More from 1955... Will legislators probe control?

Members of Congress may soon get their feet wet in automatic control. Hint of this came more than two months ago when the Congressional Joint Economic Committee listed “automation” for future study by its economic stabilization subcommittee. And now the project seems almost a certainty.

05/26/2014


June 1955 Control Engineering feature articles include “Dynamic analysis without upset” and “Backseat computer rates fuel in action.” Courtesy: CFE MediaHappy 60th, Control Engineering! Our magazine first published in September 1954. This monthly column in 2014 will resurrect some of our favorite material from the 1954 and 1955 issues. Technologies have progressed, but they continue to pave the way for today's innovations. Here is a full-length article penned in 1955 about Congress' involvement in automatic control.

Members of Congress may soon get their feet wet in automatic control. Hint of this came more than two months ago when the Congressional Joint Economic Committee listed "automation" for future study by its economic stabilization subcommittee. And now the project seems almost a certainty.

The big impetus came last month in Washington in a crowded, one-day conference conducted by the CIO Committee on Economic Policy on "the meaning and implications of automation."

CIO timed its Washington session superbly. It came just a week after start of contract negotiations with Ford and General Motors over the guaranteed annual wage (GAW). It also coincided with return of congressmen from their Easter recess. And the panel included a stellar senatorial speaker: Joseph O'Mahoney, who steered the New Deal's temporary National Economics Committee, and who is now a member of the joint Senate-House group that is planning the probe.

Behind the conference was an implicit challenge. If management won't accept economic responsibilities (GAW and permanent lay-off compensations), then the unions will take their problems to Congress for hearings and legislative action.

But not all speakers or guests were quite sure how dire the economic facts are. The unions' mixed feelings were best summarized by Communication Workers' president Joe Bierne. "We believe," said he, "in automation. We welcome automation. We encourage automation. But we do not do these things with our head in the sand." Bierne then let the CIO hair down. "Sometimes," he blurted, "we get the idea that engineers have no knowledge of human feelings. Our strong views are emotional because we look at people first."

Senator O'Mahoney was all for heads out of the sand at a national level. "If automation is to turn workers out on the streets," he cautioned, "public policy dare not ignore it." A congressional study would make certain that "automation would be a stabilizing and not a disturbing element in the national economy."

But the meeting was not merely a platform for union views. In fact, summations by guest expert Don Campbell rebutted these views.

"The scientific theories which can guide us into an entirely new era of production and service capability as a nation are proved," lectured MIT's Campbell. But, he warned, "in spite of the new technology there may be a limitation in our engineering capacity to produce. Many of our plants and processes are so outmoded that automatic controls cannot be installed on them. To engineer new plants and processes takes many, many hundreds, even thousands of engineering man-years of work. I see no rapid impact of automation on the labor force of the U.S. In fact, I urge you to get it going as rapidly as possible so that old-fashioned industries and outmoded operations can improve their competitive position."

Engineer Campbell also lit into the statistics on production vs. employment, which some union men were citing. One citation: A 65% increase in steel production, with a 10% decrease in total employment. "But how much replacement was there downstream? And who built the machines?" asked Campbell.

The fact that differing interpretations can be placed on the same data should serve to pinpoint as well as prompt forthcoming congressional study. Such questions might be asked: Is labor in total really displaced? What about new technical man-hours and expanded distribution? How necessary is automatic control to future security and well-being?

However, many cynical Washington observers already look for a committee report more preoccupied with political nuances than objective evaluation of a great new technology. They believe it will echo this finding of the temporary National Economic Committee:

"Thus, productivity itself—probably the outstanding gain from the economic application of technology—has been harnessed to the interests of a relatively small number of recipients of capital income, to the disadvantage of consumers and workers and to enterprisers and investors excluded from easy access to new technical discoveries."

- 2014 Edits by Jordan Schultz, content manager, CFE Media, jschultz(at)cfemedia.com.



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