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The Age of Mass Production

The Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, London showing "Embankment" by Rachel Whiteread

Cars were one of the first major consumer items to be built in vast quantities by production lines. Nowadays we are apt to think that when something is mass produced it is, by definition, lacking in quality and refinement. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the originators of mass produced cars were perfectionists rather than commercially minded people who were only interested in making things as quickly and cheaply as possible. Frederick Lanchester, a pioneering English car designer, always worried his commercially minded company directors by his insistence on quality. The Lanchester directors were of the opinion that it was better to use cheap labour to hand fit parts. Lanchester disagreed. He wanted to guarantee the quality of his product, and the only way to do this was to take unpredictable individual hands out of the manufacturing process. Lanchester insisted on the use of standardised parts made with precision machine tools.

 

Lanchester's contemporary, the American industrialist Henry Leland had similar views. In Detroit in 1899 the car maker Ransom Olds asked Leland's advice on producing a transmission free of the noise and vibration that afflicted Olds cars at that time. Leland was appalled to find that Olds transmissions had gears hand filed to make them fit. Leland removed such vagaries, using the gear cutting expertise of his own company to produce precision ground gears interchangeable between cars without any hand modification. In this way Olds transmissions were made to run quietly and smoothly.

Mass production has a history that stretches back much further than Detroit in the 1890s. This page you are reading itself has a story behind it revealing a long standing desire to bring a reliable standard to human creativity. You are reading a page on the internet which can be reproduced on millions of computers (yes I can dream). This led on from the printed book, which once again could be printed in huge numbers; and the printed book dates back to the Gutenberg Bible of about 1440. But even before 1440, when books were written out by hand, we can still think of standardised production. The hand writing of the scribes was itself stylised and standardised. In 789AD the emperor Charlemagne, whose influence extended over much of Europe, issued an edict decreeing a fixed style of hand writing. This style endured for centuries, eventually developing into the Gothic script used by the original German printers. Hand writing itself was designed to take away the vagaries of individual hands. I typed this page in a font called Times New Roman - luckily for you as my hand writing is not the best. This font dates back to the very earliest days of printing when the German printers Sweynheim and Pannartz introduced printing into Italy. Working in Subiaco they had to abandon the familiar Gothic form of their text and find a style more in accordance with that used by the Italian scribes of the time. It is this style that we now call "Roman". What you are reading is a standardised font. It is also an echo of the handwriting of an Italian scribe working five hundred years ago.

Going back even further into history Randy White of New York University has studied the abundance of beads and other body ornaments that suddenly appeared in France, Belgium and Germany 28,000 years ago. White comes to the conclusion that "once the prized raw material was procured, it was shaped, polished and drilled using standardised production techniques to ensure uniformity of design" (P326 The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve).

 

Salisbury Cathedral - home of the great Salisbury clock of 1380

Standardised production is, then, a long established way of ensuring quality. And this is further illustrated by the fact that the first area in which standardised machine production came about was in the exacting business of clock making. Clocks require precision ground gears to run accurately, and this was especially true when clocks were miniaturised. A small clock, of the type which made dependable sea navigation possible in the eighteenth century, could not be hammered or forged together by a blacksmith. Scaling down the design required precision machine based craftsmanship. As historian Daniel Boorstin says: "the enduring legacy of the pioneer clock makers... was the basic technology of machine tools" (The Discoverers P64). The Italian clock maker Juanelo Torriano of Cremona (1501 - 1575) developed a lathe for producing gears, which made sure that, according to a contemporary: "no wheel was made twice because it always came out right the first time" (quoted Boorstin P65). As well as precision ground gears, precision engineered screws were needed to hold delicate clock mechanisms together. In the late eighteenth century Swiss clock maker Ferdinand Berthoud produced a "fusee" machine which allowed the production of screws. With refinements by English scientific instrument maker Jesse Ramsden (1735 - 1800), the mass production of screws was possible. A clock still exists from the age before the dependable production of screws, and that is the clock at Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, dating from 1380 and considered the oldest surviving mechanical clock in the world. There are no screws in this clock, its iron frame held together with rivets and wedges. The Salisbury clock represents the world before industrialisation, where a whole community had to make do with a single clock. Once the innovations of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century clock makers were in place, the basis of machine production had been laid. Machine tools in all kinds of industry were simply elaborations of early clock maker designs. Clock making also led the way in division of labour, another essential feature of industrial production. In 1763 Ferdinand Berthoud listed sixteen different kinds of workmen producing clocks, and twenty one producing watches. By the nineteenth century ordinary people could carry around an example of the world's most precise engineering in their pockets, only because of mass production principles.

 

 

 

 

An historic keyboard instrument at Finchcocks - the Latin inscription at the bottom means: "the ears are the doors to the mind" .

There is no craft more exacting than clock making, and it is undeniable that this precise industry gave us mass production. But mass production hasn't just given us precision. Mass production has also contributed to creativity, and this is perhaps best demonstrated by music, since it can be said confidently that without mass production all great music from Mozart to the Beatles would not exist. The story of mass production and music starts in the early fifteenth century when composers were experimenting with complex harmonies. Complex harmonies were not an easy task to produce. To get harmonies to sound right for certain combinations of notes meant careful retuning of notes in that combination. This retuning would then put other combinations out of tune. To play all harmonies in tune meant constant pauses as instruments were retuned accordingly. In 1722 the head of music at Cothan Castle in Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach, devised a solution. Bach worked out a way of tuning a harpsichord so that all harmonies in any key could be played in one sitting without re tuning. Bach called this tuning "equal temperament," and described it in his book The Well Tempered Clavier of 1722, a landmark in music history. Bach achieved equal temperament by retuning every note so that, bizarre as it may seem, each one was imperceptibly out of tune. In this way Bach found a very delicate compromise which allowed every combination of harmony to work. Incredible precision was necessary. In fact each note had to be retuned to 1.059463094 times the frequency value of the note below to reach equal temperament. Bach's achievement with his carefully tuned harpsichord was a near miracle of individual tuning. For equal temperament to become standard, machine tools were needed to produce instruments built precisely enough to achieve the level of tuning required. A crucial moment as far as music is concerned occurred in 1800 when Henry Maudsley developed a metal lathe for use in the production of pianos. Maudsley's lathe allowed the calibration of tuning in assembly line pianos with great accuracy, and these equal temperament assembly line pianos were produced by John Broadwood and Sons. John Broadwood pianos of this period can be seen at the Finchcocks museum near Goudhurst in Kent. The same precision engineering was then applied to all other modern musical instruments. It was now possible to bore woodwind or brass instruments with pin point accuracy and produce precisely engineered valves. Before equal temperament there were almost as many styles of tuning as there were musicians. After equal temperament, players of a variety of instruments could all play together. Thus all music we listen to today, from symphonies to songs by the Beatles rely on equal temperament which was achieved through mass production. (See Big Bangs by Howard Goodall for more information).

So mass production improved standards of industrial producton hugely, and contributed fundamentally to modern creativity. And yet inspite of all this, people in the nineteenth century, when mass production really began to become a way of life, did not see it this way. It was during the nineteenth century that industrialists like William Morris began to worry that mechanised production was taking away opportunities for individual creativity, and tending to dehumanise people's working lives. Morris planned to counter these apparent problems with a revival of handicrafts. Numerous craft based associations and communities were founded, and the idea of something being hand made became fashionable. To satisfy this fashion some large scale manufacturers introduced hand made or hand finished "art" ranges. Morris's intentions were egalitarian, but hand made products were expensive to make, and customers for these products were of course the better off. There was a certain elitism inherent in William Morris's arts and crafts. This veiled elitism is also seen in the way nineteenth century criticism of mass production typically focused on print, on mass produced books and newspapers. The fact that standardisation of print had been important even in the times of scribes did not seem to mean much. Nor did the fact that the earliest printers showed the same perfectionist tendencies displayed by Lanchester and Leland in building cars, or Jesse Ramsden in producing scientific instruments, or Henry Maudslely in producing pianos. In Antwerp in the 1560s Christopher Plantin began to turn printing into an industry. He was a man "who never allowed commercial considerations to lower the typographical standard of the books" (A History of European Printing by Colin Clair). Of course not everyone was as perfectionist as Platin, and according to Colin Clair it is true that standards in some parts of the print industry did fall in the nineteenth century. Any such quality problems were, however, much less important than a fear that wider literacy would drag English culture down, and perhaps even give the lower classes ideas above their station. Naturally mass produced print was cheaper to buy than a book hand made out of calf hide embossed with gold leaf, which meant more people could read, which in the opinion of the time threatened standards. No doubt there were elements of the printing industry which were shoddy, but it was a snobbish, fearful attitude to wider literacy, and by extension a more egalitarian society, which really led to the fear of mass production. In years to come many powerful designers, such as Frank Lloyd Wright would argue for the democratic value of mass production. The nineteenth century was in many ways not ready for such an egalitarian message.

(For memorials of the Arts and Crafts movement see Standen in Sussex, a grand house decorated by William Morris, and the D'Oyly Carte summer retreat at Coleton Fishacre in Devon.)

 

Design Museum

By the early twentieth century the Arts and Crafts movement had largely died out as an influential voice. One of the few major industrial designers to carry on an Arts and Crafts philosphy was Ettore Bugatti who was building cars for the racing and luxury markets at his factory in Molsheim. Designers generally, however, realised that producing goods by hand to a reliable standard was simply not economically viable. The First World War turned some people against mass production for a while, with its connotations of mechanised slaughter. Even the great designer Walter Gropius felt like this temporarily. But by the 1920s a commitment to rational mass produced design had returned. And yet coming to the present day we still have a situation where the words "mass produced" suggest poor quality, compared with the favourable connotations of "hand made". Why is this? Perhaps it has something to do with the same nostalgia for an idealised rural past which drove William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Perhaps that nostalgia now expresses itself in the Green movement, or at least in some parts of it. But if that same nostalgia applies in our new Green politics, so do the contradictions Morris faced. Hand made, as it was during William Morris's time, remains largely a sales gimmick for the rich. I recall reading about the actor Hugh Grant who paid £685,000 for an Aston Martin Vanquish built specifically to his requirements. According to the article there was a plaque inside the driver's door which read: "Vanquish V12, hand built in England for Hugh Grant."

Frederick Lanchester and Henry Leland would not have approved. The contradictions which bedevilled Morris's vision still apply today. If greater efficiency and less waste are the goals then mass production is the way to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chairs at the Design Museum

There is an egalitarian message here. Or rather we can see the message we want to see. Both communist and capitalist governments have embraced the notions of mass production as their own.The Western capitalist vision was captured by artists working in a style known as Fordism - named after the car maker Henry Ford. Fordism became, as Peter Wollen has written "a vision not only of greater productivity, necessary for the development of capitalism, but also a new model of social organisation with universal implications" (quoted in Tate Modern The Handbook ed Iwona Blazwick and Simon Wilson P84). Meanwhile in Soviet Russia artists were busily doing the bidding of the Committee of Arts by also celebrating mass production, painting "industrial triumphs and agrarian fecundity" (Oxford History of Western Art Ed Martin Kemp P470). It's as if the ideals of individualism and collectivism are both embraced.

So, as you can guess I am a fan of modern design and mass production. But in the interests of balance there is always a down side. Some people saw that down side in the production of machines of mass killing in war. In fact there is perhaps an even more powerful cautionary tale to tell, and that is the history of cigarette smoking, which has killed more people than modern warfare. So to end, in the interests of a balanced picture, here is a brief history of cigarettes:

After being introduced to Europe from the Americas by Christopher Columbus, tobacco smoking became popular first in Spain, and then in the rest of Europe. People smoked tobacco in pipes, designed to keep burning tobacco away from their faces. The long stem allowed the smoke to cool before it got to the mouth. The stem, however, was fragile, and it was necessary to sit down while smoking a pipe. Working men wanted to smoke while they worked, so they used short stem pipes called "cutties," and sometimes cut off even the short stem these provided. They ended up with the sort of pipe that Popeye always had dangling from his mouth. You can actually visit a nineteenth century factory, the Broseley Pipe Works in Shropshire, which produced both long stem pipes and cutties. Then in the 1850s, the Crimean War introduced many English soldiers to the Russian and Turkish practice of smoking cigarettes (see After the Victorians by A.N. Wilson ). Cigarettes improved on cutties in the way they allowed smoking at virtually any time. Cigarettes were also much easier to mass produce than clay pipes. The Broseley Pipe Works did have a production line of sorts, dividing the labour of making pipes amongst many people. Nevertheless it remained a skilled task. Pipes were produced with all kinds of novelty bowls, bunches of grapes, a foot kicking a football for example. This all took time. In contrast, cigarettes were turned out to an identical standard. The cigarette suited the demands of mass production far better than the pipes being laboriously produced at Broseley. The Bristol tobacco firm W.D and H.O Wills brought the first Bonsack cigarette making machine to Britain in 1883, a machine that could make two hundred cigarettes a minute. There were now the perfect conditions for the smoking habit to explode. The substance smoked had addictive properties, the form it took allowed rapid mass production, and almost unlimited use.

Part of the reason there is now such a problem with tobacco smoking is found in those short stems you look at in the displays at the Broseley Pipe Works. They were only a short step to the mass produced cigarette. Modern industrial mass production has led to many benefits in convenience, and the production of affordable, high quality goods. But in the case of the cigarette, all these benefits were side tracked into a product ideally suited to mass production and habitual use, which had disastrous consequences for its users. Cigarette smoking is the cautionary tale of the modern age.

The history of modern design can be explored at the Design Museum in London. The Design Museum is full of quirky products and really brought home to me the creativity of design. The close association between modern industrial design and modern art can be experienced first hand at the Tate Modern, built in an old power station on London's Bankside.

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