Book Summary: “Networked Machinists: High-Technology Industries in Antebellum America” by David Meyer

Title: Networked Machinists: High-Technology Industries in Antebellum America
Author: David R. Meyer
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4.5 stars
See more on my book rating system.  

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Topic of Book

Meyer explores the occupational networks that formed around iron foundries, machine tool shop, firearm manufactures and locomotive works in the United States from 1790 to 1860.

My Comments

Meyer shows how entire industries are pushed forward, not by the inspiring ideas of a few famous inventors, but by an entire network of skilled workers who apply those ideas and make them workable and profitable. As someone who has worked in “high tech” for over 20 years, the comparisons with today seem very accurate.

Key Take-aways

  • By building general-purpose machines that made other machines and then spinning off more specialized machine, the machine tool industry was a key, and often forgotten, element of the Industrial Revolution.
  • The machine tool industry built the tools that made the textile, steam, railroad, bicycle, typewriter and automobile industries.
  • For an invention for a new technology to have an impact on society, a network of skilled workers who collectively learn to implement the idea through trial-and-error experimentation must come into being.
  • Despite being in competition with each other, the most successful shared their knowledge with others.
  • Early industries tend to concentrated in a few small geographical areas where these networks could grow.
  • The industries described in this book concentrated in Boston, New York City and Philadelphia.
  • Chief machinist played an important role of recruiting and training talented young workers. The shop effectively provided the school for day-to-day learning.  
  • The best workers often went on to form their own shops in new geographical areas, taking the skills with them.
  • Within each region a very small group of skilled workers formed a hub within the network. If that person is connected with other “hubs” in different regions, this greatly spread knowledge nationally and helped growth in their region.

Important Quotes from Book

From 1790 to 1860, more than 150 years before the revolution in Silicon Valley, machinists in the eastern United States created the nation’s first high-technology industries. In a set of metal manufactures termed the pivotal producer durables (metal fabricating, machinery, and machine tools) technological knowledge and skills were embedded in networks of machinists, firms, and clusters of individuals or firms; they were not the sole property of any of the constituent parts. The network behavior of machinists contributed to a substantial transformation of the pivotal producer durables by the 1850s.  

Although most antebellum productivity improvements came from sources other than machinery, the real value of equipment per capita—a measure of the capacity to enhance the productivity of each person—managed to rise at an almost constant rate of just over 1 percent annually from 1774 to 1850. Then the rate of increase accelerated to about 5 percent annually, and this pace continued until 1900.  

Several continuums structured different types of knowledge. Along one, knowledge ranged from codified to tacit forms. At the codified end, direct formats such as manuals and diagrams transmitted knowledge, or the knowledge involved, for example, simple oral explanations about how machinists used files to remove metal burrs. As the technical skills became more difficult, the machines more complex, or systems of machines were developed, knowledge approached the other end of the continuum. Machinists gained more tacit forms of knowledge through experience accumulated over time, learning by doing, or face-to-face communication as they solved metalworking problems.  

The chief machinist (sometimes the owner) of a prominent firm served as a node in attracting other top mechanics and talented apprentices to work in the shop. These individuals came because the leading machinist taught the best technical skills in machine design and manufacturing, and, if other sophisticated mechanics also worked there, they learned from one another. The shop was a setting for tacitly sharing component knowledge. These peers maintained their network ties after they left for other shops, and they provided job referrals to help one another advance their careers. Leading machinists also possessed links with local machine shops and with other shops in their respective subregions.  

Within a subregion network ties took on at least two alternative types of structures, which had implications for the exchange of knowledge, transfer of technical skills, and job mobility.  

The design of the structure of network ties that a firm (or machinist) built to other subregions arguably had an even greater impact on the success of the firm than links within a subregion.  

If firms (or machinists) built bridging ties to other subregions, this enhanced the longer term viability of the subregion as a center of machinist activity. The continual infusion of knowledge, technical skills, and talented workers kept the subregion abreast of innovations elsewhere.

A machine embodied the accumulation of prior skills and knowledge; machinists thus used their intellectual abilities to understand the construction of, and working of, the machine. They employed this knowledge to design, build, repair, and modify machines and to innovate improvements or new designs.  

Young mechanics saw antebellum machine shops as places to achieve fame and fortune… The reason is clear—the antebellum manufacturing expansion posed enormous intellectual and technical challenges.

Machine shops constituted one of the key foundations, along with railway repair shops (essentially big machine shops) and naval engineering, of the mechanical engineering profession in the second half of the nineteenth century.  

The machine tool industry has been touted as the pivotal capital goods sector, and from 1840 to 1880, according to this argument, it underwent a significant transformation. This industry supported the emergence of entirely new industries such as typewriters, bicycles, and automobiles.  

Because iron foundries integrated the foundry (casting in a cupola furnace), pattern shop, forge shop, and machine shop, they brought together mechanics with diverse talents to construct sophisticated components and machinery. Thus, urban foundries became the early hubs of machinist networks in the heavy capital equipment industry, and they continued as key members of the pivotal producer durables for the rest of the nineteenth century… Following 1790, developments in steam engines caused a transformation of some urban foundries, setting the stage for the emergence of heavy industrial machinery firms in several eastern cities.  

In a range of metalworking sectors—iron foundries and steam engine works, locomotive works, textile machinery firms, general machine shops, firearms manufacturers, and machine tools—machinists operated in networks structured around hubs of machinists and firms. Within each sector these hubs connected to one another and to lesser concentrations of machinists, and many of the networks intersected across sectors. To be sure, some technical knowledge was not shared or control over patents restricted its dissemination, but even patents could spread technology through licensing, a lucrative practice of patentees. These machinist networks made possible the energetic building of machinery and machine tools.

In all of the sectors leading machinists were connected to one another through friendship, family, and job experiences, and the widespread practice of these top mechanics to move among machine shops early in their careers forged network ties that they employed for the remainder of their work lives. The top machinists possessed bourgeois virtue. Senior machinists supported one another’s career moves by passing along information about job openings and by providing recommendations. They mentored promising apprentices and junior machinists by offering them positions and then recommending them for jobs elsewhere which offered opportunities for career advancement. The mechanism of the artifact-activity couple structured machinists’ learning environment. This close bond between the artifacts (machines) with which they engaged and the skills and knowledge that they brought to bear when they worked on the machines and communicated with one another about that effort required on-the-job training and visits in order to acquire technical skills and innovations. Experienced machinists willingly shared their knowledge, and they opened their shops to visiting mechanics. Licensing agreements transmitted patented inventions, but even in these cases machinists engaged in extensive contacts to implement their inventions.  During the antebellum the machinist profession attracted young men from the upper classes of American society and the professional groups. The bustling metalworking firms operated at the leading edge of technological change, and participants confronted intellectual and technical challenges. The social, political, and economic networks of the East’s elite provided conduits for the transmission of technical skills and innovations. The profession of machinist also attracted the upwardly mobile residents of prosperous farms, villages, and small towns because machinists received high wages. Along with their elite peers, the excitement and challenges of the new metalworking industries enamored them.

Young, aspiring machinists often learned technical skills while working as apprentices in machine shops near their homes, but, after completing their training, typically between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, many moved to distant shops to find work. Machinist networks provided the information about these job opportunities, and the high mobility of machinists meant that new or expanding businesses that required machinists could attract them from distant places; they offered high wages to entice them to come. Machinists ranked among labor’s industrial elite. The best machinists often became foremen of divisions of large machine shops by their early-to mid-twenties, and they reached the position of superintendent in charge of the entire machine shop between their late twenties and early thirties.  

The pervasive know-how trading of technical skills and innovations among machinists and firms contributed to the emergence of communities of practice within each industrial sector—iron foundries and steam engine works, locomotive works, textile machinery firms, general machine shops, firearms manufacturers, and machine tools. Larger practicing communities encompassed multiple industrial sectors as some machinists moved across them during their careers. Likewise, their professional networks based on previous experiences in the same firms; on referrals from relatives, friends, and acquaintances; and on job mobility gave them access to diverse knowledge regarding technical skills and innovations, thus contributing to the creation of wider communities of practice. Some firms became so prominent that they acted as hubs of machinists networks, but the emergence of major hubs of multiple firms had greater consequences. Some of these hubs consisted of firms from one industrial sector, whereas others had firms from several sectors. The extraordinary level of interaction among machinists through their networks at the subregional, regional, and interregional scales (which encompassed the East) during the antebellum meant that the spatial scale of these networks often exceeded the market areas of the firms for which the machinists worked. This suggests that the network structure and behavior of the machinists facilitated the rapid transformation of the pivotal producer durables during the antebellum.  

For most of the twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first century the iron foundry has been viewed as a relic of a bygone era, and its activities are considered so opaque that its importance has been dismissed. Yet in the antebellum foundries arguably served as the earliest pivots of machinist networks and the incubators of some of the most important industries of the nineteenth century, especially steam engine building (and closely related marine engine works), locomotive works, and heavy industrial machinery. They contributed to the development of the machine tool industry, principally through their work on heavy industrial lathes, planers, and boring machines. They also built light machine tools such as milling machines, but they were not leaders in designing and building this equipment. The foundry processes were so material to the producer durables industries that major firms in sectors such as textile machinery and firearms added foundries to their production processes.  

The East’s iron foundries were concentrated in the metropolises of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and in their industrial satellites. The involvement of the social, political, and economic elite (merchant wholesalers and financiers) in setting up foundries made these firms pivots of knowledge networks about technology. They paid high wages to attract the best machinists, and their employees developed extensive networks among themselves through which they engaged in know-how trading. Each of the metropolises and their satellites developed a community of practice of foundry work, yet the broadly similar capacities of these firms to build equipment suggests that the more important practicing community extended across the East. Some foundries achieved more success than others, and only a few made a profitable transition to locomotive manufacturing. Nevertheless, the major, as well as quite a few smaller, foundries could build a wide range of industrial machinery. This confirms the effectiveness of the machinist networks that bound foundries, and these networks acted as conduits—through job mobility, visits, and personal communications among machinists—for know-how trading of technical skills and innovations.

From the start iron foundries served a broad array of industrial sectors, whereas the textile machinery industry, which developed in general machine shops or in cotton mills, possessed a narrower focus. Nonetheless, even machine shops seldom specialized solely in textile machinery, and the larger, as well as some of the smaller, producers of textile equipment created linkages to other industrial sectors. The early, close association of textile machine shops with the establishment of cotton mills set the framework for textile machinery networks by the first two decades of the nineteenth century, and these networks persisted, in remarkable fashion, for the rest of the antebellum.   

The rise of locomotive builders reveals the broad intertwining of machinist networks and their intersectoral character. Early locomotive builders emerged, especially, out of foundries and textile machinery firms. As with most of the machine-building sectors, firms did not specialize in one line, such as locomotives. Engine building drew on machinist skills across a range of industrial sectors, and the networks that bound firms in different sectors acted as conduits for the transfer of technical skills and innovations in building locomotives. Besides the large locomotive producers, many foundries and machinery firms trained locomotive machinists.   

As with other machine sectors, a few hubs—Philadelphia, Paterson, and the Boston region—came to dominate locomotive building, and their machinists and firms created local communities of practice.  

The machinists in firearms networks developed their own community of practice around gun making, a narrow product line compared with most machine-building sectors. The Ordnance Department of the federal government significantly influenced the structure of firearms machinist networks, primarily after its reorganization in 1815.  

Innovations in heavy machine tools such as large lathes, planers, and boring machines also came from iron foundries, steam engine works, locomotive builders, and textile machinery firms. Machinists who worked on machine tools moved among all these industries. As machine tool output increased during the end of the antebellum, firms that became leading manufacturers of this equipment (though not specialists yet) networked through their leading machinists with most of the industrial sectors. Machine tool manufacturing, therefore, became an integral part of the late antebellum industrial economy.   

The antebellum machinist networks supported a broad-based development of the pivotal producer durables—metal fabricating, machinery, and machine tools. These networks set the foundation for the sharp rise in the deployment of equipment in manufacturing and in the economy as a whole between 1860 and 1900. Equipment’s share of the domestic capital stock went from 9 percent to 28 percent, and the index of the real value of the amount of equipment per capita grew sixfold. These changes supported the large-scale industrialization over that period as the manufacturing share of commodity output (also including agriculture and mining) rose from 32 percent to 53 percent and the real value added in manufacturing jumped over sevenfold.   

The industrial development of the Midwest commenced in the antebellum based on an agricultural-industrial growth process. It mirrored, in important ways, the East’s earlier development, and machinists, likewise, were important to midwestern industrialization. Some leading eastern mechanics moved to the Midwest during the late antebellum, and this pattern of mobility continued afterward. They participated in founding some of the leading machinery and machine tool firms in cities such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. Consequently, machinist networks of the East and the Midwest became integrated into a larger network that spanned the American manufacturing belt.

The continued advances in metalworking technology and the capacity of old and new industrial centers to stay abreast of the latest improvements rested on the fundamental characteristic of machinist networks dating from the late eighteenth century. Technical skills and innovations were embedded in networks of machinists, firms, and clusters (individuals and firms), and these skills and innovations were not the sole property of any of the constituents. Individuals could have short or long careers, and companies could survive for a brief time or last for decades. Nonetheless, the networks retained knowledge of the technical skills and innovations, which became embedded in communities of practice. Much has been made of late-twentieth- and early twenty-first-century technology and its sophisticated job-hopping, youthful entrepreneurs. Yet machinists in the antebellum East anticipated modern behavior by over one hundred and fifty years.

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