lacking the capital to build his machines, Morel exchanged his patent rights for a portion of the profits from sales; he later contracted with firms to build under his supervision machines for which he had obtained orders and which he installed. Not surprisingly, these arrangements led to bitter conflicts over patent infringement and shoddy production. Morel's encounters with a variety of shady business practices are reminiscent of a nineteenth-century novel, even if his eventual triumph is not. In 1891 Morel opened his own factory in the small town of Domene (Isere). Chastened by his early experiences, Morel sought to maintain total control of his operations. He refused to borrow funds, preferring instead to finance his company solely through profits.

Morel was a master marketer, selling machinery on his own--between 1888 and 1894 he was on the road one day out of five--and through customers and agents who received a commission on sales they arranged. He maintained extensive personal contact with clients; many of his patents grew out of efforts to respond to problems they encountered. Unlike most of his contemporaries in this era of protectionism, Morel aggressively pursued the sale of his machines and patent rights in foreign countries and French colonies (well over 30 percent of sales in the 1890s).

Morel considered himself the "paternal patron" of his seventy-five or so workers; he envisaged the factory as "his little Le Creusot." Morel's specialized production was relatively more dependent on the skills of his workers--90 percent had a trade--than on capital investment. However, the labor force in Morel's factory was more transient than the owner's familial rhetoric and efforts to recruit locally would lead one to expect: more than two in five of all workers remained less than one year.

Like many self-made men, Morel was a social conservative. He liked to present his passage from farmer to worker to owner as evidence that he was of the people. He despised Socialists and Radicals, believing that state intervention would thwart individual initiative and undermine an employer's control over the labor force. Although Morel was prominent in local politics, his characteristic disdain for the potentially constraining institutions of democratic politics--parties and electoral committees--undermined his bid to win election to the Senate in 1901.

By 1907, Morel had worn himself out. Having broken with his sons, he established a partnership with his engineer son-in-law. Though remaining active in inventing and in business, he lived an increasingly bourgeois life, which Borgis chronicles through analysis of Mme. Morel's account book. (In this Belle Epoque of the bourgeoisie, the Morels, gracious hosts, spent more on alcohol than on taxes.) Morel's firm profited handsomely from wartime military contracts in the years immediately following his death but declined precipitously during the Depression.

The exceptional wealth of the Morel archives--fifty years of account and pay books and more than 263,000 pieces of correspondence--allows Borgis to present an exhaustive, yet readable, history of Morel the entrepreneur and his business. In addition to revealing the mechanics of social ascent in Third Republic France, Borgis's study opens a window on the workings of medium-sized businesses. These have played a crucial role in French economic and social history but have not received the attention they warrant. While Borgis himself shies away from making general statements, his work will undoubtedly contribute important elements to a much-needed synthesis of findings about medium-sized firms in France.

Donald M. Reid is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of The Miners of Decazeville: A Genealogy of Deindustrialization (1985) and Paris Sewers and Sewermen: Realities and Representations (1991). At present he is completing an essay on industrial paternalism in the work of Emile Zola.
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Author:Reid, Donald M.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1991
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