The Division of Labor

This photo is from the website of the innovative and original Todd McLellan. (

The Spotmatic camera (shown disassembled in McLellan’s work) was introduced by Asahi in 1964 and was the first successful camera with “through-the-lens” light metering. The camera was entirely mechanical apart from the light meter. The system became the workhorse of many professionals of the time.

Look at the complexity of it! Apart from having to assemble one, imagine designing one. Imagine sourcing the parts. Imagine making each of the parts: mining the iron ore, smelting it into steel, machining the steel into camera components. Just think about that! This is a great example of the division of labor, an almost mystical force, which allows things to be made that no single human knows how to make.

This is from my book “Infinite Progress: How Technology and the Internet Will End Ignorance, Disease, Hunger, Poverty, and War” where I write about the division of labor:

Earlier I said that trade and the division of labor have historically been the great drivers of increased prosperity. I have spent the last few pages discussing trade, how it increases wealth, and some of the ways the Internet promotes this. But I would be remiss not to discuss the division of labor in some detail, for the process is almost miraculous.

Imagine if you had to create everything you wanted to use. Imagine if you were the only person on earth. Face it – we would almost all be naked, walking around with sharp sticks, picking berries until we got so hungry that we started eating grub worms.

And yet, our lives are nothing like that. I have never so much as tasted a grub worm. Instead, we are surrounded by things we could not create ourselves. Not in one hundred lifetimes could I make a car. By “make a car,” I mean really make a car. Dig iron ore out of the ground, smelt it to steel, wildcat for oil, find oil and refine it into gasoline, and so on.

Forget a car. I could not in a hundred lifetimes make a working electric lamp, even knowing what I know now. If I were given ten thousand years to live and were left on a planet with nothing but natural resources, I could not make a light bulb or microwave or helicopter.

So how do these things get made?

Leonard Read wrote an essay in 1958 called “I, Pencil,” written from the pencil’s point of view, about how no one on the planet knows how to make a pencil. No one. From beginning to end, making a pencil involves mining the clay to make the lead, milling and processing wood, lacquer applied to the wooden shaft, a rubber eraser, and a metal band holding the eraser to the yellow paint; no one person knows how to make a complete pencil.

And yet pencils get made – over a billion of them a year – and they are essentially given away. It requires the labor of thousands to make a pencil and yet pencils are so inexpensive as to be almost free.

How can this be? It is because of the division of labor. When a person learns to do one thing and specializes in that one thing and makes that one thing his life’s work, he gets really good at it.

In 1776, Adam Smith wrote a book called “The Wealth of Nations.” It is the defining work of the free enterprise system. He writes about the pin industry and the division of labor:

“To take an example …the trade of the pin-maker; [in which] a workman … could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on…[o]ne man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; …I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed…Those ten persons…could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day.

Smith says that if a person tries to make pins by himself, he might make one per day. But if each of ten people specializes on just one-tenth of the task, together they can make 48,000, an increase in per-person productivity from one pin a day to 4800 pins per day. In this efficiency that is generated by specialization, wealth is created.

It doesn’t matter that the person selling pencils doesn’t know how the pencil is made; he only needs to know how to sell them. And it doesn’t matter that the person who paints the pencils doesn’t know how the paint is made, for his job is simply to paint them.

So wealth is created from gains in efficiency from specialization and from trade. This is why cities are such powerful economic units; cities bring people together in proximity to each other and facilitate specialization and trade.

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