In my previous post of this series, I remarked that most discussion of the employment effects of robotics/artificial intelligence/etc seems to be lacking in historical perspective…quite a few people seem to believe that the replacement of human labor by machinery is a new thing.
This post will attempt to provide some historical perspective on today’s automation technologies by sketching out some of the past innovations in the mechanization of work, focusing on “robots,” broadly-defined…ie, on technologies which to some degree involve the replacement or augmentation of human mind/eye/hand, rather than those that are primarily concerned with the replacement of human and animal muscular energy…and will discuss some of the political debate that took place on mechanization & jobs in the 1920s through 1940s.
Throughout most of history, the production of yarn for cloth was an extremely labor-intensive process, done with a device called a distaff, almost always employed by women, and requiring many hours per day to generate a little bit of product. (There even exists a medieval miniature of a woman spinning with the distaff while having sex…whether this is a comment on the burdensomeness of the yarn-making process, or a slam at the love-making skills of medieval men, I’m not sure—-probably both.) Eventually, probably around 1400-1500 in most places in Europe, the spinning wheel came into use, improving the productivity of yarn-making by a factor estimated from 3:1 to as much as ten or more to one.
Gutenberg’s printing press was invented somewhere around 1440. I haven’t seen any estimates of its effect on labor productivity, compared with the then-prevailing method of hand copying of manuscripts, but surely it was at least 1000 to 1 or more.
The era from 1700-1850 was marked by tremendous increases in the productivity of the textile trades. The flying shuttle and other advances greatly improved the weaving process; this created a bottleneck in the supply of yarn, which was partly addressed by the invention of the Spinning Jenny–a foot-powered device that could improve the yarn production of one person by 5:1 or better. Power spinning and power looms yielded considerable additional productivity improvements.
An especially interesting device was the Jacquard Loom (1802), which used punched cards to direct the weaving of patterned fabrics. In its initial incarnation, the Jacquard was a hand loom: its productivity did not come from the application of mechanical power but rather from the automation of the complex thread-selection operations previously carried out by a “Draw Boy.”
Turning now to woodworking: in 1818, Blanchard’s Copying Lathe automated the production of complex shape–a prototype was automatically traced and copied. It was originally intended for making gunstocks, but also served in producing lasts for shoemakers, and I believe also chair and table legs.
Another major advancement in the clothing field was the sewing machine. French inventory Barthelemy Thimonnier invented a machine in 1830, but was driven out of the country by enraged tailors and political instability. The first commercially-successful machines were invented/marketed by Americans Walter Hunt, Elias Howe, and Isaac Singer, and were in common use by the 1850s.
By the late Victorian period the sewing machine had been hailed as the most useful invention of the century releasing women from the drudgery of endless hours of sewing by hand. Factories sprung up in almost every country in the world to feed the insatiable demand for the sewing machine. Germany had over 300 factories some working 24 hours a day producing countless numbers of sewing machines.
The beginnings of data communications could be seen in gold ticker and stock ticker systems created by Edison and others (circa 1870) , which relayed prices almost instantaneously and eliminated the jobs of the messenger boys who had previously been the distribution channel for this information. Practical calculating machines also appeared in the 1870s. But the big step forward in mechanized calculation was Hollerith’s punched card system (quite likely inspired in part by the Jacquard), introduced in 1890 and used for the tabulation of that year’s census. These systems were quickly adopted for accounting and record keeping purposes in a whole range of industries and government functions.
Professor Amy Sue Bix, in her book Inventing Ourselves out of Jobs?, describes the fear of technological unemployment as silent movies were replaced by the ‘talkies’. “Through the early 1920s…local theaters had employed live musicians to provide accompaniment for silent pictures. Small houses featured only a pianist or violinist, but glamorous ‘movie places’ engaged full orchestras.” All these jobs were threatened when Warner Brothers introduced its Vitaphone technology, with prerecorded disks synchronized to projectors. “Unlike other big studios, Warner did not operate its own theater chains and so had to convince local owners to screen their productions. Theater managers would be eager to show sound movies, Harry Warner hoped, since they could save the expense of hiring musicians.”
The American Federation of Musicians mounted a major PR campaign in an attempt to convince the public that ‘living music’ was better than ‘canned sound.’ A Music Defense League was established, with membership reaching 3 million…but the ‘talkies’ remained popular, and the AFM had to admit defeat. A lot of musicians did lose their jobs.
In railroad transportation, interlocking switch and signal systems supplemented human intelligence by mechanically or electrically ensuring against conflicting routes that could cause a collision. By the 1930s, Centralized Traffic Control systems allowed remote operators to observe track occupancy and control switches from as much as 100 miles away.
In communications, printing telegraph systems had coexisted with the Morse system ever since the earliest days, but by the 1930s they had become better and less costly. Professor Bix reports that the Western Union office in Richmond VA was able to reduce its workforce by 70%, while one Chicago company with a private line said “Teletype was installed in October 1931. Four regular telegraphers laid off. Work done previously by telegraphers can be done just as well on teletype with much cheaper operators” In this case, de-skilling went along with productivity improvement.
The biggest job destroyer in the communications field was the dial telephone. At peak, there were 350,000 switchboard operators, almost all women, working for AT&T alone. In 1922, the company began conversion of midtown Manhattan and New Jersey to the dial system. A company representative claimed that without the move to automatic switching, AT&T would ultimately have needed to employ every woman in America as a switchboard operator.
Typesetting machines, such as the Linotype, emerged circa 1880 and destroyed the jobs of manual typesetters–but this was at least partly offset by the great increase in the number of pages that could be included in newspapers. By 1929, the teletypesetter allowed copy to be generated remotely and fed into the typesetting machines via punched paper tape.
World War II resulted in major improvements in information and control technologies, with a consequent impact on the mechanization of work. I’ll save the description of these innovations for the next post of this series; here, I’ll focus now on the political debates about mechanization that took place in the 1920s through 1940s.
Even during the boom times of the 1920s, concerns about the job impact of machinery were being raised–Amy Sue Bix cites a Johns Hopkins study on how technology had affected employment in printing, bottlemaking, and stonecutting. Between 1895 and 1915, improved cutting tools had displaced about 50% of America’s stonecutters. And one operator using the Owens bottle machine (1905) could equal the production of 18 traditional glassblowers. A 1925 booklet on Unemployment and the Machine warned that unless the country went to a six-hour day, there would be “no limits to the unemployment of the future.” The image on the booklet cover showed huge mechanical hands pushing humans off a cliff into an “unemployment dump.”
Concerns about technological unemployment were greatly accelerated by the Great Depression. There was particular concern about the new continuous strip mills in steelmaking…Bix cites union official Philip Murray, who challenged the assertion that increased production would prevent job loss…that since “labor is practically eliminated on the hot-strip mills,” increased demand would never be able to compensate for the lost jobs.
A Columbia researcher named Elizabeth Baker suggested that Say’s Law (increased productivity will drive increased demand) had held true until the 20th century, but no more. One of the workers she interviewed had twice lost jobs to technology: his job as a pianist in a movie theater had been eliminated by the coming of the ‘talkies,’ and his replacement job feeding paper into printing presses had been eliminated by automatic feeders. Baker found that there were more printing-industry jobs, and higher prestige, for pressmen and mechanics…but the lower-skilled printing assistant was “threatened with extinction.”
An FDR administration official named Aubrey Williams asserted that “Man has been thrust aside to make way for the machines” and that thousands of young men and women growing up in the Machine Age were destined never to become self-supporting.
One approach suggested to deal with the perceived problem of technological unemployment was the establishment of a ‘technotax.’ A California group called the American Technotax society called industry’s obsession with mechanization a “gigantic conspiracy against American labor.” They proposed taxing technology according to how many workers it replaced. Congressman John Hoeppel, arguing for the Technotax, asserted that the United States had “submitted too long to the rape of the machine.” Many variants of the Technotax idea were proposed.
Depression-era literature often featured the threat of technological unemployment: in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the tractor is said to resemble a tank, in that “people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both.” (On the other hand, Bix notes that at least some real-life farm wives praised the tractor as “the most wonderful thing ever,” one of them noting that she had previously been “tied down at home all the time cooking for a bunch of hired help” and that purchase of a tractor had halved the need for extra hands and given her a choice to enjoy life at last.) Some science fiction stories envisaged a future in which mechanization had progressed so far that humans did not need to work at all–in John Campbell’s 1934 story ‘Twilight,’ the result was that humans “gradually lost all curiosity, rationality, and other mental abilities.” Bix says that “Science fiction writers of the 1930s transformed the old Puritan work ethic into a Machine Age morality play. Honest labor represented the foundation of humans’ self-respect and motivation, and if the future advance of technology robbed men of these values, life would disintegrate.”
Even some children’s textbooks raised concerns about jobs vs mechanization. Harold Rugg’s A History of American Civilization asserted that the US had not experienced any real problems of technological unemployment between 1865 and 1914, but that after WWI, displacement suddenly emerged as one of America’s central problems–that “thousands of research experts are working steadily, perfecting old machines or inventing new ones” too fast for society to handle. He described automation of the NYC subway system, which had reduced a train’s operating staff from 11 men to 2 and also eliminated one thousand turnstile attendants and cashiers. Another example he cited was the A O Smith auto frame plant, which I mentioned in my earlier post in this series.
The notorious ‘radio priest’ Charles Coughlin did not attack mechanization per se, but his National Union for Social Justice (!) called for converting the “economics of scarcity” to an “economics of plenty”…Bix says that he “endorsed the promise of machine-made wealth at the same time that he denounced the incidence of machine-made unemployment,” and was vague about the specifics of his program.
One movement that emerged from the concerns about technological unemployment, and the economy in general, was Technocracy, which “sneered at mainstream economists and social scientists for clinging to ideas as backward ‘as physical theory in the time of the Greeks’.” (Bix)…these backward ideas included the concepts of price and profit. Technocracy called for the creation of a new economic system by scientific and engineering experts, a system “derived from the nature of the machine itself.” They believed that the economy should be measured and controlled based on patterns of energy use…calorie and foot-pounds rather than dollars and cents. The United States could only restore economic sanity when it had learned how to “maintain a thermodynamically balanced load” across the entire world of production. Technocracy enjoyed a certain vogue for a while, but soon came under attack, with the Technocrats being referred to by such terms as “a flock of dithery young scientists” and “intellectual terrorists.” The secretary of the Social Science Research Council asserted that mechanization accounted for 10 to 15 percent of total joblessness at most; that the real problem was driven by “idle machines rather than business machines.”
Concerns about mechanization-driven joblessness fell into abeyance with the arrival of the World War II era and its demands for production and labor. Indeed, it is questionable whether WWII could have been won by the Allies at all had mechanization been restricted in the USA in the ways desired by some. (A Hoover Administration official had contrasted the 10,000 auto frames daily produced by the A O Smith plant with a Central European plant in which 200 handworkers manufactured only 31 frames a day. His point had been that superior mechanization would drive superior American living standards. But similar ratios could also apply for aircraft and tank production.)
In the next installment of this series, I’ll pick up the story of productivity-enhancing technologies in the post-WWII era and beyond, and offer some thoughts for discussion.
In this post I’ve extensively cited Professor Bix’s book Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs? There’s a lot of interesting content in this book–also a nice selection of cartoons reflecting the concerns about jobs and mechanization–and I urge anyone seriously interested in these topics to read it.
This series continues here: Part 3