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A Parable of Automation

Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation

by David F. Noble
Knopf, 409 pp., $22.95

Computerized Manufacturing Automation: Employment, Education, and the Workplace

US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment
Government Printing Office, 471 pp., $14.00

Human Resource Implications of Robotics

by H. Allan Hunt, by Timothy L. Hunt
W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 216 pp., $14.00

The machine-tool industry occupies a place of rare importance in the literature of economics. In part that is so because of the things the industry makes. From the machine shops of a nation come the dies that are used to stamp or form nearly every mass-production item, from automobile fenders to soft-drink bottles—as well as the precision-machined goods of the old and new industrial eras, from tank turrets and turbine blades to disk drives for computers. But there is another reason that labor economists, especially those of the left, have concentrated on machine tools: the industry embodies the labor theory of value more fully than any other.

Unionized workers in the auto- and steel-making industries are still the princes of labor, if earnings are the only measure; but theirs is the strength of large numbers, not of great skills. Their ultimate threat is to impede the flow of bodies through the plant gate. But master machinists, through the skills they have developed in years of experience with lathes and cutting tables, possess power independent of their numbers. Employers cannot credibly threaten to bring in a fresh work force, for new hands could not do the job. As other trades have become more and more routine and automated, machinists remained the industrial age’s closest approximation to independent artisans. Although they have never been numerous—there were roughly half a million machinists, broadly defined, in 1980—their fate is disproportionately important to those who study the connection between technological progress and the welfare of the working class.

Before David Noble’s Forces of Production only one other book that I know about underscored the drama and significance of the machine-tool industry. In Player Piano, published in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut described the coming of automation to a factory that closely resembled the General Electric plant in Schenectady where Vonnegut had briefly worked as a publicist. The bright young managers and engineers of Vonnegut’s story, college trained and with clean hands, set about capturing the machinist’s skills on magnetic tape, so as to bring a new age of efficiency to the plant.

They searched for the most accomplished machinist, selected one Rudy Hertz, and attached recording instruments to his lathe. As he worked, the motions he had refined over the years, and from which he made his living, were transferred to the loop of tape. Hence-forth the tape could drive other lathes, as a roll of recorded music could drive a player piano. Long after the transformation was complete and the likes of Rudy Hertz had been reduced to economic and spiritual redundancy, one of the engineers, Paul Proteus, stares at the loop of tape and remembers the time when it was made. Noble includes the passage as an appendix to his book:

Rudy hadn’t understood quite what the recording instruments were all about, but what he had understood, he’d liked: that he, out of thousands of machinists, had been chosen to have his motions immortalized on tape.

And here, now, this little loop in the box before Paul, here was Rudy as Rudy had been to his machine that afternoon—Rudy, the turner-on of power, the setter of speeds, the controller of the cutting tool. This was the essence of Rudy as far as his machine was concerned, as far as the economy was concerned…. The tape was the essence distilled from the small, polite man with the big hands and black fingernails…. Now, by switching in lathes on a master panel and feeding them signals from the tape, Paul could make the essence of Rudy Hertz produce one, ten, a hundred, or a thousand of the shafts.

David Noble’s Forces of Production is an anatomy—more precisely, a pathology—of the real economic transformation that paralleled Vonnegut’s account. Noble, an associate professor of the history of technology at MIT, writes from a Marxist perspective, and the conspiratorial motives of winning the class war that he imputes to his capitalists are the least substantiated parts of his argument, even though they are essential to the point he ultimately wants the book to make. The book’s jacket informs us that Noble has, in addition to a Ph.D., “a certificate in machine-tool fundamentals from the Lowell Institute School,” and he seems to take perverse pride in ostentatiously refusing to explain what the machines he is writing about look like or how they work. By the end of his book, the reader may have developed mental pictures of a ball-end plunge cutter and related items of hardware, but not through any help from Noble.1

But these are mere irritants; despite them, Forces of Production is a prodigious accomplishment. Through the depth of his research and the care of his narration, Noble has produced a detailed, gripping, and convincing work of social history, which adds detail, sinew, and emotion to our understanding of issues that are usually considered only in the abstract.

Noble’s starting point is the machine-tool industry of the late 1940s. Two of its traits were especially significant. One was the control that the machinists, through their indispensable mastery of production skills, exercised over daily operations. Managers might whine, threaten, and cajole in their attempts to set daily quotas, but the machinists had the final word. The other trait was the bitter industrial strife of the postwar years, in which every item in the labor contract, from wage rates to shop-floor control, seemed to be up for renegotiation.

From the managers’ point of view, Noble says, the second characteristic made the first—the machinists’ power—intolerable. Therefore they resolved to remove that power by destroying the skills on which it was based. “The same skills that make production possible…give the workers de facto command of the shop,” Noble writes. “Whether they used that command to increase output…or restrict it was never the main concern of management. The central problem was simply that the power belonged to the work force rather than management.”

Then came the crucial new development: the rise of the postwar defense establishment. Because of military contracting, Noble says, the machine-tool industry was transformed in a way and at a rate that would otherwise have been barely imaginable.

In part, the military exercised its influence merely as a byproduct of its quest for more sophisticated weaponry. To power its most modern aircraft engines or guide its newest missiles, it needed (or at least demanded) parts that were ground to precise tolerances—so much more precise than previous standards that mere men, working at their machines, were thought unable to attain them.2 The military brought something else to the industry: money, in quantities far beyond what the commercial market was willing to risk. The higher standards required engineers to experiment with exotic ways of automating the machine shop, and military contracts financed them as they tried.

Other writers, from Seymour Melman to Lester Thurow, have discussed the impact of military contracting on the private economy, but I know of no one who has explained the process in such precise, clinical detail as Noble does here. The themes that run through his account are illustrated in one of the earliest and most important episodes he describes, the struggle between a businessman named John T. Parsons and the Servomechanisms Lab at MIT.

Even before the newly created Air Force began asking for more precisely machined aircraft parts, there had been attempts to automate certain machining processes. In general, these involved analog methods—a machinist might make a wooden model or template of the item he was to produce, and then use that template as a guide for his cutting tool while shaping the finished metal product. Noble says that these innovations were typically introduced by machinists themselves, who remained in control of the pace and quality of production.

But there had been other early approaches to automation, which reflected a desire for more precise results that digital, rather than analog, control might bring. A roll of player-piano music, in which each punched hole corresponds to exactly one note, is an example of digital control; so was the Jacquard automatic loom, introduced in the early nineteenth century to replace the artisans who had drawn different threads through a loom to produce finely patterned fabrics.

John Parsons, owner of a small business in Michigan that was the nation’s leading producer of helicopter rotor blades, decided during the 1940s to experiment with numerical control of machine tools. (“Numerical control,” abbreviated N/C, became the term for automated systems that were run by digitized control programs, ranging from the earliest punched paper tapes to today’s microcomputers.) As the specifications for military rotor blades grew more stringent, Parsons became increasingly concerned that his standard machining practices, which relied on templates and manual measurements, would not suffice.

In cooperation with the engineers and machinists in his shops, Parsons devised a new scheme for automatically controlling his cutting tools. Working from the blueprints for a rotor blade or other highprecision part, he specified the hundreds of closely spaced points that together would approximate the smooth curve of the contoured surface. He then recorded the location of each point (specified by Cartesian x- and y-coordinates) on a stack of punched cards and fed the cards into an automatic card reader. This, in turn, instructed the cutting tool to move from point to point.

Parsons’s system seemed to be an immediate success. It could produce parts to a tolerance of ±.001 inch, nine times better than the previous standard. The Air Force signed a contract for further development, and Parsons discussed a joint venture with Thomas Watson of IBM. The virtue of Parsons’s system, Noble suggests, was that it grew from an appreciation of the complications and realities of the shop floor:

For all his high-powered salesmanship, [Parsons] was motivated primarily by concrete problems in manufacturing and his sights remained fixed, not on military requirements alone or on technological advance for its own sake, but upon the real, changing, needs of industry.

Parsons enjoyed this initial victory in the late 1940s. From that point on, the irrepressible Parsons pops up in Noble’s story again and again, but his position becomes increasingly pathetic. Though a born tinkerer and promoter, he never made it big with his inventions. The reason, according to Noble, was that his ties to the shop floor placed him on the wrong side of military–industrial history.

The winning side of history was exemplified by Parsons’s chief competitors, the engineers at MIT. During the war, MIT contributed much to the military, and it received much in return. Its entrepreneurial engineers were just learning to look to the government for support. In the development of numerically controlled machine tools, the scientists saw a perfect opportunity for collaboration with the state.

To the military, collaboration with the scientific establishment was essential if the ever-higher performance standards it set in the late Forties and early Fifties were to be met. As its weapons grew more complex, so did the required manufacturing techniques. Instead of machines automatically controlled in three axes of motion, it now was asking for five-axis control.3 The MIT scientists, for their part, were seeking a mission and a sponsor for their “Whirlwind” project, an extremely costly and ambitious computer center. Whirlwind had originally been commissioned by the Office of Naval Research, but by the late Forties naval officials were denouncing it as “grossly over-complicated technically” and “notable for the lavishness of its staff and building,” and were preparing to cancel their contracts.

  1. 1

    The most important and elementary machining concept, which Noble alludes to hundreds of times but unfortunately never explains, is “speeds and feeds.” Speeds are the rates at which the cutting tool is moving—or, in the case of a lathe, the rate at which the work to be cut is rotating against the tool. Feeds are the rates at which the tool makes its cuts across or into the piece of work. His control over “speeds and feeds” and other variables, so as to produce a finished piece to the specified tolerances, is the essence of the machinist’s skill. The Office of Technology Assessment’s book Computerized Manufacturing Automation contains a very useful illustrated primer on machine-tool operations.

  2. 2

    Military technology is not really Noble’s subject in this book, but he implies that the military’s demands for closer and closer tolerances arose from its undisciplined taste for complex technological solutions, even when they made no strictly military sense. For example, he says that aircraft specifications, which required new, automated machining techniques,

    reflected the Air Force preference for fully loaded (with ample electronic gadgetry and armaments) and thus heavy aircraft, on the one hand, and small engines and thus low thrust, on the other. In order to achieve the desired aircraft performance, the weight of the aircraft relative to the engine thrust had to be reduced. Since the Air Force was unwilling to opt for smaller and less embellished aircraft or larger, more powerful engines, it was compelled to try to reduce the weight of the structural members themselves by means of new machining methods.

    It is certainly true that modern “fully loaded” weapons, whose specifications had such a dramatic effect on the machine-tool industry, were often military disasters. But had the American military taken the opposite approach in designing its weapons, it might still have had the same effect on industry. The most austere modern weapons, intended to be more reliable and effective, also place great demands on manufacturers, since the central goal of their design is to reduce weight and increase strength wherever possible.

  3. 3

    This improbable-sounding concept, according to Noble, involves positioning a tool along three axes, and rotating or tilting along two others.

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