Chapters on Machinery and Labor

This Month Hacker News 1


by Animats   2017-08-19
There's a 90-year old book on this, "Chapters on machinery and labor".[1] This analyzes three industries drastically changed by new machinery - printing, glass bottle making, and stone planing.

- Printing was the "good case". Before the Linotype, typesetting was a very slow process, with people picking type slugs from a case one letter at a time. The Linotype had a keyboard and ran as fast as the operator could type. This made shorter-run print jobs and thicker newspapers practical. Printing, and employment in the printing trades increased substantially.

- Glass bottle making was the "production way up, wages down" case. Bottle making by hand glassblowing required a skilled team of about six people working in close coordination, manipulating molten glass and molds. It took years to get good at this. Bottles were expensive. Once an automatic bottle making machine was developed, it took a semi-skilled machine tender to feed the machine and take the bottles away. The skilled trade was destroyed. Bottle cost went down, production went up, and wages went down.

- Stone planing was the "almost everybody gets fired" case. Brick houses used to have stone lintels over doors and windows. These were chiseled flat by people with big hammers, big chisels, and big muscles. Then a machine for planing stone flat was developed. This was much faster and cheaper. But the size of the stone lintel market was determined by the rate of house construction, and cheaper lintels didn't affect that much. So almost all workers lost their jobs.

Those are still the ways automation plays out.