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 and 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.