152: David Hounshell’s American System

In From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932, David Hounshell takes a materialist, history of technology approach to the history of American industrialization.  Tracing American manufacturing from federal armories to civilian gunmakers, clockmakers, bicycle manufacturers and automakers, Hounshell examines the complex and often non-linear process by which American manufacturing moved from standardized, interchangeable parts to the Fordist system of mass production.  By focusing on technological development instead of social change, he overturns several long-held interpretations of this history, including processes of technological change, the economic forces driving mass production, and the definition of mass production itself.

Americans were using relatively interchangeable parts to manufacture standardized goods like window frames, guns, clocks, locks, and furniture in the early 19th century, but true interchangeability, where parts could be subbed out for another part with no reworking, was first achieved in federal armories, who had far more money to play with than did their civilian counterparts.  This “armory practice”diffused to other companies when mechanics left the armories to work at Singer Sewing Machines, McCormick Reaper Works, or Pope bicycles, but armory practice didn’t readily translate, partly because company owners and skilled craftsmen resisted (especially at Singer) and partly because true interchangeability, which at that point involved jigs, gauges, and fixtures as well as special purpose machine tools, could be pricey.  However, all three companies lurched toward armory practice in an effort to meet rising demand by reducing rework/ assembly time.  In the late 19th century, Ford began combining armory practice, the bicycle industry’s pressed steel, inflexible, single-purpose machinery, and moving assembly lines into a new mass production system, but even he proceeded by fits and starts, so that the apex of mass production was only realized in the River Rouge plant – and then at a time when mass production was no longer the best business model.

Throughout, Hounshell details the genealogical process by which individual people diffused armory practices through American metalworking industries, and he traces this history not through the feats of heroic inventors and designers but through the mistakes and experiments of ordinary people.  He shows empirically that demand drove production in the 19th century, not the other way around, though demand was at least partly driven by advertising and marketing.  He also discusses regional variation in production techniques, as when New England bike manufacturers prefer welding/ forging, while Midwestern manufacturers prefer stamping, and shows how techniques in one industry filter into another, so that Ford’s location in the Midwest, for instance, influenced his choice to use metal stamping rather than welding.  And finally, Hounshell uses a history of technology approach – focusing on technology and asking how – rather than a social history approach – looking at social formations and asking why – which allows him to penetrate American manufacturing in detail without worrying about causality until he has the material evidence in hand.

While Hounshell’s account would have benefited from further discussion of labor, this book is otherwise an incredibly thorough and wonderfully materialist history of American manufacturing.

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