Dec 8, 2013


From an interesting paper by Carrie Meyer (November 2013):
While economists generally assume that producers adopt new technology when it makes sense to do so, historians do not necessarily agree; and the views of the latter may have greater influence over popular thought. Deborah Fitzgerald, a historian of technology at MIT has argued that farmers were essentially bamboozled into buying tractors in the 1920s by “the industrial ideal” – a set of progressive ideas spread by business leaders, economists, engineers, and the county extension agents of land grant universities. This paper takes issue with the Fitzgerald thesis.
And from the text
The Fitzgerald thesis, that extension agents and business leaders persuaded farmers buy tractors in the 1920s, when it was not in their interest and they were ill-prepared to use them, is fallacious. It is safe to say that all farmers that bought tractors in the 1920s were already familiar with automobiles. There is no doubt that this eased their decision to purchase a tractor. If farmers were persuaded by a desire for modernity, I have argued that the impact of World War I and the letters from the American boys who fought in the war were far more important than the words of business leaders and extension agents. As Robert Williams argued in his history of the tractor, change was already traditional for the American farmer in the early twentieth century. It was only natural for farmers to participate in the modernization process. Farmers’ receptivity to change did not happen suddenly in the 1920s spurred on by an “industrial ideal.” The main reason that farmers bought tractors was that it made economic sense for them to do so. Tractors improved to the point that they finally surpassed the efficiency of the horse (p.14).
The title of the paper is "The Impact of World War I on Tractor Adoption: Reflections on the Industrial Ideal."

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