Skip to main content

Chapter 6 - The Modern Machine Era

From the first crude machines that inaugurated the industrial revolution to the "one-billion wild horses" that represent the accumulated horse-power of today is a far cry. The mechanical marvels of the eighteenth century, the spinning jenny of Hargraves with its eight spindles, the spinning mule of Crompton, the power loom of Arkwright, the 50-horsepower engines of Watt and Bolton, the crude locomotive of Stephenson, the clumsy steamboats of Symington and Fulton, would evoke a smile if placed beside the power-monsters that now send their throbbing energy pulsing from gigantic power-plants to our industrial centers, and fill the skies, the seas and the submarine depths with their rush and clamor. But against a background of handicraft and peasant production these primitive beginnings of modern machine production appeared marvelous enough. The progress since has not been uniform in tempo. Every war period and every period of emigrant pioneering on an extensive scale has temporarily reduced the army of the unemployed and forced the masters to raise wages by lessening the competition for the jobs. For the worker sells his labor-power in the same manner that the capitalist sells the product of labor-power—as a commodity. The supply, if uncontrolled by organization of the workers, regulates the price of labor-power—the wages. It is wars, emigration and "prosperity peaks" that create an increased demand for machinery to take the place of the manual worker. The withdrawal of men from the labor-power market in capitalist wars for markets and new fields of exploitation relieves the pressure of want and impending starvation from the remaining workers and renders them temporarily more independent in their demands for a greater share in the money-form of the commodities which they produce. Machines and automatic processes are then introduced to take the place of manual workers and again build up the army of unemployed. The supply of available labor power is thus increased and competition for the jobs again reduces the workers to docility. Thus, the Napoleonic Wars, lasting nearly twenty years from 1796 to 1815 were marked by an immense advance in technology. The period of emigration and colonization that followed the demobilisation of the armies, acted as a similar stimulation to invention. And through the crises and panics that followed as a result of each successive wave of increased production, the machine marched on to its final triumph when the recent World War accelerated the progress of mechanization until the involvement of the entire world in one vast industrial organism precipitated the panic of 1929-33. And now we shall see what this vast accumulation of surplus value in the form of machines, technological wonders, credits, debts, investments and unsalable commodities, with its consequent unemployment, doles and bread-lines consists of at this revolutionary apex of the machine age. Not very long ago, Dr. Chas. A. Prosser of Dunwoodie Institute, Minneapolis, who had been chairman of President Hoover's National Unemployment Committee, said:

Prosperity with industry humming will with certainty encourage new inventions to displace continually more and more workers. That is the reason that prosperity will not of itself solve the unemployment problem.
In 1899, 4,713,000 workers turned out products to the value of $11,500,000,000. In 1929, 8,550,000 workers made products valued at $68,500,000,000. That is, less than twice as many workers produced six times the value in products. If there had been the same value production per worker in 1929 as in 1899, it would have taken 20,000,000 more workers to turn out these products and merchandise.

The above figures refer to the manufacturing industries alone. In transportation, mining and agriculture the same rate of displacement of manual labor by machines and new processes has taken place. The approximately 250,000 miles of railroads in the United States employed 2,075,886 people in 1920. In 1931 the total number of employes had dwindled to 1,282,825. In 1933 a further decrease was recorded and the railroads now employ slightly less than a million. A large number of these could be dispensed with if effective reorganization of the working forces took place. Wayne W. Parrish estimates that the entire transportation industry could be carried on with not over 600,000 employes.

The principal decrease in the number of necessary workers in transportation is due to lengthening of division points, double-headers, heavier tractors hauling longer trains, larger and more durable freight cars made of steel instead of wood and the electrification of many roads. The average capacity of freight cars in 1903 was 29.4 tons; in 1910, 35.9 tons; in 1915, 39.7 tons; in 1920, 42.4 tons; in 1925, 44.8 tons, and in 1931, 47 tons. And the tendency toward displacement of men in the industry is likely to continue indefinitely.

The coal mining industry has been permanently affected by the introduction of new fuels such as petroleum and gas, the development of hydro-electric plants and the use of more economical fuel consumers. The state of the industry is revealed in a very able report, an epitome of which was published in the New Republic for August 30, 1933, by Dr. Alexander Sachs of the Division of Research and Planning of the NRA. He reported that the total displacement of coal by other fuels and by new methods of economy in fuel consumption, amounted to 33 per cent reduction in all industrial and railroad uses since the World War. Had it not been for this saving in fuel efficiency according to Dr. Sachs American business would have used 210 million more tons of coal in 1929 than it did. Dr. Sachs says further:

The effect of disorganization has been particularly severe upon employment. In 1923 the industry employed 704,793 wage earners, while in 1931 the figure was 450,213. In 1932 the total employment was 379,565. The total reduction since the peak year, 1923, has amounted to about 45 per cent. But even that does not represent adequately the loss of employment. It is man-hours and man-days that tell the story. Not only has the number employed been drastically reduced, but the working time has also been curtailed. For a period of thirty-two years ending in 1921, bituminous mines worked on an average of 213 days a year. In no year during that period did the mines as a whole average as much as 250 days. Since 1921, the situation has become much worse, the nine-year period, 1922 to 1930, showing an average working time of 189 days. In 1931, the working time was 160 days, and in 1932, 145 days.

Mine power is now generally electrified. The mine mule has been largely displaced by the electric locomotive. The proportion of coal undercut by machine has increased from 56 per cent in 1918 to 80 per cent in 1932. The first machines to replace hand-shovelers were introduced in 1922. In 1932 a total of 1,880,000 tons were loaded by machines. In 1929 this had increased in the bituminous mines to 47,500,000 tons. Mechanical loading has been introduced chiefly in the union fields where wages were highest in order to save labor costs. In strip mining the power shovel has stimulated production from 1,300,000 tons in 1914 to over 20,000,000 tons in 1932. The increased exploitation of the worker by the machine process is revealed by the fact that the production per worker has risen from 3.8 tons in 1918 to 5.4 tons in 1932, an increase of 42 per cent since the World War. Wages have, on the contrary, declined. Newell G. Alford estimates that in the last ten years the number of men displaced by mechanical leading alone was about 50,000. Most of this permanent disappearance of jobs has occurred in the comparatively high-wage fields of the Middle West and the Rocky Mountains.

In the agricultural industry the pioneer American farmer has found it increasingly difficult to survive in competition with newer methods and machines. Up to 1855, the year that James Oliver patented his Oliver Chilled Plow, the American and European farmer had improved but little upon the ancient Roman method of spading the soil, an operation that required 96 man-hours to till one acre. The new plow greatly increased agricultural efficiency. Then came the revolution in tools and the 20-horse hitch with six 14-inch bottoms, which plowed from 12 to 15 acres per day. Today we have on the large farms of the west the tractor-drawn, 60-disc or duckfoot plow which reduces the man-hours per acre to the decimal fraction of an hour, .088, or about five minutes to the acre. Our new rate of tilling the soil is more than 1000 times that of the primitive farmer. The change is best illustrated by comparative figures showing the number of men that would be required under the different methods to till the soil for the production of the 1928-29 yield of wheat in the United States. Here are the figures:

By the ancient method of spading...........6,000,000 men
With ox-drawn plows........................1,000,000  "
With Oliver single-bottom plow of 1855.......500,000  "
With modern 60-disc tractor plow...............4,000  "

To return again to manufacturing, we may consider the steel industry. One great corporation, the U. S. Steel Corporation, practicably dominates this industry. It is the largest single employer of labor in the world. In 1900, one man working seven full days of ten hours each, or seventy hours, produced one ton of steel. By 1929, with improved technology, one man produced a ton of steel in thirteen hours. In 1900 the output of steel in the United States was 11,000,000 tons, requiring 600,000,000 man-hours of labor. In 1929 the production had increased to 58,000,000 tons, but the man-hours required had increased to only 770,000,000. In other words, while total production of steel was increasing 427 per cent, the labor-time required to produce it increased only 22 per cent. Production of steel in 1933 is far below these figures because of the depression, and, therefore, not comparable, but it is known that the most advanced production methods have not yet permeated the industry and the trend is inevitable toward further displacement of men. This trend is seen in the citation of the fact that in 1929, the year of peak production in steel and iron, the number of workers were approximately the same as in 1887, although the output of steel had increased to 9.3 times that of 1887.

Nor do new industries absorb the displaced workers. The newest large-scale industry is automobile manufacturing. Mass production in this industry is only twelve years old. The maximum production was reached in 1925-6 with 8,000,000 cars. But in 1925 it employed 47,000 fewer men than in 1924, and in 1926 it operated with 69,000 fewer than in 1925. In 1909 it required 303 man-hours to make one car; in 1929 the time had been reduced to 92 man-hours and in 1932 and 1933 the time is still less.

The curve of technological development is accelerating in all fields of productive industry. To review even the most recent advance would require volumes. We can only summarize in the briefest way a few of the outstanding achievements in invention that make up the trend toward increased production with fewer workers:

An ensilage harvesting machine cuts cornstalks in the field and delivers them to the silo without the handling of the stalks by a single human worker.

An automatic machine produces 73,000 electric light bulbs every 24 hours, displacing 2,000 hand operators for each machine installed.

A machine digger which operates with 37 laborers and does the work formerly requiring 7,000 pick and shovel men.

A tabulating machine does the work of 100 skilled actuaries.

The U. S. Department of Commerce reports that combines in one wheat harvesting area have cut the number of farm laborers required from 50,000 to 20,000.

An airplane driven by Roscoe Turner speeds from New York to Los Angeles on July 1, 1933 in 111/2 hours between midnight and noon at an average speed of 219 miles per hour. It is reported that this record has been beaten in more recent flight.

An Italian aviator, F. Agello, last summer attained a speed of 424 miles per hour in a plane driven by a 2900 horsepower motor making 3200 resolutions per minute.

A brickmaking machine operated by one man turns out 40,000 bricks per hour. The former output was 55 bricks per hour. The increase amounts to 720 times the former production.

In loading pig iron, two men can now do the work formerly done by 128 men.

And so on to infinity. The iron chink in fish-packing; dial phones, automatic cigar-making machines, automatic power stations, automatic stokers, automatic knitting machines, bookkeeping machines, paint sprayers, mechanical cotton-pickers, telephonic typewriters, the electric eye, a sort of mechanical brain of endless applications in industry, and so forth.

Next page: Chapter 7 - The One Way Out—Industrial Unionism