This section is from the "Economics In Two Volumes: Volume I. Economic Principles" book, by Frank A. Fetter. Also available from Amazon: Economic
§ 1. Progressive control over natural conditions. § 2. Labor-saving invention as a dynamic factor. § 3. The lump of labor notion. § 4. Evils of "the industrial revolution." § 5. Some evils of the introduction of machinery. § 6. Loss to the less efficient workers. § 7. Effect of machinery in different industries. § 8. Beneficial effect of machinery upon wages. § 9. Dependence on abstinence. § 10. Grades of labor and gains from machinery. § 11. Opposing tendencies.
§ 1. Progressive control over natural conditions. Various stages of progress in human history have been recognized. First is the stage of appropriation - the stage of hunting, or of fishing, or of gathering the spontaneous fruits of the fields. Man in this stage is little beyond the animal in his economic methods; he uses some tools to gather what nature chances to bring forth, but he does not guide and direct the natural processes. The limitation to man's powers in this stage are marked. There is excess of supply and waste at one season, scarcity and great suffering at another. With such crude utilization of the bounties of nature, a vast area will support but a small population. When sheep and cattle have been domesticated and where there is a large area for grazing, industry rises to the pastoral stage. While still dependent on nature's bounties for the feeding of his cattle, man is hourly intervening to protect, increase, regulate, and improve the flocks and herds on which depends his supply of food and materials. Famines are more rare, economic welfare is greater, a larger population is nourished on the same area. The agricultural stage begins whenever man tills the soil, plants seeds, and increases by his care the supply of vegetable food. This is a still greater intervention in the course of nature. Man anticipates the future, directs forces, and groups materials to his purpose of getting a regular food-supply. He is thus forced into settled life, at the same time improves in hand-production of commodities, and makes further steps in commerce. Then gradually comes the industrial stage, in which control over nature grows, supplies increase, machinery and motive forces are utilized, and humanity is in the full tide of industrial development. Thus throughout history the economic progress of society has been marked by decreasing dependence on the bounties and chances of nature and by increasing shaping of materials and control of natural forces by man. There are no sharply marked changes, but there is a growth of security, of certainty, and of productivity. With man's increasing power and foresight, the element of chance is reduced.
§ 2. Labor-saving inventions as a dynamic factor. For several centuries, accompanying the advance of the natural sciences, there has been a gradual improvement of mechanical appliances in the practical arts in western Europe and America. The question may be put as regards the simplest improvement of the simplest tools: how do they affect the wages of the workers? The question took a dramatic form when power-using machines were so rapidly introduced in the last half of the eighteenth century in England.
It is by the use of power that the greatest saving of labor can be effected. Machinery is applicable in very different degrees in different processes and industries. In many industries and parts of industries, machines are usable only in a slight measure, indirectly, or not at all. They are of the least assistance in the personal services, and in the immediate work of the thinker, the teacher, the speaker, and the artist. Agriculture presents conditions of difficulty for the use, in the fields, of power other than that of man and of draft animals. Even horse-drawn gang-plows, planters, seeders, mowers, reapers, harvesters, hay-loaders, etc., to be used profitably require a level surface and a pretty large area given to a single crop. Such farm machinery can not be used as well east of the Alleghany Mountains as in the Mississippi Valley, and it is still uneconomical in large portions of the civilized world. The use of traction engines for plowing is increasing slowly. Other machines that can be used at the barn, and can be moved from one farm to another, have a constantly widening use, as threshers, automatic unloading-forks, corn-shellers, feed-cutters, hay-balers, steam and gasoline engines for pumping, wood-sawing, etc. With the aid of these machines the labor required to produce the staple food for one hundred people is a fraction of what it was a hundred years ago.
The use of machinery in land and water transportation (steamships, locomotives, electric power), has affected all other kinds of industries, by changing their locations, increasing the supplies of materials, and widening the markets. Yet the most typical applications of machinery have been in manufacturing, in making form-changes, in the mass-production of standardized products. (See Chapter 31 on large production.) The most striking changes took place in the textile industries. In 1840 a man's work in spinning cotton was 320 times as effective as in 1769, in 1855 it was 700 times. Similar examples are found in the manufacture of shoes, and in all varieties of wood- and iron-work.
§ 3. The lump of labor notion. Of the countless inventions many do not "save labor," but merely add to the comfort of the user, or to the ease of the worker; others enable men to do new things before quite beyond the power of any man or group of men; but many are "labor saving," in the sense that they enable the same labor to get a larger result in the same time, or the same result in less time.
The popular judgment always has been that this reduces the "amount of work" to be done, meaning the opportunities for employment, the number of jobs to be had by workers. The "lump of labor" notion, as it is called, is widely held, especially among workingmen. The notion is that there is exactly so much labor predetermined to be done; therefore, if machines are introduced, there is that much less for men to do. The conclusion easily drawn is that labor-saving machines are the explanation of any existing unemployment; and that they make wages low. Yet few if any would be rash enough to say that the income of the masses would be higher to-day if all tools and machines were abandoned and men worked barehanded. It is recognized that such a course would reduce all alike to want; indeed, that without the aid of labor-saving appliances the present population would be utterly unable to support existence. The objection is rather vaguely felt to the use of too much machinery, and to that kind which has been recently introduced, and to that kind which is used in the objector's own trade. The experience in the rapid introduction of machines in England in the period called "the industrial revolution" (about 1775 to 1825), as well as the experience of workers when a rapid change is made in their own trades, gives an appearance of truth to this view. §4. Evils of "the industrial revolution." It chanced that the extensive introduction of machinery in England, particularly in textile-manufacture, was coincident with the unhappy result of a lengthening of the hours of labor in factories and a lowering of wages. These were, in fact, quite abnormal consequences and have not been seen elsewhere, altho the owners of factories wish to keep their machines employed as many hours as possible. The laboring classes of England were at that time demoralized and depressed by industrial and social influences that had no logical connection with machinery: the very rapid growth of population, due in part to the evil workings of the system of poor relief, excessive taxation to carry on wars, the abnormally rapid growth of cities. In all other countries of Europe and in America, where the introduction of machinery has been more gradual, it has been followed by a shortening of working hours (as eventually it was in England also) and by a rise of wages. Indeed, the experience of England served as a warning to other nations, and by labor organization and factory-regulation much was done to reduce the shock of rapid introduction of machines.