A Short History of Efficiency

Reading a fascinating history of the concept of efficiency by Jennifer Karns Alexander The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control. She begins telling us that efficiency was one of the foundational concepts of the modern industrial age. It was an industrial invention, created by engineers and physicists to measure the performance of machines, and, in particular, to relate a machine’s output to the inputs it had used.1 Several different notions surrounded the definition of this concept as applied during the latter 18th and early 19th Century. Two of these would come to dominate its use and construction for industrial intellectuals and engineers. One was an efficiency of balance, a static efficiency, the highest measure of which accounted for the conservation of measured elements. The other was a creative and dynamic efficiency, which allowed growth through careful management and brought as its reward not merely conservation but growth. These two meanings were woven together in what appeared to be a paradoxical rhetoric stressing both the conservative character of efficiency and its dynamic and creative potential. (ibid., KL 117)

Marx would see efficiency as a fixed, quantitative, or substantive power which he would mark as labor productivity. Technically, efficiency was indeed an exercise in quantification, measuring how much power or fuel a machine or human used and comparing that amount to how much work each did in a specific time interval. This notion of labor power being quantified by labor productivity was ultimately a measure of time and its quantification.

Our modem concept of efficiency resulted from the intersection of medieval religious theories of divine simplicity, economy, and power, with premodern output-input measures, and with a theory of immediate causal agency. Efficiency of the premodern sort was neither a measurement nor a comparison. It denoted power that was sufficient or adequate, rather than a precise match between resources and task. Efficiency carried this association with power, and especially causal agency, into its modern forms.(KL 221)

The critics of the enlightenment project Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment excoriated Enlightenment rationality as not only a program to ameliorate conditions of human life but also as an instrument of domination, using rules of logic to exclude contradictions and reduce nuances to calculation, with the goal of rebuilding society as those who wielded it desired.(KL 233) They would offer this dark opinion on efficiency:

Previously, only the poor and savages were exposed to the fury of the capitalist elements. But the totalitarian order gives full rein to calculation and abides by science as such. Its canon is its own brutal efficiency.

Efficiency was at once modernity’s royal road to human knowledge, its effort to use methods, tools, and techniques centered on what Alexander termed the modern idea of humankind as the author of its own fate: discipline and planning. Both were practices rooted in an intellectual understanding ofthe human place in the cosmos and a faith in the efficacy of human action. Discipline is marked by self-control and purposeful order; planning by management and deliberate organization.(KL, 252) Max Weber in his analyses of the spirit of capitalism would root discipline within Calvinist notions of the elect and perfection through work and salvation. The notion of efficacy was central; discipline was intended to make things effective. It could take many forms: social, personal, legal, or mechanical. It operated from above, in a coercive or normative manner, such as through laws or military commands, in which it was designed to increase the likelihood that regulations or orders were followed. It also operated from below, through social behavior, to reinforce order, security, and safety. A mechanical form of discipline was embodied in the physical supports and structures intended, in a machine, to guarantee its effective action by directing and limiting how it moved.(KL, 258)

Weber would mark out planning as instrumentalist reason and its incarnation in the modern rational organizations of bureaucracy and other capitalist institutions;  they described a capitalist industrial order continually concerned with balancing accounts and thus organizing life so that things could be calculated and such balancing made possible. Planning looked forward and aimed to usher in an envisioned future.(KL, 264)

Alexander also reminds us there are two root distinctions in which efficiency was used, one static, the other dynamic: the first is the difference between static efficiency, allied with a notion of balance and emphasizing the conservation of measured resources, and,  dynamic efficiency, tending not toward equilibrium but allied with concepts of growth; and, the second, the distinction between efficiency measured arbitrarily and efficiency bounded by natural, fixed limits; it, too, grows out of the laws of thermodynamics.(KL, 273)

She goes into a lot greater detail in the course of her history taking in such obsessive efficiency experts as the American Frederick Winslow Taylor and his system of scientific management are the best-known historical examples of efficiency; the relationship between Taylor’s famed system and his earlier work on metal cutting illustrates the underlying importance of motion. Men like Gerard-Joseph Christian for whom the notion of perfected machines was an intellectual construction erected at the crossroads of mechanical practice and mechanics as theory. His work was part of the emerging field of industrial mechanics, and it employed a broad notion of effect that encompassed not only quantitative measures of machine performance but also wider and qualitative considerations of the role of machines in society. It illustrates the complexity of the intellectual traditions from which the formal concept of efficiency would emerge.(KL 781) As well as Sadi Carnot an almost forgotten intellectual and engineer whose only book developed a mechanical theory that allowed such machines to be analyzed “down to their last detail”. As he said:”Every event is predictable, all possible movements are in accordance with established general principles which are applicable in all circumstances.”(KL, 2283)

As Alexander sums it up:

Beneath each example of efficiency in this book lies the attempt to control a changing situation, by bringing it into conformity with a vision of how the world works. In most cases the attempt combined two allied but distinct senses of efficiency, one static and emphasizing stability and balance, the other dynamic, linked with growth and transformation. The distinction underscores how deeply efficiency was embedded in modernity and suggests ways in which, modern though it is, it will endure even in a world hailed as modernity’s successor.(KL, 2287)


1. Jennifer Karns Alexander. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control (Kindle Locations 112-114). Kindle Edition.

4 thoughts on “A Short History of Efficiency

  1. Pingback: The Ecumenopolis: Panic Cities of Stupidity or Intelligence? | noir ecologies

  2. Currently writing something on neuroengineering. This is leading me to look a little at what constitutes engineering and it seems to be along the lines of the application of scientific method and practice to design problems that revolve around efficiency. Did you buy this book or is it available anywhere as a pdf? Only copy I’m seeing is a bit pricey.


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