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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 347-349
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The Rise and Fall of Mass Production
The Rise and Fall of Mass Production. Edited by Steven Tolliday. 2 vols. Cheltenham and Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 1998. $310.
Steven Tolliday has expertly assembled a collection of articles that treat the history, meaning, and impact of mass production. These volumes are intended as a reference work, but a much less expensive paperback edition would serve as a fine teaching tool.
Two opening articles deal with the "antecedents" of modern industry. Merritt Roe Smith portrays Eli Whitney as more champion than achiever of interchangeable parts production techniques and points to the more critical pioneering role of U.S. armories. Donald Hoke qualifies Smith's revisionist history by arguing that private firms rather than government facilities led the way in precision machining and efficient assembly. This section is the weakest of the collection; selections by H. J. Habakkuk and David Hounshell would have introduced the notion of labor scarcity as a generator of technological innovation but also reiterated the unevenness of developments.
Next comes a series on Fordism. Several illustrated articles published between 1913 and 1926 describe production at Highland Park and River Rouge. Fred Colvin considered advances in tooling and parts production at Highland Park more significant than the heralded assembly line. Horace L. Arnold and Fay L. Faurote documented the slow progress made in production flow. John H. Van Deventer believed that River Rouge's success rested more on vertical integration of raw-material accessing, internal transport, and power transmission than on machining and assembly. Tolliday has Henry Ford himself pronounce on the nature of his achievement by including the ghostwritten essay on "Mass Production" that appeared in the 1926 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
While the observations of contemporaries are often echoed in reinterpretations of Ford, recent scholarship has tended to see Fordism as more of an idea than an actuality, a loose process shaped by various circumstances. Wayne Lewchuk argues that Ford installed the moving assembly line to meet immediate labor control problems and that his system was not transferable to Great Britain, where union strength prevented a simple implementation. Karel Williams, Colin Haslam, and John Williams emphasize the flexibility of production arrangements at Highland Park. Tolliday and Jonathan Zeitlin similarly show that Fordism constantly had to be modified in the United States and Europe in reaction to market upheavals and labor protest. Charles Maier treats the varied international response to both Taylorism and Fordism with national political divisions shaping events. Thomas Hughes looks at the influence that the vision of mass production had on European art and architecture in the 1920s and 1930s. [End Page 347]
Regina Blaszczyk provides an intriguing case study of the Homer Laughlin China Company, a firm that operated in various low-end markets and with a changing combination of manufacturing techniques. Stephen Meyer similarly describes a mix of production techniques functioning in an entirely different kind of concern, Allis-Chalmers. Although managers in the tire industry innovated with a form of assembly-line manufacture, Daniel Nelson shows that reliance on skill remained crucial to the production process. Henry Ford himself learned directly that his system of mass production could not be extended in his own business, as David Hounshell dramatically illustrates in his analysis of Ford's failed attempt to build submarine patrol boats during World War I. Zeitlin also studies the fate of manufacture during wartime, with its attendant pressure for mass production. In comparing the United States, Great Britain, and Germany during World War II, he finds that superior assembly-line techniques advantaged the United States, but that this advantage was offset somewhat by rigid commitments to standardization that slowed needed design changes and retooling. Michael Storper provides a final qualified view of Fordism by describing shifts in the film industry toward a more segmented and flexible form of moviemaking.
There is a mixed portrait of labor relations in mass production firms. Meyer shows that Henry Ford needed welfare capitalist measures to achieve labor stability. Ronald Edsforth and Robert Asher show that...