- America’s Assembly Line by David E. Nye
By my count David Nye is the author of a dozen books, eight published by MIT Press. Each of these has enhanced our understanding of technology in history significantly, sometimes brilliantly, as in American Technological Sublime (1994) and America as Second Creation (2003). Hence Nye’s richly deserved honors from his SHOT colleagues: he has won both the book [End Page 991] prizes, Dexter (Edelstein) and Hacker, not to mention the da Vinci Medal, a unique trifecta.
Now we have a new book which reinforces Nye’s central insight expressed in Electrifying America (1991, his Dexter Prize book) that the social reality of a machine or a technological system “emerges not only through its use as a functional device, but also through it being experienced as part of many human situations which collectively define its meaning” (p. 85). For America’s Assembly Line he takes us through Context, Invention, Celebration, Export, Critique, War and Cold War, Discontent, Challenge, Global Labor, and Centenary—the latter referring to the hundred-year anniversary of the system debuted at Henry Ford’s factory in Highland Park, Michigan, which enabled the assembly of a Model T in ninety-three minutes whereas it had taken twelve hours before. Nye explains intricate transformations with admirable clarity, prime examples being the assembly line itself at the beginning and, at the end, the new system, partly Japanese, known as lean production. But he is sometimes tempted into curious byways such as the mechanized baking of bread or Vance Packard’s lament about putting credit cards in the hands of teenagers, and one occasionally wonders about the audience Nye had in mind.
America’s Assembly Line synthesizes a thirty-year accretion of the scholarly literature with which most of us are familiar into a brisk narrative that undergrads or “general” readers should find quite accessible. One exception is Nye’s habit of referring to various authors as if their names and interpretations are common currency. So, “Richard Sandler’s sociolinguistic study of this behavior found that …” (p. 179). What on earth would Mr/s. general reader make of this remark about improvised endeavors to cope with the oppression of assembly-line work? Or with a passing mention of “what Gramsci predicted”? While in a complaining turn of mind, I might also note that the book is too carelessly copyedited for the work of a major scholar from a premier academic press. We see “Siegfried” Giedion and “Hyat” roller bearings, the latter in the index, which is woeful. Names are spelled both correctly and incorrectly, Allen Ginsberg’s being one of them. I resist multiplying examples, but must add an old saw about veteran editors being inclined to regard care with small matters as reflective of care with larger matters.
Turning back to what’s admirable, Nye’s mention of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and his address to the imagery of the assembly line and mass production in fiction and all forms of pop culture, is every bit as ingenious as one would expect from a master of the American studies genre. Likewise admirable is the integration of his narrative and his illustrations, so often neglected by authors who finish a manuscript and then go looking for pictures, and then stick ’em in wherever they might (or might not) bear on what they have written.
Taking his facility for integration into broader realms, Nye has addressed [End Page 992] a storied technological system and contextualized it not only with other production technologies but also with main currents of American and even global history. At the start, Nye suggests that the moving assembly line became “a central icon of capitalist productivity” (pp. ix–x). By the time he concludes, he has proven it to be an icon perfect for constructing a rich narrative, indeed several narratives—of promises realized and hopes dashed, of what Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” of workers “struggling to hold on to the form of life that they had created through the assembly line” (p. 267).