Shifting Gears:
Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America

Cecelia Tichi

Big things are happening in the development of this country. With the spreading movement toward greater efficiency, a new and highly improved era in national life has begun.
Harper's Weekly, November 2, 1912.

[The word] "efficiency" came into American culture from the machine shop, where the term had a specific technical meaning. It referred, then as now, to the ratio of work done or energy developed by a machine or engine according to the energy supplied to it. This was an application of the laws of thermodynamics to machinery, and it was ordinarily expressed in a percentage. By the 1910s, however, efficiency assumed a new range of meanings in American popular culture. Denotations of personal competence, effectiveness, and social harmony under professional leadership were by then included in a much broadened semantics of efficiency -- though the term always reverted to the values embodied in machine technology.

In the earlier tewentieth century, in fact, the machine became a perceptual model, and efficiency accordingly was the standard by which physical and intellectual activity was measured. The very term became and expression of abundant, disciplined energies. Like waste, efficiency offered an opportunity to realize new levels of abundance, for it promised to amplify space and multiply time and thus led directly to a new valuation of speed. Ultimately the aesthetic implications of efficiency brought formal changes to American fiction and poetry. These changes, however, were at first enabled by currents in the larger culture.

The education of Henry Adams (1907) is a good example of the new, twentieth-century technological outlook. Adams casts a critical eye over American political history, seeing the political system as a mechanism judged by its efficiency. President Grant's administration, he says, marked the breakdown of the constitutional "system of 1789." Ever since, political energies have been "wasted on expedients . . . to tinker . . . the political machine as often as it broke down. . . . As a machine, it was, or soon would be, the poorest in the world -- the clumsiest -- the most inefficient."

Adams went on to explain why the government of the Founding Fathers was inadequate. "Their machine," he wrote, "was never meant to do the work of a twenty-million horse-power society in the twentieth-century, where much work needed to be . . . efficiently done." "Bad work, Adams added in machine terms, "merely added to the friction." Adams concludes that modern corporate capitalism "was a question of gear, of running machinery. . . . The machine must be efficient."

The irony here is palpable because Adams so disliked capitalism. But he clearly participated in machine values when he declared that education is "to fit young men . . . to be men of the world," and that each young man is by definition "a certain form of energy; the object to be gained is the economy of his force."

"Economy" is the giveaway. Of course it is a very old word, meaning the prudent disposition and planning of resources so as to avoid waste, in which sense it referred to household or estate stewardship in the Middle Ages. When Adams, however, says that "education should try to . . . diminish the friction" to accomplish an economy of force, then he is clearly far from the Middle Ages or even from the nineteenth-century Romantic world of Henry David Thoreau's Walden "economy." In fact Adams is on the verge of the perceptual change in which machine efficiency becomes a standard for the judgment of virtually every human endeavor, thus altering imaginative forms as well.

One figure, the mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), [contributed to] that change in popular American culture. In the 1910s, thanks to a much-publicized court case, he became known as the father of the Efficiency Movement, otherwise called Scientific Management or Taylorism. . . .

. . . .

The most casual students of Taylor know that controversy surrounded his work from the first -- and reverberates into the present. His goals and methods drew criticism and ridicule from unions, politicians, industrialists, and humanists. . . .

Others have recognized Taylor's arrogant presumption that the interests of workers were identical to those of managers. They held him responsible for an inadvertent subjugation of rank-and-file employees to a kind of industrial slavery. . . .

Analysts of American labor and economic history have discussed all these issues at length, and earlier twentieth-century critics found them troubling as well. For the repetitious tasks of any one human cog in the Taylorist (or for that matter Ford) shop were crushingly monotonous. . . .

. . . . [Ultimately] Taylor's ideas permeate[d] the larger culture. . . . Efficiency societies were formed, and hundreds of books and articles began to appear in the mid-1910s with such titles as Efficiency in High Schools, Efficiency in Home Making, Efficient Composition, Intellectual Efficiency, and Efficiency in Religious Work. The Ladies Home Journal was inundated with requests for additional information when it published a series of articles applying scientific management tot he household; Good Housekeeping offered its readers a pamphlet on The Household Efficient. The educators George Betts and Otis Hall argued that rural inefficiency had harmed the nation, while Walter Hines Page, the editor of World's Work, said that "town life and modern life in general have been made efficient" through organization. . . .

Taylor himself became an evangelist of the movement, for he linked morality and well-being to his scientific management. He prophesied that his methods would extend "to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of our businesses of our tradesmen, large and small; of our churches, our philanthropic institutions, our universities, and our governmental departments. During the Progressive Era of the 1910s his disciples brought the methods of scientific management into American institutions ranging from education . . . to medicine . . . .

. . . .

It seems that in the 1910s "efficiency" became a catch-all word . . . , virtually a buzzword in its own time. To some extent it was, for "efficiency" was applied everywhere from Sunday schools to baseball. . . . .

. . . . [A]s Taylor worked to eliminate excess energy from work, Henry Adams was proclaiming the purpose of educaiton to maximize the economy of a young man's force. Taylor has been seen as in instigator (and the scapegrace) of the Efficiency Movement, but the issues he distilled were in the air. If Taylor had not been there, someone would have invented him.

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