This is an excerpt from Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, published by Hill and Wang, American Century Series, 1982, pp.38-69.

Even before the Civil War, the westward trails were destined to be lined with tracks; the pony express and the covered wagon, like the mounted Plains Indian, would yield to the Iron Horse. For if the West of "myth and symbol," in Henry Nash Smith's apt terms, provided one perspective by which Americans might view their society, the machine provided another. The two images fused into a single picture of a progressive civilization fulfilling a providential mission. As John Kasson has shown, many Americans before the Civil War had believed that industrial technology and the factory system would serve as historic instruments of republican values, diffusing civic virtue and enlightenment along with material wealth. Factories, railroads, and telegraph wires seemed the very engines of a democratic future. Ritual celebrations of machinery and fervently optimistic prophecies of abundance continued throughout the Gilded Age, notably at the two great international expositions, in Philadelphia in 1876, and in Chicago in 1893.

The image of the machine, like the image of the West, proved to be a complex symbol, increasingly charged with contradictory meanings and implications. If the machine seemed the prime cause of the abundance of new products changing the character of daily life, it also seemed responsible for newly visible poverty, slums, and an unexpected wretchedness of industrial conditions. While it inspired confidence in some quarters, it also provoked dismay, often arousing hope and gloom in the same minds. For, accompanying the mechanization of industry, of transportation, and of daily existence, were the most severe contrasts yet visible in American society, contrasts between "progress and poverty" (in Henry George's words), which seemed to many a mockery of the republican dream, a haunting paradox. Each act of national celebration seemed to evoke its opposite. The 1877 railroad strike, the first instance of machine smashing and class violence on a national scale, followed the 1876 Centennial Exposition, and the even fiercer Pullman strike of 1894 came fast on the heels of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

It is no wonder that closer examination of popular celebrations discloses bewilderment and fear. In fiction and poetry, as Leo Marx has shown in his seminal Machine in the Garden (1964), serious writers before the Civil War had fastened on the image of a mechanical intrusion on a pastoral setting as a characteristic expression of a deeply troubled society. In the language of literature, a machine (railroad or steamship) bursting on a peaceful natural setting represented a symbolic version of the trauma inflicted on American society by unexpectedly rapid mechanization. The popular mode of celebration covered over all signs of trauma with expressions of confidence and fulsome praise. But confidence proved difficult to sustain in the face of the evidence.

Current events instilled doubt at the very site of celebration. A period of great economic growth, of steadily rising per capita wealth, and new urban markets feeding an expanding industrial plant, the Gilded Age was also wracked with persisting crises. An international "great depression" from 1873 to 1896 afflicted all industrial nations with chronic overproduction and dramatically falling prices, averaging one-third on all commodities. "It was," writes David Landes "the most drastic deflation in the memory of man." A severe Wall Street crash in 1873 triggered a round of bankruptcies and failures in the United States, six thousand businesses closing in 1874 alone, and as many as nine hundred a month folding in 1878. A perilously uneven business cycle continued for more than twenty years, affecting all sections of the economy: constant market uncertainties and stiffening competition at home and abroad for business; inexplicable surpluses and declining world prices, together with tightening credit for farmers; wage cuts, extended layoffs and irregular employment, and worsening conditions, even starvation, for industrial workers. Recurrent cycles of boom and collapse seemed as inexorable as the quickening pace of technological innovation. Thus, even in the shadow of glorious new machines displayed at the fairs, the public sense of crisis deepened.

No wonder modern machinery struck observers, especially those associated with the business community, as in Charles Francis Adams, Jr's words, "an incalculable force." The tempo of crisis accelerated in the 1870's. Farmers agitated through Granger clubs and the Greenback Party against the government's policy of supporting business through deflationary hard money and the gold standard. Industrial unrest reached a climax and a momentary catharsis in July 1877, when fears of a new civil war spread across the country during the great railroad strike. Provoked by a 10 percent wage cut announced without warning by the Baltimore and Ohio line, a measure to halt a declining rate of profit, the strike spread like wildfire to other lines, reaching from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Francisco. The apparently spontaneous work stoppages met with approval and support from local merchants, farmers, clergy, and politicians, tapping reserves of anger and wrath against the railroad companies. Workers in other industries joined the walkout, and for a short spell it,-seemed that the United States faced a mass rebellion, a recurrence of the Paris Commune of 1871 on an even vaster scale. In some communities (St. Louis, for example) committees of strikers briefly assumed control of government and railroad services.

The strike turned bloody and destructive, arousing a vehemence of response from big business and the national government even surpassing the wrath vented by strikers against railroad yards and equipment. The companies recruited local police and militia to protect their property, and pitched battles raged along the lines, although many militiamen refused to fire on the strikers, among whom they recognized relatives and friends. Finally, the newly inaugurated President, Rutherford Hayes, invoked his powers of military intervention and called out federal troops to protect "by force" (as he noted in his diary) the property of the railroad companies, among whose leaders he counted many of his closest friends and supporters. In the end, the strike left more than a hundred dead, millions of dollars of property destroyed, and a toughened company and government stand against unions. Strikers were very often fired and blacklisted, their leaders fined and jailed. The War Department issued a pamphlet on "riot duty" and constructed for the first time a system of armories in major cities to house a standing "national guard." Industrialization of the state's military force seemed a necessary adjunct to the mechanization of production.

The very extremes of effect lent to the machine an aura of supreme power, as if it were an autonomous force that held human society in its grip. In The First Century of the Republic, a book of essays published by Harper's magazine in celebration of the nation's centennial in 1876, the economist David Wells observed that "like one of our mighty rivers," mechanization was "beyond control." And indeed the display in Machinery Hall in Philadelphia that summer gave credence to the image of a flood, though without Wells's ominous note. Here, in an exposition of machines removed from their working location, a profusion of mechanisms seduced the eye: power looms, lathes, sewing machines, presses, pumps, toolmaking machines, axles, shafts, wire cables, and locomotives. The Remington Arms Company, declaring its versatility, displayed one of its newest products: Christopher Schole's new "typewriter," an astonishing device for producing neat, legible messages at the touch of a finger. The twenty-nine-year-old Thomas A. Edison, already the wunderkind of invention, disclosed his "multiplex" telegraph, capable of carrying several messages on the same slender wire. And, most memorably, Alexander Graham Bell here gave the world first notice of the greatest wonder of electrical communication: the telephone. For sheer grandeur and sublimity, however, the mechanisms of communication could not compete with the two most imposing structures in the Hall: the thirty-foot-high Corliss Double Walking-Beam Steam Engine, which powered the entire ensemble from a single source, and its counterpart, a 7,000-pound electrical pendulum clock which governed, to the second, twenty- six lesser "slave" clocks around the building. Unstinted but channeled power, and precisely regulated time: that combination seemed to hold the secret of progress.

The fairs were pedagogies teaching the prominence of machines as instruments of a distinctively American progress. As Wells explained, mechanical progress followed laws of its own; it was not to be resisted. One of the leading economic writers of the Gilded Age, friend and adviser to Presidents, a railroad trustee, and outspoken advocate of free trade (opposed to income tax as well as tariffs), Wells often appeared in the conser vative The Nation and the respectable Atlantic Monthly as an ex positor of the machine age to the educated public. He argued, as he did in 1876, that legislation would prove useless against the flood of industrial goods: "Like the construction of piers and deposits of sunken wrecks, [they] simply deflect the current or constitute temporary obstructions." Even more difficult lessons lay in the daily transformations of old patterns of work, of travel, of communication. For machines in fact performed their work within extended structures, serving as parts of evolving systems, assigned precise tasks by humans. Perceived as an incalculable force in its own right, reified, fetishized, even demonized, the machine thus found a troubled place in the culture of the times.


The idea of an autonomous and omnipotent machine, brooking no resistance against its untold and ineluctable powers, became an article of faith. The image implied a popular social theory: the machine as a "human benefactor," a "great emancipator of man from the bondage of labor." Modern technology was mankind's "civilizing force," driving out superstition, poverty, ignorance. "Better morals, better sanitary conditions, better health, better wages," wrote Carroll D. Wright, chief of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, in 1882; "these are the practical results of the factory system, as compared with what preceded it, and the results of all these have been a keener intelligence." Wright's paper, originally given as an address before the American Social Science Association, bore the title "The Factory System as an Element in Civilization."

The events of the 1870's and 1880's, however, also elicited less sanguine accounts of what the factory system had wrought. Even Wright adopted a defensive tone, warning against the seductive "poetry" and "idyllic sentiment" of many critics: "I am well aware that I speak against popular impression, and largely against popular sentiment when I assert that the factory system in every respect is vastly superior as an element in civilization to the domestic system which preceded it." Wright failed to acknowledge, however, that his account of the superior benefits of the system did not include the opportunity of workers to change their status within it; his defense assumes a permanent class of wage earners, a prospect abhorrent to believers in republican enlightenment and progress. Not surprisingly, a growing number of Americans openly questioned whether industrialization was in fact, in Henry George's words, "an unmixed good." As if in pointed rebuke of Wright's arguments and images, George observed the following year, in Social Problems (1883) that that labor-saving inventions, the "greater employment of machinery," and "greater division of labor," result in "positive evils" for the working masses, "degrading men into the position of mere feeders of machines." Machines employed in production under the present system are "absolutely injurious," "rendering the workman more dependent; depriving him of skill and of opportunities to acquire it; lessening his control over his own condition and his hope of improving it; cramping his mind, and in many cases distorting and enervating his body." True, George found the source of such evils not in machines themselves but in unjust concentrations of land ownership. In the end, he shared Wright's vision of the potential benefits of machinery, though not his conception of a permanent class of "operatives." George plainly perceived the process of degradation in factory labor as strictly mechanical, experienced as an effect of machinery. To a wider public than Wright had addressed, George's views seemed irrefutable.

The record of seeing, of representing the machine either in imaginative writing, in polemical discourse, or in social analysis is a record as well of implied social theories and attitudes, of responses colored by ideological predispositions. Carroll Wright addressed an audience which included enlightened manufacturers; he concluded his paper with a call for benevolent "Captains of Industry" to "carry the responsibility entrusted to them," for the "rich and powerful manufacturer . . . is something more than a producer, he is an instrument of God for the upbuilding of the race." George, a native Philadelphian of middle-class birth who had wandered to California in the late 1850's, working as a seaman, printer, newspaperman, failing as a Democratic candidate for office and as the owner of an independent newspaper, wished to arouse the nation to its plight, urging the adoption of a "single tax" against land rents as the solution to the paradox whereby "laborsaving machinery everywhere fails to benefit laborers." His Progress and Poverty, written in the wake of the destruction, violence, and frustration of the summer of 1877, fuses evangelical fervor with simplified Ricardian economic theory; its simplicity of analysis and solution, its Jeremiad rhetoric of righteousness and exhortation, helped the book find a remarkably wide audience. It reached more than 2 million readers by the end of the century. Appealing to a range of political sentiments and economic interests, George evoked a vision of older republican and entrepreneurial values restored through the "single tax" in the new corporate industrial world. Identifying "social law with moral law," he wished to show that "laissez faire (in its full true meaning) opens the way to a realization of the noble dreams of socialism."

George's picture of the failures of the machine and of its potential promise corresponded to the perceptions of a significant section of the society, particularly since he promised a change fundamentally within the existing order, the existing relations of capital and labor. Among representatives of older ruling groups, the picture held less promise. "It is useless for men to stand in the way of steam-engines," wrote Charles Francis Adams, Jr., in 1868. Adams, from one of the oldest Eastern families of property and former political status, would soon join forces with the engine as corporate executive of railroad and other enterprises. His less sanguine brother, Henry Adams, wrote later in The Education of Henry Adams (1907), regarding his own "failure," that "the whole mechanical consolidation of force ruthlessly stamped out the life of the class into which Adams was born." Devising a theory of history based on "forces," Adams crystallized the technological determinism implicit in both the popular and academic thought of his time.

Determinism appeared not only in explicit theories and observations of the role of machinery in economic prognosis; it also appeared at a deeper level of thought, in less self-conscious processes of mind. Images of machinery filtered into the language, increasingly providing convenient and telling metaphors for society and individuals. Carroll Wright's conception of the factory implied a more embracing image: society as a factory. He described the factory as a "legitimate outgrowth of the universal tendency to association which is inherent in our nature." Buried here is a Spencer ian notion of evolution from simple to complex forms, from independence to interdependence, from simple tools to intricate machines. The social division of labor, then, as exemplified by machine production in factories, is made to seem natural, an inevitable and "legitimate" evolution. The notion of the self consisting of a material "mechanism" had been present in American and European thought since the late eighteenth century; now the image struck a note which resonated with perceptions of expanding factories, railroads, and dynamos. "The more we examine the mechanism of thought," wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes in a Phi Beta Kappa address in 1870, "the more we shall see that the automatic, unconscious action of the mind enters largely into all its processes." Acceptable because undeniable in the world of thought, continued the famous literary doctor and experimental scientist, this idea of mechanism must be rejected in the "moral world," which "includes nothing but the exercise of choice." Holmes responded to the "confusion" worked by "materialism" on moral issues, by insisting so forcefully on the priority of choice in questions of good and bad precisely because of the threat of "mechanism" to the very concept of a moral universe.

The prospect of a mechanization of moral choice raised fears particularly among Americans clinging to a Protestant belief in free will, in the efficacy of human effort, and especially in the value of a properly trained and disciplined "character." Preservation of a belief in a "moral universe" in which rewards and punishments flowed from character and moral choice assumed an urgency in these years of massive mechanization. For, as Holmes recognized, images of mechanism now appeared throughout daily life and everyday discourse.

"Whatever constantly enters into the daily life soon becomes an unnoticed part of it," observed Charles Francis Adams, Jr., about the railroad system, "so much a part of our everyday acts and thoughts that they have become familiar." Indeed, the familiarization of American society with machinery represents one of the major cultural processes of these years, even in such simple matters as riding in streetcars and elevators, getting used to packaged processed foods and the style of machine-made clothing, let alone growing accustomed to new harsh sounds and noxious odors near factories and railroad terminals. The proliferation of new machines and machine-made tools for industrial and agricultural production marked an even more drastic upheaval in the forms, rhythms, and patterns of physical labor.

Perhaps more expressive of changing cultural perceptions because of its greater diffusion than serious or "high" literature, popular fiction and folklore in these years represented machinery especially in its sheer power and exemption from human vulnerability. In regional folktales and ballads, such figures as the lumberiack Paul Bunyan, the railroad worker John Henry, the locomotive engineer Casey Jones pit their strength and skill and daring against the machine.

Dime-novel Western adventures depict orgies of shootings and killings with every variety of automatic repeating weapons, each named precisely. A magical machine, endowing its owner with ultimate powers of "civilization" against "savagery," the gun not only won the West in such fictions (as it did in fact) but helped make the notion of repeatability, of automation, familiar. Indeed, as recent scholars have remarked, the interchangeability of plots and characters in dime novels parallels the standardization of machine production that became a central feature of factory life in the 1880's. Dime novels also provided a field for technological fantasy; beginning with The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairies in 1865, these novels included inventors (often boys) as standard fare, along with robots (like the ten-foot steam man), armored flying vessels, electrified wire, and remote-control weapons. The fiction provided vicarious mechanical thrills along with fantasies of control and power. Machines are imagined as exotic instruments of destruction, only obliquely linked to the means of production revolutionizing the industrial system.

The fictive imagination of terror, of technological cataclysm, served as a form of familiarization. The implications of a technologized world and its potential for explosion was not lost on more troubled observers, who felt themselves on a precarious bridge between an earlier America and the present. Like Holmes, the novelist William Dean Howells worried about the intrusion of mechanism on morality. Viewing New York City from an elevated car, Basil March in Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) has a sudden perception of a "lawless, godless" world, "the absence of intelligent, comprehensive purpose in the huge disorder." March preserves his belief in a moral order, however, by concluding that such is the "chaos to which the individual selfishness must always lead," denying his earlier perception that "accident and then exigency seemed the forces at work" in the city. Howells's terror is hardly enjoyable; it arises from the sudden fear that moral choice, the acts of good people of sound character, might not prevail against the "accidents" of mechanized life. This passage and others from A Hazard of New Fortunes suggest how far toward cultural despair Howells had traveled since his response in Machinery Hall at the 1876 Centennial Exposition to one of the most colossal machines of the times. He wrote then of the "vast and almost silent grandeur," the "unerring intelligence," of the Corliss engine, struck by its apparent gentleness. And when the thought occurs that this "prodigious Afreet" could crush its attendant engineer "past all resemblance of humanity," it is swiftly repressed by an emotion of national pride in the "glorious triumphs of skill and invention" displayed in Philadelphia: pride, and a confident vision of cultural progress. "Yes," he writes, "it is still in these things of iron and steel that the national genius most freely speaks by; and by the inspired marbles, the breathing canvasses, the great literature; for the moment America is voluble in the strong metals and their infinite uses."

Howells's nervousness about that volubility, even as he embraces it as benign, was shared by many among his readers in the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, the most respectable of the middleclass journals of opinion and letters in those years. Indeed, nervousness provoked by modern mechanical life provided the theme of the widely read medical treatise by George M. Beard in 1884. A pioneering work in the study of neurasthenia, American Nervousness builds its case through an elaborate mechanical metaphor: the nervous system is like a machine presently under strain in response to the pressures of the machinery of civilized life. Like Thomas Edison's central electric-light generator, wrote Beard (a friend of the inventor), "the nervous system of man is the centre of the nerve-force supplying all the organs of the body." "Modern nervousness," he explains, "is the cry of the system struggling with its environment," with all the pressures exerted on striving Americans by the telegraph and railroad and printing press. Simply to be on time, Beard argues, exacts a toll from the human system.

A treatise on causes of the breakdowns, distemper, anxieties becoming more common among the urban middle classes, Beard's book reveals yet another cause, social and cultural rather than technological, or of a genuine nervousness the author himself shares. He explains that by American he really means only "a fraction of American society," the "four million" salaried "brain- workers," those educated few who strive for "eminence or wealth" and wrestle with dilemmas of religion in an age of science. Excluding "muscle-workers," the "lower orders" who may succumb to "insanity of the incurable kind" but not "American nervousness," Beard makes nervousness a badge of distinction. He also discloses another source of severe anxiety prevalent among middle- and upper-class Americans, that of impending chaos, the rule of accident, exigency, and rampant city mobs. "All our civilization hangs by a thread; the activity and force of the very few make us what we are as a nation; and if, through degeneracy, the descendants of these few revert to the condition of their not very remote ancestors, all our haughty civilization will be wiped away."

The fear of cataclysm implicit here is not so much technological as social: a fear manifest throughout the popular media after 1877 of uprisings and insurrection, of a smoldering volcano under the streets. For David Wells, writing in 1885, such popular disturbances as the agitation for an eight-hour day and talk of socialism "seem full of menace of a mustering of the barbarians from within rather than as of old from without, for an attack on the whole present organization of society, and even the permanency of civilization itself." Henry George, too, concluded Progress and Poverty with a picture of potential collapse, of "carnivals of destruction." "Whence shall come the new barbarians," he asked. "Go through the squalid quarters of great cities, and you may see, even now, their gathering hordes! How shall learning perish? Men will cease to read, and books will kindle fires and be turned into cartridges!" The association of social unrest with the imagery of technological violence, of new city crowds with ignorance and contempt for culture (or regression to "savagery"), fired the imagination with a nightmarish narrative of impending apocalypse.

In all its guises, the machine had made the future seem problematic, and among the responses in the realm of culture were a growing number of future-oriented stories, utopian and science fiction. Some, like Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column (1889), portrayed class war fought with weapons of new magnitudes of destruction. More typical, as Neil Harris has shown, were tales of futures in which machines took charge for human benefit. On the whole, as Harris writes about the outpouring of futurist writings in the 1880's and onward, technology serves as "an enabling condition for the description of other worlds," the rational efficiency of machines teaching a lesson in eradicating human misery. Such works project modern anxieties about violence and disorder only to dispel them, often by fusing machines with mystical religions. Such a fusion "had a common objective: the allaying of human anxieties, and most of all, anxieties about aggression, accident, old age, and death." On the whole, this body of popular romance and utopian speculation fastened on science and the machine as a hope for rationality, for the control so wanted in present affairs.

This hope is strongest in the most influential utopian novel of the era, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888). Joining romance to a detailed account of a future society, the book appealed precisely to anxieties about mechanization and sordid cities by constructing a rational Christian alternative in Boston of A.D. 2000, superimposed on the contemporary city. The book follows the conversion of its upper- class, disaffected hero, Julian West, to the new (but familiarly traditional) "religion of solidarity." One of Beard's "nervous Americans," West awakens from mesmerically induced sleep (he suffered from the modern ailment of insomnia) in a sealed chamber deep in the recesses of his house, to discover himself in the future, a new house on the site of his own (which had been destroyed in a fire through which he slept, like Rip Van Winkle, into a new generation), and a new society in place. West learns from his host, Dr. Leete, that the new order had appeared simply and peacefully when Americans decided they had had enough of nervous-making economic crises, unhappiness, and threatening inequality. By a happy union of "solidarity" (the religious element) and rationality (the mechanical element), they devised a system of public ownership aptly called "nationalism." Taking its moral values from "solidarity," the system obeyed the rational forms and dictates of the machineÄ a logical evolution, Bellamy argues, from the factory system and corporate structures of the year 1887. Now the government is a Great Trust, and while local and family life has been decentralized, production and distribution have been placed under complete state control.

"Nowadays," the born-again Julian West observes, "everybody is part of a system with a distinct place and function." Production is managed through an "Industrial Army," a compulsory work force organized in strict military fashion, with hierarchies of command (based on merit and effort). The period of service is regimented but brief, leading the English socialist William Morris to comment in a review that Bellamy still accepted the industrial capitalist notion of work as "a mere adjunct of life," rather than "the necessary and indispensable instrument of human happiness." Happiness in Looking Backward is identified entirely with leisure and consumption--the consumption of religious emotions of "solidarity" as much as of the cornucopia of goods produced by the productive system. That system, though its organization is described in detail, remains invisible; West never visits the actual factories, though he tours the giant warehouses or department stores, where people no longer waste their time "shopping"; they trade credits earned in compulsory labor for goods already ordered. "It is like a gigantic mill, into the hopper of which goods are being poured by the train-load and ship-load, to issue at the other end in packages of pounds and ounces, yards and inches, pints and gallons, corresponding to the infinitely complex personal needs of half a million people." Infinitely complex, those needs remain measurable by standardized weights.

Bellamy's criticism aims at waste, haste, inefficiency, and injustice: at social organization, not at the machine. Like George's, his vision redeems the machine from a wasteful system. Moreover, in the most emotionally decisive maneuver of the book, Bellamy further deploys the machine to redeem the nation: "to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived . . . as a family, a vital union, a common life." Thus, West cures his nervousness in a restored family, peacefully consuming its machine-provided pleasures in safety and securityÄ that is, in a fable of socialism (though Bellamy avoided that inflammatory word) amenable to middle-class America.

Bellamy's is a fable of hope, of social happiness. Mark Twain's venture into speculative romance, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), is the obverse, its conclusion an unmitigated disaster of human carnage and emotional confusion. A complex and richly contradictory book, the novel also takes a backward look, into the Middle Ages. It pits nineteenth-century "ingenuity" and republicanism, in the person of Hank Morgan, against sixth-century superstition and monarchy. Foreman at a Hartford gun factory who is transposed to Camelot by a blow on the head from one of the "rough men" he supervises, Morgan combines in his person the republican ideology, fierce individualism, and practical inventiveness which had once, before the Civil War, seemed a stable set of bourgeois character traits. Inventor, businessman, and ideologue, Morgan sets out with sublime confidence to reform Arthurian England, to modernize its thinking and politics as well as its productive energies. Though at first a vehicle for satire aimed at the chivalric absurdities of Arthurian romance, and an assertion of the superiority of a down-to-earth practical wisdom against the inflated language and forms of deference associated with feudalism, Morgan soon takes up reform in earnest. Mechanism provides the chief image of his work, of his spectacular "effects" as well as his schools known as "Man Factories," his newspapers, telephones, smoking factories, and stock exchange. Through all the comedy and exhortation to "freedom," as Darko Suvin observes, the book's imagery bursts with volcanic explosions, prefiguring the cataclysmic conclusion. Anticipating a counterrevolution by the Church, Morgan builds a fortification of electrified barbed wire topped with Gatling guns--devices borrowed intact from dime-novel fantasies of destruction. In the end, the Yankee and his small elite of faithful followers (who address him as The Boss) find themselves trapped behind "a solid wall of the dead--a bulwark, a breast-work, of corpses."

The Yankee's liberating project, as the industrial enterprise itself threatened to do in the eyes of Henry George and others, collapses in paradox: "We were in a trap you see--a trap of our making." In these final words of Clarence, one of the faithful, Mark Twain provides a grotesque metaphor for his own age. In the end, the book's argument itself collapses in a muddle, as neither Morgan nor Mark Twain is able to sort out the causes of failure. But the predicament the book dramatizes, of machine making a human future, resonated grimly with realities of the day. Had "to produce" come to mean "to destroy"?


Such figurative associations of machines with violence suggest profound tensions among Americans who, like Mark Twain, otherwise saluted modern technology as a boon to republican ideals. Metaphors of wreckage and self-destruction seem to express unresolved cultural dilemmas, conflicting value systems such as those described by Leo Marx as "machine" and "garden," the values of mechanical progress and those of pastoral harmony in a peaceful landscape. But the coexistence of figures of destruction, of "dark Satanic mills," with those of unbounded Promethean production, also points in the direction of the Promethean effort itself, toward the character of the mechanization process. Subtle interweavingsof destruction and creation formed the inner logic of the industrial capitalist system, a logic less conspicuous but nonetheless compelling in its consequences than the more dramatic versions of contradiction evoked by Henry George and Edward Bellamy. As analysts here and in Europe had begun to discover, that system possessed a baffling unconscious energy which resulted in recurrent cycles of expansion and contraction, inflation and deflation, confidence and depression. Such aberrations seemed to follow from precisely those increases in productive power which marked the industrial world in these years.

If Americans seemed especially intense in their response to mechanization, especially obsessed with alternating images of mechanical plenitude and devastation, an explanation lies in the special circumstances of native industrialization, its speed, its scale, its thoroughness within a brief period. Suffering fewer social barriers, possessing the largest domestic region convertible to a national market without internal restriction, by the end of the century American industry rapidly surpassed its chief European rivals, England and Germany. Figures of absolute increase signified the triumph: the production of raw steel rising from 13 tons in 1860 to near 5,000 in 1890, and of steel rails multiplying ten times in the same years; total agricultural output tripling between 1870 and 1900. Agriculture showed the most dramatic and immediate evidence. A single mechanized farmer in 1896 was able to reap more wheat than eighteen men working with horses and hand equipment sixty years earlier. As output increased, more land came under cultivation (increasing almost fivefold between 1850 and 1900, from about 15 to 37 percent of the total area of the country), and the proportion of the agricultural work force (including owners, tenants, and managers) declined precipitously from its height of 44 percent in 1880. In the critical decade of the 1880's, the balance began its historic shift in favor of nonfarm labor; heavy Northern investment, in machines to produce cash crops such as cotton, tobacco, grain, and cattle (their steep profits flowing as capital into industrial expansion), stimulated this process of displacement into crowded cities already bursting with rural immigrants from overseas.

But such figures of expansion tell only the outside story. The inner story concerned not only absolute increase but a revolutionary rise in productivity. "We have increased the power of production with a given amount of personal effort throughout the country," observed David Wells in 1885, "probably at least twenty-five, and possibly forty percent." In such figures the American propensity for mechanical improvement seemed to bear its most impressive fruit.

Of course, that propensity characterized the entire industrial world, but it had been a special mark of American manufacturing since its beginnings. With a scarcity of skilled labor, of craftsmen and artisans with accumulated experience in nascent industrial processes such as spinning, weaving, and milling, American circumstances placed a premium on mechanical invention and improvement. Scarcity of skills together with cheapness of land had maintained a relatively high cost of labor in the young United States. Moreover, as H. J. Habakkuk has explained, the relative absence of customary work processes and of formal engineering and scientific academies provided incentives for invention, for the devising of machines and techniques to compensate for labor scarcity. Without an inherited aristocratic social order, the new country held out more hope to entrepreneurs for social acceptance as well as material rewards. Many early industrial entrepreneurs had begun their working lives as craftsmen, mechanics with a knack for invention, and had risen to wealth and status as a result of their mechanical skill and entrepreneurial expertise. With mechanical efficiency a greater economic need in the United States than in Europe, and with business a freer field of endeavor, American inventor-manufacturers such as Eli Whitney and Elias Howe developed and refined the practice of interchangeable parts (originally in the making of small arms) considerably before their European counterparts. By the 1850's, the practical Yankee inventor-entrepreneur, the tinkerer with an eye on profit, had come to seem an American type, proof of the republican principle that self-taught men of skill and ingenuity might rise to wealth and social position.

The prominence of mechanical skill made it seem to many that the dramatic increases in productivity during the years of explosive growth after the Civil War arose from the logic of invention, of mechanical improvement itself. But new economic conditions in fact marked a radical discontinuity with the past difficult for many Americans to grasp. The new breed of business leaders were often skilled in finance, in market manipulation, in corporate organization: entrepreneurial skills on a scale unimaginable to most manufacturers before the war. Moreover, they conducted their daily business through a growing system of managers, accountants, supervisors, lawyers: a burgeoning structure of business offices increasingly removed from the machines and labor in the factory itself. The process of invention and technological change lay increasingly in the hands of university- trained engineers and applied scientists, representing an entire new institutional formation which had mushroomed during and after the war. And industrial laborers now tended to be men and women without traditional skills, operators and machine tenders, with little hope of significant social improvement through their own talents and efforts. In short, the increasingly rigid social stratification that accompanied the dramatic rise in industrial productivity confused, angered, and frustrated masses of Americans, a growing percentage of them recent immigrants recruited into the very industrial system which seemed destined to dash their hopes of social improvement.

Technological determinism implied that machines demanded their own improvement, that they controlled the forms of production and drove their owners and workers. Americans were taught to view their machines as independent agencies of power, causes of "progress." Machines seemed fixed in shape, definite self-propelled objects in space. In fact, however, machinery underwent constant change in appearance, in function, in design. Machines were working parts of a dynamic system. And the motives for change, the source of industrial dynamism, lay not in the inanimate machine but in the economic necessities perceived by its owners. Higher rates of productivity through economies of scale and velocity, through greater exploitation of machinery and reorganization of both factory labor and corporate structures, were deliberate goals chosen by business leaders out of economic need. "Goaded by necessity and spurred by the prospect of higher returns," as David Landes writes, industrialists undertook a concerted quest for higher productivity. That quest proved the inner engine of mechanization.

Even minute increases in the rate of productivity might result in greater market advantages. The American fascination with the machine either in its Promethean or in its demonic aspect tended to divert attention from the countless small innovations at the work place, changes both in machinery and the design of work, accreting into major new patterns of production. The belief that viewed "progress" as a relation between new machines and old, a matter of replacing the outmoded by the novel, obscured the transformations of labor, of the human relation to production, each mechanical improvement represented. Technological change in these years consisted of a vast interrelated pattern of novelty, developments in metallurgy, mining, chemistry, hydraulics, electricity feeding back into each other. The result was new materials--such as hard steel, new lubricants for high-powered machines, new abrasives for grinding, new machine parts such as ball bearings--and improved machines, turret lathes, and milling machines for the precision-making of machines and tools themselves. With steam power prevailing in the 1870's, machines grew bigger and faster, and factories resembled jungles of shafts, belts, axles, and gears to transmit power from immense prime movers. By the late 1880's, industrial applications of electricity had already appeared, especially after the development, by Edison and others, of a central generating source. Electricity offered new possibilities of conversion of power into heat, light, and motion, and permitted new efficiencies and economies in the design of factories, including decentralization, dispersion of work areas, and assembly lines. In both the transformative (textiles, chemicals, food processing, glass making) and assembling (construction, clothing, shoe, machine making) industries, electricity worked major alterations in the forms of labor.

The most immediate consequences of changes in materials, power, shape and size and location of the machine, and the degree of skill necessary for its operation, were felt in the industrial plants. Unsettled economic conditions made manufacturers obsessed with efficiency, with the breaking of bottlenecks, the logistics of work flow, the standardization of parts, measurements, and human effort. Throughout these years, cost-accounting concerns became more prominent, until by the 1890's the corporate office virtually dominated the work place, imposing demands for speed, regularity, and quotas of output. As a result, human effort fell more and more into mechanical categories, as if the laborer might also be conceived as an interchangeable part. Furious efforts to cut labor costs led to the announcement of severe work rules, the replacement of traditional craftsmen by unskilled or semiskilled labor: the effort, that is, to lower the cost of wages by increasing investment in the fixed capital of new machinery. Such developments, including the redesign of factory spaces for the sake of greater mechanical efficiency, set the stage for several of the fiercest labor struggles of the 1880's and 1890's. The process of continual refinement and rationalization of machinery, leading to twentieth-century automation, represented to industrial workers a steady erosion of their autonomy, their control, and their crafts.

In the record, then, of mechanical change lay an intermingling of production and destruction, the scrapping of old machines, old processes, and old human skills. An inevitable wreckage accompanied the "progress in manufacturing" David Wells had described as a "mighty river." That image hinted at unconscious meanings, the figure of speech disclosing more than Wells himself recognized. "Like one of our mighty rivers," he wrote in 1876 about manufacturing, "its movement is beyond control." All efforts at control would, "like the construction of piers and the deposits of sunken wrecks, simply deflect the current or constitute temporary obstruction." Wells employs such figures of speech to enforce his message against protective tariffs. Yet the figures intrude another message. The simile linking manufacture ing and "our mighty rivers" tells us, for example, that machinery shares a kinship with nature, especially an American ("our") nature. The simile also alludes to the association of machines with water power: steam had displaced water by 1876, but just seven years earlier almost half the American manufacturing establishments drew power from waterwheels and turbines. In Wells's mind the process entailed calculated destruction for the sake of preserving profits. "Abandonment of large quantities of costly machinery," he explained further in an essay of 1885, is often "a matter of absolute economical necessity." Destruction of the old prevents "the destruction of a much greater amount of capital by industrial rivalry." Thus, the symbiotic relation between destruction and production illustrated a universal principle: "The destruction of what has once been wealth often marks a greater step in the progress of civilization than any great increase in material accumulation."

In these years the mighty river of industrial expansion threatened to take dominion everywhere, converting all labor to mechanical labor, to the production of commodities for distant markets. The spread of the machine meant the spread of the market: more of the continent and the society brought under the domain of political economy and its unconscious logic Wells explicated so vividly. Along with regional and local autonomy, age- old notions of space and time felt the impact of mechanization as a violent wrenching of the familiar. As more efficient machine production required greater attention to uniform parts and units of measurement, standardization of basic perceptions infiltrated the society. And the chief agent of such cultural changes was, of course, the most conspicuous machine of the age: the steam driven locomotive, with its train of cars.

It is not difficult to account for the prominence of the railroad as the age's symbol of mechanization and of Economic and political change. Railroad companies were the earliest giant corporations, the field of enterprise in which first appeared a new breed of men--the Cookes, Stanfords, Huntingtons, and Hills--of unprecedented personal wealth and untrammeled power. Not only did the railroad system make modern technology visible, intruding it as a physical presence in daily life, but it also offered means of exercising unexampled ruthlessness of economic power. In railroad monopolies, combinations, conspiracies to set rates and control traffic, lobbies to bribe public officials and buy legislatures, the nation had its first taste of robber barons on a grand scale.

At the same time the railroad system provided the age with fundamental lessons in physical and economic coordination. Its physical plant in these years represented the very best mechanical invention and improvement: greater load-bearing capabilities, higher speeds, and longer trains, following from air brakes, automatic couplers, block-signaling apparatus, standard-gauge tracks. Although often overcapitalized in the 1860's (through "watered stock," a favorite device of Wall Street speculators), the railroad system expanded into several national networks, providing major stimulation to basic industries like steel, construction, and machine making. In its corporate organization the system stressed coordination and interdependence, the railroad companies being the first to rationalize their business offices into central- and regional-sales, freight, passenger, and legal divisions. Resolutely private entities, even though they thrived on outlays of public funds and privileges through government agencies, the companies organized themselves along strict military lines; indeed, former Civil War generals often served as presidents and directors of operations. They emerged by the 1870's as competing private structures employing hundreds of thousands of citizens as managers, civil and mechanical engineers, lawyers, firemen and conductors, yard and gang laborers. Models of a new corporate world, they seemed the epitome of the modern machine.

Their prominence in America also followed from unique geographical conditions: the vast spaces to be traversed as cheap land, before the Civil War, encouraged far-flung settlements. As George Taylor has shown, a revolution in transportation proved necessary before "the almost explosive rush of industrial expansion which characterized the later decades of the century." Unlike the European situation, where mechanized transport appropriated existing roads and horse tracks as it overturned an older society and culture, here the railroad seemed to "open" places for settlement, for raw materials and transport to markets. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes about the American difference: "The mechanization of transport is not seen, as in Europe, as the destruction of a traditional culture, but as a means to gaining a new civilization from a hitherto worthless (because inaccessible) wilderness." The American railroad seemed to create new spaces, new regions of comprehension and economic value, and finally to incorporate a prehistoric geological terrain into historical time.

The exact economic value of this massive process has been a matter of some controversy among economic historians, Robert Fogel arguing that the "net benefit" of the displacement of the canal system by the railroad being "much less than is usually presumed." But there is no doubt that the railroad "increased the economic accessibility" of raw material. The railroads proved decisive in this era in facilitating that "interchange of matter" from one location to another (as Karl Marx put it), essential to industrial production. This change of location of raw materials and then of goods represented a radical breaking of spatial barriers, barriers of local and regional terrain and cultural difference. Thus, the external economy provided by the railroad in its increased velocity of transport included the incorporation of space and time as factors among the elements of production: the necessary act of overcoming barriers, of virtually annihilating space or distance by reconceiving it as time (places becoming identified as scheduled moments of departure and arrival), emerging as the major capital industry in the age of steam.

The necessity of pushing aside old concepts asserted itself especially in the establishment of standard time zones in 1883. Until that year, "local mean time" ruled across the continent, as it did throughout the world. Each locale assumed responsibility for setting its own time by tested methods of solar readings. Bells and clocks struck noon, for example, when the sun stood directly overhead: never exactly the same moment from place to place or week to week. Local life arranged itself in relation to the most influential community timepieces: church bells and steeple clocks, and after the 1840's, the cupolas and stark brick bell towers of mills and factories. The latter testified to a new importance assigned to time by the factory system, to promptness, regularity of work habits, and most of all, to the conversion of work into time-wages occurring within factory walls. But stubborn local standards persisted, and overlappings of regional times set by the larger cities and local times in the hinterlands formed a crazy quilt pattern across the nation.

The necessity of regulating times appeared with the railroad; especially after the first transcontinental hookup in 1869, the situation seemed increasingly eccentric, to the point of danger and economic loss. Obviously, a railroad passing from New York to Chicago could not adjust itself to the dozens of local times different from each other by fractions of minutes (11 minutes 45 seconds, between Boston and New York, for example). Railroad corporations set their own times. By early 1883, there were about fifty such distinct private universes of time, each streaming on wheels through the countryside, oblivious of the others. Railroad-stations, which quickly became the most influential source of time in the larger cities, often displayed several clocks, each indicating the time on specific lines, and one declaring the presumed local time.

The issue came to a head in these years: not coincidentally, years of increasingly destructive competition in which the smallest factors of technical innovation in production or distribution might make the difference between success and failure. It seemed in everyone's interest to eliminate the disadvantage of eccentric time. The American Society of Civil Engineers joined with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and similar groups to give the approval of science to standard time zones. In 1882 the engineers reported: "Mistakes in the hour of the day are frequent. In every city or town, in every State, discrepancies are met which produce great aggregate inconvenience. Thousands of engagements are broken. Innumerable disappointments and losses result." In 1883 the railroads acted and, by joint decision, placed the country--without act of Congress, President, or the courts--under a scheme of four "standard time zones." This, of course, was "railroad time." Most communities adjusted their clocks at the railroad's behest (Chicago held out for a brief spell), and where local time did not immediately fall before the rush of the industrial machine, it remained only as a kind of twitch of residual "nervousness. "


In 1871, Walt Whitman, still in a mood of buoyant but guarded optimism about the future of America and his own role as bard of its democratic hopes, published one of his more ebullient poems. But while ostensibly a celebration of recent technological feats, the Atlantic cable, the Suez Canal, the Union Pacific Railroad, "Passage to India" holds in reserve buried doubts and misgivings. A poem of "progress," it reverts obsessively to the "past"; a praise of accomplishment, it fastens on defeat: the "sad shade" of Columbus, the "unloving earth, without a throb to answer ours, / Cold earth, the place of graves." It sings "the great achievements of the present . . . the strong light works of engineers," yet finds them all useless apart from other works of the poet, "the true son of God," who will assure that "Nature and Man shall be disjoin'dand diffused no more." The poet seems to complete the work of the engineer--or does he remedy it, restoring what the machine has split asunder? The poem leaves this question unresolved, but ends with a prayer and a vision of a farther journey, a spiritual voyage launched "out of myself," toward a transcendent "Rondure" and solutions to "ye aged fierce enigmas" of life and death.

Doubts are registered in the lower frequencies of the poem. And even more ambiguous than the relation between poet and engineer is the idea of modern technology itself. On one hand, the poem speaks in the accents of celebration; then it seems to undercut the value of the magnificient engineering achievements by subordinating them to the work of the poet, whose constructions are of thin air. Whitman accurately perceives the political input of the communications and transportation revolutions, recognizing that they constituted a single world system, a global perspective, a "Rondure." Yet these awesome connections in space and the transcendence of time evoke fears of a widening gap between man and nature, a deeper alienation from earth. The poem makes no mention of either social or psychological effects of the new modes of travel and communication--no mention of markets and labor, of jolts to the nerves and altered perceptions of time and space--but produces a feeling of disjunction and dislocation, nevertheless.

In speaking of a redemptive poet, a "son of God," a farther journey, Whitman seems to propose a solution to a problem only dimly perceived: the unspoken implications of modern industrial technology. For while his "engineer" seems a single-minded artificer of a grand system of connecting links, cables, canals, and spans, such acts of construction belonged as well to the rapidly consolidating system of mechanical production. Whitman misses that association: the role of science and technology in the socioeconomic dialectic of industrial production. In light of that role, the "Rondure" described by engineering feats also obliterates the local, the regional, the immediate relation to an intimate "nature." It also represents a profoundly altered character of human labor itself.

The visionary mode of Whitman's celebration does not permit the sort of irony with which Herman Melville perceived modern machinery. Melville's poem on the mechanized iron-sided battleships employed in the Civil War, "A Utilitarian's View of the Monitor's Fight" (1866), views technology in the light of what it has displaced. The title links the phenomenon the poem describes to a leading nineteenth-century ideology popular among American businessmen, Jeremy Bentham's "calculus" of counting benefits against costs, of judging value by practical effects. "Plain mechanic power / Plied cogently," writes Melville in the ironic guise of a "Utilitarian," transforms "warriors" into "operatives" and war itself into a kind of factory labor. Indeed, "cogently" implies not only deadly accuracy but an end to the distinction between battle and work, between destruction and creation: "No passion; all went on by crank, / Pivot, and screw, and calculations of caloric." The heat of engines replaces the heat of human passion, and "calculations" now govern where once emotion ruled. By implication, the diminishment of warfare to industrial work results in the conversion of workers into mechanical parts, into mirror images of their machines: a hellish prospect Melville had imagined more than a decade earlier in his story, "Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," in which female "operatives" of a paper-making factory appear as grim, impoverished counterparts to a group of smug, prosperous, and well-fed male lawyers.

Such premonitions of the rule of calculation anticipated the decisive developments in the 1870's and 1880's. In the quest for greater productivity, for more efficient machines, more output per unit of cost, calculation of several kinds played an increasingly significant role. With the enlarged role of the accounting office in decisions relevant to materials and labor, transportation, advertising, and sales, mathematical considerations entered the business world in a major way. At an opposite pole to commerce, another kind of abstract calculation appeared in an enlarged and more systematic role for science, for basic research as well as applied science and engineering. Professional, white-collar personnel expanded the size and influence of office and laboratory, both increasingly distant from the shop floor but increasingly pertinent to the daily arrangements and pace of factory life. Calculations of economy and of science developed into professional processes with their own skills and rules, but in the end their effects were felt in the changing relations between human labor and machines, in the steady encroachment of mechanization on the forms of work, of everyday life, and social transactions throughout America.

The enhanced importance of refined and reliable calculations implied a position of new significance for knowledge, a critical role for trained abstract thought within the productive system. This development appeared in an intricate process of institutional change: the appearance of new schools, of new relations between formal education and corporate industries, and greater accessibility of science to industry. Events in the 1870's and 1880's prepared the way for the turn-of-the-century research laboratory as an integral component of the electrical and chemical industries. The role of scientific method and knowledge within industries expanded, however, not primarily from schools and laboratories themselves, but from new perceptions on the part of industrial managers of the advantages of scientific calculation in their quest for greater productivity, a quest itself spurred by more systematic and rationalized methods of economic calculation.

The incorporation of basic science and formal technological training with industrial production quickened dramatically during these decades of economic uncertainty. During the earlier stages of industrialization, science and technology had seemed wholly separate and often antagonistic fields, theoretical scientists (often gentlemen amateurs) holding themselves aloof from either direct mechanical application or entrepreneurship. Even as late as the early nineteenth century, craftsmen-inventors such as Elias Howe and Oliver Evans ruled over technological innovation, using an on- the-job cut-and-try technique of experimentation. Such figures predominated especially in America, where formal science bore the onus of impracticality and remoteness from human need. In fact, however, practical innovators were less ignorant and disdainful of basic principles than the popular notion recognized, and trained university scientists, particularly geologists, served as consultants for mining and railroad companies even before the Civil War. Even as the image of the self taught cut-and-try inventor remained uppermost in popular thought as more distinctly American than the "gentleman scientist" or pure experimentalist the currents began to converge. Graduate programs in science developed at major universities, and specialized schools of engineering supported by private funds, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1866), proliferated; by 1900, the list of technical institutes included Case, Carnegie, Stevens, and Worcester Polytechnical Institute. With their close ties to private industries, their willingness to design their curricula to meet industrial needs, such schools fostered specialization of functions, a process reflected in the new professional societies splitting off from the original American Society of Civil Engineers (founded in 1852): mining, mechanical, electrical, and naval engineers all forming distinct societies with their own journals and meetings in these years.

Engineering thus transformed itself from its earlier empiricism and artisanship in order to mediate the vast structural changes in mechanical production compelled by economic need. "The artisan was replaced in the vanguard of technological progress by a new breed," writes Edwin Layton. "In place of oral traditions passed from master to apprentice, the new technologist substituted a college education, a professional organization, and a technical literature patterned on that of science." The schools, the professional societies, the new roles of responsibility within corporate hierarchies, fostered a new quality of mind and outlook: disciplined, systematic, administrative. Trained to combine the findings of formal science with economic, legal, and logistical considerations, the new engineers brought into industry an apparently detached, objective, and highly specialized approach to solving problems. But whether designing the flow of work in factories or rating the output of machines, the engineer served finally a chronic need of the industrial system: to impose system and order, through improved machinery, for the sake of assuring a reliable return on investments. As David Noble has argued, the new institutional ties between engineering and industry served that need of capitalists, more dire in time of crisis, "routinely to anticipate the future in order to survive."

The consequences were felt throughout the society and culture: most notably in the increasing specialization of knowledge, its fragmentation into arcane regions of technique and learning, and in the growing concentration of the power accompanying specialized knowledge and skills within private corporations. In the 1870's and 1880's, however, this process remained fairly hidden from view. With public attention focused on severe economic fluctuations, rising tensions between capital and labor, and the colorful if morally dubious lives of captains of industry, the steady incorporation of institutionalized rationality into the system went generally unnoticed. Moreover, persisting popular images of business success through self- help, luck and pluck, and venturesome risk taking, left little room for the concept of controlled and systematic anticipation of the future.

It remained a common belief that the system owed its dynamism and innovations to the personal "genius" of prominent individuals like Thomas A. Edison. One of the most popular Americans of his own time and since, Edison in his public guise represented a form of knowledge starkly at odds with new realities; indeed, at odds even with the truth about his own activities. Like the image of the isolated machine with its alternating demonic and Promethean currents, popular perceptions of Edison distorted the underlying logic of events, making "progress)' seem both more accidental and more innocent.

Already renowned by the 1876 exposition for his multiflex telegraph, his improved ticker tape, his many patented devices, and his success as a manufacturer of his own stock-quotation printer, Edison rose to genuine fame with the invention of the phonograph in 1877 (he was then thirty years old). With his talking machine and, in 1879, the electric light bulb, Edison attracted perhaps the widest attention of the age in the press, journals, and popular books. In these years, the Edison legend took shape: the stories of his childhood experiments in rural Ohio with chemistry and electricity, his exploits as a trainboy on the Grand Truck Railroad of Canada and Central Michigan, the newspaper he published on board the train, his self-taught mastery of mechanics and electricity, his years of study, wandering, working at odd jobs, until his arrival in New York in 1868 and his invention of a stock-quotation printer which won the attention of Western Union and launched his career. The periodical literature stressed two key elements of Edison's success: his natural genius, flourishing without formal school training, and his instinctual entrepreneurship which led him unerringly to useful, that is to say, marketable inventions. Thus, the public Edison seemed to embody in perfect combination precisely what many at the time felt America to be losing, its rural Protestant virtues of the self- made man, and what it was gaining in the way of material improvements. Edison seemed to hold together the old and new, the world of the tinkerer and the world of modern industry; the age of steam (his youth on the railroad) and the coming age of electricity. He made the new America of cities and complicated machinery seem to evolve in an orderly fashion from the old America of country towns and youthful high jinks on country railroads.

As a form of popular knowledge and a version of the new industrial realities, the most critical feature of the Edison image concerned the origins of invention. In 1876, Edison had sold his manufacturing business in Newark and withdrew with a small group of helpers to Menlo Park, a quiet New Jersey town about an hour by railroad from New York, where he established the first significant industrial-research laboratory in America. After five years he moved to larger, better-equipped buildings in Orange, New Jersey, but the period at Menlo Park from 1876 to 1881 proved the most fertile of his career, yielding the most dramatic products of his labors: the phonograph, the improved telephone, the incandescent lamp, and the basic elements of a central power generating system. It was during these years, too, that Edison assumed his best-known role, as "Wizard of Menlo Park." And in their accounts of the wizard, popular stories in the press and journals portrayed a character part Prometheus, bringing light, and part Faust, tainted with satanic association. The setting itself Äthe mysterious fire-lit laboratories in wooden buildings within a peaceful rural landscape--enhanced the demonic aura. But demonism was no more than a whiff, dissolved by descriptions of the guileless, open-faced, wry and salty Midwestern boy-man Edison turned out to be. Instead, the wizard image served another primary function: to account for the origins of Edison's inventions as personal "genius," out of the thin air of a fertile imagination and heroic persistence. "His inventions were calling to him with a sort of siren voice," wrote Scribner's in 1879. More over, as wizard and natural genius, Edison had no need of formal science, of mathematics and theory; the press played up his superiority to the schools, which on occasion issued scornful pronouncements upon him as a mere "mechanic."

Thus, Edison offered a reassurance that the old routes to personal success were still open, that the mass of inventions and improvements profoundly altering industry and reshaping personal lives truly emerged from a heroic wresting of the secrets of nature for human betterment. The phonograph especially, the inanimate made animate, inspired rhapsodies of technological fantasy. " 'If this can be done,' we ask, 'what is there that cannot be?' " exclaimed the writer in Scribners. "We feel that there may, after all, be a relief for all human ills in the great storehouse of nature," he continued, adding pointedly: "There is an especial appropriateness, perhaps, in its occurring in a time of more than usual discontent."

With his eye to publicity, and no doubt his bemused enjoyment of so much attention, Edison seemed glad to collaborate in the image of the wizard, the wunderkind. In fact, however, Menlo Park and the later laboratories were testing grounds for the full scale industrial research organizations which would develop within private industries such as General Electric and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company by the turn of the century. Edison hired university-trained scientists among his staff, including Francis R. Upton, a specialist in mathematical physics. Menlo Park was a team operation, the earliest research and development laboratory in America; Edison established the place as an "invention factory," a place where invention might be made to order for private industry. He differed from much of his public by having no illusions on that score. Invention was his business.

Concerning himself with economics as much as technics, Edison viewed his key inventions in light of their commercial feasibility--that is, of competing technologies they might displace. This was especially true of the electric bulb. "The prime desideratum," notes Thomas P. Hughes, "was an incandescent light economically competitive with gas." That competition drove Edison to conceive of "the electric light problem" (in his own words) as part of "a complete system for the distribution of electric light in small units in the same general manner as gas." And he recognized that the lighting system must be part of an even larger "program" which included "the distribution of electric current for heat and power also." This meant, he wrote, "a comprehensive plan, analogous to illumination by gas, covering a network of conductors, all connected together, so that in any given city area the lights could be fed with electricity from several directions, thus eliminating any interruption due to disturbance on any particular section." It meant a structure of central generators, conductors, meters, current regulators, safety devices Äand "commercially efficient motors to operate elevators, printing presses, lathes, fans, blowers, etc., etc., by the current generated in central stations and distributed through the network of main conductors installed in city streets." It meant, in short, an entire new system inscribed deeply, underground and overhead, into the life of the city: a system industrial in its character and private in its ownership.

Edison did not "invent" the light bulb; he improved existing models, developing a filament which would glow consistently. And in his quest for a solution to that problem, economic motives played so deep a role they can only with difficulty be separated from the technical procedures themselves. In the end, it is appropriate to say that his skill regarding the lamp proved to be chiefly commercial. Backed by J. P. Morgan, he quickly formed a company, and by 1882 opened the first central power plant in New York, the Pearl Street station, which illuminated eighty-five buildings.

Whether acts of wizardry or genius, or sheer luck, Edison's work belonged to the evolving structure of experimental science and its alliance with industrial capitalism. To stress this obvious fact is not to debunk the myth but to place it in perspective: to see it as a myth which disguises the radical changes occurring in the origins and uses of knowledge in these years. The new relations of science to industrial technology ultimately represented a new relation of human labor to the process of production. Separated by increasingly complex and dense institutions, the shop floor and the research laboratory belonged to the same universe of production. With machines performing more of the work previously performed by people, workers themselves were required to know less in order to perform their tasks--to know less because their machines know more. Mechanization entailed, then, the transference of technical knowledge from workers to machines, a process mediated by a new corps of trained engineers. The rise of specialized skills and arcane knowledge corresponded precisely to the obliteration of traditional knowledge among skilled manual laborers. The growing numbers of trained technologists on one hand and unskilled workers on the other were two faces of the same process.

As if called forth by this prime economic motive, Frederick W. Taylor, a foreman at the Midvale Steel Company in Pennsylvania, inaugurated in the 1880's his famous "time-study" experiments, aimed at elimination of waste, inefficiency, and what he called "soldiering" on the part of workers. With his stopwatch--a further encroachment of time on physical movement--Taylor proposed to systematize exactly that process Wells had described as production through destruction: the absolute subordination of "living labor" to the machine. He envisioned a complete renovation of the production process, with standardization of tools and equipment, replanning of factories for greater efficiency, and a "piece-rate" method of payment as incentive for workers. In The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), Taylor made explicit the heart of his program: to take possession for management of the "mass of traditional knowledge" once possessed by the workers themselves, "knowledge handed down to them by word of mouth, through the many years in which their trade has been developed from the primitive condition." For Taylor the stopwatch and flowchart were basic instruments whereby management might reduce that knowledge to measurable motions, eradicating their workers' autonomy at one stroke while enhancing their productivity.

Thus, the social distribution of knowledge begins a major shift, a transference (as far as technology and technique are concerned) from bottom to top, in these years of extensive and intensive mechanization. Just as important, and as a symbol of the process, thought now appears often in the dumb, mystifying shapes of machines, of standing and moving mechanical objects as incapable of explaining themselves to the unknowing eye as the standing stones of ancient peoples. The momentous event of mechanization, of science and technology coming to perform the labor most significant to the productivity of the system, reproduced itself in ambivalent cultural images of machines and inventors, and in displacements running like waves of shock through the social order.

Bibliographical Essay