[Michel Bauwens has kindly invited me to serialize excerpts from my forthcoming book The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto. Over the next several weeks, I will post two excerpts from each chapter (one excerpt a week).]
Chapter One. A Wrong Turn (first excerpt)
Lewis Mumford, in Technics and Civilization, divided the progress of technological development since late medieval times into three considerably overlapping periods (or phases): the eotechnic, paleotechnic, and neotechnic.
The original technological revolution of the late Middle Ages, the eotechnic, was associated with the skilled craftsmen of the free towns, and eventually incorporated the fruits of investigation by the early scientists. It began with agricultural innovations like the horse collar, horseshoe and crop rotation. It achieved great advances in the use of wood and glass, masonry, and paper (the latter including the printing press). The agricultural advances of the early second millennium were further built on by the innovations of market gardeners in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—like, for example, raised bed horticulture, composting and intensive soil development, and the hotbeds and greenhouses made possible by advances in cheap production of glass.
In mechanics, in particular, its greatest achievements were clockwork machinery and the intensive application of water and wind power. The first and most important prerequisite of machine production was the transmission of power and control of movement by use of meshed gears….
Paleotechnic had its origins in the new centralized state and the industries closely associated with it (most notably mining and armaments), and centered on mining, iron, coal, and steam power. To give some indication of the loci of the paleotechnic institutional complex, the steam engine was first introduced for pumping water out of mines, and its need for fuel in turn reinforced the significance of the coal industry; the first appearance of large-scale factory production was in the armaments industry. The paleotechnic culminated in the “dark satanic mills” of the nineteenth century and the giant corporations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth….
Although the paleotechnic incorporated some contributions from the eotechnic period, it was a fundamental departure in direction, and involved the abandonment of a rival path of development. Technology was developed in the interests of the new royal absolutists, mercantilist industry and the factory system that grew out of it, and the new capitalist agriculturists (especially the Whig oligarchy of England); it incorporated only those eotechnic contributions that were compatible with the new tyrannies, and abandoned the rest….
Much of the centralization of paleotechnic industry resulted, in addition to the authoritarian institutional culture associated with its origins, from the need… to economize on power….
[Gigantism] was… abetted by the difficulties of economic power production with small steam engines: so the engineers tended to crowd as many productive units as possible on the same shaft, or within the range of steam pressure through pipes limited enough to avoid excessive condensation losses. The driving of the individual machines in the plant from a single shaft made it necessary to spot the machines along the shafting, without close adjustment to the topographical needs of the work itself…. [Lewis Mumford, Technics and History]
Steam power meant that machinery had to be concentrated in one place, in order to get the maximum use out of a single prime mover. The typical paleotechnic factory, through the early 20th century, had machines lined up in long rows, “a forest of leather belts one arising from each machine, looping around a long metal shaft running the length of the shop,” all dependent on the factory’s central power plant. [William Waddell and Norman Bodek, The Rebirth of American Industry: A Study of Lean Management]
The neotechnic revolution of the late nineteenth century put an end to all these imperatives.
If the paleotechnic was a “coal-and-iron complex,” in Mumford’s terminology, the neotechic was an “electricity-and-alloy complex.” The defining features of the neotechnic were the decentralized production made possible by electricity, and the light weight and ephemeralization (to borrow a term from Buckminster Fuller) made possible by the light metals.
The beginning of the neotechnic period was associated, most importantly, with the invention of the prerequisites for electrical power—the dynamo, the alternator, the storage cell, the electric motor—and the resulting possibility of scaling electrically powered production machinery to the small shop, or even scaling power tools to household production.
Electricity made possible the use of virtually any form of energy, indirectly, as a prime mover for production: combustibles of all kinds, sun, wind, water, even temperature differentials. As it became possible to run free-standing machines with small electric motors, the central rationale for the factory system disappeared. “In general,” as Paul Goodman wrote, “the change from coal and steam to electricity and oil has relaxed one of the greatest causes for concentration of machinery around a single driving shaft.” [Paul and Percival Goodman, Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life]
The decentralizing potential of small-scale, electrically powered machinery was a common theme among many writers from the late 19th century on. That, and the merging of town and village it made possible, were the central themes of Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops. With electricity “distributed in the houses for bringing into motion small motors of from one-quarter to twelve horse-power,” it was possible to produce in small workshops and even homes. Freeing machinery up from a single prime mover ended all limits on the location of machine production. The primary basis for economy of scale, as it existed in the nineteenth century, was the need to economize on horsepower—a justification that vanished when the distribution of electrical power eliminated reliance on a single source of power.
The introduction of electrical power, in short, put small-scale machine production on an equal footing with machine production in the factory.
The introduction of the electric motor worked a transformation within the plant itself. For the electric motor created flexibility in the design of the factory: not merely could individual units be placed where they were wanted, and not merely could they be designed for the particular work needed: but the direct drive, which increased the efficiency of the motor, also made it possible to alter the layout of the plant itself as needed. The installation of motors removed the belts which cut off light and lowered efficiency, and opened the way for the rearrangement of machines in functional units without regard for the shafts and aisles of the old-fashioned factory: each unit could work at its own rate of speed, and start and stop to suit its own needs, without power losses through the operation of the plant as a whole.
…[T]he efficiency of small units worked by electric motors utilizing current either from local turbines or from a central power plant has given small-scale industry a new lease on life: on a purely technical basis it can, for the first time since the introduction of the steam engine, compete on even terms with the larger unit. Even domestic production has become possible again through the use of electricity: for if the domestic grain grinder is less efficient, from a purely mechanical standpoint, than the huge flour mills of Minneapolis, it permits a nicer timing of production to need, so that it is no longer necessary to consume bolted white flours because whole wheat flours deteriorate more quickly and spoil if they are ground too long before they are sold and used. To be efficient, the small plant need not remain in continuous operation nor need it produce gigantic quantities of foodstuffs and goods for a distant market: it can respond to local demand and supply; it can operate on an irregular basis, since the overhead for permanent staff and equipment is proportionately smaller; it can take advantage of smaller wastes of time and energy in transportation, and by face to face contact it can cut out the inevitable red-tape of even efficient large organizations. [Mumford, Technics and Civilization]
Mumford’s comments on flour milling also anticipated the significance of small-scale powered machinery in making possible what later became known as “lean production”; its central principle is that overall flow is more important to cost-cutting than maximizing the efficiency of any particular stage in isolation. The modest increases in unit production cost at each separate stage are offset not only by greatly reduced transportation costs, but by avoiding the large eddies in overall production flow (buffer stocks of goods-in-process, warehouses full of goods “sold” to inventory without any orders, etc.) that result when production is not geared to demand.
Neotechnic methods, which could be reproduced anywhere, made possible a society where “the advantages of modern industry [would] be spread, not by transport—as in the nineteenth century—but by local development.” The spread of technical knowledge and standardized methods would make transportation far less important. [Mumford, Technics and Civilization]
Mumford also described, in quite Kropotkinian terms, the “marriage of town and country, of industry and agriculture,” that could result from the application of further refined eotechnic horticultural techniques and the decentralization of manufacturing in the neotechnic age.
Mumford saw the neotechnic phase as a continuation of the principles of the eotechnic, with industrial organization taking the form it would have done if allowed to develop directly from the eotechnic without interruption.
The neotechnic, in a sense, is a resumption of the lines of development of the original eotechnic revolution, following the paleotechnic interruption. The neotechnic differs from the paleotechnic phase almost as white differs from black. But on the other hand, it bears the same relation to the eotechnic phase as the adult form does to the baby….
Mumford suggested that, absent the abrupt break created by the new centralized states and their state capitalist clients, the eotechnic might have evolved directly into the neotechnic. Had not the eotechnic been aborted by the paleotechnic, a full-scale modern industrial revolution would still almost certainly have come about “had not a ton of coal been dug in England, and had not a new iron mine been opened.”
The amount of work accomplished by wind and water power compared quite favorably with that of the steam-powered industrial revolution. Indeed, the great advances in textile output of the eighteenth century were made with water-powered factories; steam power was adopted only later. The Fourneyron water-turbine, perfected in 1832, was the first prime-mover to exceed the poor 5% or 10% efficiencies of the early steam engine, and was a logical development of earlier water-power technology that would likely have followed much earlier in due course, had not the development of water-power been sidetracked by the paleotechnic revolution.
Had the spoonwheel of the seventeenth century developed more rapidly into Fourneyron’s efficient water-turbine, water might have remained the backbone of the power system until electricity had developed sufficiently to give it a wider area of use….
[Ralph] Borsodi speculated, along lines similar to Mumford’s, on the different direction things might have taken had the eotechnic phase been developed to its full potential without being aborted by the paleotechnic:
It is impossible to form a sound conclusion as to the value to mankind of this institution which the Arkwrights, the Watts, and the Stephensons had brought into being if we confine ourselves to a comparison of the efficiency of the factory system of production with the efficiency of the processes of production which prevailed before the factory appeared.
A very different comparison must be made.
We must suppose that the inventive and scientific discoveries of the past two centuries had not been used to destroy the methods of production which prevailed before the factory.
We must suppose that an amount of thought and ingenuity precisely equal to that used in developing the factory had been devoted to the development of domestic, custom, and guild production.
We must suppose that the primitive domestic spinning wheel had been gradually developed into more and more efficient domestic machines; that primitive looms, churns, cheese presses, candle molds, and primitive productive apparatus of all kinds had been perfected step by step without sacrifice of the characteristic “domesticity” which they possessed.
In short, we must suppose that science and invention had devoted itself to making domestic and handicraft production efficient and economical, instead of devoting itself almost exclusively to the development of factory machines and factory production.
The factory-dominated civilization of today would never have developed. Factories would not have invaded those fields of manufacture where other methods of production could be utilized. Only the essential factory would have been developed. Instead of great cities, lined with factories and tenements, we should have innumerable small towns filled with the homes and workshops of neighborhood craftsmen. Cities would be political, commercial, educational, and entertainment centers…. Efficient domestic implements and machines developed by centuries of scientific improvement would have eliminated drudgery from the home and the farm. [Ralph Borsodi, This Ugly Civilization]
And, we might add, the home production machinery itself would have been manufactured, not in Sloanist mass-production factories, but mainly in small factories and shops integrating power machinery into craft production.