From Farm to Factory and Beyond: A Short History of Productivity

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Productivity is big business. But where does this fascination come from?  After all, there’s now a seemingly inexhaustible supply of apps and tools to help you get stuff done. Before we travel back in time, though, we should first define productivity.

Productivity: What is it?

Productivity is a measure of the output of goods or services which are available and can be exchanged for money.

We tend to view productivity a little differently today. It has wandered off the beaten track a bit. It’s no longer solely a measure of output, it’s more about getting the maximum possible amount of work done in ever-shrinking periods of time. It’s the doing more with less approach to work, business and even, to some extent, government.

More and more employers are trying to follow this approach, so as to create workplaces in which everyone is focused on how they can do their bit to boost productivity within the organisation they work for.

Later, we’ll discover more about how the outbreak of war in the 20th century affected productivity.

For now though, let’s step into history, to find out where it all began.

Productivity through the ages

Prior to the 1800s, when people talked about productivity they would have almost certainly been talking about agriculture and food production. In an age before refrigeration, crops had to be used fast, before they spoiled. The main focus was on survival, thus the whole idea of getting stuff done in a time efficient way didn’t really exist. Thus the modern meaning of productivity wasn’t really extant either. It was purely a measure of output.  

But why is productivity important? Without high levels of productivity, saving and investment doesn’t happen because people live hand to mouth. Only with high levels of productivity is saving, investment in new technology, economic growth and a consequent vast, wide-spread improvement in living standards possible.

Bill Greiner, in his article about the history of productivity, references the work of William Bernstein, which claims that before about 1850 global productivity grew at an extremely low level. Bernstein, in his own turn, cites the work of British economist Angus Maddison. Maddison’s work sought to understand the historical growth of productivity. He suggests that per capita economic growth didn’t change much during the first millennia after the birth of Christ.

Naturally, that assertion raises a question. How can we say anything specific about productivity growth before the 18thcentury, when record keeping was patchy and what records that were kept may not have all survived? Maddison made the very effective argument that the more people who are involved in agriculture and food production, the lower the sustainable increases in productivity are. That’s hard to dispute. A greater percentage of people were dedicated to keeping the population alive before mass urbanisation. That meant fewer people were able to create the excess wealth which is itself the very life-blood of productivity and economic growth.

The Romans did, in fact, keep detailed records about how many people lived in cities and how many lived in more rural areas. These give us a good idea of how many people it took just to sustain the population and keep people alive by working the land.

When the Roman and Greek empires were at their zenith, only an infinitesimal proportion of people lived in cities with a population of over 10,000. De Vries estimated that, in the comparatively recent year of 1600, just under 8% of the English population lived in cities of over 5,000. The move of people and wealth to the cities continued, accelerating hugely in the early 1800s, so that, by 1851 more the half the population lived in towns or cities of at least 2,500 people. The biggest driver of this massive urbanisation was, of course, the advent of the industrial revolution, which moved employment opportunities away from the countryside and into the cities. This was the shift away from an economy driven by the farm, towards one powered by factories.

In Britain, this occurred in around 1760-1830, centred in coal, iron and textiles. The industrialisation was made possible with advances in steam powered engines made by James Watt. Belgium quickly followed suit, thanks in part to the enterprising spirit of Englishmen, William and John Cockrill, who decided to set up machine shops in Liege. William passed the business on to John and his other son, James, in 1814. Estimates as to the rapidity of the growth in productivity vary, but productivity did increase. Why? More people now had greater capacity to create excess wealth. Therefore, saving and investment over a longer period began to happen on a much larger scale. From then on, the spread of industry continued apace across the West , reaching U.S. shores in about 1820.

This was one of the first steps societies took towards automation. In the U.S., beginning in 1880, machinery — and improvements in transportation through the building of canals and railways — added great value to the economy.  Nearly all the technological advances in the American industrial revolution  — from the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, to that of the radio in 1895 — had a common goal. That is, to enable workers to produce more in less time.  

Thus, it could be said that the American Revolution and its forerunners — the great advances in scientific thought, knowledge and methodology of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the British industrial revolution — also birthed the modern meaning of productivity.

Now we have more of an idea about where the modern meaning of productivity originated, let’s find out more about one of the earliest productivity tools created.  

The to-do-list

The movement of many jobs away from agriculture and into industry had the side effect of making a lot of people busier. This gave rise to the devising of many new-fangled scheduling tools to help us cope with this faster pace of life.

Umberto Eco believes that we humans make lists, in an attempt to grasp things we find overwhelming and incomprehensible. By making lists we try to make sense of our world. By doing that, we make ourselves feel happier, and as I’ve said before, being happy makes you more productive.

Interestingly enough, it’s not long before the invention of the cotton gin that we can spot Benjamin Franklin compiling what might now be called a to-do-list, in 1791. He set himself a daily routine and tried to stick to it. He opened each day by asking himself what good he was going to do, and ended each day by asking himself what good he had done.

Source: Daily Dot.

It was 1817— with the establishment of the New York Stock & Exchange Board — that signalled big changes in the idea of trade. Society was drifting away from the sole goal of survival, and towards wider ambitions and hopes for monetisation, scale and convenience.

The modern notion of productivity soon took flight. The Wanamaker’s Diary was available to buy, first published in 12 volumes between 1905-1922. This is one of the earliest examples of a commercially available day planner and scheduling tool. The diary’s compiler, John Wanamaker interspersed its pages with ads for his department store. He was helping an increasingly busy populace organise their days and he’d shown the rest of us how you could make some cash — perhaps even big bucks — from the concept of productivity itself.

In the same vein, Benjamin Franklin’s planned daily routine can be said to have foreshadowed all of its more recent incarnations. Perhaps Franklin really is — among his numerous other accolades —the Godfather of the modern to-do list.

Let’s look at how war impacted upon our notion of efficiency.

World War and Productivity  

When the US entered the First World War in 1917, the cycle of productivity was disrupted. Industrial production and the size of the workforce diminished in the years immediately following the close of the war. The stock market soared in the 1920s, only to crash in 1929, resulting in a 10-year period of economic hardship known to history as the Great Depression. The focus had, once again, shifted to survival rather than a quest for ever more convenience, comfort and luxury. That focus was sharpened when the US became involved in World War II in December 1941.

The outbreak of the Second World War had actually stimulated production in America, chiefly of much-needed war materials. In the war years, 17 million new jobs were created and industrial productivity increased by over 95%. This played a great part in lifting America out of the Depression.  

World War II also transformed the world of work, by introducing women into the workforce in huge numbers. This was to have lasting consequences, both for the workforce and post-war notions of productivity.

A transformed workforce, modern convenience and the renaissance of productivity

The large influx of women into the workplace, which only increased after World War II, also served to change our view of productivity. By 1975, 57% of the UK workforce were women of prime working age, according to research conducted for the Institute for Fiscal Studies.  The US saw a similar trend. Starting no later than 1948 — three years after the end of World War II — the number of women in the workforce only continued to grow, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This revived the idea of devising things to make life easier, more comfortable and convenient. In short, the focus of industry, invention and investment had moved away from survival back to convenience.

This gave rise to new business opportunities. An increasing proportion of the population had less free time and greater responsibilities. The drive for modern convenience originated – like the term productivity itself — in food production. The food industry responded to the new demand for convenience food. With more people working, fewer people had time to spend preparing and cooking meals.

Inventions designed to save people time and effort had begun appearing in 1950s America in the form of packaged and canned foods. By the late 70s affordable microwaves had burst onto the domestic scene. This increased availability of food and a growing culture of fast food, revealed our increasing obsession with the idea of getting more done in fewer hours. We had, in short, become obsessed with efficiency.

Now we know how productivity acquired its modern meaning and how we became occupied by it, let’s find out how it became big business.  

An illustration of productivity through time.

How productivity became an industry

Huge advances in technology – notably the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989 — meant that we had to devise digital productivity solutions. Our preoccupation with productivity had transcended the material world into the digital one. Naturally, companies sought to meet the need for digital productivity tools.

In 1994, an early version of what might now be called a smartphone became available to buy. It was called Simon.  It was portable and introduced the idea of being able to book meetings on the move and manage a calendar to save yourself some time once you returned to your desk. It was a trail blazer that laid the groundwork for the likes of digital assistants which became available in the late 90s.

When Microsoft released Windows 98, complete with tools designed to help people remain organised and keep tabs on their work in an increasingly online world, the business of productivity was already in full swing.

It would really boom in the years to follow.

Productivity in the modern era

With the advent of productivity tools, further improvements and new technologies came about very rapidly. Google became a leader in the space, through helping people search for information in a seamless, time-saving way. In 2006, Google unveiled their Calendar which allowed people to share their routines or schedules with others.

Next came the iPhone, in 2007, which would soon have seismic consequences for the idea of productivity. A few years later, in 2011, Apple released the first iPhone equipped with Siri. Siri, of course allows you to “get things done just by asking.” Voice search offered a whole new level of time-saving solutions. You didn’t have to even raise a finger to find things out, all you had to do was ask.

By 2014, voice activation technology had been taken to new heights. Voice activation was now about much more than just searching for information. This was AI that could help make our everyday lives easier using intelligent machine operation in our homes. In a world where we seemed to live busier lives than ever, those who could afford the tech, could use it to get rid of some boring chores, like writing shopping or to-do lists.  You could just ask the Amazon Echo to order what you wanted for you, without any hassle. Getting things done had never been easier, or faster.

Since then, there has been lively competition from the likes of Google, which has long been a major player in the productivity industry.  Some may decry smart devices for lowering our motivation and impairing our productivity, but they also often free us from mundane tasks, allowing us to devote more energy to doing things we consider to be truly worthwhile and productive.

Now you can use the same technology to control everything from your heating to when the security light outside your house turns on. 

Business productivity

Automation software, AI, content management systems and analytics tools allow us to gather more data about our customers, readers and audiences in just a few clicks than ever before. This makes it possible for us to build strategies that grab attention and keep people engaged and interested. By helping us to please customers and earn revenue, big data offers huge ROI.

On top of that, productivity tools have come a long way too, so much so that offices have come to rely on them. You might use messaging software, like Slack, or project management software such as ClickUp or Notion to keep work on track. You may even use stellar automation software like Zapier to help boost your productivity too.

Tools like these play a crucial role in keeping people connected and up to date with one another’s work, thus allowing for effective collaboration. The success of productivity tools has encouraged people to invest further in this technology, to make remote working in groups even easier, particularly after the advent of Covid-19. This suggests that the productivity industry isn’t slowing down, and for me at least, won’t start doing so anytime soon.


We’ve seen productivity be born on the farm, as a mechanism of survival and measure of food production.  It took on new significance in the 1800s among the workers and inventions that powered the industrial revolution, when the rise of the factory brought about mass urbanisation. Being productive was no longer just essential for survival, it was also crucial for convenience, comfort and — perhaps most importantly — business.  

After the tumultuous first half of the 20th century during which productivity was again primarily focused on survival, it became an industry in and of itself.  With the rise of tech in the 90s,  productivity took on a life of its own. In an increasingly online, connected world, helping people get more done in less time had ever-increasing appeal to people who’d never been busier. It had become a money spinner. Now, with the invention of even more miraculous technology, the productivity industry is thriving. In the world of business, it’s helping to transform how and where we work, drive the economy and live our lives. It shows no sign of waning.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our trip through time, have found it interesting and perhaps even useful. Only one question remains. Where might the productivity industry take us next?

While we wait to discover the answer, you can try out some productivity tools to make your life easier today!

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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