The Case for Robots, 1864 Edition

Machinery, a poet thought, makes us more prosperous and refines our morals.  
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. 

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