A Snippet on the Division of Labour
I wrote a post on Adam Smith’s pin-making example in Wealth Of Nations last week for the Adam Smith Institute Blog, which has not yet been published – they get many excellent articles and it may not have made the editorial cut (published 28 May, adamsmith.org). I’ll wait and see, but meanwhile, after dissecting Smith’s example, especially the arithmetic, I came across an illustration in this week’s Times Literary Supplement (May 25) of some tangential relevance.
The illustration, ‘Interior of a candlemaker’s workshop’ is from Denis Diderot and Jean le Ron d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie (from 1751-1772). It shows four women (or boys) at work on different tables (perhaps more, the illustration has been cut to fit TLS's front page). One is tending to a boiling pot over a fire, the second marked ‘Fig 1’ is sitting at a small table wrapping tape round something, there is no ‘Figure 2’, ‘Fig 3’ come next, showing a person dipping a row of what looks like candles into a high-sided basin, and the last person, marked ‘fig 4’ poring from a container into many large button-type moulds. Various items are scattered about and some are numbered, 3, 5, 13, 8, 17, 9, and 10.
In all, this is a picture of people working in order, each person with distinct but linked tasks in a classic division of labour. There is no doubt that Adam Smith consulted the French Encyclopedie for the arithmetic details of the division of labour in the manufacture of pins. We know the Encyclopedie was popular abroad (there were copies in Glasgow University Library, though it should be noted that the was unpopular with the French authorities and was eventually suppressed).
The many detailed illustrations in the Encyclopedie are worth looking at to appreciate the extent to which manufactured tools and the organisation of work places had spread before Smith began to compose Wealth Of Nations (from 1763 onwards to 1776 when it was published).