Runs Like Clockwork (models • layouts • systems)

In my other life, away from CSM, Karen and me run an antique shop in Folkestone. I specialise in vintage graphic design, old seaside posters and so on…

One of our great pleasures is the weekly arrival of the Antique Trades Gazette. This is a weekly trade newspaper that gives you the results and gossip about the auction world. There’s also a diary of forthcoming auctions around the world. Obviously, a lot of this is on the internet; but the ATG still provides a concentrated and specific hit on the world of collecting.

Cologne technical specialists Auction Team Brecker (May 26th) are selling the model railway layout belonging to Josue Droz. This is a complete layout – with track, stations, engines and so on. It’s a thing of legend…

The actual inventory is amazing: the layout measures 96 square metres, it has over thirty different bits of rolling stock and took eleven years to build (18 000hrs). The models are made to 1:30 scale and the layout is based on parts of the Swiss Railway – the Schweizer Bundesbhan (SBB). That’s not co-incidence, the SBB runs like clockwork!

Before you ask, the train set is electric. But my point still stands.

The layout has only been exhibited once, in 1936. Since then, it’s been packed in boxes and was thought lost. So, the discovery of the whole things is a stupendous find. That’s without considering that the large size of the models and buildings, and their early date, make them very valuable. The top estimate for the whole thing is about 100 000 euros.

If you do the maths, that’s about 5 euros an hour for the work of making this by all by hand. I would expect the estimate to be exceeded!

The auctioneers have posted a silly film on the internet of some of this layout. Just trains going back and forth. I don’t know whether there is a plan of the whole original layout. If not, it will take about five years to assemble.

Now, to the point of this story…

The architect 0f this model, conceived as an entirely complete and inter-connected system and entirely scratch built, was Droz. He was a descendent of the famous Swiss horologist (clockmaker) Pierre Jaquet Droz (1721-1790). This connection immediately makes the layout more interesting as a piece of system design.

As well as building precision timepieces, Jaquet Droz was also famous for the construction of complex automata. The history of clockmaking is relatively well known. Dava Sobel’s Longitude and the film, with Jeremy Irons, which described the battle of John Harrison to win the Longitude Prize is well known. It provides a terrific introduction to why accurate timekeeping is crucial in 18C seafaring, navigation and location finding. In the 19C, these issues transposed themselves to railways and the standardisations of international timezones. I’ve posted about all that before.

Now, precision timepieces are a bit esoteric for most people. So, it was important for the clockmakers to provide another kind of example of their work. During the 18C and early 19C, automated models (of birds and figures) became popular. These were an evolution of clocks and the large-scale table-top orreries that show the movement of the planets around the sun.

The conception of the natural world at this time was based on a fusion of Newtonian mechanics and the idea of the ghost in the machine from Descrates. The notion that you could understand all human movement as an interaction of cogs, levers and wheels, made it was a short step to elaborating a model to show this by example.

These automated displays caused a sensation. Nowadays, we identify these kind of human-form machines as androids and robots and describe these systems as cybernetic.

The next development was align this idea of automation to industrial organisation, society and to cognition. This didn’t happen straight away. Let’s look at how this developed

Let’s have a look, briefly, at how this took shape.

The Division of Labour

The division of labour was first conceptualised by Adam Smith (1776) in his Wealth of Nations. Smith used the famous example of the pin workshop to illustrate his point. The division of labour, within the craft based factory, allows for a massively increased productivity of output. The combining, by Smith, of efficiency, production and rational self-interest, provided the template for the industrial revolution.

The Specialisation of Labour

Implicit in Smith’s concept was the specialisation of labour. This is the principle that suggests that, once you have divided up the process, it makes sense for your operatives to specialise. They will become better (more efficient and more productive) through practice. We automatically do this for everyday purposes around the house (putting up shelves, or washing up and laundry, for example).


These organising principles were first made evident at the Portsmouth Block Mill (1796). Samuel Bentham, Henry Maudslay and Marc Brunel arranged the factory so that steam power, machine tools and the division of labour were combined to orchestrate a fantastic mechanical ballet of production. According to this organisation, the rhythms of production were increasingly set by the tempo of the machine. It’s no coincidence that this system was first set up within a military context.

Balancing the productive output of this machinery required the observational control of resources and machines, along with the disciplinary control, by management, of the quality and quantity of work produced through the direction of human agency. In such environments, control and command were observational and disciplinary functions based on military experience.

You can still observe this type of organisation in a well-drilled kitchen of a commercial restaurant in France. Imposing discipline and structure to these proceedings is what Gordon Ramsay does! The team in a kitchen is called the brigade de cuisine and was first organised by the famous chef, Escoffier.

You can find out more about this at

Automatic Calculation

Earlier, I mentioned that accurate and precise timekeeping were a necessary part of navigation. The other part required is accurate mathematical calculation.

The tedious and time-consuming calculations required for the production of navigational tables (naval power again) compromised their accuracy. The consequences of miss-calculation were expensive and fatal. Accordingly, the mathematician and logician Charles Babbage proposed the construction of a mechanical computing devices. These were the Difference Engine (1822) and Engine Number Two (1847). Subsequently, Babbage proposed an Analytical Engine (1871). This last device is now recognised as the precursor, in theoretical form at least, of the modern computer.

The machines remained unrealised in Babbage’s own lifetime. This was due to a variety of reasons including scale, complexity, and Babbage’s various personality defects.  The project was undercapitalised from the start. Babbage could not afford to manufacture and assemble the machines himself. Accordingly he out-sourced the production of parts, only to find that there were relatively few workshops with the capacity and precision required. Indeed, there were no agreed standards of engineering tolerance. An important consequence of Babbage’s efforts was industrial standardisation.


Confronted with these frustrations, Babbage applied himself to the design of factory systems. The issues of quality control, efficiency and productivity addressed by Babbage suggested several new (cybernetic) ideas – sequential organisation, branching and looping. These mechanisms allowed for the factory system to begin directing itself towards an optimal level of efficiency. The entirely rational basis for this decision making in relation to the allocation of resources, suggested the separation of problem-solving and assembly.

In this context, the management of the new industrial system was expressed through the concept of control. This was a more sensitive and nuanced than the command structures associated with military organisation. Babbage understood that standardisation and integration were linked.

In its early phase, the industrial revolution was a slightly distant and separate thing from the London political elite. By the 1830s, the success of the industrialists, their wealth, power and influence had made them significant for the political elite. The northern industrial base was assimilated, along with its values of self-help, free-trade and co-operation, through the Great Reform Act (1832). The brutally normative physical structures of school, prison and factory were augmented by a series of cognitive and conceptual standardisations. These were implemented during a remarkable period after about 1840. The new social structures include the standard one-penny letter rate, the standardisation of train timetables by Bradshaw, and the standardisation of engineering threads by Whitworth. Patrick Joyce has written about the normative potential of standards.

By the 1850s, the extension of democracy had engendered a series of normative structures that effectively controlled of the population. Industrial discipline and democratic responsibility were thereby associated in the social formation of the population.

Economy, democracy, identity and observation combine to shape this system for 100 years. The railway is a benign and familiar example of this kind of normative system.


The combination of ideas from Smith, Bentham and Babbage and their application to manufacturing led, inevitably, to the increasing automation of assembly. The work of Henry Ford (1908) in motor car manufacturing pioneered this form of industrial organisation (Fordism). Ford also understood that the productivity gain implicit in this organisation would allow the payment of generous wages to his workers. This would provide an additional competitive advantage to his enterprise. In Fordism, de-skillimg and prosperity are unexpectedly combined.

The potential of Fordism can be illustrated through the example of manufacturing the Rolls Royce Merlin engine during WW2. This engine was considered so vital to British military objectives that, after 1940, its manufacture was out-sourced to the Packard Motor Company in the US. The American company suggested a model of assembly based on the minute division of labour and the exact specification of engineering tolerance (back to Babbage).

This manufacturing (assembly) system was developed to address the over-riding urgency of time-constraints in war production. Within this context, there was simply no time to train skilled workers. The American system provided a sharp contrast with the Rolls Royce factory at Derby which was based on a level of engineering expertise throughout the workshop. This had resulted in high levels of problem-solving ability across the factory; but at the cost of lengthy training.

The de-skilling and prosperity associated with industrial assembly had a profound impact after WW2. For the first time, young workers could, under this system, receive wages that gave them disposable income. The emergence, from about 1950 onwards of a distinctly youthful pattern of consumerism devolves entirely from the benefits of Fordist assembly.

Looking and Counting

The observational (or panoptic) control of manufacturing, pioneered by Bentham and Babbage, was enshrined in FW Taylor’s Theory of Scientific Management (1913) and the increasingly accurate measurement of time, motion and resources. The collection of data associated with the production, efficiency and profit of manufacturing processes (not just the financial accounting) is now central to every part of the economy.

During WW2, the co-ordination of allies, services, arms and men implicit in the planning of D-Day for example, required a new level of operational detail. The statistical measurement of men and resources and their logistical tracking was elaborated into a system of operational research. This provided for a management system based on the accurately choreographed movement of men and resources. (Interestingly, containerised shipping came into play during the 1950s and standardised this system acros the globe). The development of computers made the collection of data and the tracking of parts through the system much easier.

The management of systems, predicted by Babbage, became semi automated and led to a new system of integrated and economical resource management. All of this is evident in the automated integration of model railway layouts.

The Droz railway is an early 20C example of the technical complexity and sophistication of mechanical interaction and electrical control systems. The whole of the 20C is there.

I found this amazing post about the Droz automata, here

I’ll be posting about the general history of model railways again.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *