The Triumph of the Inventor—Machinery versus Man—The Hopelessness of Hand Labor—How Inventors have made Life Easier for Man.

I REMEMBER once hearing a lecturer speak of "fatal" inventions. He was not, however, referring to big guns or poison gas, but merely to the fact that all progress is bought at a cost. Inventions have, of course, played havoc with old institutions and forced mankind from old beaten paths into new ways of doing things, and there are among us some who are so conservative in their minds that they are full of regret for the old ways. There are, for instance, folk who tell you that there never was or will be any finer method of traveling than in a light carriage behind a pair of high-stepping horses, and others who declare that there is no comparison between a great three-masted ship heeling under a full press of canvas and an ugly tramp steamer driving through the waves with a long trail of sooty smoke hanging behind her.

There is a great deal of truth in such remarks, for certainly a pair of well-bred trotting horses are much more beautiful to look at than the finest of modern motor cars, while of all things that man ever made there is certainly nothing more exquisite than a big sailing ship running free before a fair wind.

Yet, on the other hand, the car will carry you farther and faster than all the horses in the world, and with greater comfort as well as speed; while the steamer drives along with almost the certainty of a railway train, irrespective of storm or calm. And so we may well be grateful for the immense advantages which the present generation owes to the inventor and to those who are responsible for the marvellous mechanical devices which are a part of modern civilization.

In order that you or I may live we must have a sufficiency of food and of clothing. We must also have a roof to cover us, books from which to learn, and means for moving about from one place to another. Does it ever occur to you to compare our lot in these respects with those of our great-grandparents? Only the other day I was talking to an old peasant woman who, although she has lived all her life within fifty miles of London, has never seen the world’s greatest city. Do you realize that, a hundred years ago, it was only the well-off people who ever traveled, and that in any English village not three per cent. of the people had ever visited any large town or, if it was inland, seen the sea? Most people lived the lives of vegetables, and were, in consequence, intensely ignorant and full of foolish superstitions.

Since the population was small, and farming was the principal industry, food was fairly plentiful, but clothes and especially boots, were very dear and bad. There were no umbrellas or waterproofs, and if you had to go out in the rain you got soaked. The houses of the poor were entirely without many of those things which to-day are necessities. There was no proper water supply or drainage. There were no cooking ranges or carpets, there were hardly any books, while a single newspaper passed from hand to hand until it was worn out.

As for traveling, the rich drove in their carriages, the middle class went by stagecoach or rode on horseback; but for the poor the only alternative to walking was one of those slow, heavy wagons which averaged something less than three miles an hour, or, with luck, a canal boat.

Almost every article in common use was handmade; and while handmade goods were, and are, strong and durable, they all took so long a time to make that they were naturally expensive. Take, for instance, such a necessity as a pair of boots. To make even the cheapest and commonest pair of men’s boots took fifteen and a half hours of steady work. That is why such boots cost twenty to twenty-five shillings a pair at a time when the wages of the man who made them were only about threepence an hour. The invention of bootmaking machinery enabled a man to make ten pairs of boots in the time previously taken to make one, with the result that boots can now be sold for less money, while at the same time working men are paid much better wages.

Turn to farm implements, and we find that at the beginning of the nineteenth century it took two hundred working hours to make fifty pitchforks. By 1865 the same number of pitchforks were made by machinery in twelve hours. Not a cast-iron plough existed in the year 1800; the farmer’s plough was made of wood covered with a thin sheet of iron; seeds were scattered by hand, and the only way of keeping down the weeds was by hoe. The farmer used the scythe or sickle for cutting his grain and the flail for threshing it. Wheat was ground between two stones in a watermill or windmill. There are parts of the world, such as Russia, where these old-fashioned conditions still exist; but in most countries either steam ploughs or tractor cultivators are used, and every operation, from sowing the seed to reaping and threshing, is done by machinery. In Western America a harvester is used of which the cutting bar is thirty-five feet wide; it is drawn by an engine of fifty horsepower. Behind the harvester is trailed a thresher, into which the stalks of grain pass after being cut. The grain is separated from the chaff by means of a fan, and is automatically loaded into sacks, while the straw passes into a receptacle at the back of the machine and is "dumped" at regular intervals. The capacity of this machine is from a thousand to fifteen hundred sacks of grain a day, all cut, threshed, cleaned, and sacked; and the result of this marvellous invention, or rather series of inventions, is that the work of seven men is sufficient to grow enough wheat and thresh and grind it into flour to provide bread for a thousand persons.

When we come to the making of bread we find that here again the inventor has been busy saving labor. Some years ago there was shown at the Bakers’ and Confectioners’ Exhibition at the Agricultural Hall in London an electrically worked machine, weighing nearly two hundred tons, which was capable of making and baking two thousand four hundred loaves an hour. Eight men standing at the levers of this machine are able to do all the work, and do it quite easily, but not one of them touches or handles the flour or dough. The flour is placed in a large compartment in which just sufficient water is added for the kneading of the dough. The dough, mixed by machinery, is tilted into a sort of wagon, and runs down into the "proving" room, where it lies for four hours and ferments.

When it has risen sufficiently, it is carried to a dividing machine, which cuts it into pieces; and these pieces, traversing an endless band, are delivered to the molder, which shapes them into loaves. They then drop upon an electrically propelled rack, and are swept into a gigantic oven, which bakes them to perfection in the brief space of forty-two minutes. Were it not for the machinery which many clever brains have invented, a loaf of white bread would to-day cost two or three times its present price.

Biscuits are made, like bread, by machinery. If you visit a biscuit factory you will see all the materials mixed by machinery. They are never once touched by the human hand, and the way in which they are baked is very interesting. The biscuits, lying on a sort of endless band made of wire gauze, go into a very long oven, pass slowly through it without stopping, and come out at the other end, perfectly baked.

Nearly all our food, especially the tinned and bottled goods which form so large a part of it, are prepared by machinery. All our drinks are bottled by automatic machinery. There is a very cleverly made machine which seizes empty bottles, clutches each by the neck, and fills them at the rate of twenty-four thousand a day. Another machine corks bottles at the rate of three thousand an hour. Consider what an army of men it would take to do such work by hand labor!

In the old days all washing of clothes had to be done by hand, and the laundresses had to work very hard for very little money. But visit a modern steam laundry, and you will see machinery that will wash and finish collars and cuffs at the rate of two thousand an hour; that will wash two hundred shirts in the same time, and gloss and iron them at the rate of one every minute. There are even machines for marking linen, one of which does the work of six women.

Our ancestors were forced to light their houses with candles, for there was no other illuminant to be had. We still use candles; but these, instead of being made by hand by the old and very slow process of dipping, are molded, and one machine, which a boy can attend to, makes seven thousand candles in an eight-hour day. The time saved by machinery in the making of matches is even more startling than that economized in the manufacture of candles, for the match-cutting machine cuts 6375 matches in the same space of time that a man could shape three matches by hand.

A hundred years ago every nail used by the carpenter was handmade, and whole towns were engaged in nail making—men, women, and children. It was not only cruelly hard work, but was one of the worst paid of all industries, and the nail makers lived always on the edge of starvation. Then the inventor set his brain to work, with the result that we now have a machine which makes nails at the rate of a thousand a minute. The cruel old trade of nail making by hand is now dead, and nails are cheaper and better than ever they used to be.

Bricks are still molded by hand in some small, out-of-the-way places, but the handmade brick cannot compete with the machine-made. The machine will mold thirty thousand bricks in ten hours, whereas the most skilled workman could not make even a tenth of the number in the same time. Bricks bring to mind clay and the digging of canals and harbors. Once upon a time all this sort of work had to be done by hand labor, but then came the invention of the steam navvy. This machine will do the work of a giant thirty feet high, armed with a seventeen-foot shovel. Even more wonderful is the dipper dredge so much used in cleaning mud out of harbors or for deepening rivers and canals. Such a dredge has a crew of six men, and, on three tons of coal, digs from fifteen hundred to two thousand tons of mud or slush in one working day. It can manceuvre itself in any direction, dig foundations, lay concrete blocks, raise wrecks, lift boulders, and, as a proud owner once said, do almost everything except vote.

Formerly all painting was done by a brush held in a man’s hand and dipped at intervals into a paint pot. Small wonder, then, that painting was a slow and costly business. For industrial purposes the inventor found a better way, and to-day paint is sprayed on to the surface to be covered when it is a large one. For painting the hull of a battleship or the outside of a railway carriage, for example, this wonderfully time-saving method is in almost universal use. The paint mixed to the consistency of cream is held in a small steel tank connected with a reservoir containing compressed air. It comes out of a brass nozzle in a sort of fan spray, and all the operator has to do is to wave the nozzle to and fro. In this way one man can do the work of seven armed with brushes and paint pots.

In Chapter XV some description has been given of the beginnings of printing by steam and of the wonders of typesetting by machinery. Almost more uncanny than the linotype or monotype machines is a machine for folding, wrapping, and addressing magazines, which was invented by Mr. George Livingston Richards, an American publisher. This auto-mailing machine occupies a small room, yet does the work of a hundred people. Piles of newly printed magazines are fed in on one side of it, and a moment later come out upon the far side rolled, wrapped, and addressed, rushing along an endless band and falling gently into their appointed sacks. The machine handles the magazines at the rate of several thousands an hour. Equally ingenious is a smaller piece of mechanism, about the size of a typewriter, which "licks" stamps and puts them on the packets at the rate of eight thousand an hour, and, into the bargain, counts every stamp used.

We also have at our disposal the most marvellous calculating machines, each of which can dispose of problems in arithmetic more swiftly than could half a dozen trained clerks, while the results are always correct. All the great banks use calculating machines, and thereby save the labor of extra clerks. One of these machines can take any sum of money and almost instantly show its equivalent in the currency of another country calculated to the existing rate of exchange; another can give the exact interest upon any sum of money for any length of time at any desired rate.

Other interesting developments are: electric typewriters which are set to work by the merest touch on the keys; typewriters which will write in a bound book; automatic cashiers which pay out and give change at a touch on a button; loud-speaking telephones which dispense with a receiver; and check writers which work faster than a pen and make forgery impossible. The use of these and similar inventions results in business undertakings being managed with far greater ease, power, and profit than formerly. Principals and clerks alike find their work simplified by the skill of the inventor, and every year sees fresh improvements in these methods.

There is no branch of human endeavor in which modern machinery is not able to save time and trouble. In the coal mines, for example, a miner formerly spent a hundred and seventy-one hours to produce fifty tons of coal by hand, whereas the same work can be done by one man with the aid of machinery in one third of the time. In quarrying, the saving of time by the use of machinery is still more startling; for whereas to drill by hand six two-inch holes twelve feet deep in hard blue rock occupies a hundred and eighty hours, the same work performed by machine takes only eight hours.

Chapter 28
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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman