Will You Lose Your Job Because of A New Machine? (Mar, 1931)

Will You Lose Your Job Because of A New Machine?


AN ENGLISH watchmaker’s apprentice named John Kay, in 1738, invented a flying shuttle for weaving cotton. This was the first modern labor-saving device and with its aid, one man could do the work of two.

To the amazement of the young inventor, a roar of protest rose from the English weavers when it was introduced. Thirty years later, Kay aided in the development of a second labor-saving device, the spinning jenny. When this was installed in the English cotton factories, riots broke out.

An American manufacturer named Lloyd Raymond Smith, president of the A. 0. Smith Corporation put into operation at Milwaukee, Wis., in 1920, an automatic plant for making automobile frames. His monstrous machinery turns out steel automobile frames at the rate of 10,000 per day—one every eight seconds of the day and night. ‘ Two hundred men do the work of 2,000. Only fifty of them actually touch the frames. Without doubt, the Smith plant is the most complete instance of the use of labor-saving methods to be found in the world.

Almost 200 years have passed since Kay’s flying shuttle infuriated the English weavers. During those two centuries the attitude of thousands of men and women toward labor-saving devices has not changed.

Time and again, the Smith plant is cited as a horrible example by those who believe that machines throw men out of work. Eighteen hundred men displaced by machinery in this one enterprise. Only 200 mechanics left at work while a staff • of more than 600 engineers try to make machinery even more nearly automatic so that more jobs can be taken from more men!

ON THE face of it this looks like a final argument against the machine and justifies you in branding it as a man eater. But the fact is not a single man has lost his job in the Smith plant because of the new automatic machinery. On the contrary it has given work to many more men.

Eager to know if these statements given out as facts were really true I put the problem up to the A. 0. Smith Company. An official of the company told me they are true and then gave me this explanation: “The automatic frame plant was put into operation at a time when there was a large increase in the demand for frames. We, therefore, kept all of the men in the old ‘hand’ plant and employed new men for the automatic plant. We still operate the old plant for the ‘small runs,’ and use the automatic plant for the large quantity production runs.”

That’s part of the story. The rest, still more surprising, shows how even more men were put to work. Research by the same staff of 600 engineers that seemed bent on kicking men out of jobs led to a new electric arc welding process which, applied to couplings for joints in oil well pipes, has supplied jobs, directly and indirectly, for more than 5,000 men! In short, the Smith research gang robbed not one man of work but literally put thousands of new ones on the pay roll.

Today, the new Smith pipe plants turn out thirty-two miles of pipe, ranging from four to twenty-four inches in diameter, every day in the week. In two months, last spring, orders came in for 4,000 miles of pipe in the laying of which an army of men is still employed.

BECAUSE of the undreamed-of low prices made possible by labor-saving machinery and mass production, gas now is piped 1,250 miles from Texas to Chicago; from Amarillo, Tex., to Denver, Col., 375 miles; from the Monroe field of Louisiana to St. Louis, Mo., 431 miles; from Kettleman Hills, Calif., to San Francisco, 190 miles (P. S. M., Aug. ’30, p. 23).

All of this seemed like a wild fairy tale and I again appealed to the Smith Company official for an explanation.

“That’s right,” he said. “When the pipe plant was ready for operation, additional men were employed. Therefore, we have a great many more employees on our pay roll today than before the automatic frame plant was started and before we began the manufacture of pipe.”

The Smith plant is only one of many in which labor-saving devices have made jobs, increased the pay roll, and put no man out of work. For instance, here are examples, not hand-picked but chosen at random, and anyone so inclined can add to the list without the least trouble: Until a few years ago, all packing in a New York food factory was done by hand. Then came a “stacker” that did the packing mechanically, and with its installation more than 1,000 men lost their jobs. But the new packing method so speeded up distribution that all of the old men were taken back and put to work on finishing and labeling.

A New England screw factory installed new automatic screw makers, a number of which could be cared for by one man. Out of 600 men previously employed, 200 were dropped from the pay roll. But the new machines increased production, an official of the company told me, lowered prices, and so stimulated the demand that every one of the old employees had to be taken back to pack, count, and weigh.

In the case of the Smith plant, machines made new jobs. The other labor-saving devices were responsible, first, for the loss of old jobs, and second, for the creation of new ones so that the number of employees remained the same or was increased.

TODAY millions of men, able, anxious to work, are out of jobs. They see a machine doing the work of a hundred, a thousand men, and they blame it for their idleness and suffering. But all over the world men are out of work; they are idle and hungry in the countries where the machine is not developed, where handwork is still the main source of production.

These facts must mean something, and those who claim to know, who have made a study of the ups and downs of trade, say the millions are jobless today because of economic conditions with which the machine has nothing to do. These wise ones blame over-production of crude products like coffee, sugar, etc.

Still others will always blame the machine as being the thing handiest to kick. Am I wrong then when I pat the machine on its shining back and cite instances to show that it makes jobs instead of ending them? If you think so, imagine trying to meet the demands of Chicago, New York, London, Paris with handmade, hand-packed, hand-transported produce! Could it be done? Could civilization, as you know it today, carry on without the machine? Where then are you going to set a limit and say up to this point the machine is good and beyond it it’s bad?

To banish labor-saving devices would deal a death blow to all machinery. For the same type of mind, the same kind of research, that creates labor-saving machines also produce the thousand-and-one devices that do not save labor and that have become indispensable to our civilization.

Take, just as one example, the late Elmer A. Sperry. Back in 1888, he invented the first electric chain mining machine, a labor-saving device if ever there was one. But since then he also has given us the gyro-compass and the airplane and ship stabilizer, now absolute necessities to navigation and aviation.

THROTTLING invention and research, suppose it were possible, would be one of the worst calamities that could befall mankind. Picture, for a moment, a world without electric light, without automobiles, airplanes, steam engines, tractors, telephones, telegraph, radio, moving pictures, cranes, elevators, typewriters, the X-ray, and modern surgical instruments, to name but a few. These and countless other inventions and mechanical developments have contributed to the comfort, happiness, and health of the human race. Also, don’t forget they have given jobs to millions of workers.

The automobile itself—especially the truck—is a labor-saving device. It has done away with untold drudgery by men and horses. When its use first became widespread, numbers of men, such as blacksmiths, wagoners, wheelwrights, saddlemakers, lost their jobs. But since then, it has given work to a huge army of men. The National Industrial Conference Board has no axe to grind. It wants tacts, truth, and maintains a bureau of research for the purpose of finding out what’s what in industry. Dr. Magnus W. Alexander is president of this Board, which probably knows more about what’s going on in the factories and distributing plants of the world than any other existing organization.

“IS IT true,” I asked Dr. Alexander, “that machines put men out of jobs and by so doing take the food out of their mouths?”

His reply was an emphatic “No.” The idea that improved machines mean fewer jobs, he told me, has been proved false by an extensive survey made by his organization.

Naturally, he said, the use of labor-saving machinery means fewer men for the production of a given quantity of goods. But labor-saving machinery has built up and expanded the machine-building industries as well as lowering production costs. The net result is not only lower prices, but also higher wages.

ALSO, he explained, lower prices lead to A greater demand. For example, when automobiles were made so cheaply that you and I and thousands of others could afford to buy them, we got them. As a result, the men who were thrown out by labor-saving machinery were rehired, often along with many others, in an effort to make the output meet the demand.

Few industries are self-supporting. More automobiles mean more rubber, more upholstery fabrics, more glass, more steel, and more of other raw materials and articles. This increase all down the line makes jobs for many additional men. Meanwhile, higher wages increase the national purchasing power. That means more business, more work—an endless chain.

Also this greater volume of goods must be distributed. Thus, again thousands of new jobs are created. In the case of articles like the automobile, thousands of men are needed for servicing and other tasks. It is like the spread of ripples on water when a stone is thrown into it.

Largely because of the use of labor-saving-machinery, Dr. Alexander went on to explain, wages have more than doubled since 1914, the last normal pre-war year. In the same period, the purchasing power of wages has gone up forty percent. Meanwhile, the demand for manufactured goods at lower prices has so increased that twenty-seven percent of the theoretically released workmen were put back at work and an additional 1,500,000 new men were employed.

Finally, he insisted, the research and invention that led to labor-saving methods often has resulted in the creation of entirely new products or the discovery of new uses for existing articles, the manufacture of which provides jobs for many men.

Official figures show that men thrown out of work by labor-saving devices in one industry are absorbed by others. The introduction of new machinery may change a man’s work but does not put him in the bread line, according to a table and chart recently compiled by the U. S. Department of Commerce.

The figures cover these labor shifts between 1920 and 1927 in agriculture, mining, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, the U. S. Government service, professional, domestic, and personal service.

They show an increase of 817,000 in the total of men and women employed. There were 2,800,000 more holding jobs in transportation, distribution, professional, and personal service, and about 2,000,000 less in agriculture, mining, manufacture and Government service.

These figures, of course, do not give any detail concerning this constant shifting and absorption process. Take, for example, the automobile industry. Every auto factory and every accessory plant had to depend on men trained and let out by other industries. In 1930, 4,700,459 men worked in automobile factories and plants supplying them with raw materials and other products, such as rubber, frames, glass, upholstery fabrics, malleable iron, steel, and the like. The total also includes those employed in the production of gasoline, in servicing, filling stations, and garages.

BECAUSE it has thrown a number of so-called legitimate actors out of work the moving picture industry has been cited as an example of machinery destroying jobs. As a matter of fact, picture making has supplied a huge number of men and women with work. In 1920, 200,000 men were kept busy in the industry. By 1927, that number had grown to 350,000. As a result of sound pictures from 18,000 to 25,000 more, it is estimated, have been given jobs in the past three years. Many musicians who lost their jobs through the talkies, have been given work with the radio, which also has created new jobs for hundreds of technical men.

The development of the modern hotel, apartment house, office building, and restaurant, has provided jobs for an army of men. They permanently employ engineers, steam fitters, boiler men, electricians, machinists, firemen, carpenters, painters, elevator operators and service men. In 1927, 2,025,000 men had jobs of this kind. At present, it is estimated, their number is 2,225,000.

No amount of figures, however, can wipe out the fact that the United States, even in periods of greatest prosperity, suffers from unemployment. The reason for this, in the words of one economist, is that “technical knowledge and mechanical progress are much further advanced than is our understanding of political and social problems.” In other words, we do not know how to adjust ourselves to the machine age. Men, thrown out of work by new machines, join the unemployed class until the growing industry again gives them jobs. The trouble is mechanical progress is faster than absorption. A striking instance occurred a few years ago, when the Ford Motor Company spent one hundred million dollars to change its chief product from Model T to Model A. More than half of all production machinery was scrapped, and 60,000 men were laid off. These men, and probably more, have since been taken back, but meanwhile there was a great deal of suffering.

WHAT is the remedy? In the old days, the workmen took matters into their own hands and sought redress by physical violence.

Unemployment insurance, private and Governmental, has been suggested. The other day, former Governor Alfred E. Smith, of New York, urged the adoption of a system of public employment agencies in the various states, cooperating with a federal exchange. Such a plan would only be possible if Governmental machinery for the gathering of unemployment statistics first were created. A bill which is now pending in Congress provides for the establishment of such a special census.

Among the first private concerns to write unemployment insurance for its men is the General Electric Company, which is trying out an experimental program calling for premiums of one percent of wages to be paid by the employees while working. Payments consist of fifty percent of wages to those entirely unemployed and of a smaller amount sufficient to make up fifty percent of normal pay to those retained on less than half time.

Organized labor’s remedy, according to Frank Morrison, secretary of the American Federation of Labor, is a drastic reduction of the work day and work week and increased wages that will expand labor’s purchasing power and make possible a greater diffusion of wealth.

Whatever the cure, it will not be found in doing away with labor-saving devices. Scrapping all machinery is out of the question. To return to the primitive methods that prevailed before Watt’s condenser made the steam engine practicable is unthinkable. Can you discard electric lights and put tallow candles and oil lamps back in your homes?

Inventive genius can no more help inventing than a duck can help swimming. The engineer’s desire to develop and apply invention to a point where it will serve mankind is a wholly normal urge that can no more be checked than the child’s instinctive desire to know.

No benefit can be derived from halting progress. The present problem, as a famous economist puts it, is the result of “mankind’s spiritual development failing to keep pace with the rapidly developing elements of science and technology.”

This means that unemployment is not an engineering problem but one that must be solved by the economist, the sociologist, and the expert in the science of government. It is their duty to devise methods whereby progress may continue unchecked until all have an opportunity to enjoy a safer, fuller, and happier life.

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.