- The Rational Factory: Architecture, Technology, and Work in America’s Age of Mass Production
“A factory that could run like a great machine”—that is Lindy Biggs’ definition of the rational factory. Her slim book is devoted to documenting the slow but definite progress toward establishing well planned, fully mechanized and automated manufacturing plants in the United States. From the evidence she provides, it remains unclear whether this vision of industrial engineers has ever been realized.
At the very dawn of the industrial era, Oliver Evans presented a model of the rational factory; the continuous processing of raw materials occurred in his famed late eighteenth-century automatic flour mill. Evans, and others of his age, may have been driven by what Biggs terms “the mechanistic philosophy of the Enlightenment,” but Evans’s example would not be followed for more than another century. Biggs notes the great technological developments that soon unfolded in textile manufacture. Spinning and weaving machines dramatically replaced (and reduced the cost of) hand labor. Yet, rationalized production was [End Page 246] not achieved in the impressive stone and brick, three and four story textile mills that heralded industrialization in the U.S. The factories were constructed by millwrights to house the new machinery with little concern for improving the flow and handling of materials through the entire productive process. In her brief treatment of the growth of textile manufacture, Biggs neglects important advances in throughprocessing. Although it may not have entailed the deliberate decision making that defines her rational factory, at least in the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, an innovative system of production was achieved—with the hoisting of cleaned and carded raw materials to the top floors of the buildings for spinning; the reels of spun thread then brought downstairs for weaving, the finished bolts of cloth packaged on the ground floors. Unified belting systems for energy transmission were also developed. Early in the book, the reader in fact learns that Biggs does not associate rationalized manufacture with vertical production. Her study is a paean to one-story plants and horizontal manufacture. For her, early efforts at moving assembly-line production in meatpacking and canning represent the only bona fide advances toward the rational factory in the first stages of American industrialization (in this respect, the author also ignores certain assembly-line aspects of gun manufacture in her discussion of the development of interchangeable parts production techniques).
Progress toward the rational factory accelerated after the Civil War, especially with the emergence of a new professional class of industrial engineers. Educated broadly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other engineering schools, these men would possess and utilize expertise in plant construction and layout, materials flow and transport, and machinery as well as factory lighting, heating and ventilation. In overseeing the building of factories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industrial engineers promoted the adoption of reinforced concrete walls and floors, traveling cranes, conveyor systems, internal railways, and electrification. Biggs notes that their endeavors overlapped with other emerging “engineers” of the American workplace: disciples of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who tended to have more microscopic views, attending to the cataloguing and regulation of specific work tasks, and so-called welfare workers, who developed various benefit programs that encouraged the greater loyalty and diligence of employees. Biggs emphasizes the mutual concerns and objectives of these pioneer management consultants—greater efficiency, fluidity and even interpersonal harmony in production; she does not analyze how these disparate professionals stepped on each others toes, vied for favor, and, in many cases, were disregarded. For Biggs, progress in creating the rational factory culminated with Henry Ford’s motor company and his model Highland Park and River Rouge plants. Biggs echoes recent interpretations of Ford that emphasize the firm’s staggered progress toward the mass production of cars. Ford’s first advances were in standardized parts production using precision single-purpose machinery; this and not moving assembly lines dramatically reduced the cost of manufacturing the Model T. With increased...