Scientific American/Machinery and Labor

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Machinery and Labor
Scientific American, v 14 (os) no 28, p 229, 19 March 1859.[1]

While the Homestead bill was recently under discussion in the House of Representatives, Mr. Leiter, of Ohio, delivered a speech in its favor, which has been characterized by some of our cotemporaries as one of great ability. We decidedly differ in opinion with those who have regarded his effort with any degree of admiration. Arguments founded on false statistics, however plausible they may appear, are like houses built upon quicksands -- unreliable and dangerous. Such we conceive the rhetorical structure which Mr. Leiter built up for this bill; not that we oppose its objects, but the ridiculous arguments advanced to promote them. These arguments are founded on the erroneous idea that machinery has been exceedingly injurious to the laboring and mechanical classes, and that its extension has reduced them from comparative independence and comfort to penury and suffering. The orators says: -- "within the last fifty years steam power and labor-saving machinery have wrought a mighty revolution in industry, and rendered almost superfluous manual labor in the great department of mechanical industry. In the British Islands the work done by machine power is computed by Lord Brougham to be equal to the labor of eight hundred millions of men; while it has made the nation the wealthiest and most powerful on the globe, it, with monopoly of the soil, has reduced the mass of her people to abject misery."

The achievements of machinery, as set forth, are rather under than over-rated, but the concluding part of the paragraph is not entitled to the least confidence. Instead of machinery having tended to reduce the mass of the people of the British Isles to misery, it has elevated and improved their condition, and at the present moment their circumstances are far superior, in every respect, to what they were at any other period of their history. Instead of reducing them to abject misery, it has elevated the laboring classes from the condition of being "yoked with the brutes and fettered to the soil," to the position of intelligent beings, and made them a great power in the commonwealth. That man is profoundly ignorant of the history of England who teaches such doctrines as the above. The complaints urged against machinery are like those of a moping owl complaining to the moon. Watt, Arkwright and other inventors of machinery have done more for the people of England than all the wisdom of Bacon or the discoveries of Newton; and yet, according to Mr. Leiter, the steam engine, the spinning jenny, the power loom, and the printing press have been curses not blessings to the laboring classes. Such sentiments as those expressed above might well be expected from a denizen of the forests of Ecuador, not from a citizen of this free and enlightened republic. But he does not stop in his charges against machinery as applied to England; he carries the imputation home to our own country. He also says: -- "The effect of machinery upon the prosperity of the industrial classes is beginning to be felt in this country as well as in Europe. Until the steam engine took the place of human muscles in the production of wealth, scarcity and want had not been known in this country. But how is it now? Whenever the operations of manufacture cease, the laborers are thrown out of employment, and wide-spread misery follows.

Never were statements uttered in or out of Congress more untrustworthy than these. It is distinctly stated that machinery, and the steam engine especially, has caused scarcity and want in our country. When it is recollected that the machinery has wonderfully increased the products of labor, and that it neither eats human food nor wears clothing, it appears to be one of the most stupid conceptions possible, to charge it with causing scarcity and want. As every implement above the teeth and nails is a machine, the above extracts furnish a brilliant panegyric upon the logic and intelligence of some Congressional representatives. In order to bring about the good old times when Adam delved and Eve span and to prevent scarcity and want, we must go back upon human muscle, cease manufacturing operations, and throw all our steam engines into the ocean! Such are the derivable conclusions from the above; they are far from being creditable to any American citizen.