Computer Numeric Re-Considerations (VI)

In today’s post I continue to trace some of the historic and social underpinnings of the development of automation in US manufacturing. This topic is like a mine you enter and then get almost completely lost down the maze of passageways.

The development impetus for computers and NC/CNC, along with electronic servomechanisms, was primarily provided by the military, as I noted in the previous post in this series. In fact, reading Lewis Mumford‘s Technics and Civilization, it is readily apparent that, especially since the 14th century, the chief propagator in the development of the machine-like society in which we find ourselves living has been war:

In short, the partnership between the soldier, the miner, the technician, and the scientist is an ancient one. To look upon the horrors of modern warfare as the accidental result of a fundamentally innocent and peaceful technical development is to forget the elementary facts of the machine’s history. In the development of the military arts the soldier has of course borrowed freely from other branches of technics: the more mobile fighting arms, the cavalry and the fleet, come respectively from the pastoral and fishing occupations: static warfare, from the trenches of the Roman castra to the heavy masonry fortifications of the cites, is the product of the peasant – the Roman soldier, indeed, conquered through his spade as well as his sword – while the wooden instruments of siege, the ram, the ballista, the scaling ladder, the moving tower, the catapult, all plainly bear the stamp of the woodman. But the most important fact about modern warfare is the steady increase of mechanization from the fourteenth century onward: here militarism forced the pace and cleared a straight path to the development of modern large-scale standardized industry.

And that pushing of the pace was not confined simply to inventions like standardized, mass-produced parts, assembly lines, the exploitation of metals in great intensity and variety, but also to social organization. While in the feudal era warfare was usually on the basis of a forty-day service, necessarily intermittent and therefore inefficient, the shift to armies on a capitalist basis, that is, where soldiers are paid by the day, began a process which inexorably chased out all inefficiencies and gave us the modern fighting force:

The conversion of loose gangs of individuals with all their incalculable variations of strength and weakness, bravery and cowardice, zeal and indifference, into the well-exercised, disciplined, unified soldiery of the seventeenth century was a great mechanical feat. Drill itself, after the long lapse from Roman practice in the West, was re-introduced in the sixteenth century and perfected by Prince Maurice of Orange and Nassau, and the psychology of the new industrial order appeared upon the parade ground before it came, full-fledged, into the workshop. The regimentation and mass-production of soldiers, to the end of turning out a cheap, standardized, and replaceable product, was the great contribution of the military mind to the machine process. Along with this inner regimentation went an outward one which had a further effect upon the productive system: namely, the development of the military uniform itself.

Uniforms in battle of course made it easier, given large contingents of soldiers, to know who to stab with the bayonet and who not to, though the token and badge of such a uniform went somewhat further than that. Mumford again:

Each soldier must have the same clothes, the same hat, the same equipment, as every other member of his company: drill made them act as one, discipline made them respond as one, the uniform made them look as one. The daily care of the uniform was an important element in the new esprit du corps. With an army of 100,000 soldiers, such as Louis XIV had, the need for uniforms made no small demand upon industry: it was in fact the first large-scale demand for absolutely standardized goods. Individual taste, individual judgment, individual needs, other than the dimensions of the body, played no part in this new development of production: the conditions for complete mechanization were present.

There was a further development which resulted from the creation of large standing armies in the seventeenth century. As an army grows in size it throws heavier and heavier burdens upon the production systems, since the army must be fed and clothed, housed, and equipped. The army is in fact the perfect consumer, not in the pure sense of ‘perfect’, but in the negative sense, given the ‘product’ produced by that warfare: misery, mutilation, terror, destruction, etc.

There’s a reason though that the military forms such an attractive target for capitalist finance and production:

Now, the weakness of a capitalist system of production, based upon the desire to increase the abstract tokens of power and wealth, is the fact that the consumption and turnover of goods may be retarded by human weaknesses: affectionate memory and honest workmanship. These weaknesses sometimes increase the life of a product long after the time an abstract economy would have ticketed it for replacement. Such brakes on production are automatically excluded from the army, particularly during the periods of active service: for the army is the ideal consumer, in that it tends to reduce toward zero the gap in time between profitable production and profitable replacement. The most wanton and luxurious household cannot compete with the battlefield in rapid consumption. A thousand men mowed down by bullets are a demand more or less for a thousand more uniforms, a thousand more guns, a thousand more bayonets: and a thousand shells fired from cannon cannot be retrieved and used over again. In addition to all the mischances of battle, there is a much speedier destruction of stable equipment and supplies… Quantity production must rely for its success on quantity consumption; and nothing else ensures replacement like organized destruction. In this sense, war is not only, as it has been called, the health of the State: it is the health of the machine too. Without the non-production of war to balance accounts algebraically, the heightened capacities of machine production can be written off only in limited ways: an increase in foreign markets, an increase in population, and increase in mass purchasing power through the drastic reduction in profits. When the first two dodges have been exhausted, war helps avert the last alternative, so terrible to the kept classes, so threatening to the whole system that supports them.

I’m starting to see now why Mumford was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and became an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire – he’s brilliant in his ability to distill down complex topics and make the path though the thicket a clear one. Reading Mumford has been transformative for me. Here’s a mugshot:

During wartime, industries that produce materiel for the combat effort often receive carte blanche funding to develop their products. The Manhattan project, for example, received $2 billion in taxpayer funding – however less widely known, I think, were the research programs into radar, which received some $2.5 billion in that same period. Many industries do very well financially during times of war, profit margins climbing from their ‘normal’ peacetime margin of 6~8% up to, oh, 1400% or greater. It would appear to be highly advantageous to many companies, and their shareholders, if a state of war was nearly perpetual – indeed, this is the playbook we have had in the West since the Soviet Union exploded it’s first A-Bomb in 1949. As the years go by, I tend to think, more and more, that this state of affairs is hardly accidental.

In both socialism and capitalism there is no controversy, it would seem, about the idea that society should be arranged primarily around the virtues of production. So that’s one note of interest. It’s who controls and owns the means of production that forms the real point of argument. And control, in relation to the development of CNC-operated manufacturing, is really the truly operative word. I mean that not in the sense of the machines being controlled by computers or automated mechanisms, but in the sense of controlling the process of production on the shop floor.

In David Noble’s Forces of Production, introduced in the previous post in this thread, I noted that technological change is not usually brought about by some sort of Darwinian survival of the fittest, as this explanation falls rather short, as it

portrays technological development as an autonomous and neutral technical process, on the one hand, and a coldly rational and self-regulating economic process, on the other, neither of which accounts for people, power, institutions, competing values, or different dreams.”

So what are those competing values and dreams then? Well, in a capitalist system, as Marx pointed out, the competing values are between those who own the means of production, the factory owners, and their managers, and those who form the labor pool. In a nutshell, if I might summarize a fairly complex phenomenon into a few words, the factory owner wants as much production as possible for the least cost, while the worker wants the least amount of work possible at the highest rate of pay. These values are obviously in direct opposition to one another, and are, some would argue, fundamentally irreconcilable positions. Not that there aren’t other possible arrangements, but fundamentally, when one person draws a wage, and perhaps the occasional bonus, at best, with their tasks set by another and no investment in the company other than the need to keep a job, and with the owner’s economic fate is so keenly tied to the success of an enterprise, its no shock to understand that each might have aims quite at odds with one another at various times.

The machine tool industry may seem like a tiny concern in relation to the bigger economy, and it is in terms of total dollars, however it is absolutely critical to the development of a machine-based economy, as Noble points out:

For it is [in the machine tool industry] that the metalworking (cutting and forming) machinery of production that is used to fabricate all metal products and parts is itself made. Like most of the metalworking industry of which it is part, the industry is characterized by labor-intensive small batch production. Whereas other metalworking firms use machine tools to produce an infinite array of products, this industry uses machine tools and other metalworking equipment to produce parts for machine tools. It is thus both a producer and a user of machine tools.

Reflecting upon that, I can see that woodworking, as practiced in any industrialized setting, could not exist without the machine tool industry. While I dearly love my hand-forged Japanese chisels and planes, I also would prefer not to do without my Hitachi Re-Saw and array of routers, etc. Call me weak, or perhaps I’ve become accustomed to luxury, I don’t know. And digging deeper, it is hard to deny that those peaks of technical excellence reached by the Japanese blacksmith in the production of worker’s tools is but an offshoot of the greater effort, technically and financially in Japanese blacksmithing – the production of superlative edged weapons for combat.

The second World War had proved, yet again, the decisiveness of aircraft as military weapons. During the war, US war production in the aircraft and parts industries (airframes, engines and accessories) reached some 1.345 million people. This figure dipped precipitously after the war, but with Russia’s blockade of West Berlin in 1948, then their A-bomb test success in August 1949, followed by the communist victory in China a month later, then the onset of the Korean War in 1950, there was a new buildup to some 800,000 aircraft workers in relatively short order. The industry had become, in fact, the country’s largest manufacturing employer.

One of the industries to benefit from World War II, and the post war build-up was the electronics industry. Before the war, the industry was rather tiny and largely devoted to consumer products like radios. With billions of dollars flowing in during wartime, this industry underwent profound transformation:

The modern electronics industry, in short, like the aircraft industry, was largely a military creation. During the war, sales multiplied almost 2,000 percent and employment quintupled. The industry never again returned to anything like its prewar scale…miniaturization of electrical circuits, the precursor of modern microelectronics, was promoted by the military for proximity fuses for bombs, a development that cost $1 billion and involved the participation of over one third of the industry. Gunfire control devices, industrial controls, and walkie-talkies were other important wartime developments, along with sonar and loran. Perhaps the most significant innovation was the electronic digital computer, created primarily for ballistics calculations but used as well for atomic bomb analysis…in 1964, two-thirds of the research and development costs in the electrical equipment industry (e.g., those of GE, Westinghouse, RCA, Raytheon, AT&T, Philco, IBM, Sperry Rand) were still paid for by the government.

A few posts back I mentioned the need for servomechanisms to improve the quality of NC cutting machines, and MIT’s involvement in that aspect of development. I was doing a little more reading on servomechanisms as a result. I would guess that the man in the street, if asked what a servomechanism was, would have no idea. I think Noble explains them pretty clearly, so I’ll quote from him directly:

Servomechanisms are control devices which operate on the principal of negative feedback, whereby their input is affected by their output in a continuous self-correcting control “loop.” A thermostat connected to a heater, for example, constitutes such a control system, wherein the thermostat functions as the control device for adjusting temperature and is itself actuated by the changes in temperature it induces.

Such feedback devices are not really all that new on the scene – Scottish millwright Andrew Meikle invented the automatic “spring-sail” (<– a link) in 1772. This device was employed on windmills as a means to even out fluctuations in the wind force upon the sails, the effects of which could have deleterious effects on the milling of certain grains. Humble beginnings indeed.

In WW II, the melding of electronics with servomechanisms was spurred primarily by the push to develop radar-directed gunfire control systems.

To this, we add the computer, another wartime development:

The modern digital computer, although it has its important antecedents in the work of Charles Babbage and Herman Hollerith, grew out of the practical military-related efforts of IBM engineers and Columbia University researchers…the Harvard mathematician and physicist Howard Aiken, inspired by the ideas of Babbage, constructed the world’s first automatic general purpose digital computer in 1937, in cooperation with IBM and the army. Called the Mark I Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, Aiken’s computer was an electro-mechanical device (electrical drive, mechanical motion) that employed a decimal rather than a binary system and could multiply two ten-digit numbers in three seconds. Fifty feet long and eight feet high, it was used…to perform ballistics calculations.

So, we have to this point in our tale an account of various aspects of technology which were starting to come together, but were the workers and the owners similarly coming together for the betterment of society as a whole during the same period? Not so much. In fact, I was surprised to learn that the number of factory strikes in WW II skyrocketed as compared to previous periods, despite no-strike pledges and a lack of collective bargaining:

…during the war, there were 14,471 strikes (involving almost seven million workers), more than in any comparable period, including the 1930’s when the CIO was being formed. Most strikes were unauthorized challenges to the government, management, and union leadership…the most frequent cause of a work stoppage was a grievance over discipline, such as the harassment or firing of stewards who were trying to enforce new union contracts and work rules. But wages were also a major cause of concern as was the substitution of unskilled workers for skilled workers in many “rationalized” and downgraded jobs (a cause of much of the hostility against blacks and women on the part of veteran white workers). Another central issue was working conditions, as workers endured speed-ups, long hours, and a hazardous environment. Between 1940 and 1945, eighty-eight thousand workers were killed and over eleven million were injured as a result of industrial accidents, eleven times the total U.S. casualties in combat.

Evidently, the labor movement had been asked to make similar sacrifices in World War I and were rewarded afterward with the excesses of wealthy in the 1920’s and the subsequent Great Depression, so they weren’t quite so eager to buy into that particular line of propaganda any longer.

I’ve been taking about war and soldiering fairly extensively in this post, and I think it might be helpful to look at this word ‘soldier’ in the dictionary sense, as one of the definitions, pertinent here, is not a common one:


  1. a : one engaged in military service and especially in the army b : an enlisted man or woman c : a skilled warrior
  2. a militant leader, follower, or worker
  3. a : one of a caste of wingless sterile termites usually differing from workers in larger size and head and long jaws b : one of a type of worker ants distinguished by exceptionally large head and jaws
  4. \ˈsō-jər, ˈsōl-\: (n) one who shirks work, a malingerer ; (v) to loaf while pretending to work

It is definition #4 that is the one which was new to me. Soldiering of this form, you see, had been a problem in need of solving in the factories for many years, as Noble points out:

Ever since the nineteenth century, labor-intensive machine shops had been a bastion of skilled labor and the locus of considerable shop floor struggle. Frederick Taylor introduced his system of scientific management in part to try and stop what he called “soldiering.” Workers paced themselves for many reasons: to keep some time for themselves, to avoid exhaustion, to exercise authority over their work, to avoid killing the so-called gravy piece-rate jobs by overproducing and risking a rate cut, to stretch out available work for fear of layoffs, to exercise their creativity, and last but not least, to express their solidarity and their hostility to management. Coupled with collective cooperation with their fellows on the floor (the set-up men, the runners, the tool crib people) and labor-prescribed norms of behavior (and union work rules where there was a union), the chief vehicle available to machinists for achieving shop floor control over production was their manual control over the machine tools they used to make the metal parts. Machining is not a handicraft art but a machine-based skill. The possession of this skill, together with control over the feeds, speeds, and motions of the machines, enables machinists to produce finished parts to tolerance. The same skills that make production possible also make pacing possible. Most important, they gave the workers de facto command of the shop…the central problem was simply that the power belonged to the work force rather than management.

i might note that i first wrote about the cult of Scientific Management, as posited by Frederick Taylor, a few years back in the blog, in a post (<– link) on the disappearance of the Master Builder tradition.

Essentially, Noble’s book Forces of Production traces the development of NC and later CNC-operated equipment in light of management’s desire to have more direct control of production. In December 1946, Life Magazine (<– a link) highlighted the issue of pressing concern, with an article "Every Man a Capitalist" – sub-titled: A Major US Problem: Labor

While that article posited an optimistic and unrealized idea about profit-sharing, there is little doubt that management was very concerned in the post war period with getting control over who ran the shop. This is the subject of the next post, and I’ll leave you now with a bit of air Force propaganda in that regard, a 34 minute movie produced for the benefit of those various captains of industry who dreamt of the automatic factory and an end to problems with the labor force:

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. Sorry about the font sizes jumping around today – it’s a Google blogger thing and I can’t seem to fix it. I do welcome your comments. –> on to post 7

3 thoughts on “Computer Numeric Re-Considerations (VI)

  1. Chris,
    excellent post. once again, you've peaked my interests – this time – exploring, connecting and dissecting an amazingly complicated subject and managed to make it fun – and without a doubt – thought provoking.
    If carpentry doesn't pay the bills, I'm sure writing could!

  2. Very interesting. To accomplish anything in a truly grand scale, productive or destructive (or both as in War), the force of humans must be linked in a way which aligns their contributions in complementary rather than competitive fashion. Perhaps this need is the driving force pushing for control of production.

    I have often heard this statement, “What this economy needs is a good war.” Contained in that phrase is the assumption that production which consumes the best natural resources and dumps them into the sea is equal to the production of goods useful for life.

    Harlan Barnhart

  3. gderamel,

    yikes, I was thinking the whole piece was a bit dis-jointed and unwieldy. There was so much information to sort and put together and I'd been working on it for too long already. Glad you found it readable. Not sure if writing is as likely to pay the bills as woodwork, but I'll keep my eyes open for opportunities in that regard.


    yes, I wonder if the driving force pushing for control of production is a need to accomplish things on a grand scale, or whether it is more about making money on a grand scale…


Anything to add?