The Industrial Revolution That Never Came
Social oracles from Henry Ford to Lewis Mumford once believed that a new industrial revolution would make dirty, crowded cities a thing of the past. Why were they so wrong?
Since World War II new technological revolutions have been heralded many times. First there was the industrial revolution to be fostered by nuclear power; more recently the computer or information revolution began—if we take the word of the prophets. Space flight and underwater exploration of the “new ocean” are other favorite catalysts of a new era. The oracles of these revolutions have predicted dramatic technical and social changes whose basic features are by now familiar to readers of popular magazines: new kinds of automation, the rise of home and workshop industries, and even the greening of America.
Before World War II many serious scholars were in agreement that the Western world was entering a second industrial revolution (the first having been the British Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) based on electricity, the internal-combustion engine, and new materials made possible by low-cost electricity, such as aluminum and alloy steels. This sweeping idea peaked in popularity in the early 1920s.
The spread of electric-power networks seems to have been the major stimulus for this belief. After World War I many liberals and radicals showed a heightened interest in planning, public ownership, and government regulation of public utilities. Wartime governments had already introduced planning and control on an unprecedented scale, and shortages of energy had led to state funding and interconnection of large hydroelectric and coal-fired power plants. In the United Kingdom the Electricity Supply Act of 1919 encouraged the coordination and interconnection of private and public power systems. An electrification law enacted in Germany in 1919 called for the interconnection and nationalization of that nation’s electric utilities. In 1920 Lenin created the Commission for Elaborating the Plan for the Governmental Electrification of Russia. And in the United States a government-funded study recommended “Superpower” for the Northeast, advocating privately funded power plants of 60,000- to 300,000-kw capacity, to be interconnected by transmission lines of 110,000 to 220,000 volts.
The proponents of all these plans trumpeted the revolution big electrification would bring. Lenin’s enthusiastic prophecy has proved the most memorable: “Unless Russia is placed on a different technical level, higher than before, restoration of the national economy and communism are out of the question. Communism is the Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country, for without electrification progress in industry is impossible.”
The advocates of different electrification schemes around the world had various broad visions of social transformation. Several of these emerged in the United States. Among them, the planning and publicity surrounding the Pennsylvania Giant Power plan spelled out most visibly its aspirations. Giant Power was proposed by Gifford Pinchot, the governor of Pennsylvania, in 1925. It specified giant minemouth power plants in the western coal regions of Pennsylvania and high-voltage transmission lines to carry the power to the state’s heavily populated and industrialized east. Branch distribution lines would supply small cities and rural communities along the way. Giant Power ran into opposition from various interests and was never carried out, but the controversy surrounding it reveals how thoroughly committed its proponents were to the proposition that it could foster a social and industrial renascence.
Pinchot, a leader of the pre-World War I Progressive movement and an ardent supporter of Theodore Roosevelt, had invented the use of the word conservation to denote the scientific management of the environment. As governor of one of the most industrialized and heavily populated states, he eagerly envisaged a transformation as great in its effects as the British Industrial Revolution, displaying a technological enthusiasm equal to the most fervent we hear today among the prophets of the computer age. Furthermore, he took the prospects seriously enough to present them in 1925 in his message to the state’s General Assembly.
He argued that the power of steam had shaped, for better or for worse, the centralized industrial order and civilization of his day. Steam had ushered in prodigious increases in production, the rise of the urban complex, the decline of rural life, the decay of small communities, and the weakening of family ties. Nevertheless, steam “might well say of electricity, ‘One mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.’ ” Society must now prepare for a greater revolution, guard against negative consequences, and be ready for opportunities of far greater magnitude than ever before.
The governor pointed out to the General Assembly that electricity could bring to the housewife the comforts of electric lighting, cooking, and other appliances and to the farmer the safety and convenience of electric lighting and power for milking, feed cutting, wood sawing, and countless other tasks. Furthermore, it could offer every worker a higher standard of living, more leisure time, and better pay. The electric-power revolution promised “to shower upon us gifts of unimaginable beauty and worth” and to form the basis “for a civilization safer, happier, freer and fuller of opportunity than any the world has ever known.” The day was coming, Pinchot prophesied, “when from morning to night, from the cradle to the grave, electric service will enter at every moment and from every direction into the daily life of every man, woman and child in America.”
In his optimism Pinchot also predicted that electric power would reverse the trend of industrial concentration, mass factory labor, and noisome slum cities. But he warned that political action would be needed to achieve “incomparably the greatest material blessing in human history.” Legislation would be required to thwart an “evil spider … hastening to spread his web over the whole of the United States and to control and live upon the life of our people.”
He anticipated that as electric-power interconnections spread across state boundaries, they would be accompanied by interconnections of operation and finance that could be masterminded into a private-enterprise monopoly—the “evil spider”—transcending control and regulation by state governments. He compared this to control of all the sources of steam power in the country by a single monster corporation. The primary goal of this gigantic monopoly would of course be profit, not the public welfare.
So, Pinchot argued, the people must either effectively regulate the emerging grid or resort to public ownership. His plan called for existing utility companies to participate in the Giant Power grid but for new companies to build and operate the mammoth power plants and power lines. These new companies would be devised by the state government and, like the distributing utilities, would be closely regulated. If plans like Giant Power were not carried out, he said, the public must at the very least insist on public ownership of the developing power grids.
Joseph K. Hart, a university professor and associate editor of The Survey , an influential magazine of the social sciences, heralded the new era even more enthusiastically than Pinchot, and his views were shared by a community of liberal and progressive reformers, especially social scientists. Writing in the 1920s, Hart found man throughout history subduing nature to bring order out of chaos. Before the twentieth century, he wrote, this exploitation of power had demanded a heavy price of society. The Greeks had enslaved and degraded nine-tenths of their population to generate the services and production that allowed a tiny minority to live a serene life cultivating philosophy, the arts, and science. The Industrial Revolution had brought an undreamed-of expansion of man’s ability to organize the world as a system of production, but the price had again been terribly high. Hart blamed steam, the “great centralizer,” for tearing people from their roots and gathering them into polyglot urban centers. The outpouring of goods and services had charmed men and women into elevating machines to the status of the means and ends of life. Furthermore, Hart wrote, “steam has torn us free from old standards of workmanship, taste and culture.” By using machines to master nature, man had created a new master, steamdriven, more orderly but less sustaining of the human spirit than the once-fearsome natural environment. Ultimately the new man-made environment had made people artificial. Humans needed once again, Hart insisted, to hear the breaking of waves, to view silent snowfields, to explore the wilderness, and to walk along streams in green valleys. Hart was echoing the feelings of many Americans who felt at the core of their being the loss of the land and of rural life in a period of rapid urbanization and industrialization.
The remarkable fact is that Hart, like many of his contemporaries, believed electric power would allow a return to the lost natural way of life, so that “men may feel the thrill of control and freedom once again.” This would be possible because of the decentralization that electricity made feasible. The future, he wrote, “lies open before man, as it did in the day when Joshua said to Israel: ‘Behold, I have set before you life and good, death and evil: choose ye this day which ye will serve.’”
Like Pinchot, Hart feared this miracle would be impossible unless giant electric power were kept under public control and distributed equally to all. But he projected asoftly focused vision of small communities using the elec-| trie genie to realize “the culture of the spirit… . Such decentralization of living will tend to regenerate our culturej bv releasing it from the city’s hot-houses.”
Another, better-known oracle of the new electrified society was Henry Ford. Like Hart, Ford saw hydroelectric power as a way of decentralizing industry, deurbanizing the city, and revitalizing the countryside. Historians have often emphasized Ford’s construction of massive production plants in Detroit and passed over this other aspect of his system building. After World War I, Ford grew interested in the idea of physically decentralizing industrial production while maintaining closely centralized control. He anticipated by a half-century those present-day prophets who predict a new era of computer-connected cottage industries. But in his day waterpower was to be the link.
Ford wanted to “break up cities, narrow farming down to a twenty-five-day year, and make producing villages, with their clustered homes and plants, the foundation stones of a new structure for American life and labor.” The mainspring of his reforming zeal seems to have lain in his sentimentalization of his rural background and the nineteenth-century agrarian Midwest. He fondly recalled his boyhood on his parents’ farm at Dearborn, on the Rouge River near Detroit. Paradoxically, Ford, who contributed so greatly to the urbanization and industrialization of Detroit, spoke longingly of a past when there were no slums “or any of the other unnatural ways of living” in the industrial city.
Ford’s vision in the early 1920s did not call for large electrical grids. He argued: “Streams are better transmission lines than wires. There is a good deal more loss in wires. Water goes over a dam and is power still.” Ford the ecologist added that damming would create ponds, the evaporation from which would bring more regular rainfall. So in his tidy, orderly, and circular world, use would increase availability. In addition, workers and farmers could live pleasantly along the shores of the ponds.
Ford had grand goals, and by 1924 he had made a substantial start along the Rouge River. At his house and large farm in Dearborn, he installed Dam No. 1 to supply lights for the residence and farm buildings. Farther upstream he converted the Nankin flour mill into a hydroelectric plant and small factory, where by 1924 there were 17 men using electrically driven machine tools to manufacture screws and carburetor parts. At another converted mill at Plymouth, 25 skilled mechanics worked at taps and dies. At Phoenix 150 women made generator cutouts in a village factory. Not far away at Northville, 350 men made valves for the Model T motor, and at Waterford, another village, a new Ford dam provided energy for a small Ford factory making gauges. Ford was thus dispersing some of the five hundred manufacturing departments of the Highland Park plant. The parts made in these local hydroelectric plants were in turn fed back into the great production systems at Highland Park and River Rouge. Eventually, he prophesied, only one or two major manufacturing processes would be concentrated at Highland Park. “A thousand or five hundred men ought to be enough in a single factory,” he said.
By the mid-twenties Ford had opened assembly branches in ten countries and assembly or service branches in thirtyfour American cities. In many cases technical and economic efficiency accounted for this decentralization, but with his village factories he was embarking on a scheme for which he gave many reasons neither economic nor technical. In small villages of ten or eleven houses like Nankin Mill, he pointed with pride to his workers’ tidying up and painting their houses. So that the workers could balance industrial work with farming, Ford let them off at harvest and planting seasons. He once remarked, “I am a farmer … I want to see every acre of the earth’s surface covered with little farms, with happy, contented people living on them.” Ford claimed that his costs were lower in the villages than at Highland Park, but had he taken unused property and unfinished projects into account, the village industries would probably have shown a loss. On the other hand, he found the smaller number of workers less prone to discontent and labor agitation. His motives were certainly mixed, but the results were very different from those we associate with the Ford of the massive Highland Park and River Rouge plants.
Ford’s vision of hydroelectric development was not limited to small factories along minor rivers. The regional-planning possibilities of hydroelectricity also appealed to him. In 1921 and 1922 he offered to complete at cost and lease from the government for a hundred years the Wilson Dam and hydroelectric plant in Alabama and to purchase two nearby government-owned nitrogen-fixing plants that depended on low-cost power. These facilities, at Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River, had been begun during World War 1 to meet a shortage of nitrogen for explosives and fertilizers. Ford promised to use them to produce low-cost fertilizer for the region’s farmers. He said he also intended to construct a large industrial complex for the manufacture of aluminum, steel, and automobile parts near Muscle Shoals and to use power from the Tennessee River in various ways to promote the economic development of the region. One newspaper reported that Ford planned a city seventy-five miles long along the river, creating one of the nation’s great industrial complexes. But Ford made clear that the “city” would be a chain of hvdro-electric-powered towns offering the benefits of semirural life. He promised eventually to turn over the completed Mojectto the people of the area or the federal government.
Regional-planning organizations, farmers’ organizations, newspapers, and a majority in Congress from the region supported Ford’s proposal. Ford declared that “if Muscle Shoals is developed along unselfish lines, it will work so splendidly and so simply that in no time hundreds of other waterpower developments will spring up all over the country…. In a sense the destiny of the American people for years to come lies here on the Tennessee River.”
Opposition to Ford’s plan came from various quarters, among them those who wanted to see the Tennessee Valley developed by the government, not private capital. Governor Pinchot criticized the plan because it didn’t conform to conservationist ideals and called for a longer lease than the law allowed. Ultimately the government rejected the grand scheme, but not before Ford had held it up as an alternative to what he called “exploitative financial projects advanced by Wall Street financiers and international Jewry.” Apparently Ford had found a pragmatic use for his anti-Semitism in the promotion of his Muscle Shoals bid.
The coming of electric power brought Lewis Mumford, too, to announce the opening of a new era. In his seminal work Technics and Civilization , Mumford—humanist, social scientist, and historian—delineated three ages of history: the eotechnic, the paleotechnic, and the neotechnic. The neotechnic was the new age, to be dominated by electric-power technology. In so characterizing history, Mumford was strongly influenced by a similar scheme of Patrick Geddes, a Scottish sociologist and regional planner. Also, Henry Adams, the American historian and social critic, had suggested a similar transition from a “mechanical phase” to an “electrical phase.”
The basis for the Geddes-Mumford categories was technological. In the paleotechnic age, which began in the 170Os and reached its fullest development in the late 1800s, the primary energy had been steam, the material iron; the earlier eotechnic period had relied on wind power, waterpower, and wood. Mumford was no simple technological determinist, however, and each of his ages had its prevailing political and economic power structure, closely tied to the technologies being used. During the paleotechnic period—roughly the Industrial Revolution—factory owners, financiers, miners, and militarists had possessed power, both political and technical. The contrasts between the paleotechnic and neotechnic eras, as defined by Mumford, would be comparable to those between the “coarse, rudely polished weapons and tools of the paleolithic period, and the finished, finely polished instruments of neolithic civilization, with its skilled industries, its great innovations in agriculture and its rise in the status of women.”
Like so many others, Mumford expected electric power, the principal generator of change in the new era, to make possible the elimination of many of the evils of the coal age. For instance, coal would be converted at the mine mouth into electric power, or white coal. It would not be burned wastefully; rather, it would be distilled to drive off, refine, and utilize its most volatile ingredients as dyes, medicines, oils, and fabrics, leaving coke to be burned in the electricpower plant. Smoke-belching factories and cities smothered in smog would thus become archaic. Electric power, together with the automobile, the radio, and the telephone, could transform a society of congested cities into one of economically and demographically balanced regions. No longer would populations heap up at mines, along railroad lines, and at ports; hydroelectric power could change isolated mountain areas into industrial regions carefully planned to avoid the congestion and ugliness of paleotechnic industrial centers.
To take full advantage of the new technology, Mumford believed, society would have to abandon the economics and politics of the previous period. The new era promised to be one of electric generators, water turbines, aluminum, new alloys, rare earths, and synthetics such as celluloid, Bakelite, and man-made resins. Financiers, militarists, and miners would, Mumford hoped, give way to scientific engineers and scientists as the administrators of this new world.
The displacement of coal and iron by hydroelectricity and aluminum would have profound geopolitical consequences, he predicted. In the early thirties Mumford anticipated that the industrial dominance of Western Europe and the United States during the coal and iron regime would give way to waterpower-rich Asia, Africa, and South America. Even within Europe and North America, the center of gravity was shifting to “Italy, France, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden [and] the two great spinal mountain systems of the United States.”
Electricity would also change the character of work, the workplace, and industrial organization. Like so many prophets of a postindustrial society today, Mumford anticipated that modern power and information technology would permit smaller units of production. Machines would no longer need to be grouped to run from a belt drive but could be individually driven by electric motors. Manufacturing would be possible—Mumford approvingly quoted a noted geographer—“possibly even in the farm-home…. The little pieces for lawn mowers need no longer be made by men who live in the crowded homes of Philadelphia.” Mumford spoke of the end of big-city, big-factory assembly-line labor. Small, automated plants would be supervised by highly trained workertechnicians in far-flung sites characterized by pleasant living conditions.
Utopias tend to converge no matter what technologies make them possible; a faith in regional planning and development runs through the comments of all these second-industrial-revolution enthusiasts. The typical regional planners between the wars were social scientists, scientific-management devotees, and progressive politicians, all with a profound belief in the beneficial potential of modern technology—as long as it was kept under the control of progressive politicians, reforming experts, and social scientists rather than profit-motivated capitalists. These progressives believed that the damage done by the steam engine, the railroad, and the factory, especially to black urban populations, could now be undone. They blamed the evils of the first industrial revolution on a lack of vision and leadership from social reformers, who should have counterbalanced the insensitiviry of engineers in the service of greedy captains of industry. Social or “human” engineers would be as needed now as they had been lackine then.
The pioneers of the second industrial revolution believed they were gradually establishing standards to measure human well-being, as shown by individual fulfillment, fruitful and harmonious social relationships, and social creativity. They would use these standards—and not simply the goal of wealth—in planning for technological development. A first step was to develop blueprints for regional development based on electric-power grids or networks. Gifford Pinchot’s Giant Power was one such forward-looking concept.
Leaders among the prophets of the new age made their program manifest in two issues of The Survey , the first, in 1924, dedicated to “Giant Power” and the second, in 1925, to “Regional Planning.” The contributors included Mumford; Pinchot; Joseph Hart; Morris Llewellyn Cooke, who later headed Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration; Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York; and Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. There was also an article about the philosophy of Henry Ford and an interview with Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, another influential social-science journal, meanwhile supported Giant Power with a special issue subtitled “Large Scale Electrical Development as a Social Factor.” Lewis Mumford called the coming move back to the uncongested countryside “the fourth migration.” Human engineers would have to lead the fourth migration.
In lamenting the ongoing tide of population from countryside to cities, these reforming intellectuals and academics idealized the rural values and society disappearing before their eyes. In an unsigned preface to the regional-planning issue of The Survey , Mumford described the men who had contributed articles and acknowledged their nostalgia. One of them lived in a Brooklyn flat and wrote “wistfully” of Connecticut villages; another was “a prophet crying in the wilderness of the city, his heart in the crumbling country towns”; and still another “clings” to a tiny communal patch of green in the midst of city tenements. They wanted to piece together their fragmented spirits by creating green work and cultural communities. Like millions of other Americans, they were feeling the poignancy of loss and change as technological America displaced the frontier, leveled the wilderness, and even invaded the plains.
Today we herald one technological or industrial revolution after another without pausing to consider whether the promises of previous ones were fulfilled. The second industrial revolution, as defined by the American social visionaries of the 1920s, has still not fulfilled their great expectations. Electric power, the automobile, the radio, and the telephone are omnipresent, but congested cities and grimy industrial districts remain. Rarely do we find small and beautiful villages populated by farmer-craftsmen engaged in dispersed or federated production of mass-consumption goods. Why did the visionaries of the second industrial revolution predict so poorly?
The answer may lie in their technological determinism. If technology is often determined by social forces—as this author believes—then these visionaries were mistaken in predicting orderly technological advances to which society would conform; they should have been making the more difficult effort to predict messy social changes to which technology would have to conform.
Another explanation lies in the failure to realize how powerfully persons and institutions with deeply held traditional values can shape new technology to their ends. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that invention and discovery always bring about radical social changes, they instead often provide new ways of reinforcing the status quo. Persons and institutions with stakes in the cities, accustomed to organizing and controlling large-scale production in factories, adapted electricity to their ends. Electricity made possible elevators and interior lighting, thereby concentrating population in high-rise buildings. Streetlights illuminated the dark city canyons. Electrically driven mainline railroads and subways brought additional hordes of workers through tunnels into the cities. Dank subways stood as cruel mockery of the sunlight and fresh air electrification had been supposed to make available. In California and elsewhere, technically innovative power grids transmitted electricity from remote areas into the power-hungry, expanding cities. Relatively unprofitable rural electrification remained for years only a secondary goal of private utilities. Those who drew wealth and power from the technology that had made and sustained the industrial cities and the large factories refused to preside over their demise by championins the new technology of the visionaries.
Mumford realized how greatly the development of technology depended on the values and goals of those with the power to direct it. A major foundation for his enthusiasm about the neotechnic era was his belief that unselfish scientists and others of exemplary social purpose would soon displace the profit-seeking factory owners and militarists of the paleotechnic era as the masters of technological and scientific development. During World War H, when he saw scientists allying with the military to make the atomic bomb, he became deeply pessimistic about the future of technology and society, and he has remained so to this day.
We will doubtless continue to encounter visionaries anticipating Utopian technological revolutions. Our naivete about political and social revolutions has largely been dispelled by the history of those great revolutions of the modern era, the French and the Russian. But with technological revolutions, there seem to be no limits to our illusions. Lewis Mumford once wrote to his mentor Patrick Geddes that with the new technology, especially electrical, we are attempting “to tie up the physical garden city, [about] which we know a great deal, with a program of civilization-building, in which we are, relatively, duffers.” Today we might add that we have yet effectively to tie up technology, about which we know a great deal, with the grand sweep of historical change and continuity. We remain duffers.