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Mechanization

As competition increased in the last decades of the 19th century, pressure emerged to end the rule of the skilled men and to replace them with automated technologies. The products of iron and steel making varied too greatly for there to be a continuous production process. Managers in the industry were unable to completely embed control of manufacture in machinery. That absolute dream awaited executives in the new automobile industry, and the key figure was Henry Ford.

The late 19th-century United States is probably best known for the vast expansion of its industrial plant and output. At the heart of these huge increases was the mass production of goods by machines. This process was first introduced and perfected by British textile manufacturers.

In the century since such mechanization had begun, machines had replaced highly skilled craftspeople in one industry after another. By the 1870s, machines were knitting stockings and stitching shirts and dresses, cutting and stitching leather for shoes, and producing nails by the millions. By reducing labor costs, such machines not only reduced manufacturing costs but lowered prices manufacturers charged consumers. In short, machine production created a growing abundance of products at cheaper prices.

Mechanization also had less desirable effects. For one, machines changed the way people worked. Skilled craftspeople of earlier days had the satisfaction of seeing a product through from beginning to end. When they saw a knife, or barrel, or shirt or dress, they had a sense of accomplishment. Machines, on the other hand, tended to subdivide production down into many small repetitive tasks with workers often doing only a single task. The pace of work usually became faster and faster; work was often performed in factories built to house the machines. Finally, factory managers began to enforce an industrial discipline, forcing workers to work set -- often very long -- hours.

One result of mechanization and factory production was the growing attractiveness of labor organization. To be sure, craft guilds had been around a long time. Now, however, there were increasing reasons for workers to join labor unions. Such labor unions were not notably successful in organizing large numbers of workers in the late 19th century. Still, unions were able to organize a variety of strikes and other work stoppages that served to publicize their grievances about working conditions and wages. Even so, labor unions did not gain even close to equal footing with businesses and industries until the economic chaos of the 1930s.

Mechanization and the application of inanimate sources of power extended to a growing range of industrial operations. In mining, after many failed experiments, the mechanical loading of coal and other minerals yielded to engineering skill in the years after 1920. In the bituminous (soft coal) segment of the coal industry, the crucial breakthrough was the Joy loader, which displaced countless thousands of shoveling laborers. Similarly, locomotives moved an increasing share of the material thus loaded. In timber tracts, efficient (i.e., portable, lightweight, and durable) chainsaws came into widespread use in the 1940s.

These innovations had an impact on employees. Under some circumstances, the new tools and methods alleviated physical burdens that exhausted or disabled laborers. In other cases, technological advances caused bottlenecks that intensified work. In hardrock mining, for instance, the implementation of power drilling expedited the ore blasting, but the persistence of manual methods of loading broken ore meant that muckers had to work harder to keep pace. Moreover, mechanization in this period was incomplete, especially in smaller firms. So extractive work, for the most part, remained hard work.

It also continued to be dangerous work. Over the course of industrialization, the general tendency for occupational risks of injury and illness increased. Powerful, unfamiliar tools often did bodily damage to workers. With the advent of steam-powered overhead cable systems of conveyance, for example, the log transportation through and over the work site increased mishaps. Technological experimentation came at the expense of employees lives and limbs.

After 1920, the risk of occupational injury lessened. Enactment of workers' compensation legislation fostered the Safety First campaign, which managers of extractive enterprises embraced. Hardhats, safety goggles, steel-toed shoes, and other personal protective gear became commonplace. Gears, belts, pulleys, and other dangerous moving parts of extractive equipment were enclosed in sheetmetal or isolated by guardrails. With the assistance of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, the more sizable mining and petroleum companies mounted educational programs, some quite elaborate. As a result, occupational injury rates declined.

Rapid industrialization was marked by shifts in industry and industrial practices. Around the turn of the century, science and efficiency, such as extolled by Frederick Taylor, led the drive for order and control in the workplace. Taylor was a champion of the scientific management of work, whereby scientific observations and methods were applied to the work process and labor relations. Mechanization and centralization continued into the twentieth century with technological innovation further aiding the expansion of the unskilled labor force.





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