The Great Divide – “Henry Ford is the Albert Pope of the Motor Car”

by Sabinna on July 25, 2010

Readers of this blog may feel inclined to say “not again!” when I mention Iain Boal’s lecture on The Green Machine, at the Copenhagen Museum in April of this year. The quote which is the title of this post comes from that part of his talk dealing with “the great divide” in bicycle manufacturing–that between blacksmith/craftsman and modern factory production. Before I get to the gist of today’s post (the great divide), I’ll just mention why I find it interesting.

Myths and Stories

There is not a lot of good, sound information on bicycle history around. David Herlihy’s wonderful Bicycle: The History is thorough and great reading and fills a big gap. Iain Boal, however, offers a view that contrasts a lot with David Herlihy’s. Not in the substance so much, although there is that, but in the style. Maybe you could say its like the contrast between, well, Copenhagize’s celebration of a fashionable urban bicycle lifestyle and Bike Snob’s critical examination of bike culture in general.

But what really appeals is the Professor’s idea that we need a “grown up” history of the bicycle, rather than the mythifications that we probably most familiar with. Eg. the bicycle was the result of Karl von Drais’ lone tinkerings in the forests of Mannheim. (This is something I have posted on before I came across the Copenhagen lectures).

Nevertheless, when it comes to business, mythification is actually an essential ingredient. This Taiwan in Cycles post really presents this point well, and also see another of my earlier posts. I would not call it “spin”, but certainly commercial imperatives encourage and promote stories and images that connect in with our human need for mystery, romance, and terrific  stories.

I think I see it at work as a key theme in bicycle marketing these days in which brands emphasize — often in the form of high-tech value adding — the handcraftsmanship, or specialized individual care and attention meted out to each and every product, behind their manufacturing processes.

It is certainly a way to differentiate your brand from the dizzying variety that is available to cyclists of all persuasions these days, perhaps one of the only ways, since technological “edge” is quickly lost.

Looking at this through a de-mythologized lens, my point is that there is no clear-cut choice between a bicycle produced by an apparenly soul-less line-manufacturing process and one lovingly nurtured into being by a 21st century version of Baron von Drais or Pierre Michaux the Blacksmith.

Straddling the Divide

Taiwan’s agricultural share of GDP is something around 3%. It will never completely disappear and will always be around. That’s not to say it lingers on as a relic of a past era. It is highly mechanized and capital intensive. It has this in common with bicycle component production. However, component production is, arguably, extremely labor intensive, and often comes closer to the the Smithy/Crafstman pole of the great divide, than rice production, for example. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

bicycle manufacturing

Rice production is the most visible expression of agricultural production. This is a shot of the land use in Taichung’s Da Jia hinterland, one of the most dense concentrations of bicycle component production in Taiwan. Residential and factory/workshop premises seem irrelevant in this sea of green.

And so it is around my workshop/warehouse complex. Right now the fields are being prepared for the next crop, coming right on the heels of the harvesting of the last.

bicycle component production

And so many fields have to be done in a short space of time that you have to have your lunch on the go. It’s an irony that taking advantage of  such a labor-saving and thus a time-saving device leads to a severe deficit of time to do the job.

I myself have only recently moved into new premises that you can partly see (above) in the background. Recently constructed, this characterizes a process of the slow appropriation of former rice fields to be converted into industrial production, Taiwan style.

bicycle component manufacturing

I say Taiwan-style, because Taiwan’s industrialization was based on a wide variety of SMEs engaged in labor intensive activities, most employing less than 10 people, commonly drawn from extended families. These SME’s were integrated in production networks that produced industrial goods, with trading companies as the link to export markets.

Michael Turton gives a great overview of the Taiwan bicycle industry in relation to industry clustering, the relations of labor division and cooperation amongst tightly integrated networks, and the move to high-end bicycle production. This can be seen in the context of Taiwan’s response to changed global conditions in the 1980s and concentration on high-tech. This industry clustering is a key ingredient of Taiwan’s comparative advantage.

Anyway, when thinking about all this in relation to Professor Boal’s great divide, you could say that Taiwan’s industrial production is unique in some ways. It seems that it straddles the divide, having a foot in both worlds, the world of the Smithy and that of the Albert Pope inspired intensive and concentrated –”mass” — production model, and as Professor Boal points out, Fordist motor car production in the 20th century was a modification of Albert Pope’s bicycle factory routines. Bicycle technology, moreover, paved the way for motor vehicles per se and powered flight for that matter.

The image of the craftsman, the lone frame-maker, on the other hand, feeds off the image of mythification that Professor Boal targets, with the implication that hand-made must be better than factory made. But it depends on the nature of the factory–and this is why in relation to Taiwan I tend to use “workshop” as much I would use “factory”. It’s not necessarily about cranking out tons of components as the result of highly mechanized, high-tech assembly lines. High-tech is as much the product of the workshop as the “factory”.

Components, including the heart and soul of a bicycle, the frame, are manufactured in large numbers that might be considered “mass” production. But many of the processes require highly skilled hands to get them right. The care and attention of the Smith meets the extremely fine tolerances and precision of the Pope-inspired production-line, one of the key features that defines the great divide, and brings these two very different methods of production into variable blends of each.

bicycle component manufacturing

Seat tube tolerance gauge--2mm tolerance

If aliens landed in Taiwan and surveyed the West Coast, they might conclude that this was an economy based on intensive wet-rice farming, since this so dominates, visually, the landscape.

Of course the reality is the value produced in highly concentrated operations in complex relations of cooperation, that are visually insignificant. (Still, I’d expect aliens with the technology to reach us to have access to GDP figures, at least online, so this is probably fanciful). In the 21st century we all stand on the other side of the great divide, technically and culturally speaking, in the world of the assembly line. But I think you can say that the difference is overdrawn.

There is much of the art of the Smith to be found in modern production processes, particularly bicycle production wherever it is carried out, but especially in Taiwan — the art of the Smith in concert with the precision of the advanced industrial age. I hope to illustrate this as I follow the intricacies of what goes into producing an alloy bicycle frame in the months ahead.

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Last night shopping, just bought a biography of Friedrich Nietsche. Just flicking though it, a lot of what he wrote makes a lot of sense. It seems he wrote a bit about myths. Hopefully I’ll get the time to read through and get a better understanding of this.

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