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From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States (Studies in Industry and Society) Paperback – September 1, 1985
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"The history of technology at its very best. It is also a volume which has a great deal to interest the business historian... A superb study replete with new insights and eqully valuable in its parts as in their sum... This is an exciting book which deserves the highest praise."(Business History)
"David Hounshell's history of the evolution of American production methods has few rivals: in execution of the theme it has none... Both the armchair historian and the specialist in the history of technology will find this a highly readable and most informative work."(Science)
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True, it was published 25 years ago, so I am just catching up. Part of the reason Hounshell is so persuasive is that not only did he make use of corporate documents, but he also was able to take apart a couple of century-old Singer sewing machines at the Smithsonian Institution to see if their parts interchanged. They did not.
If all he had done had been to debunk Whitney, it would not be worth spending 400 pages -- lavishly illustrated pages though they are -- with the book. "From the American System" has a trajectory reminiscent of a Greek play -- not necessarily a tragedy -- with a surprising outcome: After a century of strenuous effort to invent mass production, the system failed within 13 years.
The argument is nuanced. As Henry Ford and his engineers, who put the cap on mass production by inventing the assembly line in 1913, said at the time, mass production was not merely quantity production. Singer had achieved quantity production in the 1880s without even adopting the American system, although after reaching about 500,000 units per year it did have to adopt it.
The story begins in England, where Marc Brunel broke down the craft of making reeving blocks for the Royal Navy into 22 operations, each performed by a specialized machine. Significantly, it was a military demand. The U.S. War Department was instrumental in pushing for mass production by means of interchangeable parts, although for the first 50 years it did not get it.
Even managing to make truly interchangeable parts, which John Hall did at Harpers Ferry in the 1840s, did not mean large production or lower costs. It was the interchangeability itself that was the goal of the army.
Later, Ford used interchangeability, along with single-purpose tools, carefully orchestrated work routines and -- the capstone -- the moving assembly line, to drive costs lower and lower.
Hounshell traces the development through the national and private armories in New England, which influenced sewing machine manufacturers in the `50s. A patent cartel allowed the sewing machine companies to make enormous profits, which perhaps (Hounshell does not make this point) militated against a drive for the lowest cost production. Singer, and others, continually drove down costs, but only by a process of semi-rationalization, with some machine work but still using "fitters" to make the final assembly.
One other manufacturer, Brown & Sharpe, adopted something closer to the American system and competed on costs (apparently) but not on marketing. Throughout, Hounshell emphasizes that business success went not to the firm that was most efficient but to the one that had the best sales and marketing system.
There comes an odd interlude with McCormick farm implements, where the production manager, Leander McCormick, argued for decades against expanding production. His arguments sound odd today, and eventually his brother Cyrus fired him. Production soared tenfold.
Then came bicycles. The design innovations were all European, as was the new technique of stamping steel parts. Eastern makers stuck by the American system, but Western Wheel Works in the Midwest moved decisively toward pressed steel parts. The bicycle business collapsed in 1898, lasting just long enough, and in just the right place, to pass on pressed steel to the auto factories.
Ford, however, went down a blind alley. In order to drive production costs as low as possible, he had to resist multiplication of products, and General Motors ate his lunch with the tiered marketing strategy and frequent style changes.
Hounshell does more than tell the story of manufacturing technology, however. There is much here about corporate organization and governance, labor adaptations to the factory system and the social (but not the political) impacts of mass production. "From the American System to Mass Production" should be read alongside Sean Wilentz' "Chants Democratic" for the reaction of craft workers who were displaced by mass production.
Although it appears that the total number of craft workers actually expanded. The new factories required large numbers of designers, patternmakers, tool and die cutters and millwrights. Although Hounshell does not say so, the machine minders were not, in the end, displaced artisans alienated from their tools but farm boys (and some girls), many from Europe, who would never have been skilled workers anyway.
Because mass production emerged in Detroit, and because it failed there, the book, despite its age, resonates vibrantly with what is happening in Detroit in 2008-2009.
And, although Hounshell only alludes to it without thorough analysis, the phenomenon of mass consumption also resonates deeply with business conditions today.
Hounshell published just as Ronald Reagan established a national policy of disciplining labor by exporting jobs overseas. Instead of encouraging American business, the supposed party of business overthrew a policy almost as old as the republic in the name of ideological foolishness and the deliberate supremacy of finance over production. GM, the victor over Fordism, had led the way 30 years earlier by elevating a financier instead of an engineer to the top.
The decline of GM, once the world's biggest corporation, began then. The sickness of GM was evident by the early `60s, and the company was moribund by the time Reaganomics came in. Anybody could have seen what had to come next. It's too bad ,more people did not read Hounshell when his book was new.
The evolution from interchangeable parts to mass production and then to flexible manufacturing is an underappreciated aspect of the history of technology. Hounshell traces the evolution from firearms through sewing machines, reapers, bicycles and automobiles. There is also good coverage of machine tools and the development of the assembly line.
This is also a good business book with lessons about strategic thinking, planning and marketing.
Lastly, the history of Ford Motor Co. and its iconic founder Henry Ford is a fascinating part of cultural history.
While credit for interchangeable parts is popularly assigned to Eli Whitney, Hounshell draws on considerable work by other scholars demonstrating that interchangeability of parts was the result of a systematic pursuit of this objective by the Army Ordnance Dept. As Hounshell shows, not only did the US Armories promote interchangeable parts and the quality control measures needed for interchanageability, they also pioneered specialty machine tools and rational production organization. Many of the personnel trained in the Armories or by Armory contractors went on to be key transmitters of these methods to private industry. The Connecticut River Valley, in particular, benefited from the presence of the Springfield Armory and the latter's influence has a great deal to do with the emergence of New England as a hotbed of industrial innovation. One of Hounshell's crucial points is that these developments would not have occurred without decades of Federal investment.
Hounshell then proceeds to describing the fitful progress towards full blown mass production by describing the development (and in a couple of key cases, lack of development), of different aspects of mass production in different industries in the US. The sewing machine industry, woodworking industry, the McCormick reaper company, and bicycle manufacturing are all discussed. These examples show how change occurred in different industries. Some sewing machine manufacturers were relative pioneers of mass production. The Singer company, which was the most successful manufacturer on the basis of vigorous and successful mass marketing, came to elements of mass production relatively late, as did the McCormick Co. All companies, however, eventually adopted elements of mass production to sustain themselves. Following the development of key technologies and markets in the bicycle manufacturing business, the final form of mass production was developed by Henry Ford with the famous Model T. The Ford factory combined all the prior elements of mass production with the first true assembly line, though the latter was preceded by continuous production lines in other industries like flour milling. Ford arguably also facilitated the other side of the coin of mass production, mass consumption, by paying his employees a generous wage.
The Ford system with its focus on production of a single product, the Model T, fell victim to General Motor's development of annual models, flexible financing (another facilitation of mass consumption), and more flexible production. The GM modification of mass production-consumption set the pattern for much of American industry for the rest of the 20th century.
Among the features stressed by Hounshell are the importance of the initial Federal investment, the creativity of many of the individuals who contributed to the technological improvements that made mass production possible, and the strongly entrepeuneurial atmosphere of much of this period. This is a really revealing book and one that explains a great deal about 19th and early 20th century America. It would have been useful to have some more comparative perspective in this book. Comparison with Germany, the other great industrializing power of the late 19th century would have been particularly interesting, but this may be asking for too much.