Robert Gordon, “Who turned the mechanical ideal into mechanical reality?”

Robert Gordon explicitly challenges the traditional historiographical (and popular) assumption that machines replaced skilled labor during the 19th century rise of the “American System” of interchangeable parts manufacture- Gordon approaches this issue indirectly, by analyzing the gap between the ideal that new manufacturing processes were designed to realize and the actual form that they inaugurated. The ideal was a completely standardized system of machine-made parts that would be identical to each other, with a concomitant separation of the manufacture of individual parts and the assembly of the final product. This system was originally implemented by the U.S. Department of War at the Springfield and Harper’s Ferry armories. In reality, this ideal was not achieved with machinery alone, as is often assumed. Gordon notes that the machinery designed for the purpose was not able to achieve the tolerances necessary for truly interchangeable parts. In practice, then, for the system to function as intended, the workers at the armories were required to file the parts *by hand* until they became truly interchangeable. Far from eliminating handiwork, the machinery made it more necessary than ever.

Gordon identifies four skills that continued to be essential to the success of the American System:

dexterity (in both operation of the machines and the direct handiwork)

Judgment: this increased as the 19th century wore on and workers had to continually intervene in the mechanical process to reach the ideal of interchangeability. Another way to think of this is that the “mechanical ideal” was, along with all other ideals, a social construction; it could not be achieved by machines alone, but only with human judgment.

Planning: Vitally important during the initial phase of deployment, this became less important over time (as individual judgment took over).

Resourcefulness: The work itself was never completely repetitive. Contrary to traditional assumptions, the process of manufacturing evolved over time as new materials were introduced, requiring on-the-fly adaptation of methods by the human workers.

Gordon concludes that at least until the 1920s, the ideal of interchangeable manufacture was achieved as much through the skill of artisans as by the machinery itself. While we may well welcome Gordon’s insight, it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that he has only described a transition period in the history of manufacturing, and the elimination of skilled labor that historians traditionally associated with the rise of interchangeable manufacture did inevitably, and irreversibly, occur eventually.


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