Behind nearly every successful startup today is the promise of efficiency. Whatever it is you want — a burrito, a ride, a date — there are well-financed companies working feverishly to make it easier and faster to satisfy your desires. But “efficiency” has far loftier origins, which help explain the grip this idea has on us today.
First used in philosophy, the word signified one of Aristotle’s four causes of change or movement. The efficient cause was the actual physically effective action — a sculptor chiseling a rock into a new shape, for example. In the Middle Ages, the theologian Thomas Aquinas applied Aristotle’s idea of the efficient cause to God himself; the “prime mover” is the only thing in the universe that isn’t caused by something else.
As efficiency came to be understood as a divine property, it took on other qualities attributed to God, who was seen a cosmic householder perfectly managing his creations and distributing resources. The religious term for this divine management came from the Greek word “oikonomia” — economy. In God’s efficient economy, nothing was wasted.
In the mid-1700s, the industrial revolution was underway in England. The most important machine was the waterwheel, which converted the energy of a river or stream into power to drive a gear or belt. As waterwheels spread, people wanted to know if any of the water power was being wasted.
“The thing about machines is that you can measure inputs and outputs because the machine has moving parts,” says Jennifer Alexander, a historian of technology at the University of Minnesota and the author of “The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control.” “And one of the things you can then do is to measure work, which is mass over distance. And you can do that with a waterwheel because you know the amount coming into the system and through the weight of the water, and the way it falls a certain distance, and then does work at the other end, and you can compare directly. And you can adjust things to better control the water.”
In the 1750s, an Englishman named John Smeaton conducted systematic research on how to limit power loss in waterwheels. Now considered the world’s first civil engineer, he created a small model waterwheel, about chest-high, with a wheel that was 20 inches in diameter. He would then measure how changes to the design of his model affected total work output. His relentless quest to eliminate wasted energy led to dramatic improvements to water wheel design.
That quest also helped bring “efficiency” down from God’s celestial economy to our own. Smeaton cemented the idea that progress is closely connected to practices of measurement and control.Zachary Davis is the host of the new podcast “Ministry of Ideas.” Listen at ministryofideas.org, iTunes, or GooglePlay.