Standards and Power, at Home and Abroad

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; International Relations; Material Culture and Architecture


Standards, the protocols by which objects and processes are coordinated, are an admittedly obscure topic. Railway gauges, currency agreements, and screw thread angles do not inspire the same fascination among readers as wars and revolutions do. Yet they are arguably just as powerful as shapers of history. Standards lubricate trade within a zone of compatibility, whether that zone be spatial, conceptual, or economic. This panel is dedicated to mapping those zones. In so doing, it seeks to draw attention to a hidden dimension of power. Standards, though less visible and certainly less flashy than politics, operate on a fundamental and intimate level, creating a world where some forms of interchange are easy and others are impossible.

Stephen Mihm uses industrial standards to challenge the familiar narrative about Fordism. At the same time as Henry Ford and other corporate leaders pursued vertical integration, other less-known economic actors sought to standardize parts. Their legacy, of dispersed economic production and long-distance supply chains, is the one we’re living with today. Liat Spiro explores the connection between standards and international power, using civil engineering and finance to understand how the United States sought to leave its mark on Latin America and Asia in the early twentieth century. Finally, Daniel Immerwahr offers a history of globalization from the perspective of material culture, pointing out the important physical transformations required to sustain today’s world of effortlessly long-distance markets. The panel will be chaired and commented on by Ken Alder, a pioneering historian of standards, science, and technology in Europe and the United States.

Papers Presented

Standard Parts: The Death of Fordism and the Rise of Flexible Production

Though Henry Ford embraced vertical integration (control of everything from raw materials to the finished product), it was in the automotive industry that the use of industry-wide standards first encouraged the exact opposite strategy, with manufacturers outsourcing standard parts production to independent suppliers. This paper argues that a host of long-forgotten advocates of standardization, working through the Society of Automotive Engineers in the opening decades of the twentieth century, did as much as Ford to transform the automotive industry. The model they pioneered—which permitted the creation of staggeringly complex, far-flung supply chains that produced standard parts—is now the dominant method of organizing mass production.

Presented By
Stephen A. Mihm

The Limits of My Standards Are the Limits of My World: World War II and the Birth of a Global Material Culture

The world of the nineteenth century was a world marked by friction. Material cultures were generally local or national in extent, which limited the degree to which goods traveled around the world. By contrast, today’s world is one in which supply chains girdle the earth, iPhones are in use in every country, and objects cross borders easily. This paper examines the achievement of a global, rather than local or national, material culture. Doing so required not only cross-border standardization (the global screw thread is a fine example) but also a number of other transformations. Objects, particularly complex electronic ones, needed to be “world-proofed” so they could withstand transit and different climates. Cultures had to be adapted to receive and attach significance to foreign objects. World War II, in which one country (the United States) took on the task of supplying goods to every war theater, was the pivotal moment in creating a global material culture. It not only laid the foundations for today’s globalization but it also made the United States the central stall of the newly built global marketplace.

Presented By
Daniel Immerwahr, Northwestern University

Standardizing Infrastructure in the Era of the “Open Door” and “Dollar Diplomacy”

This paper will examine the relations between U.S. civil engineering projects abroad and international financial regimes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by analyzing two standardization efforts: the currency reform agenda of the late 1890s promoting a gold-exchange standard for East Asia and Latin America and debates over the standardization of infrastructural components, such as the rail gauge. Starting from the writings of U.S. engineers such as William Barclay Parsons (founder of Parsons-Brinckerhoff, the multinational engineering firm responsible for Boston’s “Big Dig”) as much as those of “money doctors,” the paper will illustrate how these two standardization questions shared common contexts in a shifting landscape of infrastructure imperialism and development. In late Qing and early Republican China, for instance, were neoimperial interests—British, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and U.S.—best served by carving up territorial-commercial spheres of interest premised on differing technical standards or by adopting common formats to integrate markets based on a joint regime of investment and debt? In addition to the role standardization questions played in making of unitary space, engineers such as Parsons undertook railway surveys in China and posited notions of standard time for machinery development in industrial ethnographies published in such venues as McClure’s. After tracing the course of these standardization projects, monetary and infrastructural, this paper will grapple with how their partial and unanticipated outcomes shaped dynamics of lock-in and dependency in the twentieth century.

Presented By
Liat Natanel Spiro, College of the Holy Cross

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Ken L. Alder, History of Science and Technology
Ken Alder is Professor of History and Milton H. Wilson Professor in the Humanities at Northwestern University, where he directs the Science in Human Culture Program. He has written three books of history: Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France (Princeton, 1997; Chicago, 2010), The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World (The Free Press, 2002, and 11 translations), and The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession (The Free Press, 2007). Alder grew up near Berkeley, California, where he was part of a program for interracial bussing—the subject of his novel, The White Bus (1987). He is currently writing a history of artificial beings from ancient Mesopotamia to the genomics revolution.

Presenter: Daniel Immerwahr, Northwestern University
Daniel Immerwahr is a historian of the United States and the world, serving in the history department at Northwestern University. His first book, Thinking Small (Harvard, 2015), offers a critical account of the United States' pursuit of grassroots development at home and abroad in the middle of the twentieth century. My second book, How to Hide an Empire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), is a narrative history of the United States and its overseas territory. Immerwahr has won the Merle Curti Prize in Intellectual History, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History's annual book prize, the Bernath Lecture prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship. His writings appear in The Nation, Slate, n+1, and Dissent, as well as in academic venues.

Presenter: Stephen A. Mihm
Stephen Mihm is associate professor of history at the University of Georgia. He is the author of A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States (Harvard, 2007); and Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance (Penguin, 2010). He is currently working on a history of standards and standardization in the United States.

Presenter: Liat Natanel Spiro, College of the Holy Cross
Liat Spiro is a historian of capitalism and technology in the United States in transatlantic and global perspective. Her dissertation, “Drawing Capital: Depiction, Machine Tools, and the Political Economy of Industrial Knowledge, 1824-1914,” interprets transformations in the nexus of technology, class formation, and international trade. Analyzing technological print culture and the internal records of major engineering firms such as William Sellers & Co., Baldwin Locomotive Works, and Pratt & Whitney, it explains a fundamental reformation of knowledge regimes—the methods to make the means of production—that recast divisions of mental and manual labor, enabled the rise of the capital goods industries, and spurred an increasingly global trade in machinery. This analysis hangs on an understudied skill in the competing mechanic cultures of the nineteenth-century Atlantic world: drawing. Before the advent of Frederick W. Taylor’s scientific management, changing techniques of depiction were recasting divisions of mental and manual labor, displacing control over work processes, and shaping notions of invention and objectivity in intellectual property disputes. Her research has been supported by the American Philosophical Society, the PEAES Program at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Dan David Prize, and the Business History Conference/University of Illinois Foundation.