Alan Trachtenberg


Chapter 02:Mechanization Takes Command

Even before the Civil War, the West was destined to be ruled by the machine. Americans fused the symbols and myths of the West and of the machine into a single image of "a progressive civilization fulfulling a providential mission". Many believed that industrial technology and the factory were the instruments of Republican values and a democratic future.

Nevertheless, Trachtenberg shows us that the image of the machine came to be a complex symbol, ridden with ambiguity and contradictions. The machine seemed at once the origin of progress and new products, as well as poverty and wretched industrial conditions. Each national celebration of technology was countered by a national disaster of sorts; Pullman workers went on strike in 1894 just as the exhibits of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition were being taken down.

Other crises instilled doubt as well. The "great depression " from 1873 to 1896 contributed to an uneven business cycle which affected all sections of the economy. Railroad strikes occured throughout the country and provoked strikes in other industries as well. Such strikes often became bloody, the strike of 1877 resulting in over one hundred deaths. The national government supported the corporations and provided police and military power to deal with uprising of laborers.

Such crises lent the machine an aspect of supreme power. David Wells, in Harper's magazine likened the power of the machine to a mighty river beyond the control of humans. Though quite different from crises, celebrations such as the World's Fair also taught Americans that mechanical progress was a force with laws of its own.


Trachtenberg charts the appearance of the machine in all its complexities in imaginitive writing and social theory.

In Carroll D. Wright's writings and theory, the factory system was a civilizing force. It frees mankind from labor and improves morals, intelligence, health, and wages. Wright urged a class of manufacturers to take on the responsibility of upbuilding the race. Conversely, Henry George's factory system degradated the working masses into "'mere feeders of machines.'" George sought to persuade the nation to adopt a new "single tax" system, ameliorating the problems of unjust land division. Charles Francis Adams, Jr. concluded that it was useless for men to stand in the way of technology and crystallized this popular concept of technologhical determinism in a theory of history based on "'forces'".

Determinism, Trachtenberg points out, took form in cultural perceptions as well. People began to speak of society as a machine, of the self and thought as a material mechanism. Such ideas of mechanism challenged the ideas of free will and the exercise of choice, fundamental to a belief in a moral universe.

Fiction and folklore also reflect changing cultural perceptions. Paul Bunyan and John Henry pit their strength against the machine. Dime-novel Westerns and Fantasies, featuring automatic repeating weapons and ten foot robots, familiarized readers with repeatability, automation, and imagined exotic technology.

William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes expressed fear that the chaos of mechanized life would snuff out morality. In 1884, George M. Beard presented a medical treatise claiming that the nervous system is like a machine strained by the pressures of the machine in society. Beard, Wells, and Henry George write of social unrest and technological violence culminating in impending apocalypse.

Romantic, futuristic, utopian stories responded to this shadow the mahine seemed to be casting across the future. Such stories depicted science and technology as a source of rationality and control, allaying fears about chaos, violence, and the dangers of sordid cities.

Bellamy's utopian novel, Looking Backward, celebrates a futuristic society in which the machine contributes rationality and efficiency to a system of socialism. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain depicts the problems of a mechinized future through Hank Morgan's failure to modernize Camelot.


Such associations of the machine with evil and violence suggest that Americans have conflicting values, such as the values of mechanical progress and the values of pastoral harmony. Yet, Trachtenberg shows that these associations may also be indicative of the industrial capitalist system itself. The system resulted in recurrent cycles of economic growth. Industrialization took place with great speed and scale in the system, particularly in agriculture, as its work force declined and nonfarm labor increased.

Behind this rapid expansion of industrialization was increased productivity. The great national virtue of productivity seemed the results of a uniquely American propensity for mechanical improvement, born of a scarcity of skilled labor, the high cost of labor, the lack of engineering and scientific academies, and the absence of a social order conducive to entrepreneurs.

Yet, Trachtenberg reveals that while invention and mechanical improvement seemed the source of productivity, new economic conditions were influencial as well, though less easily understood. Business leaders had more financial and managerial savy. Furthermore, the torch of invention was passed along to university-trained engineers and scientists while industrial laborers were no longer skilled laborers so much as machine operators. Thus, the rise in productivity resulted in a social stratification wich left the common laborer with little hope of upward mobility.

Technological determinism portrayed the machine as the agent and origin of its own improvement. In actuality, machines underwent constant changes, driven by the owners' sense of economic need and desire for higher returns. New and improved machines, more efficient and categorized work processes and factory spaces foreshadowed twentieth-century automation. These many minute changes transformed labor as well. However, the notion of progress as a replacement of the old by the new, obscured this incremental transformation. At the same time, the rise in production meant a major overhaul of industrial practices which many saw as a force of destruction.

Industrial expansion threatened to dominate all labor, to bring the rest of the country under the influence of the market and political economy. Standardization infiltrated society, championed by the railroad. A model of incorporation and the epitome of the modern machine, it evinced mechanical improvement, exemplified national networking and corporate organization, and enabled ruthless economic power. Perhaps its greatest feat was that without an act of law, the railroad established standard time zones throughout the country, laying waste to space and distance, and replacing it with time.


Trachtenberg explores the efforts of Whitman and Melville in confronting the machine. Whitman's "Passage to India", ostensibly a celebration of technology has an undercurrent of doubts and misgivings which render its treatment of technology ambigious. Whitman fears that the revolutions in communictaion and transportation resulting in a global structure will alienate man from nature. According to Trachtenberg, Whitman's coneption of this global "Rondure" is simplified, however, and does not deal with the specific and concrete problems of industrialization, thereby eclipsing the complexity of the problem. Melville's "A Utilitarian's View of the Monitor's Fight", on the other hand, warns of the rule of calculation which would blur the distinctions between battle and work, destruction and creation, workers and mechanical parts.

Trachtenberg charts further fundamental changes wrought by the machine. In the 1870's and 1880's, the rule of calculation entered the business world through accounting. Economic and Scientific calculation became professionalized. New schools were created as were connections between education and industry and between science and industry. These innovations were driven by managers' desire for greater productivity, itself driven by economic calculation. Also, a new breed of Engineers was created to deal not only with science, but with economic, legal, and logistical issues. Moreover, knowledge was specialized, fragmented, and institutionalized within the system.

The institutionalization of knowledge went largely unnoticed due to overriding problems and the persistence of the image of the entrepreneur-inventor, epitomized by Edison. The myth of Edison portrays him as a natural genius, achieving much with no formal training, endowed with an instinct for entrepreneurship. He thus embodied the ideals of the self-made man and the modern businessman. He symbolized mechanical innovation as proceeding from traditional America. He symbolized invention as springing from an effort toward improvement of the human condition. Trachtenberg explains that, in reality, Edison's inventions were determined by commercial feasibility as much as by technological or humanitarian interests. Edison was, in fact, part of the wedding of experimental science with industrial capitalism. The myth of Edison obscures this dynamic.

The new relations between science, knowledge, and industrial technology reoriented human labor with production. Technical knowledge became the province of trained engineers, while the mass of unskilled workers, George's machine operators, grew. Mechanization, science, and technology came to perform the labor fundamental to productivity. This was reflected in social distribution of knowledge, and symbolized by a new mechanized conception of thought. Ultimately, Trachtenberg demonstrates that this incredible change was evinced in ambivalent images of machines and inventors and in disturbances in the social order.