R. James Abernathy was a writer who specialized in flour and grain mills in the late 1800s. In 1880, he authored Practical Hints on Mill Building. Early in this 350-page technical manual, he wrote that millwright skill was declining. He thought the reason was that the millwrights were assembling mills from pre-fabricated components, instead of having to manufacture parts by hand. The manual was published in the United States and England, and remained an authority for several decades. It remains a reference for assessing mills for their historic value, such as applications for national historic registers.
From 1878 to 1881, Abernathy was the editor of the new monthly journal Grain Cleaner in Moline, Illinois. By 1893, the journal was published weekly as the Modern Miller in Kansas City. Abernathy still contributed occasionally, but also wrote for the journal Milling. In April 1896, Milling published a short piece by Abernathy that is very satisfactory to modern maintenance and reliability practitioners with experience in manufacturing.
Abernathy cited a well-known adventure story, the 1840 memoir Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana. Dana, a Harvard graduate, served as a common seaman on a merchant vessel sailing around South America to California. This was before the California gold rush – California was still Spanish territory. Abernathy referred to Dana’s comment that the ship was in better condition after 2 years at sea. He extended the concept to operating flour mills:
[Dana] said that when their ship returned after a two years’ voyage it was altogether in better trim than when it left home. There is no reason why a mill should not be operated on this principle; there is no reason why a mill should not improve with time, if properly cared for. Weak parts may be renewed or strengthened, poor construction cared for, and all the mistakes incident to the building of a new mill eradicated.
Dana wrote about maintenance at sea in two places. The first is in a section where he explains the daily routine at sea:
When I first left port, and found that we were kept regularly employed for a week or two, I supposed that we were getting the vessel into sea trim and that it would soon be over, and we should have nothing to do but to sail the ship; but I found that it continued so for two years, and at the end of the two years there was as much to be done as ever. As has often been said, a ship is like a lady’s watch, always out of repair. (Two Years Before the Mast, p. 15)
Dana related several pages of detail about constant improvements to the rigging. Later in the book, Dana described how a ship leaving port was generally in bad condition, and how much effort was put into returning to port in the best shape possible as matter of pride.
It is a common notion with landsmen that a ship is in her finest condition when she leaves port to enter upon her voyage; and that she comes home, after a long absence,
“With over-weathered ribs and ragged sails;
Lean, rent and beggared by the strumpet wind.”
But so far from that, unless a ship meets with some accident, or comes upon the coast in the dead of winter, when work cannot be done upon the rigging, she is in her finest order at the end of the voyage.
No merchant vessel looks better than an Indiaman, or a Cape Horner, after a long voyage; and many captains and mates will stake their reputation for seamanship upon the appearance of their ship when she hauls into the dock. (Two Years Before the Mast, p. 334)
Some of the work was cosmetic, but Dana also described preservation of wood and iron, tightening rigging, and there were elements of a 5S event in which “everything useless [was] thrown overboard…”
Abernathy compared his own experience after visiting many mills:
While it is true that the mill should improve with time, it is also true that they usually run down. The writer frequently visits a number of large mills which constantly improve. They run better, look better, and are better. He visits certain other mills which are constantly moving downward. The bill of expenses is larger in the latter than in the former. In the case of the mills which are on the decline they have a periodical “tear-up-and-repair” season. Broken, worn-out machinery is renewed; there is a general cleaning up and repairing of the various details of the mill. It is done in a lump and at great expense, and is all to be done over again, because of the habit of neglect which is an inseparable part of the care of that mill. Even if this work were not inordinately expensive, it does not accomplish the result; it does not make the mill a better running mill.
Abernathy contrasted two ideas: periodic restoration of degradation versus sustained improvement through defect eliminations. He called repeated repairs a “thoughtless proceeding” since the mill was likely to break in the same place yet again.
Abernathy recommended constant attention and drilling to root causes. He gave several specific examples of common problems and their solutions. He identified the real problem as one of leadership, the “habit of neglect” caused by a “procrastinating habit of those in charge.”
The great principle in caring for a mill is to study the cause of trouble, and remove it at the earliest moment. In a short time the amount of trouble is reduced to a minimum. The cause is always removed .
The result that Abernathy had observed in this industry from defect elimination: lower repair and overhaul expense, less waste, fewer upsets, improved product quality, lower capital costs, and improved maximum demonstrated capacity…all noted prior to 1896.
Abernath, R. James, “Keep the Mill in Repair” Milling, Volume 8, No. 5, April 1896, p. 259. D.H. Ranck Pub. Co., Chicago, Illinois
Abernathy’s history as editor of milling journals:
Scott, Franklin William. Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, Volume VI. Biographical Series, Vol. 1: Newspapers and Periodicals of Illinois, 1814-1879. The Lakeside Press, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, Chicago, 1910. p. 245
Abernathy, R. James, Practical Hints on Mill Building, self published, printed by R. H. Moore, Moline, Illinois, 1880
Dana, Richard Henry, Jr., 1815-1882. Two Years Before the Mast.: A Personal Narrative of Life At Sea. New York: A. L. Burt, 1840. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.31822011019460