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The More Than Century-Old History of Automation

Ryan Fan do you think of when you imagine the eighth wonder of the world?

A beautiful historical site like the Roman Colosseum or Machu Picchu that attracts many tourists to compliment natural beauties? Wrong. According to Thomas Edison, the eighth wonder of the world was the Linotype machine.

A couple of weeks ago, I didn’t even know what the Linotype machine was. But when I visited the Baltimore Museum of Industry, I learned that the Linotype changed the world, and especially changed the printing industry. Ottmar Mergenthaler, the inventor of the Linotype machine, revolutionized printing. The linotype made printing presses more convenient by setting complete lines of type.

In 1876, the young German machinist was approached by a court reporter who sought a faster way to publish legal briefs. Charles T. Moore had a patent on typewriters for newspapers. Mergenthaler was hesitant at first, but then eight years later, came up with a genius idea to use one machine for both casting and stamping letters. He constructed a machine that could do both based on brass matrices, the molds used to cast letters onto machines. The Linotype became an invention that revolutionized printing and made production and access to newspapers and books much more convenient. Despite several flaws, Mergenthaler eventually perfected a “single-matrix” machine named the “Blower.”

The New York Tribune would be the first newspaper to use the Blower in its day-to-day operations. The owner of the newspaper, Whitelaw Reid, actually named the machine “Linotype” because it put out one line of words and characters at a time — a “line o’ type.” The Linotype machine quickly became used by prestigious newspapers like the Washington Post. And not only did it produce more newspapers, but it made them longer. “Thus, the Linotype not only accelerated the spread of news but increased the volume of it as well — two changes with a profound effect on American culture,” writes Styliani Tsaniou about the invention in Immigrant Entrepreneurship.

But Mergenthaler’s invention came with backlash. Reid was both Mergenthaler’s main client, his biggest stakeholder, and his biggest competitor. Reid wanted to make his own single-line matrix machine to compete with Mergenthaler. To undercut Mergenthaler, Reid told him to produce Linotype machines more quickly and cheaply and to fire his least useful men. Printing and typographical unions were also incredibly resistant to the machine and the transition to using it, as it revolutionized the trade and put fears of job loss in the minds of printers.

In 1890, the Brooklyn Standard Union (part of the largest printer’s union in the U.S.) started using the Linotype, finally giving way to innovation and transition. In 1891, Mergenthaler’s independent company, the Mergenthaler Printing Company, merged with the National Typographic Company, which led to the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. Four years later in 1895, the Mergenthaler Linotype Company made almost $2 million, the equivalent to $53 million today, firmly cementing its place as Edison’s eighth wonder of the world.

When I heard the story of the Linotype’s invention and integration into the printing industry, I was immediately reminded today of the narrative around the manufacturing industry. We currently have the cultural narrative, especially in the age of Trump promising to bring back factory jobs, that manufacturing work is being replaced by automation, a valid concern for some industry workers.

Trade unions today are having a hard time tackling the issue of automation, and Sarah O’Connor of the Financial Times brilliantly illustrates the insecurity many in trade unions face: Driverless cars threatening to take over the jobs of professional and bus drivers and robots are doing the work of food workers and machine operators.

“But automation could also be a moment of opportunity for unions,” O’Connor writes. “After decades of declining membership across the developed world, it could be a chance to win new victories for workers and demonstrate the value of unions to the next generation.”

Ideally, automation that makes our lives easier should also make our jobs easier, allowing for higher wages, less time at work, and more time spent with our families. Some European countries have navigated the growing shift to automation well, including Sweden, which has job security councils run by employers and trade unions. According to O’Connor, these councils “give intensive support and retraining to people as soon as they learn they are to be laid off.” Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data indicates that 90% of displaced workers in Sweden are employed within a year.

As a result, countries like Sweden have a positive outlook on automation, showing perhaps there’s a benefit to rapid change as much as there is a threat. The printing unions in the United States ended up embracing the Mergenthaler Linotype from 1890 until well into the 1970s, and the Linotype machine allowed the unions to flourish as much as it harmed them.

Of course, with the invention of computers as typesetting machines and laser and inkjet printers, printing now happens on offices and desks, and unions struggled to adapt to the new technologies in the 1970s. So while the distrust of innovation and automation is still valid today, moving past suspicion and distrust is essential for the well-being of workers all over the world. Although we struggle to move on to what’s worked for us for so long, Mergenthaler’s Linotype teaches us that we have to embrace the change eventually, even if it takes some time to fight it before moving on.

Photo credit: 4motions Werbeagentur/Unsplash

Originally published at OneZero on September 4, 2019.

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