Monday, December 21, 2015

HAWB 1900: Do different systems of government affect workmanship? How America Was Built

Being a committed republican (that's republican with a small "r", in the classical sense of being a republican), it always catches my eye when someone fires a rhetorical shot against oligarchy and monarchy.

Since beginning, just about a year ago, to compile a chronology of USA government policies and programs which encouraged economic development (HAWB How America Was Built), I have come to realize that the actual history of how the United States was built is best understood by paying attention not to the financiers and banksters, not to the Astors and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers and Harrimans, but to the engineers and scientists who actually investigate and develop and confirm the breakthroughs in science and technology and machinery and industrial processes. Usually these engineers and scientists only attract the attention and support of the financiers and banksters after struggling for years to follow their dream. 

One magazine that I often find as historical reference is Cassier's engineering monthly (New York, N.Y.) , which was published from 1891 to 1913. Though written mostly by engineers, the material was actually aimed at a wider audience among the general public. A good analogy might be Scientific American. One wonderful thing about the internet is that there are a few sites which have scanned and made available entire collections of publications such as Cassier's. One of my favorites is HathiTrust, a consortium of major research institutions and university libraries, including the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Purdue, Stanford, Yale, and most of the major state universities. Here is the HathiTrust page for Cassier's.

Rummaging around in there, I was struck with how different was the public conception of political economy a century ago. One example is below, which I think is notable because it resonates the American School doctrine of High Wages. The article is "Machine Tools In the Mechanic Arts," by Dr. Coleman Sellers, published in Cassier’s magazine, Vol XVIII, May-Oct 1900, page 213.

Coleman Sellers was the younger brother of Charles and George Escol Sellers, of the Sellers family of Philadelphia. Their uncle had begun William Sellers & Co., which was one of the largest makers of machine tools and general millwrights in the USA in the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1850-1851, Coleman designed and supervised construction of locomotives for the Panama Railroad, then became foreman of the Niles locomotive works in Cincinnati. In 1856, Sellers moved to Philadelphia, where he became chief engineer of the family firm, William Sellers & Co.

Coleman Sellers patented over 30 inventions of his own, including an 1857 patent for a coupling device for shafting, which design remains an essential factor in modern systems of interchangeable shafting parts.

While in Philadelphia, Sellers became closely involved with the Franklin Institute, the most prominent center of science education and development in the United States in the nineteenth century. He served as president of the Institute for five consecutive terms, 1870-1875. He also served as president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

As I already noted, this excerpt is redolent of the Doctrine of High Wages. And, I should also note, Veblen's Instinct of Workmanship.
.... the difference in the character of American workmen and work-men of the same trades in Great Britain was wholly due to the better education of the Americans who are fully two generations ahead of the others. It is perfectly evident that it is impossible to raise the standard of work by means of labour-saving machinery unless the workingmen themselves will see the advantage derived from their ability to do more and better work, and thereby obtain better wages. This is particularly the case when they are called upon to operate machines that do not require constant attention, but where it is possible for one man to attend several ma-chines and earn higher wages than he possibly could if compelled to stand idly watching a machine that required but a small portion of his time to operate. There would be no inducement to contrive automatic machinery unless those who use such machinery are able, without prejudice, to take advantage of the saving in labour attainable thereby.

Some of the leading engineering journals have taken up the question of the advance made in manufacturing in America as compared to European practice, with endeavour to determine the truth of assertions as to such superiority in the American output, so that if such conditions are proved to exist the reason for them might be discovered.

The writer has followed this subject with interest, but can only say at the present time that the greater amount of work done by each workman in America under the best circumstances does not apply only to American workmen, but holds equally with good work- men of foreign birth. An incident was lately brought to his attention by a manufacturer in Berlin seeking the solution of this problem by personal observation in America, who stated that in iron foundries in Germany where the most improved moulding machines had been employed, a skilled moulder could set up eighty snap flasks in a day, while a German work-man not yet three years in America, and without the aid of the tools that had assisted the same class of workmen in Germany, was, to his knowledge, setting up 50 per cent more flasks in a day. There is something, therefore, in the spirit that animates workmen in a free country, where there is a closer friendly relation, if not with their employers, at least with those directly over them and a healthy ambitious spirit is fostered by the certainty of earning higher wages and using their earnings to better advantage in a land where the workman may become a more important factor in local and national politics than seems possible where the monarchical system of government exists.


  1. Tony, thank you for posting this. I grew up near Kohler Wisconsin, and recently bought some of their rather expensive (but also high quality) fixtures as part of a bathroom remodeling project. Traditionally, Kohler provided decent wages to their skilled workforece, and even set up a model village and housing, which my father in law had the privilege of living in for a while, but which was converted to a luxury resort and part of the "Kohler Experience" many years ago: They also, of course, encouraged education, provided recreation, etc.

    While the Kohler family was never perfect, they did buy into the doctrines you note above, at one point in time. But, you can see most of that thinking has gone out the window, if you review this:

    While the strike has now been settled with a partial victory for the workers, clearly almost all business owners, even private ones, are drinking so deeply at the well of neo-liberalism that they have forgotten their roots, and are content to pay workers at third-world rates if they can get away with it. While I don't have any solution to changing these attitudes, I continue to appreciate the historical perspective your provide.