Is Man Doomed by The Machine Age? (Mar, 1931)

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Is Man Doomed by The Machine Age?

With thousands of men unemployed, many of them because machines have forced them out of their jobs, the old cry that man has created a Machine Age which will destroy him has been taken up again. Which is the true picture—is the Machine a destructive monster, or a means to leisure and wealth? Is our civilization doomed to destruction because of our dependence on machines? Read the opinions of eminent scientists and industrial leaders in this article.


EVER since the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in 1769—a date commonly accepted as marking the beginning of our present Mechanical Age of civilization—there have been two schools of thought regarding the Machine: one maintaining, with varying degrees of vehemence, that machines are works of Satan which will sooner or later engulf and destroy civilization; the other seeing in the mechanical age man’s greatest hope for leisure and universal wealth.

As far as numbers go, those whose attitude toward the Machine Age is friendly are in the majority. Few of us, indeed, could conceive of living in an age or a country where there were no automobiles, or where power and light did not flow at the touch of an electric switch. Yet the present era of industrial depression, with millions of men thrown out of work—as some maintain, because machines have taken their places, working swifter and cheaper—has seen a renewal of the outcry against machinery. This protest was familiar to Arkwright, inventor of the spinning jenny, when his machine in 1769 began to put hand manufacturers of fabrics out of business; and familiar, too, to the engineers of the first locomotives who piloted their crude iron horses before the jeering eyes of skeptics who held that the steam monsters were a violation of the laws of God, man, and common decency.

Well, where are we heading? Will machines, sooner or later, destroy civilization by putting all men out of work and concentrating wealth in the hands of a few? It is only fair to point out that machines create new jobs as well as destroying old ones.

Take the example of the radio. This invention has been with us ten years. During that time half the homes in America have been equipped with receiving sets, and the building of these millions of receivers has employed thousands of men and women. This is the pleasant side of the picture. Now let’s look on the other side. The business of manufacturing and selling pianos, and, to a lesser extent, other musical instruments, has confessedly slumped. It is usual to charge this slump to the radio and other forms of mechanical music, which have supplied the need for music in the home. Business fell off alarmingly for talking machine manufacturers until they, too, started turning out radios, either alone or in combination with their standard product.

The obvious answer is that the invention of a new machine may throw out of work men in a particular job, but at the same time the machine itself creates new jobs. The automobile, and industries depending on it, employs upwards of 4,000,000 men and women. The automobile put out of business a few thousand proprietors of livery stables, but no one nowadays has the temerity to charge this against the industry.

Let’s see what opinions scientists and industrial leaders close to the public pulse have expressed on this consuming subject.

Joseph N. Weber, president of the American Federation of Musicians, is the leader of a campaign in which more than $500,000 was spent last year to stem the advance of “Robot Music”. Magazine advertisements reaching thousands of people appealed to the public to oppose itself to the advance of mechanical music in the theatres. But the musical robots came marching down until today there is hardly a theatre in the country which is not equipped for sound effects for talkies.

Behind this campaign lies the distress of thousands of musicians put out of work by the talkies.

“The time is coming fast,” said Mr. Weber, “when the only living thing around a motion picture house will be the person who sells you your ticket. Everything else will be mechanical. Canned drama, canned music, canned vaudeville. We think the public will tire of mechanical music and will want the real thing. We are not against scientific development of any kind, but it must not come at the expense of art. We are not opposing industrial progress. We are not even opposing mechanical music except where it is used as a profiteering instrument for artistic debasement.”

Edward C. Rybicki director of the New York City Free Employment Bureau, comes as closely in contact with unemployment as any other man in the country.

“Man has suddenly found himself swallowed up in a huge whirlpool of swift industrial and mechanical development,” says Mr. Rybicki. “I would venture to say that four-fifths of the 500,000 men who are out of jobs in New York, City find themselves in that plight because they have outlived their usefulness. Because new industries have sprung up with a new generation, leaving them to drift in decrepit and dying industries.”

Dr. Lee de Forest, famous radio inventor, foresees an era of prosperity made possible by machines.

“Radio manufacturers,” says Dr. de Forest, “are working on low power tubes and loud speakers for battery operation, which will give the uneleetrified home reception comparable to that enjoyed by city dwellers. The use of such sets will create a market for 6,000,000 radios.

“Another forthcoming development in radio the perfection of the pentode tube, a British invention, to do away with the three tubes now used in audio-frequency circuits. American firms are now experimenting with that particular tube.

“Television will not be on the market this year and perhaps not for some time to come. Radio control of warships, airplanes, and tanks is also a long way in the future.” But some day, it is safe to predict, television sets will become common—and when they do the manufacture of them will give work to thousands of men.

During 1930, which has gone down in the books of time as an Industrial Dark Age, a new business grew up and flourished almost overnight. This was the miniature golf course industry. It became a business, in which more than $125,000,000 was invested, and it’s still going strong. This stands as an example of the ability of a new invention to create new wealth.

Walter S. Gifford, president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, looks toward a future all the brighter because of machines and scientific development. In passing, it may be remarked that Mr. Gifford’s company is one of the largest employers of labor in the United States, and that this corporation is built up around a simple machine — the telephone.

“This depression will soon pass,” Mr. Gifford has said, “and we are about to enter a period of prosperity the like of which no country has ever seen before. It is inevitable that business through science will work toward a social and industrial Utopia which will be gained by the perfection of the best and cheapest possible service consistent with financial safety.”

Quite a different attitude is held by John Van Nostrand Dorr, famous engineer and former associate of Thomas A. Edison.

“We will eventually become lost in the multiplicity of things which sustain or amuse us unless we do more than invent things or processes,” declares Mr. Dorr. “As a result, engineering might fulfill its proper purposes of meeting the simpler needs of men while, progressively, taking back from him the burden of labor, mechanics, physics, and chemistry should be made to serve art, music, philosophy, and literature by some such means.”

Germany is coming into post-war prominence as a giant laboratory wherein the mechanical age finds its freest expression. She has produced the world’s largest seaplanes, has led the world in constructing dirigible airships, and has produced inventions capable of altering the economic structure of vast industries. A case in point is the hydrogenation of oil by a German process, in which a gallon of crude oil is made to produce practically a gallon of gasoline, through the addition of hydrogen atoms. Usual methods now in use produce about half a gallon of gasoline from one gallon of oil. Here’s an instance where factories may be built and men employed to carry out this new manufacturing process.

Over-production is, of course, the charge currently hurled against the Machine. That the world has at present a surplus stock of goods, from wheat to steel, is admitted. But the difficulty lies in the fact that the machine has given man leisure which he doesn’t know how to dispose of. Not being able to employ his leisure to advantage, he goes on working at top speed, and his machines, which are after all under his control, are charged with over-production.

To remedy this, labor leaders have proposed a six-hour working day. In six hours the factory workman produces more goods, with the aid of his machine, than his fellow workman a hundred years ago could produce in a week.

The intricate construction of our modern industrial fabric can best be understood if one traces the uses to which a raw product is put, and observes the influence of machines in creating wealth from it. Machines, after all, have little to do with the overproduction of basic commodities such as wheat, which, although harvested largely by machines in this country, can trace its overproduction to countries such as Russia where the mechanical age has hardly begun.

Take cotton as an example. Formerly it was used almost exclusively as a fabric for clothing. Today more cotton is used in the manufacture of automobile tires than in the making of men’s shirts. Can a grower of cotton, then, declaim against the machine age, which furnishes him with an outlet for his product which, if it did not exist, would force him to accept ruinous prices?

Civilization, unquestionably, has adjustments to make before it is entirely in tune with the age. But with inventive young Americans turning out new devices every day, creating new industries and outmoding old ones, it would seem safe to predict that both civilization and the machine will survive, and that it will be outdated conceptions of how industry should be run that will pass into the discard.

  1. Kosher Ham says: November 8, 201010:31 am

    No, they’re just doomed by the democrats.

  2. Toronto says: November 8, 201011:26 am

    Is that how you spell “Chinese” in your language?

  3. Toronto says: November 8, 201011:36 am

    I actually knew someone who’d worked as a “chalker” at a stock exchange, then later a filer on the end of the pneumatic tubes the trades would be posted through. She retired from the Toronto Stock Exchange in about 1997, never having been put out of work due to mechanization. (I think her last job there was tracking server and desktop software licenses.)

  4. JMyint says: November 8, 20101:57 pm

    Interesting every big job loss in the last 110 years has happened while a republican president was in office (including this most recent one).

    Where I am now working every person has their own laptop PC. Most of these people exchange over a gigabyte of information a day with their colleagues. Every person also has a smart phone to keep in constant contact and to get emails and text documents. Being able to clearly remember the pre-PC pre-cell phone days I am still amazed be the amount of work a single person is able to do today. I venture an estimate that it is roughly six times more work than was possible in the 1970s. I can open a spread sheet, find a serial number in seconds, and then have a history of every thing that was ever reported about that device. As little as 25 years ago that sometimes meant hours of searching paper files.

    By the way, all of our laptops, PC accessories, and smart phones are made in China.

  5. Firebrand38 says: November 8, 20102:47 pm

    JMyint: “Interesting every big job loss in the last 110 years has happened while a republican president was in office”

    I’d like to see the data for that. But until then, I don’t know about 110 years but here is a graphic and data since 1945…

  6. DouglasUrantia says: November 8, 20104:11 pm

    All I know is that the standard of living in the US is dropping faster than a fall rock. People used to buy new quality clothes often, eat in nice restaurants, take vacations, have a savings account with real interest, buy mostly US made goods, ……………alas this is generally gone and probably gone forever. US…welcome to a new kind of life or whatever one would call it.

    Today I cross the border into Mexico for my dental work, buy foreign made products and earn less than 1% on my savings account. Meanwhile costs of everything increase.

    The American Dream of a near endless realm of “the good life” is dead.

  7. hwertz says: November 8, 20104:56 pm

    “Interesting every big job loss in the last 110 years has happened while a republican president was in office (including this most recent one). ”
    Not really. First, I really don’t think the prez alone has enough power to single-handedly tank an economy, as much as I”d like to blame this all on Bush. But secondly, I’ve read there’s a good 3-5 year lag between large-scale economic policies being implemented and the effect showing up to “the little guy”, which makes the whole “what party to blame” thing much muddier. Thirdly, frankly neither of the big 2 parties has reasonable economic policies.

    “All I know is that the standard of living in the US is dropping faster than a fall rock.”
    Sucks don’t it? A year or so back, I was grousing “Well, if they’re switching us to have to wear these specific shirts they’d better pay for them because I’m not.” (They did). My dad commented how he barely got paid anything at his job in the late 1960s and he had to buy his own stuff. Throw it in the inflation calculator, “Yeah, Dad, adjusting for inflation you were making over double per hour what I’m making now.” Him: “…Oh.”

  8. Firebrand38 says: November 8, 20107:48 pm

    DouglasUrantia: All I know is that the standard of living in the US is dropping faster than a fall[ing] rock

    Prove it.

  9. JMyint says: November 8, 20108:17 pm

    There is a more easily understood chart here:…

    The 1920s we had three republican president in a row and a republican controlled house. During Hoover the economy really tanked and his campaign slogan was two chickens in every pot. Though there was a rise in unemployment after WW2 due in part to the sudden release of millions of men into the job market and the retooling of industry. By 1959 unemployment was on the rise again. Unemployment Peaked again in 1976 under Ford, remember he succeeded Nixon. Then they hit over then 10% under Regan in a plan to halt inflation. It was the first Gulf War and a small increase in taxes that actually enabled the economic good times of the 1990s. So I give the first President Bush marks for doing the right thing even though it cost him the presidency.

  10. DouglasUrantia says: November 8, 20108:24 pm


    The main indicator of this is the cost of housing. In 1920 the cost of housing was approx. 11% of total income… it’s over 24% of total household income and in many cases it’s 32%.…

  11. Toronto says: November 8, 20108:41 pm

    JM: Is there a simple explanation of the “U6” and “U7” rates for a non-American?

    DouglasU: Part of that is that people want a lot more in a house these days than they used to. And the two-job family raised expectations a lot higher than it raised real income.

  12. DouglasUrantia says: November 8, 20108:53 pm

    Toronto: Therefore, there is less money to spend on the items I mention above. People live in nicer apartments and houses while they drive older cars longer, wear cheap clothes, eat frugally, forgo vacations, worry about ever retiring in comfort, children have huge loans for college and pay more for health insurance, etc. ad infinitum. The general standard of living in the US is well below what it was 60 years ago when I was a kid.

    BTW, the SOL in Asia is well above what it was 60 years ago and the West is paying dearly for this. The US is a wasteland of shuttered factories and people out of work and you know where these jobs went.

  13. DouglasUrantia says: November 8, 20109:15 pm

    A hundred years ago housing was provided at slightly above cost…..profits were reasonable. Today housing is a gold mine for banks and landlords. The idea of providing housing used to be a service to the community, today it’s all about making huge profits. The fact of millions of mortgages in the US going south is proof of this…plus other factors. The equitable balance between income and outgo for living is totally out of whack in the US and Europe. It will be many decades before it comes into equilibrium again.

  14. Firebrand38 says: November 8, 20109:25 pm

    DouglasUrantia: How are you measuring standard of living? I hate to break it to you but the facts don’t support your reminisces of the 1950’s. See here……

    Median household income (an indicator of standard of living) adjusted for inflation was $42,936 in 1975. In 2009 (again adjusted for inflation) the median household income was $49,777. The previous year it was $50,112. That’s not falling like a rock of any kind.

    It’s more likely a case that there are more things to spend your money on.

  15. DouglasUrantia says: November 8, 201011:38 pm

    Firebrand38, …we can go back and forth all day but my links and their attendant stats disagree with yours. I’ll leave it at that.

  16. eudaimonean says: November 8, 201011:41 pm

    Firebrand: I believe that Douglas’ problem is that he perceives the US Standard of Living in contrast to the SOL in other nations, particularly those sneaky Asians. This is not surprising, as this is a well known cognitive bias in human thinking – we’re far better at perceiving relative values than absolute values. If I once made more than my neighbors, and this year I got a 20% raise while all my neighbors had their salaries quadruple, I would suddenly feel poorer because my relative decline relative to my neighbors is more keenly felt than my absolute gains in wealth.

    So while the SOL in the US has unquestionably risen when measured against every absolute metric, from access to medicine, to educational attainment, to cost per calorie, it’s also true that we’re not quite as far ahead as everyone else as we used to be, due to globalization. 60 years ago the average American was 30+ times as wealthy as the average Chinese. Today the average American is only 10 times as wealthy as the average Chinese. (Maybe less, if you adjust for PPP). Globalization and mechanization may make us all wealthier, but it makes some countries wealthier faster than others.

    The gap is only going to narrow, and this will cause some people in developed distress as they perceive their relative decline. But honestly, the “relative” decline of the US and other developed is both (1) inevitable [barring American willingness to embark on a global campaign of colonial conquest], and (2) a good thing, simply because right now a tiny proportion of the world population has a huge share of wealth and the huddled masses in the third world live in crushing poverty. If you want China to always have a smaller economy than the US, that means you want the average Chinese worker to be under 1/4 as wealthy as the average American, ie, to live below the poverty line. Then there are the huge populations of Afirca, India, etc., all of which will have economies larger than the US as soon as each of their individual people attains even a fraction of the wealth of an average American.

    I hope that the US can learn cue from post-war post-colonial UK and acknowledge that our isn’t sustainable in the long term, economically or morally. We’ll just have to focus on continuing to grow our own economy, on making absolute gains, and making sure that all Americans feel the benefits of those absolute gains, while trying not to stress too much about relative decline.

    Let me clarify: while “relative” American decline is inevitable and a good thing, “absolute” American decline is not inevitable and would be a terrible thing. Given prudent management our economy can and should continue to grow, year after year, even in a highly globalized and mechanized future.

  17. Charlie says: November 9, 20108:23 am

    It’s not really that the American SOL is going down so much as that all of the improvements are happening on top. I think the really insane statistics have to do with income distribution. While I think that the Dems have a ton of issues, it’s pretty clear who the party of the super rich is in this country.

    From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.

    These are the same ultra-rich who whine that that their taxes are too high.…

  18. Toronto says: November 9, 20109:44 am

    Charlie – and yet the proposed state income tax in Washington was voted down last week. Seems 65% of the voting public makes over $200,000 per person or something.

    I find that hard to believe.

  19. hwertz says: November 9, 201011:06 am

    @eudaimonean, the trouble I see right now with the analysis that “Today the average American is only 10 times as wealthy as the average Chinese. (Maybe less, if you adjust for PPP).” is the cost of housing + food. Most houses and apartments here would probably be the envy of a lot of Chinese citizens, but there’s no choice of getting a more austere but cheaper apartment or house in most of the country. It’s a nice place or the streets. I know plenty of people that, a few years ago they had maybe $20 a month in disposable income; now they have $0. And there’s no cheaper apartments to move to to save costs, and they already buy the inexpensive foods. There’s nothing else to cut, they don’t have cable TV, satellite, and in one case no cell phone (in other cases it’s on a family plan and they aren’t paying for it.) Definite decline in standards for people like that, they can’t even scrape together the cash to grill brats a few times during the summer any more.

  20. John Savard says: November 9, 20101:28 pm

    Median household income is higher now than it was in 1975. That’s interesting, but I don’t think that people in the United States are complaining because the gap between them and the Chinese is smaller than it used to be. Americans aren’t really familiar with what life is like in China for day-to-day comparisons with them to affect their perceptions to any great degree.

    In the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual for a working-class American man to pay off his mortgage while his wife was staying at home looking after their children. Today, many families have to have both partners working, and at the same time, many men are out of work. In the 1950s, you had to graduate from high school to get a steady job; now, even college is no guarantee.

    And if it happens that today people with jobs have fancier toys than people had then… or it happens that people now have to own a bigger house than someone then in order to live in an area where there are decent public schools to which to send their children… that is a detail. Because what is most important to people isn’t things like how fancy their houses and cars are; while that has improved, the bar for the most important measure of success – is a man earning enough to start a family – is much higher than it used to be.

  21. Kosher Ham says: November 9, 20102:08 pm

    I should never mentioned about democrats; I had no idea this would fire off such a debate!
    As for me I can only speak as a person who has been in the defense/aerospace sector for years and there is a definite boom and bust cycle which depends on who is in congress and especially the White House.

  22. Toronto says: November 9, 20109:46 pm

    Kosher: Sure, you prop up the manned bomber industry, and next thing you know, Kennedy’s railing on about the Missile Gap.


  23. Firebrand38 says: November 9, 201011:41 pm

    Toronto: The non-existent “Missile Gap” I’ll have you remember.

  24. Toronto says: November 10, 201011:05 am

    FB: In politics, the illusion is the reality.

  25. Kosher Ham says: November 10, 201011:21 am

    It’s ironic that we have never used an ICBM in combat, whereas the manned and more recently unmanned bombers can be configured for a variety of additional missions. The only use for ICBM’s are to launch spacecraft. Kennedy was also a Navy man.

    You are right about the illusion, for it is much like that of a poker game.

  26. Firebrand38 says: November 10, 201011:45 am

    Toronto: For sure. Kennedy did win in 1960 after all by campaigning on the “missile gap” that “happened” during the Eisenhower Administration; Ike couldn’t refute it without compromising the CIA U-2 overflights of the Soviet Union.

  27. Andrew L. Ayers says: November 10, 201012:39 pm

    “It’s ironic that we have never used an ICBM in combat” – Kosher Ham

    I don’t think its irony, I think its likely that people have thought this out as part of the MAD doctrine: Any firing of an unannounced ICBM is likely to be seen by other countries as a launch of a nuclear-weapon carrying missle.

    Since under the MAD doctrine you had better know who is doing what and when with what; well, let’s just say if a country (particularly any of the big players) launched a conventionally “tipped” ICBM at another nation, the likelyhood of a global nuclear war becomes more likely the longer that missle is in the air. Also consider independently targetable MIRVs in the equation (so despite where it launched from and its trajectory, etc – you really don’t know where/what is going to land).

    Just thinking about it gives me the heeby-jeebies…as it should to anybody.

  28. Toronto says: November 10, 20103:04 pm

    AA: The only winning move is not to play.

    (We can learn so much from Matthew Broderick movies.)

  29. Christoph says: November 10, 20103:37 pm

    Wow, the trolls are out today.

    Back to the modern mechanix,

    good thing the “machine” age men of steel didn’t wipe us out. Now that atomic mutant monsters of the atomic age have also failed perhaps artificial intelligences of the computer age can have a go at it.

  30. Jayessell says: November 11, 20104:50 am


    Would that be Aliens, AI, nanobots, or some combination there of?

    (Did not like the recent Phill Plait / Bad Universe episode.)

    [Mini Beserkers riding across space in [email protected] dice.]

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