This section is from the "Economics In Two Volumes: Volume I. Economic Principles" book, by Frank A. Fetter. Also available from Amazon: Economic
§ 5. Some evils of the introduction of machinery. Not infrequently it has happened that employers have introduced labor-saving machines at the time of a strike, so that they could turn out the former amount of product with fewer men. The strike gave just the motive needed to overcome the inertia of changing to a more expensive process, one perhaps still of somewhat uncertain advantage. Small wonder that the striking workmen should view the machine as a strike breaker, for literally at the moment it was taking "their job" away from them.
In more normal conditions, when there is no strike, it often may happen that the immediate effect of improved machinery, if suddenly introduced, is to throw some men out of employment. Any sudden change in industry injures men that have become adapted to the work that is affected. This is as true of change brought about by the opening of new trade routes or by scientific discoveries (where machinery does not enter in) as in the case of labor-saving machines. If machines displace labor rapidly, men that can not adjust themselves to the new conditions suffer, and there are always some that can not adjust themselves, always some that suffer. A well-mastered trade, a wage-earning tho intangible possession, may be made suddenly valueless. Men can not quickly change their methods of working or their place of work. It is rarely possible for a man past middle life to shift over into a new trade where his efficiency will be as great and his pay as high as in the old.1 New methods of puddling iron sent many old men into the poorhouses of Pennsylvania between 1890 and 1900. Even where the total employment increases, the individual sometimes suffers. The increased demand resulting from the cheapening of a product may call for more workers than were employed before the new machinery came in, but men needing a different training, and some of the former workmen may be thrown out of employment. The introduction of the linotype and monotype is said to have displaced a large number of hand type-setters, but to have increased the amount of printing. As the machines are expensive and can not be worked properly by men not highly expert, men past thirty-five years of age have not been allowed to learn their use.2
1 See chs. 18 and 19
§ 6. Loss to the less efficient workers. The least efficient men in any trade suffer most from the introduction of machinery. The new method crowds hardest the man at the margin of employment. The more skilled workman can, at his more rapid pace, still earn a living wage in competition with a machine, or can move into some other occupation. It often happens that they are advanced to be foremen or managers, and gain greatly by the change. The less skilled, unable to adapt themselves, can but drop out entirely, innocent victims of an economic change, sacrifices to the cause of industrial progress. Happily such pathetic incidents are relatively not numerous. Most machinery is introduced in commercial centers' when demand for the products is increasing, and there is no need to discharge men; it gradually spreads to other factories in such a way that most men can adapt themselves to the change.
2 These sudden changes in machinery also cause losses in many cases to the owners of the existing equipment. Every considerable improvement brings unfortunate results to some while it means gains to others. At every moment in a progressive society, some agents are being thrown out of use by improvements in tools and machinery. The machinery in flour-mills has been almost completely changed, parts of it repeatedly, while steam rollers have been substituted for the old millstones and many old mills have been abandoned. A change in the process of making paper threw out of use much machinery that was only in part saved by its removal and adaptation to the making of coarser grades of paper. Many minor inventions in the iron industry, still more the invention of the Bessemer process, threw out of use great numbers of the old appliances. Such illustrations can be indefinitely multiplied.
Similarly changes in the sources of power are shifting the location of many industries and causing the rise of some and the fall of other valuable agents. Water-power, because of its uncertainty, has been replaced in many places by steam-power, and in many places steam-power in turn has been rivaled by water-power since the improvements in the generation and transmission of electricity.
Since recorded history began there have been recurring periods of unemployment. Greece and Rome often had the problem. But it is helpful in getting some perspective in judging the effects of machinery, to note that in proportion to the number of the population the unemployed were probably more numerous in the reign of Queen Elizabeth than they are to-day, and the general level of income was much lower.