From Plato to Carnegie

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

A brief history of industrial specialization

“All things will be produced in superior quantity and quality, and with greater ease, when each man works at a single occupation, in accordance with his natural gifts, and at the right moment, without meddling with anything else.” (Plato, late 5th century B.C.)

This will establish Plato as the father of industrial design, if we follow a circuitous bit of logic, and, as you will see, the Americans as the mothers, by the same twist of reasoning.

Where jobs come from

The idea of the specialization of labour was crucial to the organization of the fabrication of things, in the pursuit of quantity, quality and efficiency (ease) and, ultimately, profit. Organization is a key concept here because, if everyone is to do a single thing, then these various independent efforts must be organized so that a whole can be achieved.

It will be necessary for the single occupation of someone to be the organizer. It will also be necessary for one of the single occupations to be that of predetermining the design of the thing that is being made. Therefore, the industrial designer is required.

For this concept to be truly fulfilled, a number of other ideas were necessary. They may (or may not) have been originated in America, but they found their first real expression there. These ideas were the interchangeability of parts and the mechanization of industry. Also, the idea of the assembly line. Collectively, these ideas have become known as the American system of manufacturing. The famously successful American, Andrew Carnegie, noted: “Cheapness is in proportion to the scale of production.”

Technological breakthroughs

With these ideas, we have the backbone of the industrialization of the making of things. A number of other ideas were crucial as well: there needed to be a plentiful source of inexpensive energy. Waterwheels initially provided the rotary motivation to power the machine tools, but it was the steam engine (a very important idea), which really set the wheels in motion. These engines required a combustible fuel, which wood and, even better, coal, and then petroleum, supplied. What a history of consequences this has.

Also required was a concentration of the individuals that would allow each man to work at a single occupation. This idea gave us urbanization. Also needed was a concentration of wealth in the hands of those people whose single occupation was the concentration of money. This idea has come to be known as capitalism.

Producing things in quantity and with ease is all well and good, but if you can’t get rid of them, you’ll soon find yourself in trouble. When things were produced in small quantities, they could simply be taken to market, which would have been the pre-urban and occasional agglomeration of similar individuals with the same goal: exchanging the fruits of their labours for something else, especially money. Money is itself a powerful idea, necessary to this whole advance of industry.

But with an increase of output, the market must increase its size proportionately. This is achieved by another idea: the market is where you find it. Another single occupation results: that of the marketer, willing to go wherever necessary, or even to create a market.

Work values

So there we have it: a handful of ideas that led to the situation that we find ourselves in. We probably should throw in the ideas about the worth of hard work and personal discipline and so on, as promoted by Martin Luther, John Calvin and their Protestant colleagues.

I’ve always found it to be a bit ironic that the things that were first produced by the American system were firearms. Those facilitators of destruction were developed just in time to assist in two important events: the decimation of Native Americans and the execution of the American Civil War.

Eventually, the useful manufacturing principles would be applied to sewing machines and clocks. The clocks were needed to keep time in order for this new arrangement of things to run smoothly, and the sewing machines to clothe the urban toiling masses, who were too busily engaged in doing their own special thing to make their own clothes as they once had.

A handful of ideas set a process and system in motion that fully envelops us. We certainly have a lot of things now. Mostly, we are at peace with this arrangement and have found our own specialized place within it, whether as owners, managers, marketers, consumers or designers.

I wonder what Plato would make of our current situation.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.


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