A row of terrace houses

Book reviews

A manifesto arguing that technology isn't the solution to all society's problems leads this month's selection of new technology books.

The MIT Press 

America's Assembly Line 

By David E Nye, £20.95, ISBN 9780262018715

The arrival of this book is timely, coming in the centenary year of the birth of the factory assembly line. In 1913, managers at the Ford auto plant at Highland Park, Detroit, were consciously pursing a new type of production process for the Model T. Mass production was the name of the game, and, with a relatively new factory that for the first time had electrification throughout, it was possible to build a whole car at speed on a single moving line.

For Henry Ford, the essence of the Model T was its affordability for a mass market. This meant applying Adam Smith's principle of a division of labour, aimed at one outcome: speed. Between 1909 and 1914 the time it took to assemble a single car went from at least 12 hours to little more than an hour and a half. Mass production stimulated consumer demand, which in turn fed mass production. American industry had hit on a formula that left the much smaller European countries in its wake.

The downside of this approach for the US auto giants – General Motors, Chrysler and Ford – was their inability to cope with consumer recessions, and the changing tastes of car buyers, particularly in Europe. Their factories became synonymous with a dehumanising production line of overworked and disposable semi-skilled staff.

David E Nye's book informatively sees the assembly line's evolution through a prism of cultural, social, artistic and political trends. But the challenge came not just from cultural critics. By the mid-1980s Japanese innovators Honda, Nissan and Toyota were making millions of cars a year at their US plants. In the Japanese tradition, assembly line speed was sacrificed to quality control, low wastage and flexibility, with small teams of skilled workers able to put together a range of different models in the same factory. The true assembly line of Henry Ford's time was no more as 'lean' manufacturing proved to be more efficient and responsive to consumer demand.

In a new century that has seen a drive towards low-cost off-shore manufacturing in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe, the biggest challenge is climate change, says Nye, Professor of American History at the University of Southern Denmark. Ford's Dagenham engine assembly plant on the banks of the Thames has been turned into a 'green' plant. But, warns Nye, the question remains of whether 'sustainable' manufacturing can be a reality without a reinvention of the mass consumption that gave birth to it a century ago.

Bob Cervi


Matthew Boulton: Enterprising Industrialist of the Enlightenment 

Edited by Kenneth Quickenden, Sally Baggott and Malcolm Dick, £65, ISBN 978-1-4094-2218-1

Matthew Boulton is best known as the business partner of the Scottish engineer James Watt – in itself a very credible claim to fame. In the last quarter of the 18th century, Birmingham-based firm Boulton & Watt produced over 490 steam engines, each typically boasting a three-fold efficiency improvement over the Newcomen atmospheric engines they superseded. Newcomen's engine got the industrial revolution on its feet; Boulton and Watt set it in headlong, unstoppable motion.

History has been kind to Watt. There can't be a book on 18th century industrial history that doesn't mention the role of the Watt condenser in transforming steam engine efficiency, and Watt biographies have never been in short supply. In contrast, there is, as yet, no substantial biography of Boulton. This book, based on papers delivered at a 2009 conference marking the bicentenary of Boulton's death, goes some way to rectifying this.

Boulton's other great claim to fame is his Palladian-fronted Soho Manufactury. During the 1760s, on the site of a watermill near Birmingham, Boulton created the world's first vertically integrated factory, with all aspects of production concentrated on a single site. Originally a toy producer, a business he inherited from his father, Boulton's manufacturing activities eventually extended to include minting coins, Sheffield plate, ormolu (gilt bronze), mechanical paintings and, of course, steam engines.

The 16 papers featured in this collection cover the full range of Boulton's diverse manufacturing activities, along with examining his wider cultural and social impact. His high-quality silverware helped bring fine art to the masses, or at least the burgeoning middle classes, while, in association with the likes of Josiah Wedgwood, he played a key role in the birth of the 'Midlands Enlightenment'.

For engineers, Boulton's real point of interest is his association with Watt – covered in a revelatory chapter by Jim Andrew, former keeper of the Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry. Andrew totally demolishes the widely-held assumption that the Watt steam engine outperformed its atmospheric predecessor because the condenser eliminated the need to re-heat the cylinder on each cycle – it's the better vacuum that does it.

A book for the research library and professional historians, but also anyone remotely interested in how steam power developed. Andrew's chapter is a gem.

Roger Dettmer


How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed 

By Ray Kurzweil, £20, ISBN 978-0715645376

Technology needs its visionaries to imagine the future, to reason about its possibilities and to help to shape its direction. One of the most, if not the most important figure in epitomising this is Ray Kurzweil. Described as 'the restless genius' by the Wall Street Journal, and 'the ultimate thinking machine' by Forbes, Kurzweil's unbridled optimism in super intelligent computing is unrelenting. His passionately written arguments for human-machine merging into the Singularity, and a (near) future where uploading consciousness into machines is a certainty, not just a speculative proposition.

His latest book, 'How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed', focuses on an argument of the pattern recognition theory of mind (PRTM). The PRTM 'describes the basic algorithm of the neocortext (the region of the brain responsible for perception, memory, and critical thinking)'. What is the PRTM? Imagine the neocortex as a complex information processor, taking in information, sorting it into modules and then organising it into information hierarchies.

Kurzweil's emphasis on PRTM is combined with a theme he has outlined in his previous texts: technological advances will rapidly excel due to 'an evolutionary process [that] inherently accelerates (as a result of increasing levels of abstraction) and that its products grow exponentially in complexity and capability'. He calls this 'the law of accelerating returns' (LOAR). What happens when the PRTM and LOAR coincide? Kurzweil argues that modelling neocortex-inspired algorithms combined with LOAR will result in supreme advances in computer and artificial intelligence.

The chapter on the 'biologically inspired digital neocortex' best expresses his key theme. He reasons that if the biological neocortex has 300 million pattern recognisers, then if this is augmented by a 'synthetic' version with no physical limits that are expressed in the physical limits of the biological brain, then it will be possible to use 'billions or trillions of pattern recognizers'.

Kurzweil's imaginative use of exploring PRTM and applying it to computers is intriguing and well worth a read.

Kathleen Richardson

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them