More from 1954… Industry’s Pulse

1954 Industry Pulse: Automatic control is an enigma to labor leaders, but there are plenty of potential benefits to the worker, providing the worker and management keep an open and flexible mind as technology continues to evolve. Automatic control will create new and more expert positions.
By CFE Media November 3, 2014

November 1954 feature stories include what's patentable in automatic control, books for your control engineering library, and how to design speed-switching circuits. 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 1954 that talks about automatic control becoming more and more prevalent in engineering and what it means for workers, unions, and management.

Dinner clothes in a steel mill? "Steel has become an industry wherein I would not think it facetious if the workers wore tuxedos on the job."

When Gordon S. Brown said this on Sept. 20, he was not trying to raise a guffaw. He was dramatizing automatic control to 3,000 delegates of the United Steel Workers of America, CIO, who filled the cavernous Atlantic City Convention Hall for their union’s Seventh International Convention.

To union leaders automatic control is an enigma. Does it foreshadow mass technological unemployment or a golden age of universal leisure? Will it destroy labor organizations or magnify their influence? The men who run the Steel Workers, the nation’s second largest union, wanted to know: "What does it mean to me?" Thus they had invited the head of MIT’s Electrical Engineer Department as their main guest instead of the customary political bigwig.

After explaining the nature of automatic control and holding forth on his pet topic, "serendipity"—the knack of finding things you aren’t looking for—Gordon got down to the main sociological points. "To me," he said, "the really important consequence of the mushrooming of [automatic control] is that our jobs will change. I think the change in the character of jobs will be substantial, but I do not believe that the consequences need be catastrophic."

The laboring man will have to keep a flexible mind in order to adapt to a job upgraded by the growth of control. "This is not a situation to be taken lightly, because it is through labor’s inability to procure this upgraded job that we precipitate technological unemployment… Failure to qualify for the upgraded job often hits at the engineer and even the scientist… New development in science, such as the discovery of transistors and magnetic amplifiers… jolt the complacency of whole armies of engineers, some even who started their careers only a decade ago."

As a "Person who observes this drama from the ivory tower of a technical institute," Brown deplored the attitude expressed by blithe assertions as: "Automation will displace labor, but since it will create upgraded jobs, everything will be lovely." In his opinion, too few people worry about how the displaced worker will move into his new and more expert assignment.

Pointing out that rapidly changing technology favors younger workers, recently trained in new theories and techniques, Brown continued: "We can’t overlook the fact that oldsters still have to play… Creating the opportunity for both oldsters and youngsters to move into a better job-an upgraded job-may become an issue of importance comparable with that of higher wages in a job classification that soon may not exist."

Who is to ready workers for new jobs? Brown advised management, workers with technical knowledge, and labor leadership to cooperate in appraising and planning for the inevitable technological change.

"Planning by labor should be to ensure that its leadership is kept fully informed about the technological developments in its industry. In its research effort it should be constantly in contact with what is happening in science and engineering. Its members should be represented in the technical professional societies. It should keep abreast of industrial and university research.

"Its planning should also involve, among other things, the continued examination of its policies with respect to such matters as pensions, job classifications, and wages. It should face up to the reality of job upgrading. The fluidity of the time requires mobility of policies affecting labor in the fields of [automatic control]. Labor should seek an industrial environment wherein it will have elbow room and the capability to move around. The unvested pension, in contrast with the vested pension, and the inflexibility that might lurk in a rigid job classification program, look like strong deterrents to this mobility."

Summing up, Brown declared that automatic control, "Will mushroom, we want it to mushroom, and we couldn’t stop it even if we wanted to. It will bring great change to all of us. To keep its consequences in bounds, first we will have to appraise and then to plan. Then if we will reappraise as we plan, we will, in effect, step upward from a simple cause-and-effect relationship to find the more powerful cause-and-effect relationship. Then we will find an opportunity to exercise control.

"And in the course of planning, we shouldn’t ignore serendipity because we may run across some wonderful ideas we were not seeking."

A lot of hard sense and the framework for constructive action showered down upon the steel workers from Gordon Brown’s ivory tower.

– 2014 Edits by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media,