Slaves and Nazis: efficiency's story

Julia King looks at an engineering journey from factory systems to social manipulation

September 11, 2008

On the back of the slipcover of this book is one of those promotional quotes: "The finest study I have ever read and likely will ever read on the evolution of 'efficiency' as an intellectual concept ... ". Having finished the book, I cannot resist the old joke - I could not agree more. It is unlikely that I will ever feel the need to read another book that links the Carnot cycle and Nazi Germany, waterwheels and slavery.

I am an engineer. Throughout my career much of my work has had efficiency at its core, both of the human-system kind and in the engineering sense - from running factories making aeroengine components to making university central services more cost-effective and reducing CO2 emissions from road transport.

I read books either to learn about ideas that I can use or for interest and enjoyment, and the best books, of course, deliver both. Since the topic of this book is described as "efficiency as a feature of modern industrial culture", I assumed I would learn something.

The book starts with engineering: addressing 18th and early 19th-century engineering approaches to efficiency in the context of the optimum design of waterwheels.

It follows the conflict between the approach of John Smeaton in the UK, who started to explore dynamic relationships such as between fall and power, and that of the Franklin Institute in the US, which was focused on producing data tables for practitioners.

The engineering descriptions are presented in quite some detail - oddly, entirely in words, without the benefit of diagrams or equations.

Some of the controversy in the engineering journals of the day, recounted here, reminds us that the arguments over whether engineering quality can be assessed under the forthcoming research excellence framework, by publications in the scientific literature (Smeaton) or practical application to advance industry (Franklin Institute), go back at least two centuries and may be difficult to resolve in a matter of months.

We move forward in time, and the thinking moves from the control of machines to the control of the movements of the people operating the machines and the need for quantification both of the work of machines and humans.

This progresses to organisational efficiency and the role of management - with an intriguing detour to include Charles Darwin and his view of "efficiency" in natural selection.

We are then introduced to Henry Gantt and the origin of his famous charts, describing the performance of women in the folding room of a bleachery in 1909. This is the concept of "balanced efficiency", less to do with increased productivity than guaranteed reliability.

Around the time of the First World War, efficiency became an optimistic word for the force that would drive the rebuilding of the new world. It was used extensively in advertising and self-help books to indicate "goodness"; newspapers included columns with replies to readers' letters advising them on living more efficient lives.

German industry in the inter-war years sought to cure an ailing economy through an efficiency drive involving time-and-motion studies and Elmo work stools, eliminating the waste associated with unnecessary worker movements. But by 1974 the view of efficiency was changing. In a study comparing the output of slaves with that of free labourers in the northern US, Robert William Fogel concluded that "American slavery had been efficient".

The resulting debate challenged the view of efficiency as having a positive moral value.

Finally, the author addresses global efficiency - efficiency as a way to prevent disruption or interference; this is the efficiency of social control in the book's title.

One alarming example is the understanding of efficiency enshrined in American law following several court cases from the 1960s. As a result, free speech for US government employees exists only to the extent that it does not impair "the efficiency of the agency for which he or she works" (unless that speech pertains to "any matter of political, social or other concern to the community".)

So what conclusions does the author draw from this evolution of the use and meaning of the term "efficiency"? Despite the assistance of a chapter entitled Conclusion: The future of efficiency, I found it hard to tell.

We learn that efficiency is an attempt to control, to regulate behaviour and to facilitate a particularly rigorous form of planning. Efficiency can be bad as well as good; it cannot be seen to indicate moral value, as the slavery controversy and the efficient approach to killing at Auschwitz both demonstrate. In addition, while "the need for planning is precisely what some theorists of postmodern culture see as increasingly passe ... ", in modern technology people see a world that "does not run itself".

So I conclude from the book that the term "efficiency" now has both positive and negative connotations, but that in a world where we still need planning we need to continue to develop our understanding of it and its appropriate measurement.

It is disappointing that the author seems to have failed to notice that this was recognised in the organisation and management of factories at least 20 years ago.

So who is this book aimed at? Certainly not engineers or managers. You won't glean any management tips, and the treatment of the engineering examples will neither satisfy the specialist nor provide insight for the non-technical reader.

Having followed efficiency's chequered history from 18th-century waterwheel experiments, through the control and restraint of humans, involvement with slavery and persecution, to being declared passe by postmodern theorists, I am bemused - I don't understand the purpose of this book.

In my world, "efficiency" is an increasingly critical consideration, both in terms of human behaviour and machine performance. We are going to need plenty of improvement in both if we are to address our biggest challenge: climate change. So let's get on with it.

The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control

By Jennifer Karns Alexander

The John Hopkins University Press

256pp, £33.50

ISBN 9780801886935

Published 4 April 2008

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