The Case for Robots, 1864 Edition

Machinery, a poet thought, makes us more prosperous and refines our morals.  
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Typesetting machines ( Library of Congress )

One hundred fifty years ago, William Winter, poet and theater critic, turned his attention to a less exalted subject: typesetting machines. In what begins as a gadget roundup of sorts, or as he called it, "a half-hour's gossip concerning Types, Type-Setting, and the machinery connected with Printing at the present time," Winter manages to lay out several cases for the righteousness of automation. And his language is strikingly similar to what we hear today about robots.

Library of Congress

In a May 1864 article for this magazine, Winter foresaw what has largely been true: human labor would become auxiliary as machines—and later computers and robots—made the use of our muscle power, at the very least, unnecessary. 

"Any sketch of the invention, manufacture, and use of types would illustrate the triumph of the labor-saving instinct in man, and thus confirm the scientific lesson of to-day—that machinery must entirely supersede the necessarily slow processes of labor by hand," he begins. "That it will at no distant day supersede those processes in the art of printing is, as you will presently see, a fixed fact."

Hand setting type was difficult. Each letter had to be selected and laid out. This operation required so much dexterity that many people—called compositors— got really good at it. And they would compete against each other, a story told in Walker Rumble's The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetter Races.

"The Swifts constituted a particular segment of Cobb's late-nineteenth century compositors, men who became famous by winning typesetting races," Rumble writes. "Along with their cash prizes and their fame, the brash independence of those fast typesetters impressed others of their trade, and by the 1880s fellow printers acclaimed them as working-class heroes."

Unfortunately for them, the forces that Winter saw at work in 1864 would wipe out the trade—and the races—after Ottmar Mergenthaler created the the Linotype machine in 1884. 

And, though Winter was writing long before that machine's debut, he supported the idea of getting rid of human labor, especially in the work of "Composition."

"It is only of late that machinery has been successfully employed in the most laborious and expensive process connected with the art of printing, —that, namely, of Composition," he wrote. "In this process, however, iron fingers have proved so much better than fingers of flesh, that it is perfectly safe to predict the speedy discontinuance, by all sensible printers, of composition by hand."

It may have taken 25 years for that to happen, but Winter was correct. And, he argued, it would actually be better for the men who worked in printing. 

"The composing-room of a large daily paper, for instance, presents, day and night, a spectacle of the almost ceaseless industry of jaded operatives. The need of relief in this respect was long ago recognized," he wrote. 

And so, what they needed was to be liberated from the drudgery of their gainful employment. Then, because of the cost reductions that would come from the automation, the market for papers would expand. 

They are frequently badly lighted and worse ventilated rooms, wherein workmen elbow each other at closely set cases, and grow dyspeptic under the combined pressure of foul air and irritating and long-protracted labor. All this should be changed. With the composing machine would come an atmosphere of order and cleanliness and activity, making work rapid and agreeable, and lessening the period of its duration. I know that working-men are suspicious of scientific devices. But surely the compositor need not fear that the iron-handed automaton will snatch the bread out of his hand. To diminish the cost of any article produced—which is the almost immediate result of substituting machinery for hand-labor—is to expand the market for that article. 

Furthermore, Winter argued, people would always be needed to tend the machines, so capital could not completely replace labor.

The Sewing Machine has not injured the seamstress. The Power-Press has not injured hte pressman. The Type-Setting Machine will not injure the compositor. Skilled labor, which must always be combined with the inventor's appliances for aiding it, so far from dreading harm in such association, may safely anticipate, in the far-reaching economy of science, ampler reward, and better health, an increase of prosperity, and a longer and happier life in which to enjoy it. 

And on top of all that, the machines would also provide a moral example to the worker by the regular workings of their machinery. The workers would become more like the machines, and that would be a good thing. 

"There is a moral instructor ever at work in the mazes of ingenious and highly-wrought machinery," Winter said. "Those philosophers are not far wrong, if at all, who assert that the rectitude of the human race has gained strength, as by a tonic, from the contemplation of the severe, arrowy railroad,—iron emblem of punctuality, directness, and despatch."

The workers did lose their jobs, and I'm not sure the proliferation of machines has done much to improve the aggregate morality of the world. But one part of his argument is incontrovertibly true: It would not be a good thing for the spread of information to set all type by hand. The compositors were displaced, but new jobs took their places, and the printing industry continued to grow. 

Will the same hold true for today's industries as we see increasingly intelligent robots?

Gosh, let's hope so because companies—as enamored as Winter was of "substituting machinery for hand-labor"—are going to deploy them. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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