Dawn of the automatic age


It’s Labor Day. To mark the occasion, here’s a brief excerpt from The Glass Cage that describes the origins of automation after the Second World War:

The word automation entered the language only recently. It was first uttered in 1946, when engineers at the Ford Motor Company needed a new term to describe the latest machinery being installed on the company’s assembly lines. “Give us some more of that automatic business,” a Ford vice president reportedly said in a meeting. “Some more of that — that — ‘automation.’”

Ford’s plants were already famously mechanized, with sophisticated machines streamlining every job on the line. But factory hands still had to carry parts and subassemblies from one machine to the next. The workers still controlled the pace of production. The equipment installed in 1946 changed that. Machines took over the material-handling and conveyance functions, allowing the entire assembly process to proceed automatically. The alteration in work flow may not have seemed momentous to those on the factory floor. But it was. Control over a complex industrial process had shifted from worker to machine.

That the new Ford equipment arrived just after the end of the Second World War was no accident. It was during the war that modern automation technology took shape. When the Nazis began their bombing blitz against Great Britain in 1940, English and American scientists faced a challenge as daunting as it was pressing: How do you knock high-flying, fast-moving bombers out of the sky with heavy missiles fired from unwieldy antiaircraft guns on the ground? The mental calculations and physical adjustments required to aim a gun accurately — not at a plane’s current position but at its probable future position — were far too complicated for a soldier to perform with the speed necessary to get a shot off while a plane was still in range. The missile’s trajectory, the scientists saw, had to be computed by a calculating machine, using tracking data coming in from radar systems along with statistical projections of a plane’s course, and then the calculations had to be fed automatically into the gun’s aiming mechanism to guide the firing. The gun’s aim, moreover, had to be adjusted continually to account for the success or failure of previous shots.

As for the members of the gunnery crews, their work would have to change to accommodate the new generation of automated weapons. And change it did. Artillerymen soon found themselves sitting in front of screens in darkened trucks, selecting targets from radar displays. Their identities shifted along with their jobs. They were no longer seen “as soldiers,” writes one historian, but rather “as technicians reading and manipulating representations of the world.”

In the antiaircraft cannons born of the scientists’ work, we see all the elements of what now characterizes an automated system. First, at the system’s core, is a very fast calculating machine — a computer. Second is a sensing mechanism (radar, in this case) that monitors the external environment, the real world, and communicates essential data about it to the computer. Third is a communication link that allows the computer to control the movements of the physical apparatus that performs the actual work, with or without human assistance. And finally there’s a feedback method — a means of returning to the computer information about the results of its instructions so that it can adjust its calculations to correct for errors and account for changes in the environment.

Sensory organs, a calculating brain, a stream of messages to control physical movements, and a feedback loop for learning: there you have the essence of automation, the essence of a robot. And there, too, you have the essence of a living being’s nervous system. In order to replace a human, an automated system first has to replicate a human.

Automated machines existed before World War II. James Watt’s steam engine, the original prime mover of the Industrial Revolution, incorporated an ingenious feedback device — the fly-ball governor — that enabled it to regulate its own operation. The Jacquard loom, invented in France around 1800, used steel punch cards to control the movements of spools of different-colored threads, allowing intricate patterns to be woven automatically. In 1866, a British engineer named J. Macfarlane Gray patented a steamship steering mechanism that was able to register the movement of a boat’s helm and, through a gear-operated feedback system, adjust the angle of the rudder to maintain a set course.

But the development of fast computers, along with other sensitive electronic controls, opened a new chapter in the history of machines. It vastly expanded the possibilities of automation. As the mathematician Norbert Wiener, who helped write the prediction algorithms for the Allies’ automated antiaircraft gun, explained in his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings, the advances of the 1940s enabled inventors and engineers to go beyond “the sporadic design of individual automatic mechanisms.” The new technologies, while designed with weaponry in mind, gave rise to “a general policy for the construction of automatic mechanisms of the most varied type.” They opened the way for “the new automatic age.”

Beyond the pursuit of progress and productivity lay another impetus for the automatic age: politics. The postwar years were characterized by intense labor strife. Managers and unions battled in most American manufacturing sectors, and the tensions were often strongest in industries essential to the federal government’s Cold War buildup of military equipment and armaments. Strikes, walkouts, and slowdowns were daily events. Military and industrial planners saw automation as a way to shift the balance of power from workers to management. Electronically controlled machinery, declared Fortune magazine in a 1946 cover story titled “Machines without Men,” would prove “immensely superior to the human mechanism,” not least because machines “are always satisfied with working conditions and never demand higher wages.” An executive with Arthur D. Little, a leading management and engineering consultancy, wrote that the rise of automation heralded the business world’s “emancipation from human workers.”

Along with reducing the need for laborers, particularly skilled ones, automated equipment provided business owners and managers with a technological means to control the speed and flow of production through the electronic programming of individual machines and entire assembly lines. When, at the Ford plants, control over the pace of the line shifted to the new automated equipment, the workers lost a great deal of autonomy. By the mid-1950s, the role of labor unions in charting factory operations was much diminished. The lesson would prove important: in an automated system, power concentrates with those who control the programming.

Image: Walker Evans photographs of American workers from the November 1946 edition of Fortune magazine.