The Rise of the Mechanics

I am delighted, and fascinated, by the emergence in the last few years of interest in the mechanical arts, for lack of a better description. Mechanics, machinists, and metal workers of various kinds (welders and fabricators among many others) suddenly find themselves in the spotlight. While only a few people are familiar with Douglas Harper’s classic study of a one-man agricultural equipment repair and fabrication shop, Local Knowledge, most will have seen Richard Sennett’s somewhat overly-romanticized The Craftsman as well as Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft.

These books are, of course, joined by shows like the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs and the Travel Channels Made in America (which is no longer in production). If you throw into the bargain the assembly-line porn that is Science Channel’s How It’s Made, which regularly re-runs on the History Channel I believe, and the Food Network’s Unwrapped, then what seems to have been revealed is huge thirst in America for, as our president put it in his inaugural address, “the makers of things.”

And, it seems, those makers seems to be folks with dirt underneath their fingernails.

It should come as no surprise, then, that in their discussion of “the new industrial revolution” that Wired chose for their cover the image of a wrench turning a nut … powered by a greasy hand, which is exposed to the world by the presence of a rolled-up shirt sleeve.

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One of the dominant figures for “let’s get to work” is rolling up one’s sleeve. The arm and the hand go away, but the wrench remains in this Shell ad for “ideas into action”:

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The abstracted wrench here transforms into a pencil, both emphasizing the “work of creativity,” of idea generation, and also the necessity of finding “ideas that work.”1

There is also, I would argue, a subtle reinforcing of the leveling of the playing field between hand-work and idea-work. In fact, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review makes precisely that argument. In “Restoring American Competitiveness”, Gary Pisano and Willy Shih argue that the rush to commoditize manufacturing — resulting in outsourcing — of contemporary corporations has resulted in a breaking of the link between the folks in research and development on the one hand and the folks on the shop floor actually making the products.2 What is lost is the productive conversation, the feedback loop, between those two groups, and that means ideas are lost. There suggestion is that the U.S. must encourage the rebuilding of an “industrial commons.” (Here’s a link to the article but be forewarned that it’s only to a summary page and that the download requires payment.)


  1. My thanks to my colleague Mary Ann Wilson for loaning me her copy of The Atlantic. She noted: “The wrench poster reminds me of the WWII poster, WE Can Do It, of the working woman with her sleeves rolled up, and nothing but muscle — and brain — power suggested.” The Shell advertisement appears on page 45 of the February 2010 issue. 

  2. Interestingly, it’s been Harvard itself, and HBR, which have led the attack on the MBA as the source of business problems and not the solution. Pisano and Shih argue that it’s MBAs who have led the charge to see manufacturing as a “low value” endeavor deserving outsourcing. Crawford’s argument is much the same, but he goes further to note that, in the end, many blue-collar jobs will be safe precisely because they must be local — your car mechanic, plumber, electrician — while many white collar jobs will eventually be outsourced, e.g. radiological analyses now being done in the Philippines. 

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