Cornell University Press

America’s industrial history toward its technological future

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Chasing Automation tells the story of how a group of reform-minded politicians during the heyday of America’s industrial prowess (1921–1966) sought to plan for the technological future. Beginning with Warren G. Harding and the Conference he convened in 1921, Jerry Prout looks at how the US political system confronted the unemployment caused by automation. We asked Prout three questions about his new book.

1. The scope of this book spans the politics of jobs and technology from the New Deal to the New Frontier. There must have been many exciting moments as you compiled your work! Would you share a couple of your favorite anecdotes from researching for this book? 

Yes, two favorite anecdotes:

In 1949, during intense labor-management negotiations between Ford and the United Auto Workers (UAW), the new UAW President, Walter Reuther, still attempting to consolidate his power among a contentious rank and file membership, received a telegram from an obscure Professor at MIT. Norbert Wiener, who had developed what became known as “cybernetics,” and thus was instrumental in the new transition to automated assembly lines, reached out to Reuther to warn him of the devastating impacts the discovery might have on employment. Rather than dismiss the telegram entirely or even ask his staff to bring it to his attention after the negotiation completed, Reuther responded immediately. He wired Wiener and asked that they meet as soon as the negotiation was over. After Reuther successfully concluded the negotiation that resulted in the so-called “Treaty of Detroit,” he met with Wiener to outline a plan for warning the public about an automated future.

Another story is that, in a much-reported incident in 2012, President Obama asked Apple CEO Steve Jobs why more iPhones were not be made in [the United States of] America. “Why can’t that work come home?” President Obama was said to have asked. According to accounts of the meeting, Jobs famously responded, “[t]hose jobs aren’t coming back.” Chasing Automation recounts a similar episode a half century before. Jobs’ statement was reminiscent of testimony given by West Virginia Congressman John Slack to a special committee on unemployment that conducted a field hearing in Slack’s district on November 16, 1959. In 1937 the state’s coal industry had some 491,000 employees. But as Slack testified it had only 195,000. The attrition was largely due to new technologies that eliminated the manpower necessary to extract coal. As Slack stated plainly for his colleagues, these jobs were simply gone. “I offer for your approval a new word to be added to the English language,” he said. “That word is gone employment.”

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book that you know now?

Originally, I was hopeful to uncover minutes or staff notes from the meetings of the National Commission on Technology, Automation and Economic Progress. However, I was unsuccessful with either the National Archives or in my visit to the [Lyndon Baines Johnson] Library. I reached out to a couple of members of the Commission and Steve Mangum, the son of the Commission’s Secretary scoured his family members attics in search of any lost papers relating to the Commission.  In the process, however, I was able to find and interview Robert Lynn who prepared one of the appendices and provide me with some insight into the Commission’s workings.

3. Finally, how do you wish you could change your field?

I suspended my formal study of history after receiving a master’s in history from Duke in 1972. When I returned to graduate study in 2006, the field had dramatically and wonderfully changed. The emphasis on social and cultural history greatly enriched our understanding of the American experience. It was no longer the province of heroic white men, though indeed there were many of those. We delighted to find that inspiration could be found in the struggles of slaves, first generation immigrants, women, LGBTQ’s, the unemployed, et al. And we learned from these narratives the darker sides of our history that needed to be told. However, by incessantly demanding graduate students carve new interpretive niches, the field has tended to grow ever more microscopic in its focus. A simple survey of the book reviews in any periodic historical journal makes this case.  My own study of Coxey’s Army is an example. More than ever in our own fraught historical context, we seem in need of larger synthetic narratives that weave these many stories together and tell us how much more we have in common than separates us; and how challenging it has always been to shape a more perfect union. One example is James Kloppeberg’s remarkable Toward Democracy, and of course there are numerous period pieces that transcend narrow subject matters, e.g. see Charles Sellers, Charles Postel, Jefferson Cowie, Allen Brinkley, et al.  These works build upon the important and insightful micro-histories of the last four decades. But for a nation still relatively young and fragile seems to me we now need to shift the balance and encourage younger historians to make sense out of this now rich body of micro historical works; to think more largely about the sweep of American history.

*Featured photo: William Gropper’s 1941 mural of an automotive factory, originally in a Detroit post office and created under the auspices of the New Deal.

Cover of Jerry Prout book
Learn more about Chasing Automation

Jerry Prout is Adjunct Assistant Professor at Marquette University. He is the author of Coxey’s Crusade for Jobs.

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