Labor Day Rerun: Technology, Work, and Society

Here is an intriguing book concerned with the exponential advances in technology and the impact thereof on human society.  The author believes that the displacement of human labor by technology is in its very early stages, and sees little limit to the process.  He is concerned with how this will affect–indeed, has already affected–the relationship between the sexes and of parents and children, as well as the ability of ordinary people to earn a decent living.  It’s a thoughtful analysis by someone who clearly cares a great deal about the well-being of his fellow citizens.


The book is Peter Gaskell’s Artisans and Machinery, and it was published in 1836. The technology with which he is concerned is steam power, which he sees in its then-present incarnation as merely “Hercules in the cradle…opening into view a long vista of rapid transitions, terminating in the subjection of human power, as an agent of labour, to the gigantic and untiring energies of automatic machinery.”

What Gaskell sees this infant Hercules as already having caused is this:

The declension of the most numerous class of artisans in Great Britain, from comfort, morality, independence, and loyalty, to misery, demoralization, dependence, and discontent, is the painful picture now presented by the domestic manufacturers.  (he is referring particularly to the hand-loom weavers)  ‘The domestic labourers were at one period a most loyal and devoted body of men,’ says an intelligent witness before the Select Committee of Hand-Loom Weavers in 1834. ‘Lancashire was a particularly loyal county.’ (These men had been prominent among those who had volunteered to defend Britain from Napoleon.) ‘Durst any government call upon the services of such a people, living upon three shillings a week?’

Gaskell notes that prior to the introduction of automatic machinery, the majority of artisans had worked at home.  “It may be termed the period of Domestic Manufacture; and the various mechanical contrivances were expressly framed for that purpose…These were undoubtedly the golden times of manufactures, considered in reference to the character of the labourers.”  The man retained his individual respectability and was often able to rent a few acres for farming, thus diversifying his employment and (with the addition of a garden) his family’s diet.

The new automated mills had relatively little requirement for adult male labor; most jobs could be done more cheaply by women and children, who indeed were often preferred because of their more nimble fingers.  Those who continued as handweavers saw their incomes drop precipitously due to the competition from steam-or-water-powered machinery; it was John Henry versus the steam drill (although the birth of that legend was still in the future).

Before industrialization, the earnings of children were “entirely at the disposal of the head of the family”…thus home was “to the poor man, the very temple of fortune, in which he may contrive, if his earnings are not scanty indeed, to live with comfort and independence…the child of the domestic manufacturer was advantageously placed.  It remained under its paternal roof during which the period in which puberty was developed; its passions and social instincts were properly cultivated, its bodily powers were not too early called into requisition; it had the benefit of green fields, a pure atmosphere, the cheering influences of nature, and its diet was plain and substantial.”

Gaskell contrasts this perhaps rather idealized picture with a dismal portrait of parents and children all going off to work as separate individuals, with little interaction beyond meals hurriedly snatched, if even that.  “Parents have become the keepers of lodging-houses for their offspring, between whom little intercourse exists beyond that relating to pecuniary profit and loss.  In a vast number of others, children have been entirely driven away from their homes, either by unnatural treatment…(or) for the sake of saving a small sum in the amount of payment required for food and house-room….The social relations which should distinguish the members of the same family are destroyed.  The domestic virtues, man’s natural instincts, and the affections of the heart, are deadened and lost.”  He argues that feelings of family mutual responsibility are destroyed to the degree that “When age and decrepitude cripple the energies of the parents, their adult children abandon them to the scanty maintenance derived from parochial relief.”

Gaskell does admit that the factory worker was in many cases more mentally-active than his domestic-manufacturing predecessor, that he often shows “a high order of intelligence, seeking his amusement in the club, the political union, or the lecture room,”  but that “he is disbarred from all athletic sports, not having a moment’s time to seek, or bodily vigour capable of undertaking them; he has an active mind in a stunted and bloodless body.”  The domestic craftsman, on the other hand, “possessed a very limited degree of information; his amusements were exclusively sought in bodily exercise, quoits, cricket, the dance, the chace, and numerous seasonal celebrations; he lived in utter ignorance of printed books, beyond the thumbed Bible and a few theological tracts…he had a sluggish mind in an active body.”

Gaskell writes positively about the “distinctions of rank” and especially about the role of the Squire as it once had been in rural areas.  “The Squire …obtained and deserved his importance from his large possessions, low rents, and a simplicity and homeliness of bearing which, when joined to acknowledged family respectability, made him loved and reverenced by his tenants and neighbours.  He mingled freely in their sports–was the general and undisputed arbiter in all questions of law and equity–was a considerate and generate landlord–a kind and indulgent master…tinged, it is true with some vices, but all so coated over with wide-spreading charity, that the historian willingly draws the veil of forgetfulness over them.”

Concerning the mill-owners, who have to some extent replaced the Squires as masters of men, Gaskell says that few of those who started in the business as rich men have succeeded, while “the men who prospered were raised by their own efforts–commencing in a very humble way, generally from exercising some handicraft, as clock-making, hatting, etc….having a very limited capital to begin with, or even none at all save their own labour.”  He defends the mill owners against charges of wanton cruelty to employees, saying that many of the stories are exaggerated.  But while being men of high energy and quick thinking, the owners are in Gaskell’s view “men of limited information–men who saw and knew little of any thing beyond the demand for their twist or cloth,  and the speediest and best modes for their production.”  Acquisition of wealth, though was not always attended by a “corresponding improvement in their moral and social character…The animal enjoyments–the sensual indulgences which were witnessed at the orgies of these parties, totally unchecked by any intercourse with polished society, should have had the veil of oblivion drawn over them, were it not that, to some degree, they tend to explain the depravity which in a few years spread, like a moral plague, over the factory artisans.”

Gaskell in the previous passage appears to be talking at least partly about sex, a subject to which he returns several times in the book. He comments on, but is not particularly condemnatory about, the fact that in rural areas, marriages had long often followed rather than proceeded the bride’s pregnancy. What he *is* concerned about is what he viewed as extreme promiscuity and “the almost entire extinction” of sexual decency he sees among millworkers…he blames this partly on the bad example of the mill owners, partly on the greatly reduced connection between parents and children, partly on the elevated temperatures which were maintained (for technical reasons) in the mills.

Interestingly, the  author does not appear to share the (purported) Victorian view that women do not experience sexual desire. (Of course, the Victorian era had not yet begun.)  On the contrary, “Man cannot be taught to forget that he is a man, or that the breathing and blushing being before him is a woman; that she is endowed like himself with an argent temperament–a desire for gratification…and that she has passions which, if roused into activity, would overwhelm all sense of shame or propriety. Neither can he be taught to forget that he has a fire within his own breast, which, if freed from the asbestos coating of moral decency, would overthrow all obstacles standing between him and the object of his desire; nor, that he has the capability of stirring into vigorous life his own and woman’s propensities.”  Gaskell’s fear is that an industrialized and urbanized England would become–had largely already become–a sexual free-for-all in which family responsibilities and affections have ceased to exist.

So where does Gaskell see things going in the future?  Mechanization, he is certain, will expand vastly beyond its beachhead in the textile trades.  He quotes an eminent engineer:  “The cottager looks upon the neat paling which fences his dwelling; it was sawed by steam. The spade with which he digs his garden, the rake, the hoe, the pickaxe…every implement of rural toil which ministers to his necessities, are produced by steam…Applied to architecture, we find the Briarean arms of the steam engine every where at work.  Stone is cut by it, marble polished, cement ground…gratings and bolts forged…all owe to steam their most essential requisites.”  And this widespread application of steam has driven prices down, permitting ordinary people to buy things–especially items of apparel–once restricted to the richest few.  But Gaskell questions what benefit the masses of people are actually getting out of this.  “The advantage to the poor man, according to (another contemporary commentator) is, that his wife can purchase a printed calico gown for 2s, 6d.  This is a fact that he repeatedly insists upon.  It seems to us a very poor compensation for poverty, expatriation, or the workhouse.”  (Quite similar to the point sometimes made about cheap imported goods at Wal-Mart in our own time.) So, in Gaskell’s view, the reduced prices of so many items will not equal in their impact the reduction in employments and wages driven by the new technologies.  There is no refuge from the process; commenting on a then-new improvement in spinning machinery, he says, “Spinning machines, when first introduced…at once destroyed domestic spinning: the Iron Man of Roberts will as surely destroy the factory spinner.  It is utterly ridiculous to say that the extension of the trade will aborb the discharged hands–it is impossible.”  And machines can even make machines  (mirroring, again, some of the present-day concerns about artificial intelligence.) Automation will focus on the elimination of the highest-cost workers, so adult men, in particular, are in danger of becoming largely obsolete.

What is to be done to prevent a bleak future of impoverishment, family disintegration, and widespread misery relieved only by the temporary pleasures of the gin shop?

Gaskell disclaims any intention of stopping and rolling back the progress of technology.  He mentions the possibility of taxing steam power (mirroring today’s proposals for the taxation of robots) and concludes that it is not feasible…it would “derange the entire commerce of the kingdom.”  Similarly, restricting the hours of labor would have only a temporary benefit to employment in that it would “stimulate mechanical ingenuity” to recover the increased costs, and hence, “the crisis between human and automatic industry would be accelerated.”  Nor does he see emigration to Canada and other countries…of which there was then a considerable amount happening among unemployed workers (some of it subsidized) as a fair or sustainable solution to the problem of technological unemployment.

His primary proposed solution to the problem of technological unemployment is the reclamation of the waste lands, of which he asserts that there are 31 million acres in Great Britain and Ireland, of which 15 million are capable of agricultural development.  The money currently being expended for welfare and for subsidies of emigration could be better applied to investment in such a project: it could offer productive work to a large number of unemployed or underemployed.  Gaskell also proposes that wherever possible (obviously, not in dense urban areas) workers should be provided with a small plot of land (about half an acre) and that these should be held directly from the landowner rather than indirectly from a tenant farmer.

Concerning factory operations, Gaskell seems some improvement in the current set of owners, some of whom are more concerned with the well-being of their workers than had been the pioneering developers of the industry. He also sees labor-management conflict as very detrimental, and opposes ‘combinations’ on the part of both workers and owners.  He seems to want the mill owners to play a role more analogous to that which the Squire played in an earlier day; yet at the same time, he is very opposed to what Americans would call the Company Store…individual ownership of retail establishments in manufacturing areas would, he believes, not only drive down prices through competition but would promote the establishment of a Middle Class, which he sees as highly beneficial to both workers and owners.  His proposed solutions don’t seem very convincing, and I suspect they were not that convincing to he himself, either.

Tyler Cowen, in his review of this book, says Gaskell is “optimistic about the long run, but not about the transition.”  From my reading, I’m not really seeing that optimism even about the long run.

But things did work out considerably better than one might have thought from Gaskell’s analysis.  Where Gaskell went wrong, I think, is in several areas.  First, he underestimated the potential for economic growth and new industries–he never probably considered, for example, the possibility that people not in the upper classes might own their own carriages, with all the new demands for labor that would create. (And indeed, such widespread carriage-ownership would not probably have been feasible as long as the only motive power available was the horse!)  Second, his argument that reduced working hours would do no good because such reductions would merely spur additional labor-reducing technological improvements misses the beneficent feedback loops that at least sometimes exists in practice between these factors.  Third, he did not foresee the Victorian era and the social and religious trends that would have at least some impact on curbing the drunkenness and other types of social dysfunction that he saw among the urban working classes.

Gaskell explicitly states that he does not mean to portray the pre-industrial times as any kind of Arcadian paradise, but to a considerable extent he does just that.  His almost entirely positive portrayal of the Squire would, I suspect, have been roundly mocked by those living within the domains of a fair number of real-life squires.

John Stuart Mill asserted that “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  To some extent, Gaskell’s positive portrait of the worker of pre-industrial times…”a sluggish mind in an active body”…argues the opposite case.

I’m reminded of something C P Snow wrote:

I remember talking to my grandfather when I was a child. He was a good specimen of a nineteenth- century artisan. He was highly intelligent, and he had a great deal of character. He had left school at the age of ten, and had educated himself intensely until he was an old man. He had all his class’s passionate faith in education. Yet,he had never had the luck-or, as I now suspect, the worldly force and dexterity-to go very far. In fact, he never went further than maintenance foreman in a tramway depot. His life would seem to his grandchildren laborious and unrewarding almost beyond belief. But it didn’t seem to him quite like that. He was much too sensible a man not to know that he hadn’t been adequately used: he had too much pride not to feel a proper rancour: he was disappointed that he had not done more-and yet, compared with his grandfather, he felt he had done a lot.

His grandfather must have been an agricultural labourer. I don’t so much as know his Christian name. He was one of the ‘dark people’, as the old Russian liberals used to call them, completely lost in the great anonymous sludge of history. So far as my grandfather knew, he could not read or write. He was a man of ability, my grandfather thought; my grandfather was pretty unforgiving about what society had done, or not done, to his ancestors, and did not romanticise their state. It was no fun being an agricultural labourer in the mid to late eighteenth century, in the time that we, snobs that we are, think of only as the time of the Enlightenment and Jane Austen.

The industrial revolution looked very different according to whether one saw it from above or below. It looks very different today according to whether one sees it from Chelsea or from a village in Asia. To people like my grandfather, there was no question that the industrial revolution was less bad than what had gone before. The only question was, how to make it better.

(from The Two Cultures, 1959)

It’s a long book, but very well worth reading.  The author was a physician, and there is a lot of data about the prevalence of various diseases among different segments of the population; possibly especially interesting to Michael Kennedy.  There are a lot of historical details that I didn’t know; for example, I was certainly aware of the riots, machine-breaking, and other violence, but had never before heard that acid-throwing was a thing back then.

Tyler Cowen, in his review, notes that “So much of (Gaskell’s) discussion of handloom weavers could come out of an Atlantic Monthly article from 2015, albeit with different historical references.”  As I’ve argued before, much of today’s discussion about the economic and social effects of robotics and AI seems quite lacking in historical perspective.  Gaskell’s book is very helpful in developing such a perspective.

9 thoughts on “Labor Day Rerun: Technology, Work, and Society”

  1. In the 1830s, the author would not be aware of many new developments which would appear in the future and lead to improvements in health and standard of living — railways, steamships, oil, internal combustion engines, electrification, radio, plastics. The combination of energy from fossil fuels and growing understanding of the properties of materials led to new opportunities, new products, new & more productive employments.

    The big difference between then and now is that, since the 1970s, the growth of employment has been heavily oriented towards expanding government and its evil spawn, the legal profession. Where the new employment opportunities of the later 19th Century increased production and made the human race richer, the new employment opportunities of the later 20th Century have been mainly in unproductive overhead and are in some cases effectively decreasing production — which will ultimately make us all poorer. The consequences remain to be endured.

  2. David,

    Fascinating article on a subject near to my heart. Thanks for writing that.

    I immediately went to Amazon to download the book as I enjoy reading this kind of thing. Yikes!!! $195 and no Kindle version available. I found a version on but it looks like it was poorly scanned by Google. Tried to read the first page and found it unreadable because of typos.

    I agree that life in 1800s industrial England was horrible. Still horrible by the end of the century but it got continuously better. What is seldom missed is how even more horrible life was for weavers/artisans. In the 1700’s there were famines in England where large numbers of people starved to death. Bad as industrialization was, it was still better than what existed before.

    Gavin is right, It was impossible to predict in 1836 what life would be like in 1900 or even 1846. Boulton and Watt were changing the face of history with probably the most important invention ever, the steam engine. The steam engine meant that we no longer relied on animal/human/nature for power. Power could be had at demand, whenever and wherever it was needed. It is still changing the world.

    As Tyler points out, the same article could have been written in 2016 in The Atlantic. Probably was, in fact. I saw something just the other day that seemed to be echoing Gaskell almost 200 years later. We should know better by now.

    Artisanal production can never move a society forward. Costs are too high, production is too slow, there are not enough artisans and they can never make a “quality” (in the sense of absence of variation) product.

    There are a hundred reasons why we should “Never use a man to do what a machine can do” as Henry Ford said. We’ve been automating for more than 200 years now and it has resulted in more, not less employment at better, not poorer wages (especially when benefits are counted), lower prices and better availability for all goods and services and a better quality of life for all.

    Bumps along the way. Not all peaches and cream. Of course, but as a general statement especially in the US but worldwide as well.

    Unfortunately the ghost of Ned Ludd walks among us still

    John Henry

  3. Here is a video of a packing line in Australia. It has 2 Universal Robots (Danish) doing work that a person would often be doing.

    The first robot picks a dozen bottles off a conveyor and puts them in a case. The operator erects the case by hand but that can easily be done with another robot. The second picks the sealed case and puts it on a pallet.

    Both tasks can easibly be done by humans. But think about what a miserable job that is. Expensive too, even if it only paid minimum wage. That cost has to be built into the product. Are you willing to pay for 2 additional people when you buy your shampoo?

    The bottle packing robot, installed, costs less than $50,000(USD). The palletizer probably $75-100,000, Case erector @$50,000.

    Now you can use those 3 workers to do something more productive. What? You may ask and I don’t know. Anymore than Gaskell could predict the internet. But I do know that if you reduce costs and reduce prices you create opportunities.

    As I said, the more automation we have had over the past 200 years, the more jobs we have created.

    John Henry

  4. John H.: “As I said, the more automation we have had over the past 200 years, the more jobs we have created.”

    Indeed. But we should try to scratch the surface and see what kinds of jobs have been created. In the 19th Century, those new jobs were mainly productive — producing goods & services for which people willingly traded. Since 1970 — not so much.

    I am amazed that, in almost every country I have visited, the job growth has been focused on the center of government. You can see this everywhere, from county seats to national governments. One of the clearest examples has been the decision by the government of Kazakhstan to move the capital from the long-established Silk Road city of Almaty to a village on the steppes which they renamed Astana (now Nursultan). The village has grown to a thriving city, and Almaty has unfortunately stagnated.

    This would not be an issue if government jobs were uniformly productive. Some are — but many are well-paid sand-in-the-gears overhead. Just as one example — think of the jobs that should have been created in the nuclear power industry over the last few decades, but have not been created because tax revenues are used to employ people in government agencies whose function in effect has been to stall the growth of that new industry.

    If automation is to continue to expand the economy and improve life (as it has in the past), then we will need to address the issue of over-regulation and excessive governmental overhead.

  5. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can be so sanguine about technology in 2019. Men have to do solid work in order to feel worthwhile, else their ability to support a family is gone and they wind up on drugs, or worse. The assembly line was often a brain-dead, miserable job, but it paid better than being a subsistence farmer, etc., so people were willing to make the trade. What’s the trade now? UBI, more government “benefit”, etc? Those are big steps backwards in all ways, meaning, economics, etc. I don’t see anyone with any answers, and an amazing amount of people saying the same things that were said in the early 1990s about how great tech and trade were going to be for everyone.

  6. In 1834 railroads were just getting started. People now don’t realize how wretched overland transportation was before. England had a decent system of post roads and coaches but they were expensive. Common people walked, even distances of 100 miles or more. Since it is an island, there was a lot of coast-wise shipping frorm port to port. This was somewhat hazardous, wrecks were common. The railroads democratized travel and increased the mobility of lower classes. All of this was seen as pernicious by the land owning class, it made it too easy to move to a better job or landlord.

    The cotton gin is credited with making slavery profitable. The steam engine made it work.

    A human is supposed to be capable of about 1/3 horsepower sustained output. I doubt that 15 men could equal the output of a five horsepower engine for very long.

    The British Isles don’t have a lot of water power, there are lots of rivers, but they tend to be the broad placid variety. They are also used very extensively for transportation and bound up with extensive laws. This is not true of the Continent. Without the steam engine, they would have reached a thermodynamic limit, unable to compete with more mountainous countries.

    It has long been possible to automate just about anything as long as the quantity could pay for a specially constructed machine. What’s different now is that machines are flexible enough that lots as small as one or two can be economic. Where even minor changes required new parts to be designed and fabricated, new cams to be cut, much larger changes can be accomplished by changing a few lines of code.

  7. John Henry: “I found a version on but it looks like it was poorly scanned by Google. Tried to read the first page and found it unreadable because of typos.”

    David Foster: “quite a few typos but readable.”

    The answer is that free ain’t free. I have used Calibre to clean up some books from the Internet Archive.
    You can also read from the PDF,but in this case, the scanned PDF has missing letters- which the EPUB version (Kindle ditto, but I use EPUB) does a pretty good job of correcting. IOW, Internet Archive improved things in EPUB. Ditto Kindle.

    For example, the scanned PDF of Artisans and Machinery has this passage:

    To the philanthropist—to the man anxious for the well-being and social happiness of hi sp cies—it is one calculated to fill the mind wi h anxiety. It has been littl attended to, and still less understood.

    Fair number of letters that didn’t get scanned in- unsurprising for a 180 year old document. Here is the EPUB version.

    To the philanthropist—to the man anxious for the well-being and social happiness of his species—it is one calculated to fill the mind with anxiety. It has been little attended to, and still less understood.

    In comparing the EPUB version to the scanned PDF, the conclusion is that the EPUB version is a definite improvement. Where the IA Free EPUB version falls short is in the realm of the non-standard. Footnotes and tables are uniformly not well done. Go to Calibre and edit.

    Courtesy of the Web Archive, I have been reading The Red Decade: The Stalinist Penetration of America (1941), by Eugene Lyons. The PDF is quite readable. Ditto his Assignment in Utopia- both PDFs much more readable than the PDF of Artisans and Machinery. The difference is probably that Artisans and Machinery is about 100 years older. Assignment in Utopia in EPUB is very good. The Red Decade in EPUB format, Web Archive informs us, “Item not available.The item is not available due to issues with the item’s content.” When you look at the TXT version, you see why it isn’t available: an awful lot of spelling errors. And I mean a lot.

    No simple answer for old books.

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