Does Historical Accuracy Matter?

Cuckoo clock from the Black Forest

The most famous line in The Third Man is Orson Welles’s addition to the script:

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

65 years later, Paul Krugman opened his editorial in today’s New York Times with:

“Ah, Switzerland, famed for cuckoo clocks…”

With all due respect to Paul Krugman, I believe this fame came from the movie, because cuckoo clocks are not from Switzerland but from the Black Forest region of Germany.


You can’t visit the Black Forest without being reminded of it. A Swiss reader who signs as “Thomas, from Nyon,” even added:

“Dr. Krugman, I am very sorry but you are wrong. I know it doesn’t happen very often but there is a serious error in your column. Cuckoo clocks are German (more specifically The Black Forest), not Swiss. While the Swiss produce some expensive knock-offs, they have only copied this idea, they did not invent it.”

But enough about cuckoo clocks. Does it matter to whom we attribute inventions, discoveries, and ideas? It certainly matters to the inventors, researchers and thinkers while alive and to their descendants afterwards, even when no money is at stake.

Car inventor Siegfried Marcus

It also obviously matters to those who take the trouble to rewrite history, and you have to wonder what their motives are. The first car, retrofitting an internal combustion engine on a hand cart, was built in 1870 by Siegfried Marcus in Vienna and, for decades, he was acknowledged as the inventor of the car. But, as he was Jewish, the Nazis decided that Daimler and Benz should be recognized instead, and instructed German encyclopedias to make Marcus disappear. Their lie grew roots. In February, 2009, when President Obama mistakenly stated that cars had been invented in the US, it was repeated in the “correction” issued by Han Tjan, the DaimlerBenz spokesman in the US. “It’s a fact,” he said,”that Daimler invented the car.”

Other than the morality of it, I can think of two reasons why exact attribution matters. The first is that the current generation must be able to trust that its own deeds will be recognized and that credit for the creations of its members will not go to others. If you feel that, because of your gender, ethnicity, or politics, whatever you contribute will be credited to somebody else, chances are you will keep it to yourself. This is an avoidable loss to society, and the best we can do to avoid it is to do everything we can to make sure that credit for past contributions is given where it is due.

The second reason is that inventions, discoveries, and new ideas hatch in a context, and that knowing that context helps you understand them. Knowing what problems people were trying to solve makes you understand the choices they made and make sense of the solutions they found.

Discoveries in the art of manufacturing are not well documented for posterity. They happen on production floors; they are often ideas that are not easily patentable, yet give the company a competitive advantage. As a result they are treated as a trade secret. These secrets eventually leak, as suppliers learn them and employees leave, taking them along to rival companies. Eventually, the Public Relations department is compelled to publish something, usually with some truth, attended by a churchillian “bodyguard of lies.” It’s fair game, but it makes the history of technology difficult to trace.

The official history of Toyota, for example, credits the American car industry as the single source of the ideas that were the foundations of the Toyota Production System (TPS). Yet the German word “Takt” plays a central role in TPS, and it didn’t come from the American car industry. Back in March, 2013, I posted my findings about the German contributions to TPS, based on following this thread. It is clear that, in its early days, Toyota learned much from Germany, about automotive technology from its car industry, and about production systems from its aircraft industry. Most of the information I collected is available on line, and the rest I found in a single visit to the Stanford Business School library. If you look for it, it is not hard to find, but you won’t find it on the Toyota web site. Why? I can only guess, but the US is Toyota’s biggest export market, and, from a public relations standpoint, the Germany of the 1930s and 40s is an awkward association, even though the lessons Toyota learned there had nothing to do with politics.

Suited Henry Ford examining a V-8 engine

In a series of Industry Week articles, William Levinson appears keen to attribute the invention of Lean to Henry Ford, and to erase from history the term “mass production,” which was coined specifically to describe the Ford system. The featured image heading the article shows Henry Ford examining an engine. The article then starts with “The history of lean manufacturing shows…” So there we have it! We can forget about the Toyodas, Taiichi Ohno, Shigeo Shingo, and all the other contributors to TPS. According to Levinson, all there is to Lean was already at Ford in the 1920s.

The key problem with this kind of revisionism is that it discourages you from studying the more recent developments of TPS. When I looked at the timeline of its development, I noticed that the major foreign inputs, from the US and Germany, were over by the mid 1950s, meaning that TPS for the past 60 years has grown through internal development at Toyota.