The Relative Productive Power of Hand and Machine Labour


From: The North American Review    Vol. 172, No. 534, May, 1901


The Hon. Carroll D. Wright, United States Commissioner of Labor, and one of our most conservative statisticians, recently published the result of his investigations into the relative productive power of hand and machine labor.

A thousand paper bags could formerly be made by hand in six hours and thirty minutes; they are now made in forty minutes with the aid of a machine. To rule ten reams of paper on both sides by hand required 4,800 hours; with a ruling machine, the work is done in two hours and thirty minutes of one man’s time.

In shelling corn by hand, sixty-six hours and forty minutes would be required to shell a quantity which can be handled by a machine in thirty-six minutes. A mowing machine cuts seven times as much grass per hour as one man can cut with a scythe.

These examples might be extended indefinitely; but a more forceful illustration will be found by considering the total horse-power applied to machines in this country and calculating how many men it would require to do the same work. For such calculations the census figures of 1890 must be used.

One horse-power is equivalent to the power of six men. Thus, if the work of 63,481 men in the flour mills of the United States is supplemented by the use of 752,365 horse-power, the power is equivalent to the work of 4,514,190 additional men. That is, it does seventy-two times as much work as the employees.

The ratio differs radically in different industries. Mr. Wright finds that the total horse-power used in the United States in 1890 was about 6,000,000, equivalent to the work of 36,000,000 men, while only 4,476,884 persons were employed, the two kinds of power having a ratio of 8 to 1.

A force of 36,000,000 men rep resents a population of 180,000,000, so that if the products of the manufacturing establishments were all made by hand, it would require a population of that size to do it, with none left for agriculture, trade, transportation, mining, forestry, the professions, or any other occupations.

A still more striking illustration is found in our transportation system. In 1890 there were over 30,000 locomotives in this country it would take 57,940,320 horses to do their work, or 347,425,920 men.

In countries like China, nearly all the work of transportation is actually done by man power, and no further explanation of the economic difference between America and Asia is required.

By the use of steam we are evoking aid from the heat stored up in our coal beds, equivalent to the working efficiency of the population of the whole earth, while the Chinaman lets his coal lie underground, packs his load on his back, and does his manufacturing largely by hand.

Mr. Mulhall, the British statistician, calculated in 1895 that the use of steam power had increased five-fold in the United States in thirty-five years, thus more than trebling the collective working power of the population.

He also remarks that the working energy of one American is more than double that of one European.

Thus the civilized world, with the United States leading, is yearly doing an increasing amount of useful work, while Asia does no more than it did a thousand years ago. This fact alone will explain the demand for the “open door,” and the growing world-domination of the machine-using nations.

Steam is our Genie of the Lamp, electricity our Slave of the Ring, and machinery an additional slave, which the imagination of the Arabian romancist did not picture.

In former times the men who possessed a thousand human slaves, and grew rich upon their labor, were but few; to-day the men who own the power of a thousand horses, embodied in mechanical slaves which speak all languages and serve all masters with equal fidelity, are almost too numerous for enumeration.

The inventors of the United States have created these slaves, and we are selling them to other nations at a rate which must soon impair the advantage we have here-tofore enjoyed, and level up and level down labor the world over.

This is the ground-swell of cause which the statesmen of the world have to adjust to effect. The captains of industry, who have been in contact with and have comprehended and grasped these controlling forces in this evolution of industry, have profited pecuniarily from it; but all they have got out of it is a living, somewhat more luxurious, perhaps, than that of the average citizen, but any surplus which they have not left to hospitals, churches and education has, in most cases, enervated and cursed their children. Many of them appreciate this, and we will have more Harvards and Yales and Cornells, and Johns Hopkins and Stanfords and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers and Carnegies and Morgans in the future.

The talk about an Emperor in this country, which the distinguished President of one of our great universities recently in dulged in, may be dismissed as a passing thought in a Lenten sermon.

The organization of industry has taken place so suddenly that the public has been startled, as a good horse will shy at an umbrella when it is opened suddenly in his face; but let the horse smell the umbrella and see that it is not dangerous and his alarm will subside. Thus will it be with the feeling of the public toward trusts. Their evil will be eliminated, their good will be developed, their usefulness to mankind demonstrated, and the bogy which the rivalries of sensational journalism and partisan politics have conjured up will fade into thin air.

The facts and the views herein stated are presented as an antidote to those of the alarmists, but with a full appreciation of the tides and currents of public sentiment, which affect the industries and welfare of our country. These are indicated in the following quotation from the circular of a conservative banking house in relation to the new steel trust:

“It will be cited in Congressional and Legislative halls as full of danger to American institutions through such unprecedented concentration of power in individual hands. It will revive the advocacy of Government ownership of railway lines and of more stringent “antitrust” legislation, and it cannot be denied that it brings up a very grave question before the American people as to the extent to which the laws of the land shall permit or support such tremendous centralization of power in the industrial world. We might add, also, that it is likely to occasion at the next session of Congress a very active movement for the abolition of duties on all products made by this consolidated company, and if the tariff is once brought up as a subject of serious discussion and amendment there is no telling where it will end. We all know that the agitation of tariff ^revision is detrimental to general business; for, while it is in progress, both importers and manufacturers restrict their operations until they know to a certainty what the result of the tinkering is to be. Of course, these facts are not going to affect the immediate market for the shares, but they must enter into the minds of the big holders and lead them, as the occasion offers, to part with their holdings to the general public, as far as the general public will be disposed to buy.”

If any legislation in regard to “trusts” is necessary, it is in the direction of publicity and reports, for the protection of investors. The practice of over-capitalization, or stock watering, is considered by many persons a great evil, but it is an injury rather to those who practice it than to the general public.

Real values are reflected in the market prices of securities. Bay State Gas is quoted at $1 per share, with a par value of one hundred dollars, while Standard Oil is quoted above $800. Capitalization is usually based upon earning power, and in this “good will” is often a factor. A newspaper with a plant worth $50,000 may earn $100, 000, net, per year. If a company was organized on this, what should its capital be? A railroad is projected, which, when built and with a large traffic developed, can pay dividends upon a capital which would seem very large in its inception, and yet carry for the public at low prices. Unless its projectors had had a prospect of a profit the railway would not have been built. So far as the interest of investors is concerned, they should have information, and they can then use their own judgment. There are frauds in all kinds of merchandise, and the doctrine of caveat emptor is of universal application.

Mr. Carnegie has said that a successful business was like a three-legged stool, standing on labor, capital and brains; or brains, labor and capital; or capital, brains and labor, that neither is first and all are inter-dependent. The United States is fortunate in having such a citizen as Andrew Carnegie and millions of others who, with opportunity, like him, are capable of “rising on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things”; there can be no dissent from Mr. Carnegie’s kaleidoscopic conception. The combination of any two elements in the trinity can be pulled down by the dissent of the third. Each, therefore, must recognize the usefulness of the other and its share in the enormous benefits which Providence has conferred upon the human race in placing such resources of nature and such slaves as steam, electricity and machinery at their disposal to develop them.

F.B. Thurber.


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