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The Mantra of Efficiency

, 256 pages

8 halftones, 2 line drawings

February 2008



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The Mantra of Efficiency

From Waterwheel to Social Control

Winner, 2010 Edelstein Prize, Society for the History of Technology

Efficiency—associated with individual discipline, superior management, and increased profits or productivity—often counts as one of the highest virtues in Western culture. But what does it mean, exactly, to be efficient? How did this concept evolve from a means for evaluating simple machines to the mantra of progress and a prerequisite for success?

In this provocative and ambitious study, Jennifer Karns Alexander explores the growing power of efficiency in the post-industrial West. Examining the ways the concept has appeared in modern history—from a benign measure of the thermal economy of a machine to its widespread application to personal behaviors like chewing habits, spending choices, and shop floor movements to its controversial use as a measure of the business success of American slavery—she argues that beneath efficiency's seemingly endless variety lies a common theme: the pursuit of mastery through techniques of surveillance, discipline, and control.

Six historical case studies—two from Britain, one each from France and Germany, and two from the United States—illustrate the concept's fascinating development and provide context for the meanings of, and uses for, efficiency today and in the future.

Jennifer Karns Alexander is an associate professor in the Program in History of Science, Technology, and Medicine and the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota.

"This concise, scholarly study will not only encourage reflective analysis of historical events but also offer insight into potential future applications and change."

"I find this to be the finest study I have ever read and likely will ever read on the evolution of 'efficiency' as an intellectual concept and, simultaneously, on its many applications over time. Alexander's book has remarkable depth, detail, coverage, and insight. Her work is most impressive in its tracing of efficiency from its origins as an obscure philosophical concept through the present, as a popular social and personal ideal."

"Alexander skillfully interprets a broad spectrum of sources spanning three centuries, three languages, and several academic disciplines. She packs a wealth of information into a slim and readable volume, carefully exploring the nuances of each case without straying too far from the central focus on efficiency's intellectual heritage."

"A thought provoking study... Widens our understanding of how ideas of efficiency began, how efficiency has been experienced in different historical circumstances."

"A very provocative book."

"An ambitious book that... largely succeeds."