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Adam Smith on the greater productivity brought about by the division of labor and technological innovation (1760s)

In an early draft of the Wealth of Nations (1776) which Adam Smith wrote in the 1760s he discusses the very great increases in productivity brought about by incremental improvements in technology such as the plough and the corn mill, often brought about by the users of the machines who stood to benefit from them:

Every body must be sensible how much labour is abridged and facilitated by the application of proper machinery. By means of the plough two men, with the assistance of three horses, will cultivate more ground than twenty could do with the spade. A miller and his servant, with a wind or water mill, will at their ease grind more corn than eight men could do, with the severest labour, by hand mills. To grind corn in a hand mill was the severest work to which the antients commonly applied their slaves, and to which they seldome condemned them unlessl when they had been guilty of some very great fault. A hand mill, however, is a very ingenuous machine which greatly facilitates labour, and by which a great deal of more work can be performed than when the corn is either to be beat in a mortar, or with the bare hand, unassisted by any machinery, to be rubbed into pouder between two hard stones, as is the practice not only of all barbarous nations but of some remote provinces in this country. It was the division of labour which probably gave occasion to the invention of the greater part of those machines, by which labour is so much facilitated and abridged. When the whole force of the mind is directed to one particular object, as in consequence of the division of labour it must be, the mind is more likely to discover the easiest methods of attaining that object than when its attention is dissipated among a great variety of things. He was probably a farmer who first invented the original, rude form of the plough. The improvements which were afterwards made upon it might be owing sometimes to the ingenuity of the plow wright when that business had become a particular occupation, and sometimes to that of the farmer.

The advantage, too, which is gained by saving the time commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another is very considerable, and much greater than what we should at first be apt to imagine. It is impossible to pass very quickly from some businesses to others, which are carried on in distant places and with quite different tools. A country weaver who likewise cultivates a small farm must lose a good deal of time in passing from his loom to the field and from the field to his loom. Where the two businesses can be carried on in the same work house, the loss of time is no doubt much less. It is even here, however, very considerable. A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to a quite different (one). When he first begins the new work he is seldome very keen or hearty. His mind does not go with it, and he for some time rather triffles than applies to good purpose. A man of great spirit and activity, when he is hard pushed upon some particular occasion, will pass with the greatest rapidity from one sort of work to another through a great variety of businesses. Even a man of spirit and activity, however, must be hard pushed before | he can do this. In the ordinary course of business, when he passes from one thing to another he will saunter and trifle, tho’ not undoubtedly in the same degree, yet in the same manner as an idle fellow. This habit of sauntering and of indolent, careless application, which is naturally or rather necessarily contracted by every country workman, who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different manners almost every day in his life, renders him almost always very slothful and lazy, and incapable, even upon the most pressing occasions, of any vigourous application. Independent therefore of his want of the most perfect dexterity this cause alone must always make the quantity of the work which he performs extremely inconsiderable. 

Every body must be sensible how much labour is abridged and facilitated by the application of proper machinery. By means of the plough two men, with the assistance of three horses, will cultivate more ground than twenty could do with the spade. A miller and his servant, with a wind or water mill, will at their ease grind more corn than eight men could do, with the severest labour, by hand mills. To grind corn in a hand mill was the severest work to which the antients commonly applied their slaves, and to which they seldome condemned them unless when they had been guilty of some very great fault. A hand mill, however, is a very ingenuous machine which greatly facilitates labour, and by which a great deal of more work can be performed than when the corn is either to be beat in a mortar, or with the bare hand, unassisted by any machinery, to be rubbed into pouder between two hard stones, as is the practice not only of all barbarous nations but of some remote provinces in this country. It was the division of labour which probably gave occasion to the invention of the greater part of those machines, by which labour is so much facilitated and abridged. When the whole force of the mind is directed to one particular object, as in consequence of the division of labour it must be, the mind is more likely to discover the easiest methods of attaining that object than when its attention is dissipated among a great variety of things. He was probably a farmer who first invented the original, rude form of the plough. The improvements which were afterwards made upon it might be owing sometimes to the ingenuity of the plow wright when that business had become a particular occupation, and sometimes to that of the farmer. Scarce any of them are so complex as to exceed what might be expected from the capacity of the latter. The drill plow, the most ingenious of any, was the invention of a farmer. Scarce any of them are so complex as to exceed what might be expected from the capacity of the latter. The drill plow, the most ingenious of any, was the invention of a farmer. Some miserable slave, condemned to grind corn between two stones by the meer strength of his arms, pretty much in the same manner as painters bray their colours at present, was probably the first who thought of supporting the upper stone by a spindle and of turning it round by a crank or handle which moved | horizontally, according to what seems to have been the original, rude form of hand mills. He who first thought of making the spindle pass quite through the under millstone, which is at rest, of uniting it with a trundle, and of turning round that trundle by means of a cog wheel, which was itself turned round by a winch or handle, according to the present form of hand mills, was probably a mill wright, or a person whose principal or sole business it was, in consequence of the still further division of labour, to prepare that original, rude machine which it does not exceed the capacity of a common slave to have invented. Great advantages were gained by this improvement. The whole machinery being thus placed below the under millstone, the top of the upper one was left free for the conveniencies of the hopper, the feeder and shoe, and the crank or handle, which turned the cog wheel, moving in a circle perpendicular to the horizon, the strength of the human body could be applied to it with much more advantage than to any crank which was to be turned round in a circle parallel to the horizon. These different improvements were probably not all of them the inventions of one man, but the successive discoveries of time and experience, and of the ingenuity of many different artists…

About this Quotation:

This quote from an early draft of the Wealth of Nations is interesting for not only making the point that the division of labor creates greater productivity but also for stating clearly that it stimulates technological innovation as well. When “ the whole force of the mind is directed to one particular object”, such as the use of a plough or a grain mill, the users of technology naturally strive to reduce the amount of labor they must expend and hence come up with incremental improvements. Gradually over time new improvements are added by different users of the tools which add even more to the productivity of their labor. Smith concludes that “(t)hese different improvements were probably not all of them the inventions of one man, but the successive discoveries of time and experience, and of the ingenuity of many different artists”, a conclusion which seems very similar to Adam Ferguson’s description of social orders like the market, which were “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”. What Smith does not state, but which is implied in what he is saying, is that these technological innovations come about because humans are stimulated by the incentive of economically benefiting from the improvements they introduce to productive process if they are the property owners of the greater output which results from the effort and ingenuity.

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