Mumford: Machines, Utilities, and ‘The Machine’ (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

technics1There are physiological processes, like growing hair in response to the cold. Then there are things that, rather, change the environment—tools and machines. Tools are flexible in function—a knife can be used to cut, shave, carve, etc. Whereas machines are inflexible in function—a drill can only drill.

Tools, however, function as extensions of the person who manipulates them. It takes considerable effort and skill to use a hammer properly, whereas regardless of how complicated a machine is, it requires little relative effort or skill to use (for instance, in driving a car, by pushing your foot down, you cause a number of processes to take place, and, ultimately, the wheels to turn and move the heavy car automatically).

In between these two, tool, and machine, is the machine-tool, which blurs the line between the human extension and the automatic—say, an electric handheld drill, which involves a number of processes effected only by pushing a button, and is run by electricity, yet still requires considerable skill to use, as it acts like an extension of the person.

Lastly, utensils and utilities, from baskets to kilns to roads, are important technological objects in the development of the modern environment.


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