Giedion – an “Author’s Note”

Sigfried Giedion published ‘A Complicated Craft Is Mechanized’ in 1943 in the MIT Technology Review. This essay on the development of the cylinder lock by Linus Yale, Jr (1821–1868) would become a part of Mechanization Takes Command in 1948.

The following note was added at the head of the essay.

Author’s Note. — This essay in industrial history is based on research preparatory to a volume dealing with the creative as well as destructive influence of mechanization on the coming about of modern life. Here is neither the place nor the opportunity to explain the methodological background of that research. But some hints about it may be given.

Complicated craft: The difference between European and American industry is marked from the very beginning, the late Eighteenth Century. Europe mechanized, above all, the simple craft; the characteristic American development was the mechanization of the complicated craft. In Europe, the mechanization of simple crafts — mining, spinning, weaving — became nearly synonymous with industry. In America, the story is different. Here, the fundamental trend is to be seen in the mechanization of the complicated craft which demands men of special skill as well as a large amount of time and labor. America began in the Eighteenth Century with mechanizing the trade of the miller and ended in the Twentieth Century with mechanizing the job of the housekeeper. In between, all the trades concerned to a certain extent with our intimate life had undergone the same process of mechanization: the tailor, the shoemaker, the farmer, the locksmith, the baker, the butcher. In Europe, most of these complicated crafts still form important strata of society. That they have nearly disappeared from American life has had enormous influence on habits and thoughts.

Mass production: When the question arises: “What is the greatest contribution of America to mankind, what has America done that influences the whole Western world?” there is no doubt of the answer. It is the tremendous instrument of mass production, which has been developed more intensively in this country than in any other. Mass production, replacing skilled labor, replacing the complicated craft, penetrates into our most intimate life. It is a very dangerous instrument; everything depends on how it is handled. When it is misused, or when it assumes dictatorial power over the human mind, the whole hierarchy of human values begins to crumble. Man loses his perspective and becomes uncertain in faith and judgment. On the other hand, when the instrument of mass production is used in the right manner and restricted to the place it deserves, then, for the first time in human history, a differentiated culture can emerge without any kind of open or concealed slavery.

Historical consciousness: There are excellent studies on the social and economic background of our period, and on the lives of the great entrepreneurs. But when one tries to get an insight into the phenomena themselves — into the anonymous history of inventions and ideas, which are the tools that build the instrument of mass productions — one finds nothing but gaps. In general opinion inventions must pay dividends; if they do not, they are obsolete and without significance. But, on the whole, inventions and the trends they reveal govern our present-day life. Nothing shows the complete lack of historical consciousness more strongly than the fact that because no funds could be found to prevent [it],the most precious witnesses of American history — the original models of the United States Patent Office — have been wandering about from barn to barn since 1926, when, with the consent of Congress, they were sold for some thousands of dollars to an English industrialist. Historically speaking, this disrespect is as though the bones of our ancestors should be strewn to the winds.

Emphasis has been added throughout to highlight those points in Giedion’s note which especially set McLuhan to thought:

  • if “mass production (…) penetrates into our most intimate life”, into ourhabits and thoughts” and so comes togovern our present-day life” with dictatorial power over the human mind”, how does it do so? Just how does this all take place?
  • if the effect of mechanization is that “the whole hierarchy of human values begins to crumble” and “man loses his perspective and becomes uncertain in faith and judgment”, how is this to be exposed and combatted (especially given its dictatorial power over the human mind”)?
  • if a new sort of “anonymous history” may be initiated beyond that of assumed standpoints and privileged perspectives, how can this contribute to an investigation of the previous questions?