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Networked Machinists: High-Technology Industries in Antebellum America

Author(s):Meyer, David R.
Reviewer(s):Thomson, Ross

Published by EH.NET (June 2007)

David R. Meyer, Networked Machinists: High-Technology Industries in Antebellum America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. xi + 305 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-8471-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ross Thomson, Department of Economics, University of Vermont.

The spread of mechanized production has been analyzed extensively, but the spread of the knowledge of how to mechanize has received much less attention. We often assume that producers simply choose among known techniques. Yet many case studies demonstrate that industrialization often failed because such knowledge was lacking, and succeeded only when innovators communicated knowledge to groups of followers. The challenge is to discover when and how technological knowledge spreads.

In Networked Machinists: High-Technology Industries in Antebellum America, David R. Meyer takes up this challenge. Meyer, who teaches sociology and urban studies at Brown University, has authored influential interpretations of the formation of the manufacturing belt after the Civil War. His current book can be seen as a companion to The Roots of American Industrialization (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), in which he argues that elites in the major Eastern metropolises, fostered by progressive Eastern agriculture, led an industrialization process that localized in a manufacturing belt from Boston to Baltimore. Focusing on a central agent in the industrialization process, Networked Machinists maintains that machinists formed communications networks that spread technological knowledge widely and so accelerated technological diffusion and productivity growth. Because such networks operated largely within the manufacturing belt, they help explain the localization of industry.

Meyer makes the case largely by mining a rich vein of contemporary accounts in books and journals, augmented by censuses, other government sources, and in places patent data. These sources make it possible to trace out networks in some detail, and Meyer is the first scholar to make use of this potential to explore wide ranges of the machinery sector, including textiles, engines, firearms, locomotives, and machine tools. At the same time he makes fine use of economic and technological histories of important cases. He insightfully includes the iron foundry within the machinists’ domain, though machinists, narrowly construed, shaped metal that had already been wrought or cast. Casting is the unglamorous cousin of metal-cutting, much as the boiler is of the steam engine, but without effective casting, mechanization would have been fundamentally limited. By combining these sources, Meyer has created an excellent, up-to-date, synthetic volume with strong themes and evidence.

The main conclusions of the book pertain to the operation of networks and their geographic importance. Machinists’ networks mattered because some knowledge was tacit, experientially based, and transmitted through interaction among machinists. When some firms had techniques that others lacked, knowledge of the techniques was itself valuable, and machinists advanced their position by spreading such knowledge. Machinists also sought out employment in leading firms, knowing their training would be valuable elsewhere. When such mobility was common, techniques spread rapidly among participating firms, providing advantages over other firms. Meyer demonstrates the importance of this diffusion in detailed studies of textiles, steam engines, firearms, and locomotives. The breadth of participants was narrower in locomotives and firearms than in engines or textiles, and the mode varied ? typically decentralized but in firearms organized by the Ordnance Department ? but networks organized knowledge diffusion in each case. He also shows how machinists used production knowledge gained in some industries to enter others, most clearly in locomotives and machine tools.

Networks existed in space, and Meyer adroitly depicts this geographic dimension. Much of the book is organized around studies of leadings centers and their linkages. One of the core issues concerns increasing returns: why, when local diffusion was easiest, knowledge spread beyond leading centers. Clear local economies existed, and innovation did concentrate. But adequate capital and skills in other areas, dispersed markets and high transportation costs, and the ready mobility of machinists all led to diffusion to new areas. As a result, machinery production spread in each sector, but spread only where markets and production capabilities both existed. The location of networks varied by industry but concentrated largely in and east of a line extending along the Connecticut River valley, the Hudson valley, and eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland. Inter-industry technology flows reinforced the industrial concentration. Had agricultural machinery been considered, the focus on the East would have relaxed somewhat, but this development occurred late in the period.

Networks evolved as mechanization expanded. In a phase extending through 1820, depicted in the book’s first three chapters, machinists’ networks originated in foundries, engine shops, textile mills, and federal and contract armories. Networks emanated out of leading firms at a time when hand skills were paramount and machine tools were primitive. As later chapters detail, from 1820 through 1860, networks deepened in these industries, spread to locomotives, and integrated in making and using machine tools. Networks persisted over time even though firms rarely did; as a result areas that led in 1820 continued to lead in 1860.

As Meyer recognizes, the book raises a number of questions that merit further research. First, Meyer suggests that firm owners trained workers and even shared knowledge as part of the community’s norms, not out of some self-interested calculus, and this “bourgeois virtue” ? here Meyer adopts Deirdre McCloskey’s term ? fostered the diffusion of knowledge. It would help to know more about the character of such norms, how commonly they were adhered to, and how they persisted if firms did not benefit from them. Second, it would be helpful to link the mobility of machinists to the evolution of the machinery sector. Was mobility greater within industries than between? How did mobility relate to the growing numbers of firms, firm specialization, and the rise of new kinds of machines? Third, how did networks relate to invention? Networks could diffuse knowledge over long periods of time only if new knowledge arose; how did networks give rise to that novelty? Meyer presents data linking the location of early engines and textile patents to centers of machinists, but more research will be required to develop this link. Moreover could the publication and sale of patents undercut the centrality of networks by offering an alternative mode of knowledge diffusion? Answers to these questions will complicate the understanding of industrialization, but they are unlikely to overturn the key role of machinists’ networks that Meyer has so ably demonstrated.

Ross Thomson is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Vermont. He is completing a book entitled The Structure of Change: Forming an Innovation System in the United States, 1790-1865.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century