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Mumford Tilts at Windmills

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

Technics and Civilization. By Lewis Mumford. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $4.50.

Ithink that many readers of Cervantes, like myself, must have been puzzled by the fact that the best-known and best-loved episode in Don Quixote is the lost battle with the windmills. It is not enough to discover that it comes near the beginning of the book, nor that it contains one of the world’s oldest puns. There is a suggestion in the latest book of Lewis Mumford, “Technics and Civilization,” of a new exegesis that throws light on this problem in literary criticism and also on the present state of the industrial arts which might well be called the twilight of the machines. Mr. Mumford’s triune analysis covers a thousand years of European history, dividing the mechanical millennium into three parts, the first and longest of which he calls the eotech-nic phase. This phase can hardly be marked off by dates and made a period in time; it is rather a mood and mode in the life and work of men marked by the use of wood, wind, and water and by its masterpieces, the water-wheel, the windmill, and the sailing vessel. Of course there are other devices, such as the lens and the printing press, but Mr. Mumford has certified Cervantes’ prophetic insight in crucifying his very human hero on the arms of a windmill. It is the epitome of the modern romantic imagination and its still continuing adventures with the innocent machine. It is hard to decide whether Mr. Mumford should be identified with Cervantes or with the errant knight himself; there would even be a certain plausibility in putting him at the viewpoint of Sancho Panza, especially in the last chapter where he draws up the rules for the good life on this island-planet in the near future.

Perhaps the best single statement of the aim of the book would be that it attempts to revise and correct the current historical hypothesis of the industrial revolution. The year 1750 appears in this revision to be about midway in the total development of our industrial society. The story really begins, he tells us, in the tenth century in the Benedictine monastery when the theologian’s sense of order seized upon the mechanical clock as the proper means for expressing itself in the practical affairs of worldly life. Clock-making from then on provided the manual exercises through which rationality was embodied in an ever widening field of tools and machines, until the middle of the nineteenth century when there was held an international conference to establish a system of standard time for the work of the whole planet. The measurement of time with all its derivatives, time-filling, time-saving, and time-killing, is the major theme of the last thousand years of our civilization. Large industries, small occupations, and our systems of transport and communication, are the springs and cogs of our great clock-civilization, and the earth is the pendulum that fixes the alternate rates of acceleration and deceleration of our lives.

The rest of the story is a matter of detail, the use of wood as material and of wind and water as prime movers determining the first phase, the use of metals and steam determining the second or palaeotechnic phase, and the use of metallic alloys and electricity bringing us to our own neotech-nic phase. Time moves on and materials and energies replace each other as ingenuity, skill, and precision direct. But of course the phases are not clearly marked, nor is the course of development smooth. The clock breaks down, its parts get out of gear, and the whistles and bells of civilization are seldom synchronized. On the whole, the eotechnic phase built without serious mishap, but it had a hunger for mining iron and coal, the powerful pair of substances that gave birth to the steam engine and then became its servants. The palaeotechnic phase appears in this account to be the time when the clock-works were suddenly geared to a giant steam engine whose energy smashed the escapement; the wheels began to hum, then to roar, and they finally exploded in the World War. We no longer trust mechanical governors and we are turning to the electric clock with its fewer cogs and its internal unchanging frequencies. Mr. Mum-ford suggests that the next phase will be biotechnic and that we shall allow the biological processes to set the pace and ring the bells again.

I have overdone the clock-time theme from Mr. Mum-ford’s point of view. He has written a factual book letting the phosphorescent events and things tell their own story. The trouble with this method is that the same facts would I tell many stories if Mr. Mumford would let them do so. It is for this reason that he gets caught in the arms of his windmill and in the end the windiness of his sociological doctrines snatches him up and leaves him and us in a dizzy whirl. The story is a dangerous story to tell in the present state of the civilization that it describes. There is the Marxian dogma, that touches everything he touches. His attempts to avoid that confusion prevent him from paying proper attention to the technical mechanical things which, aside from Marx, are the things to talk about. He illustrates the phases and tendencies by literary references to crucial inventions and techniques, mentioning in a similar superficial manner their origins and their effects, but never analysing the things themselves. He has conjured up a rich visual pageant, but it is merely a pageant with only the thinnest possible dramatic thread to make it luminous. He has been caught in his own temporal pattern and time-keeping art. The only exception to this is in the analysis of the palaeotechnic culture when he traces the internal connections between the arts of mining and warfare through the whole fabric of capitalist industry. This is the most illuminating analysis in the book.

The need for such a book as this is very great. Sociology and history will never come to maturity until the analysis which this particular book suggests has been made. But such an analysis cannot be made until the myopic vision of the concrete fact has been given up temporarily for a more detached and abstract preparation. The suggestion for this is in the choice Mr. Mumford has made for his starting point. Before the Benedictine monks built clocks to ring their hourly bells, there had been a thousand years of both abstract and practical work on the problem of time measurement. The church had been concerned about the date of the Easter holidays; and the vagaries of the moon, on whose movements the date depended, had taxed its ingenuity to the point of wrestling with mathematical astronomy. Back of the monastery clock lies astronomy; back of the machine lies the abstract theory of the lever; in the steam engine lie the subtleties of thermodynamics; in the dynamo one must see Clerk Maxwell’s equations; back of the machine age lie the metaphysics and theology of the Middle Ages. Before the blossoming of the useful arts in their industrial forms there was the long indispensable cultivation of the intellectual arts.

Mr. Mumford himself drops the remark that the monastery under the Benedictine rule was uniquely fitted to combine the useful and the intellectual arts. I kept wondering throughout my reading of the book why he did not explore and exploit this observation. Since he did not, the Middle Ages brood like a cloud over the mysteries of the machine and prevent us and Mr. Mumford from assimilating it. Both science and the machine are monsters if they are not understood, and to be understood they must be studied together on this background. Mr. Mumford has been an errant knight on many good adventures; it is time he came home and thought them over for our further enlightenment.


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