The production of the mechanical loom may have been sensible to the naked eye, but it could be intelligibly organized only through its cultural inscriptions. Power looms in England and Germany by the end of the nineteenth century ran at speeds of 70 to over 200 picks per minute. (This means that 70 to over 200 times per minute the looms' shuttles traveled across the warp.) Foremen and overlookers determined the exact rate by adjusting and locking the loom's speed mechanisms. If managers isolated two figures from the flux of production—how long it had taken to weave a length of cloth and the total number of picks that had been woven into it—they could compare the actual total of picks with the hypothetical total the shuttles would have woven if the loom had run perfectly during the time interval,
without interruption. Comparing the theoretically possible with the actual output revealed the proportion of time that had been "lost" due to stoppages, a ratio of relative "efficiency" (Nutzeffekt ). In the decades before the First World War, textile journals on both sides of the channel devoted increasing attention to managerial strategies for quickening the tempo of production. Yet only in Germany did the concept of the efficiency ratio gain currency.
The efficiency ratio formed part of both material practice and discourse in Germany. In the "question and answer" columns of the country's textile periodicals, mill directors exchanged their calculations of this percentage for various makes of looms and asked whether customary ratios existed for various classes of goods—even for a product so specialized as "colored, light jute," for instance. The number of published questions points to grass-roots interest in the topic, and the level of responses sent in by mill owners who drew their estimates from practical experience indicates that the efficiency ratio held a place in the conduct of their everyday business. Max Weber, in his neglected study of a Westphalian weaving mill, referred to the efficiency ratio as a statistic in habitual use among textile firms. Samples of German production ledgers contained columns for listing the total number of weft threads actually woven, for recording the maximum that could in theory have been cranked out, and for reckoning the proportion between the two. The underlying content of the question, "How much ought particular looms to turn out in practice?" could have been reasoned out and formulated only in terms of the average or expected length of cloth, rather than in terms of this percentage. But in Germany the expression of production in terms of
length frequently appeared in conjunction with calculations of the efficiency ratio.
In Britain, by contrast, the concept of an efficiency ratio was not endorsed in prewar publications about mill administration. An article about "Weavingshed Management" in the Textile Manufacturer of 1907 furnishes eloquent testimony about its absence. This essay offered technical and managerial advice on productivity and recommended that managers tally the length of cloth woven on each loom, so that variations in work among looms and among weavers could be investigated. Despite its concern with quantities of output, with record-keeping, and with precise calculation, the article ventured no definition of efficiency and no comparison of the theoretical limit of production with the real level.
Equally instructive is an address which a Lancashire director, H. Dilks, delivered in 1916 to his peers in the British Association of Managers of Textile Works. He asked how the manager could abstract from the details of "daily routine" and represent to himself "the progress of the factory in a broader fashion"—in other words, how he could map factory productivity. Mr.Dilks argued that the graph he labeled Chart 3 (see Figure 5) offers a good way to picture day-to-day changes in efficiency. He explained: "It deals with individual loom stoppages, and indicates the cause of the stoppage and also its duration. It further shows graphically and clearly, by means of one curve, the total amount of loom stoppage in the shed from day to day." This diagram deals only with absolute quantities. It fails to convert these numbers into a ratio or percentage to tell us how much time has been lost, or what portion of possible production time has been lost. The author's description of his Chart 4 has the same feature: "The 'weavers average earnings' form an important measure of the efficiency of the individual loom or weaver, yet it may be high even when a proportion of the looms are stopped. It is therefore desirable to show also the total weavers' earnings for the whole shed—this is a figure that will probably be quite as useful as the other
in forecasting the colour of the half-yearly balance sheet." Mr. Dilks, in keeping with the treatment of labor as an output rather than a conversion process, saw time not as a continuous function but as a sum of separate days, for he figured how many days each loom runs without breaking, not how much time is lost due to breakdowns. This British manager put into words what the output records of other firms display in their arrangement of numbers. In everyday accounting as well as in prescriptive theory, British managers measured production as a substance, in terms of gross quantities of output.
The negotiations in Lancashire between managers and the powerful textile unions over the establishment of production norms for new varieties of cloth offer another context in which to search for mention of an efficiency quotient. The company managers and leaders of the textile unions met to conduct actual trial runs on the looms. To analyze the results of their tests, however, they measured only the number of threads that broke per hour and the total cloth length. When handbooks for weavers measured productivity, they calculated this in terms of pence per week per loom.
It was impossible for the efficiency ratio used in Germany to remain completely unknown in Britain. The designers and manufacturers of looms,
who sold their machines in the international market, boasted that their inventions could sustain high levels of efficiency under test conditions. But British mill managers rarely adopted such a statistic in their everyday practice or professional conferences. In the exceptional cases where they did, they reformulated it to suit their cultural framework. At the Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire, the accountants for the American-designed Northrop looms, installed after 1909, calculated "total efficiency" by comparing the sum of wages the weavers received as a group with their hypothetical earnings at 100 percent efficiency. This weaving department may have been unique in Britain for routine calculation of a version of an efficiency ratio before the First World War. The company records show that managers calculated this figure without considering the number of looms operated, however. Total looms in use at the mill fluctuated, so low earnings by weavers could result either from having fewer machines employed or from low productivity of each loom. The statistic measured success in obtaining a final output, not the process of using the equipment.
If German administrators, in the course of computing wages, also had to ascertain every week the number of shots executed on each loom, they had on hand the key figures needed for determining the efficiency ratio. Did the Germans decide to calculate this percentage as an incidental consequence of their adoption of the system of pay by shot? After all, their clerks already had a tally of shots carried out that was lacking among the British accountants. Or did use of the ratio carry a meaning of its own, based on the German designation of labor as a commodity? To answer these questions, we need to consider the functions that might have been served by its calculation.
The actual conditions of weaving on the shop floor contradicted the mathematical premises of the ratio in several respects. Given two looms of identical make, supplied with the same yarn and patterns, the loom with a low efficiency ratio could actually produce more than the loom with a high one. This contradiction arose because in the early twentieth century looms remained unreliable contrivances. They presented managers with a trade-
off between speed and stoppages: the higher the picks per minute, the more frequently weft or warp threads broke and became entangled. The efficiency quotient rested on an image of a self-contained machine whose operating speed was regular and given in advance. Looms of the era, in contrast to this ideal, had to be coaxed and felt out. Raising the speed of the shuttles might cause more stoppages and lower the efficiency ratio, yet result in more cloth at the end of the day. Taken too far, however, preoccupation with the shuttles' speed alone might lower output. "I have been in many factories where they pointed to their high speeds," one German manager remarked about his country, "but usually I could reply that I would let the looms run slower and bet that in each loom I would weave more cloth per day."
The efficiency quotient furnished an inaccurate index for a second reason: it supposed that weaving consisted solely of attending to the shuttles. In truth, weaving was not a uniform activity. Up to a quarter of the loom's possible running time could be "lost" while weavers took care of other essential jobs such as twisting in new warps or having the gears that regulated the warp beam changed. The shorter the warp, the greater the proportion of time consumed by these tasks, independent of any efforts of the weaver or the overlooker. The efficiency ratio could not measure different
weaving processes with a common yardstick, because the ratios for warps of differing lengths were incommensurable. Even within the same mill, Max Weber concluded, the efficiency ratio was unusable for comparisons of work on different types and lengths of warps.
We cannot leap to the conclusion that British methods remained intellectually backward in contrast with those of the Germans. Since the efficiency ratio mirrored the realities of production so poorly, its use cannot be explained as a rational adaptation to the circumstances of production. When Quarry Bank Mill installed American-designed Northrop looms with pick clocks on the eve of the First World War, and even paid their weavers by the shot, they still did not adopt the German form of the statistic. This indicates that the categories used for measuring production did not derive from convenience of calculation once the mode of payment was in place. Instead, the appreciation of production, too, depended upon the intervention of different concepts of labor as a commodity. But with all the imprecision and misrepresentations it introduced, how could the Germans have maintained an interest in their efficiency quotient at all?
Despite the inaccuracies of the ratio, German accountants used it to distribute production costs. Where the measure of the theoretically possible output embraced net factory time, the ratio served as an approximation in distributing overhead and general expenses to determine the manufacturing costs of various classes of goods. If accountants knew the firm's ratios of efficiency for diverse kinds of cloth, they could estimate how long it would take to weave a particular fabric on a loom and would know what level of general expenses or conversion expenses the cloth should bear. But here one notes that the same facts expressed in terms of how long it took to weave
cloth of a certain length could have served just as well to distribute the costs. As we have seen, the Germans had information about the length of the cloth on hand anyway, since they reckoned the number of shots on this basis. At least in this context, the efficiency ratio was not uniquely suited for the function. Its utility was more apparent than real and rested on the assumption that total output ought to be gauged by the actual versus the maximum possible output in a time period rather than, as the British preferred, by gross quantity of output during that period.
The German agents' use of the efficiency ratio to help construct piece-rate scales furnishes another context in which the ratio's utility was culturally defined. To find a base point for graduating the piece-rate scales for weavers, German business experts believed, the employer ought to proceed by first measuring the normal efficiency ratio of a loom at a certain speed to see on average how many shots weavers performed per day. Then to reach a target wage the managers would choose the pay per thousand shots. An observer outside the system notices, again, that the efficiency ratio remains arithmetically superfluous in this operation: one only needs to compute the average length of cloth produced per day to choose the pay per thousand shots. Yet German articles about the construction of weaving scales begin with the need to calculate the efficiency ratio, even those articles written by experienced mill directors who otherwise eschewed elaborate formulas. Here the efficiency ratio does not by itself convey any information or criteria of success that could not have been coded just as accurately in a statement about how much cloth of a certain type could be produced during a certain time interval.
In some instances the Germans employed the efficiency ratio, not to convey information about the known, but as a way of coping with the unknown. When factory owners accepted an order for a pattern of fabric they had not produced before on a large scale, they needed some way of moving from the amount of time taken to weave a similar pattern in the past to estimate how long it would take to weave the novel pattern. They carried out this operation by gathering together their hunches based on prior experience and by estimating then how much down time the new pattern would probably cause in comparison with the similar pattern. Once they had ascertained the picks per minute of the loom, they could calculate how long it would take, in comparison with the similar good, to make the requisite number of shots to fill the order. The fundamental yardstick they used to order their experience about relative weaving difficulty and comparative success was differential down time, not, like the British, simply differential output.
Let us not confound form and content: the Germans' greater concern for a particular concept of efficiency did not denote greater concern for the thing itself. On the eve of the First World War, the "Gospel of Efficiency" had become a standard turn of phrase in Britain. British managers manifested their interest in efficiency in their concern with the small details of production and with the causes of machine stoppages. Germany and Britain competed in the same export markets, especially in those for wool manufactures, where the British more than held their own in the decade before the First World War.
Managers in Britain calibrated output at each loom only between the start of a new piece of cloth and its completion. At some mills, their weavers complained that the warps were not marked with chalk or other signs at
standard intervals so that the weavers could judge how close they had come to the end of their piece. Managers tied measurement to the discrete events of assigning a fabric order to the loom and receiving delivery. In the German case, by contrast, managers conceived of production as a continuous function. One reason they gave for using the pay-by-shot system was that it permitted them to divide the worker's activity and output into minutely small segments. In later years, the introduction of the Schussuhr ("pick clock") permitted the output of the loom to be calculated or read daily. German managers urged workers to work at a regular pace and hoped that workers would even monitor themselves hourly or daily in order to learn how to do so. The workers obliged, but with unforeseen consequences. They became attuned to the manipulation of their labor power and used the efficiency ratio as an index of exploitation. At a meeting to induct weavers into the German Textile Workers' Union in Haan in 1899, a weaver warned that the wages workers received should be compared to the efficiency with which their labor power was used. An increase in take-home pay, he cautioned, might not equal capitalists' added profit "if manufacturers achieve a gain of 12 to 16 percent in efficiency."
It would be simple, but also simplistic, to conclude that the method of pay per shot, the reliance on the efficiency ratio, or, in later years, the use of the pick clock allowed German managers to impose tighter production quotas on workers than could their British counterparts. The timing of the introduction of pay by shot in German factories indicates that the practice did not originate as a strategy to control workers on the shop floor. For the new scales went into effect in Germany well before experts began to advocate "scientific management" or Taylorist methods to monitor the execution of labor. Moreover, the British elaborated their own methods for keeping track of the efficiency of individual workers. Especially in Lancashire, but in Yorkshire as well, British overlookers posted the weekly output of the weavers in their charge. The contrast between the countries arose not from the degree of surveillance but from its form.
For all the inaccuracies the efficiency ratio introduced, the Germans still favored a statistic that they could relate directly to the execution of labor during a time period and to the use of a timed potential. When British managers measured output by weavers' wages, they effectively took the price of the labor as a marker for the quantity of labor delivered. Had British analysts focused on the process of transforming a labor capacity into an output, however, they might have realized that such an index can be misleading: weavers on fancy patterns can earn high wages with only one loom in operation while they wait for repair of others in their allotment. On these grounds, Max Weber, in his study of a weaving shed, rejected wages as a measure of labor effort. Weber, like German manufacturers, recommended instead computing the total picks inserted. But principles for denoting output through time did not remain sequestered on paper; what bookkeepers wrote in the internal ledgers was externalized on the gates of the factory.