From religous concept to industrial tool

28 September 2017
Tessa Dunlop

Far from having a straightforward definition, the term 'efficiency' has taken on many different meanings throughout history, showing that its meaning is highly contextual, writes Tessa Dunlop.

In its most general sense, the term ‘efficiency’ has become a central ideal in the world’s advanced industrial cultures. Efficiency often signifies something good, as in a job well and economically done, and is associated with ideals of individual discipline, superior management, and increased profits.

But if you pull apart the meaning of efficiency, and observe how the term has evolved over time, its underlying definition is far from simple. In her book, The Mantra of Efficiency, Jennifer Karns Alexander traces the complex history of the meaning of efficiency, from its beginnings as a religious philosophical concept to describe divine agents and causes of change, its use in the 19th Century as an industrial tool to measure the performance of machines, right through to its varied and sometimes contradictory usage today. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries efficiency has been applied to various fields including biology, economic thought, personal development, worker management, and social history.

Interestingly, Alexander teases apart two dominant, yet distinct, interpretations of efficiency over this time. One is an efficiency of balance, a static efficiency, that accounts for the conservation of measured elements. The other is a creative and dynamic efficiency, which brings about growth through careful management.

Static efficiency was a priority during the Progressive era in the United States when factory owners prioritized stability, reliability and control of their production lines amid social turbulence. To help them maintain stability, production managers enlisted the help of efficiency consultant and mechanical engineer Henry Gantt. When analyzing worker practices, Gantt noted a problem with the incentives that workers were given. Workers that were paid a piece rate depending on the amount or ‘pieces’ they produced were at first motivated to greater productivity, but eventually lost motivation once they saw that managers eventually cut the rate per piece the more they produced. This meant that the workers had to work even harder just to break even. To solve this problem, Gantt proposed a differential piece rate, in which workers who met a daily quota received a higher rate for each piece. He wanted not just to stimulate production, but more importantly, to make it predictable.

Dynamic efficiency is allied to visions of change and progress, including the evolution of mechanical engineering during the 19th century. This encompassed the development of laws of thermodynamics such as the conservation of energy. Dynamic efficiency was famously used by Charles Darwin to describe the dynamic effectiveness natural selection and change through evolution. While the two ideas of static and dynamic efficiency often interwoven together, sometimes they created conflict, notably in the different ways to measure efficiency. In the 19th century, engineers and physicists argued about different measures of dynamic efficiency in waterwheels and thermal combustion engines. Although the efficiency of a waterwheel may seem like a simple idea (which waterwheel design is most effective in producing the most energy), engineers and scientists struggled to decide how to conceptually relate the source of a water wheel’s motion to the work it produced. Some believed that one should measure the water wheel efficiency statically – that is, measuring the energy throughput of the wheel before and after it turned – ie, in two static states. But an English engineer, John Smeaton, raised a philosophical dilemma for his time: How does one measure matter in motion? Ie, dynamic efficiency. The vast majority of engineers during, and for the century following Smeaton’s experiments, chose to conveniently sidestep this issue of motion, due to its inherent complexity of measurement. But Smeaton’s measures of dynamic efficiency led to significant disputes not only on how to measure efficiency but over who had the right to define the terms and measurement.

The multiple and sometimes contradictory definitions of efficiency imply that the term is highly contextual. It can be measured in different ways, depending on who is making the calculations. According to Alexander, this means that efficiency is an instrumental value, without inherent meaning of its own. Given the rich history of the term efficiency and its varied applications today, one must carefully scrutinize what efficiency means in each specific context – does it refer to conservation and stability, or dynamism and growth?



Alexander, J. K. 2008. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control. The Johns Hopkins University Press