September 26, 2012

Technology: America's Assembly Line

After the American Century

The assembly line will be 100 years old in 2013. The precise date will probably forever remain unknown, as the assembly line was not a self-conscious project. The managers at the Ford Motor Company did not explicitly set out to create it. Rather, a group of talented men, some machinists and some formally educated, some inexperienced enough to have new ideas and others seasoned veterans of many different industries, came together in a new industry that was growing explosively. Consumer demand for cars outstripped traditional methods of production. Cars were built up from the floor, much as wagons had been, and a factory with 1000 workers could scarcely produce 1000 cars in a year.

Ford had decided to focus on making an inexpensive car for as many customers as possible, so the old artisan methods clearly would not do. The company built a new factory at Highland Park in 1910, one that was designed to move parts right inside on railway cars and hoist them to wherever they were needed using overhead electric cranes. The new factory was not built specifically for the purpose of inventing the assembly line, but its management was quite open to experimentation. They began to subdivide work, and they discovered all sorts of small savings by adjusting the lighting, the height of tables, the positions of things, and anything else they could think of. 

The first work process that looked something like an assembly line put together just one part, the flywheel magneto, and this experiment apparently began about April 1, 2013. Apparently. no one used the phrase "assembly line" in that month. But one experiment led to another, and by the fall of that year the managers were trying out car assembly with a moving line of sorts. It was still experimental, but by then the goal had emerged. 

Since 1913 assembly lines have spread to all parts of the world, and made possible a consumer revolution. Not only could cars be made for less, but almost anything else as well, from toasters to refrigerators to lawnmowers to clothing to children's toys.

This was not a simple story of progress, however, for the assembly line could also be used to strip workers of their previous authority on the shop floor, to push workers to labor so hard it damaged their bodies and numbed their minds, and to reduce the number of workers needed, creating both unemployment and abundance at the same time. The assembly line was, paradoxically, celebrated by Lenin's Soviet Union, by Nazi Germany, and by the United States during the Cold War. More recently, it has been the central means of production in emerging economies, notably in China. 

For decades some engineers dreamed of automation, of robot assembly lines, of production without workers, which, depending on your scenario, led to leisure for all, or enormous profits for a few, or some combination of both,  In Japan after World War II, however, further development of Ford's original ideas led to lean production, which doubled productivity without recourse to robots or lots of automatic equipment. Then it was the Americans turn to play catch up, a task that became more complicated as computers also became central parts of production.

The social history of the assembly line is examined further in:

David E. Nye, America's Assembly Line   MIT Press
0262018713  978-0262018715
Kindle edition available.

Available at these and other booksellers:

September 24, 2012

Election 2012: Romney's Energy Program – Back to the 1970s

After the American Century



Romney and the Republicans propose a return to the 1970s energy policy. He is the spokesman for the old fossil fuel energy regime, intent on maintaining its technological momentum. He would increase the supply of gas and oil, de-fund energy savings programs, leave innovation choices to the private sector and let alternative energies fend for themselves in the marketplace. 

The Romney energy plan, “Believe in America,” (2012) does not deny global warming, as George Bush did for much of his presidency, but completely ignores it.

September 17, 2012

Palingo, Palinesque, Palinitude: Sarah Palin as a part of American Speech

After the American Century

As ( I hope) Sarah Palin fades into the obscurity she so richly deserves, the name Palin may remain  to enrich our vocabulary. Many people's names have turned into common terms, including Diesel (a German engineer who invented that engine), Guillotine (a French physician who invented you know what). and Stetson (after an American hat maker).   Here are some of the Palin possibilities.

Palinesque: loud and self-assured but without substance.

Palinoscopy: a probe to nowhere.

Palinitude: a statement that seems obviously true to right-wing Republicans and obviously false to everyone else.

Palingo: grammar so fractured that meaning disappears.
Palinicity: (a sort of mental ethnicity) to refer to people with little education but passionate self-assurance, who embrace moralistic rhetoric, fundamentalist religion, and blind patriotism. Future commentators might say that a candidate's palinicity has yet to be tested.

A Palin Move: nominating an unsuitable but physically attractive person for public office.


There may be other wonderful possibilities, but I fear that this column might degenerate into a palinoscopy. I do suspect, however, that this comment is an anti-Palinitude, i.e. appearing obviously false to right-wing Republicans, and true to all others,

September 16, 2012

Technology: Electrifying America

After the American Century



 A few months ago, MIT Press singled out my Electrifying America as one of 50 books to celebrate as part of an anniversary event.  I was asked to prepare a short reflection on the book, which appears below.

The late 1980s was a good time to reflect on and analyze electrification, a process that had begun in the 1880s and been completed in my childhood. When I took up the subject, electricity had become "natural" but it was not difficult to recover its recent novelty. I was also experienced enough, with three previous books (on Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and General Electric), to realize that this was a wonderful subject and to know how fortunate I was to start work with the encouragement of a contract from MIT Press.
I researched Electrifying America when there was still no email or Internet, although I proudly wrote on a new word processor (with no hard disk). Most documents had to be gathered in libraries and archives, which was less a hardship than a pleasure. Where could I better get a sense of the early electric light than at the Edison National Historic Site? I did research in Muncie Indiana (better known as Middletown) to understand how it had adopted electricity. Likewise, I studied the electricity-mad Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, where it had been held in 1901. Such experiences gave me an invaluable grounding in the material culture of my subject.

That grounding stretched back to my childhood. I often visited my grandparents’ New Hampshire farm, which, when I first was there, lacked electricity. I also glimpsed the pre-electric world among the Amish and Mennonites whom I encountered while growing up in central Pennsylvania. During summers in Boston, I delighted in streetcars, and pestered my father to take me for rides, demanding to know how the system worked. A mechanical engineer who had co-authored a book about steam-power plants, he explained to me elementary mechanics and electrical machinery. Decades later he was still teaching me when we discussed sections of Electrifying America in draft form. By then, I was also teaching him some social and cultural history. They are at the center of the book, which fuses my education in American Studies with an understanding of technical details and an immersion in specific places. It proved to be the longest and perhaps the best of the eight books I have written for MIT Press, though an author always likes to think the next book will be the best one. (My America's Assembly Line will appear with MIT Press in spring, 2013.)


Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology received a full-page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review in September, 1991, and that December it was named a Times Notable Book for the year. It won the 1991 Abel Woolman Award from the Public Works History Association, and in 1993 it received the Dexter Prize from the Society for the History of Technology. It is still in print.

September 15, 2012

Romney and the Middle East

After the American Century

There is no justification for killing people because of a film, nor is there any reason to label this film "American" when it was apparently made by a Coptic Christian, i.e. a man with Egyptian roots. Nor does it in any way express the views of the American people. Nor has the film even been seen by many people, much less been reviewed. That fanatics are prepared to blame the film on the US and to use it as a justification for killing people, attacking embassies, and violating the most basic of diplomatic rights, is totally unacceptable. But in the American political campaign, that is not the point. All Americans will agree.

This situation presented Candidate Romney with a simple test of his ability to respond to a crisis. He  failed this test. Admittedly, he has little foreign policy experience. His visit to Britain was a disaster, as he managed to insult his hosts with completely unnecessary crtiical remarks about whether the country was ready for the Olympics. All he had to do was smile and talk about the "special relationship" but he made a mess of it. 

This ineptness seems to have emerged again in his comments on the film that has provoked rage in the Muslim world. Romney was quick to condemn the murder of the US Ambassador and the attacks on US embassies. That was a no-brainer. But it took Romney four days to condemn the film itself, in vague terms.  He seemed reluctant to do so.

The Nation has investigated the origins of the film, and uncovered a network of Romney supporters and foreign policy advisers who have extensive contacts with anti-Muslim groups, with some indirect connections to those who made it. The Nation does not propose a conspiracy theory, nor do I. It is sufficient to point out that virulent stereotyping of Muslims, like that in the offending film, is rife on the far right. The current crisis will have the effect, intended or not, of motivating the most extreme, xenophobic voters. Romney seemed reluctant to condemn the film. His instinct was not to be a statesman.

On both sides – in the Muslim world and in the United States –  extremists who hate each other will seek to profit from the crisis the more severe it becomes. Moderation and dialogue is what the world needs, not demonizing stereotypes. We know that President Obama can keep calm and focused in difficult times. Would Romney be able to do that?



September 03, 2012

Education: Reflections on Teaching

After the American Century

Today I begin teaching again. The first class I ever taught was at the University of Minnesota, in the fall of 1969. I was a half time instructor in composition (freshman English), and I did not even have my MA degree yet. But there were 200 sections of freshman composition to be staffed, and based on my first year of graduate work I was deemed qualified. 

Now 43 years have rushed by, and I have taught students at many universities, and expanded the range of my (in)competence to a much wider range of courses than composition (which I taught until 1974, when my PhD was completed.) 

I have spent literally thousands of hours in classrooms. Here are some of the things I have learned about teaching.

(1) Every class has its own personality, which develops quickly, certainly within the first three or four meetings. The teacher has some influence on how this collective personality emerges, but less than one might think. An experienced teacher knows what sort of personality a class has quite quickly.

(2) Some classes are dynamic and lively and almost seem to teach themselves. Another class, being taught precisely the same materials by the same teacher in the same semester, is slow and dull and must be dragged along. The students make (or fail to make) the "personality" of the class, but they do not understand this. They think the experience of being together is largely the result of the teacher's personality. The teacher is less central than they realize.

(3) Humor is quite important in the classroom. If students laugh at something I or another student says, they relax and they feel more comfortable. They are sharing a perspective and have become more cohesive. More rarely, and unfortunately, humor can also be a weapon in which a student or group of students is made the butt of jokes. This divides the class in ways that are hard to heal.

(4) As part of the class "personality" students quickly select where and with whom they want to sit. After a very few meetings they almost always go to the same places. If the teacher wants to get them to discuss things, it is a good idea to arrange the chairs to face one another, if a seminar table arrangement does not already do that. It is also a good idea, once in a while, to break up the established micro-groups as part of doing group work.

(5) Students can more easily be passive than active parts of a class. They rather easily fall into the role of observers who feel no responsibility for taking part in discussion. The passive students learn less, because they have not taken a position on a subject and defended it. They are just skating on the surface and are not coming to grips with questions, as they must when speaking. (More recently, those who go on the WEB during class might as well be seeing the class on a television with the sound turned off.)

(6) Student attention spans are limited. Few are willing or able to give their undivided attention to a lecture for an entire hour. A class works better if the teacher shifts activities more often than that.  One needs short periods of lecture, discussion, group work, powerpoint, etc.

(7) Brief conversations during class breaks (or during chance encounters) are quite useful and important. Frequently. there are students who say little during class who are quite willing to talk, one to one, while getting a coffee or stretching their legs in the hall. The Danish practice of having a short break each hour opens the possibility for such informal contacts. During such moments I often find out more regarding whether a student likes or dislikes a reading (and why) than I do during class.

(8) Students need (and like) quite different kinds of teachers. I have colleagues that can reach certain students far better than I can, and I can get on the wave-length of others better than they can. There is no one "ideal" sort of teacher, and certainly no "one best way" to do this job. What works brilliantly for another teacher will flop miserably for me, and the reverse. Ideally, a teaching staff should have considerable variety, and every student will find at least one teacher who seems especially well-suited to them.

(9) Much of what students learn is unintended. The idea that one can lay out a lesson plan and march them through a program is very nice as a theory, but often the student strays off the line of march and reads things not assigned but only mentioned or discovered independently. Because every student comes into class with a much different set of ideas and expectations, they also leave having absorbed much different "lessons."

(10) Often the best hours of teaching deviate quite a bit from the outline I had expected to cover. On those days, perhaps more than others, I was able to engage the students, and their energies and questions moved us in unexpected directions. Too much of this might be a bad thing, but in my experience the problem is not too much such engagement but too little. 

(11) The size of a class is crucial to success. A very small class (say three or four students) is actually quite hard to teach, as it usually lacks the critical mass necessary for dynamism and discussion. But beyond a certain point, somewhere around 25 students, a class becomes less talkative and more passive. This is partly due to shyness, partly due to the time constraints. When I have a class of 50 students for 45 minutes,  if they all speak for an equal length of time each will have less than 60 seconds. That does not permit much dialogue. The larger the class, the more likely it becomes mostly a lecture. This is easier for me, actually, than stimulating and guiding a discussion, but I am convinced the students learn less from lectures, for the most part, my brilliant lectures notwithstanding.

(12) Students do vary from one nation to another, but not as much as one might think or in the ways that might seem obvious. I have taught in the US, Spain, Britain, Holland, and Denmark, and taught guest classes in Norway, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and that is enough of this list already.  But this is a vast subject, so let it wait for another day.