Is Technology a Job Killer? A Few History Lessons; from Textile Machines to Smartphones, Inventions Have Both Ended and Created Jobs ' the Price We Pay for Progress.'; ECONOMY

By Condon, Bernard | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 23, 2013 | Go to article overview

Is Technology a Job Killer? A Few History Lessons; from Textile Machines to Smartphones, Inventions Have Both Ended and Created Jobs ' the Price We Pay for Progress.'; ECONOMY


Condon, Bernard, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


NEW YORK To workers being pushed out of jobs by todays technology, history has a message: Youre not the first.

From textile machines to the horseless carriage to email, technology has upended industries and wiped out jobs for centuries. It also has created millions of jobs, though usually not for the people who lost them.

People suffer their livelihoods, their skills and training are worth less, says Joel Mokyr, a historian of technological change at Northwestern University. But that is the price we pay for progress.

A look at breakthroughs that made the goods we buy more affordable, our lives more comfortable and our jobs more precarious:

THE FIRST INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

For most of history, people made many goods themselves. That changed with the First Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the mid-18th century and lasted about 100 years.

New mechanical devices that allowed one person to do the work of several flooded the market with products, most notably textiles. Using cords, wheels and rollers, inventors sped up the twisting of threads to make yarn and the weaving of yarn to make cloth.

Next, steam was used to free the new machines from the limits of human muscle and make them run faster. The new machines produced so much, so fast and so cheaply, more people could afford to buy textiles. Demand soared, and so did jobs running the machines and doing other work.

In America in 1793, Eli Whitney freed slaves from the laborious work of picking sticky seeds from cotton bolls by inventing a cotton gin that did that automatically. It led to widespread planting of cotton but even more work for slaves.

In 1831, Cyrus McCormick invented a reaper that cut wheat stalks as it was pulled by horses and piled them on a platform. Farmers could harvest faster.

In 1837, John Deere stuck the blade of a steel saw onto a plow and invented the steel-edged plow to replace cast-iron ones. Farmers could cut a furrow in the earth more easily and sow more quickly.

And so began a series of inventions that made farming efficient, and began to drain farms of people. In 1800, two-thirds of Americans worked on farms; today, 2 percent do.

THE SECOND INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

Life sped up more in this second period of innovation, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, an age of steel and electric power, expanding railroads and the automobile. …

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