Mass Production: The Mechanical Industries

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, however, mass production did come to some mechanical industries not using heat. Machines did more than replace manual operations. They were used to integrate several processes of production. Such innovations came in several industries at almost precisely the same time, and they appeared primarily in those processing agricultural products rather than cloth, leather, or wood.

The innovations were of two types. They resulted in either the adoption of continuous-process machines that turned out products automatically or the building of factories or plants in which materials flowed continuously from and through one stage to the next. Both greatly increased the ratio of output to workers and reduced the number of laborers involved in the production process within a single establishment. Workers did little more than feed materials into the machines, keep an eye on their operations, and, in some cases, where it was not yet done automatically, package the final product. The new machinery was rarely expensive. Therefore, although the industries in which they were used became capital-intensive—that is, the ratio of capital to labor became high—the new process of production did not require a heavy capital investment. Because these machines and plants sharply lowered unit costs, they gave the enterprises that first adopted them impressive market power.

One of the most dramatic examples of the new continuous-process machinery came in the tobacco industry. In 1881, James Bonsack patented a cigarette-making machine that could, even in its experimental stage, produce over 70,000 cigarettes in a ten-hour day.0 By the late 1880s, one machine was turning out over 120,000 a day. At that time the most highly skilled hand workers were making 3,000 a day. Fifteen such machines could fill the total demand for cigarettes in the United States in 1880, and thirty could have saturated the 1885 market.

The machine integrated the processes of production in the following way. It swept the tobacco onto an “endless tape,” compressed it into a round form, wrapped it with tape and paper, carried it to a “covering tube,” which shaped the cigarette, pasted the paper, and then cut the resulting rod into the length of cigarette desired. According to the con- sultant who tested the machine for the leading British tobacco company, W.D.and H. O. Wills, it cut the cost of wages from 4 shillings to 0.3 pence per thousand cigarettes. When the initial costs of the machine, royalties, and depreciation were taken into account, the total cost of producing a thousand cigarettes was reduced from 5 shillings (60 pence) to 10 pence. Costs were further reduced when Bonsack, James B. Duke, and others perfected machinery to make the packages for cigarettes and then to place them into the package automatically. Not surprisingly, the first two firms to adopt the Bonsack machine—those of James B. Duke in the United States and Wills in Britain—dominated the cigarette industry and then the larger tobacco industry in their own countries. Within a decade they were joined in battle for the world market.

The invention of comparable machines revolutionized other industries. In 1881, four enterprises using the most efficient match-making machines combined to produce a machine that made matches by the billions and also automatically packed them in boxes.10 Their company, Diamond Match, at once dominated the world match trade and continued to do so until well into the twentieth century. In the early 1880s, Procter & Gamble, using a new high-volume mechanical crusher for soap-making, registered the Ivory brand that made the firm the leader in its industry. In 1884, George Eastman invented, and by the end of the decade perfected, a continuous-process method for making photographic negatives by using gelatin emulsion on film instead of glass plates. His company dominates the photographic industry to this day.

The creation of a continuous-process or automatic factory was more complex than the invention of a single machine. It involved a number of inventions, each of which had to be synchronized with the others; it also required perfection in plant design. Probably the most important of these continuous-process factories was “the automatic all-roller, gradual- reduction mill” used to process wheat and other grains.11 The first such mill was completed on an experimental basis in Minneapolis in 1879. Its creator, Cadwallader Colden Washburn, and his leading rivals, the Pills- bury brothers, improved and perfected these mills in the next decade.

Flour mills had used continuous-process machinery since Oliver Evans built his mill on Brandywine Creek near Wilmington, Delaware, in 1787. Such mills were small and operated seasonally. Only after the graingrowing regions had expanded and after the railroad and ancillary storage facilities permitted high-volume year-round operation did demand for the large automatic mill appear. The need to find more efficient ways to process the hard-grain spring wheat of the northern prairies intensified the search for processing innovations in the Minneapolis area. The result was a series of innovations, some borrowed from Hungarian and other European millers and others invented at home. They involved gradual reduction, multiple grinding, steel rollers to replace grindstones, purifiers and aspirators, and reels for scalping, grading, and dressing the flour. Central to this development, of course, was the design of the plant to make the maximum use of all this machinery. Figures 3 and 4 indicate how the first such plant was designed to assure continuing high-speed throughput.

The “new process” mills, as they were known, produced high-quality flour in high volume and at low unit cost. Theirs quickly became the standard processing technology in Minneapolis and then in other milling centers. The daily average output for the Minneapolis mills was 274 barrels in 1874; it had risen to 1,837 by the end of the 1880s, with some mills having a much larger capacity.12 By 1882 Minneapolis was already producing 3 million bushels of flour annually. By 1885 the output had risen to 5 million and by 1890 over 7 million. Comparable developments occurred in the milling of oats, barley, rye, and other grains. In the milling of oats, the output was so high that the leading processors had to invent the modern breakfast cereal industry in order to dispose of their surpluses.

Figure 3. Floor plan of Washburn automatic, all-roller, gradual-reduction mill, June 1879

All extraneous matter has been left out of the drawing, including partitions, elevators, some shafting, and shafting supports. On the lowest machine floor stood the four break-roller assemblies (1, 8, 17, 31) and the ten reduction assemblies; on the intermediate floor, the purifiers; on the top floor, the bolting chests with their round reels and aspirators (e.g., 29). The machines are numbered to correspond to the flow chart (figure 4). Of the roller assemblies, 1, 4, 7, ix, 14, 16, and 31 were belt-run; the remainder were gear-paired. Though this mill is called experimental, it produced flour until 1899.

Source: John Storck and Walter Dorwin Teague, Flour for Mari’s Bread: A History of Milling (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1952), p. 248.

Figure 4. Flow chart of Washburn experimental flour mill, June 1879

The numbers correspond to the machines in the floor plan (figure 3 ). As indicated at the upper left corner, the tailings of all purifiers were treated along with other stocks to make low-grade flour.

A comparable continuous-process factory for processing agricultural crops came in 1883, when two brothers, Edwin and O. W. Norton, put into production the first “automatic line” canning factory.13 Their new machinery was so arranged that cans were soldered at the rate of 50 a minute, while other machines added tops and bottoms at the rate of 2,500 to 4,400 an hour. The firms that first came to use the new machinery on a year-round basis—Campbell Soup, Heinz, and Borden’s Milk—at once became and still remain, nearly a century later, among the largest canners in the country.

In all these industries the new continuous-process technology appeared very quickly after the railroad and telegraph created the potential for mass production. Clearly, as Jacob Schmookler has pointed out,14 demand is a basic stimulant to technological innovation; but the precise timing of such innovations in production, like the organizational innovations in marketing, can be related more closely to the new speed and volume at which materials and goods could flow through the economy than to any change in demand resulting from an obvious shift upward in the rate of growth of population and income.

The adoption of the new machinery and improved plant design, by sharply increasing output and decreasing unit costs, had a profound effect on the enterprises and the industries in which they were used. Although these innovations were central to the rise of the large modern industrial enterprise that integrated mass production with mass distribution, they had much less impact on the organization of the modern industrial factory. As in the case of other mechanical industries, once the new machinery and equipment and plant design were perfected, increases in output and decreases in cost leveled off. Continuing growth and productivity came after the initial innovations in a slower, incremental manner.

Source: Chandler Alfred D. Jr. (1977), The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, Harvard University Press.

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