Job Losses

Photograph of wooden moveable type.

Gutenberg printed his first bible in 1492 and Caxton brought printing to England shortly after this. The secret behind the new process was movable type. Small pieces of wood had a reverse letter carved into the end of them and by placing them together you could build up words. Ink and a press meant that you could then turn out hundreds of copies far more quickly than scribes could hand-write them - and the type could be reused again and again. It was the first information revolution and ideas spread like wildfire, causing great concern for both the Monarch and the Church. Printers were arrested for “disseminating ideas”.

Diagram of a compositor - a man composing type prior to printing.

The printing process remained essentially unchanged for centuries. Metal replaced wood for smaller type sizes and presses became more sophisticated but otherwise it has been said that Caxton could walk into a modern letterpress factory and pick up the basics in a day.

The explosive increase in books fuelled a wider readership and by the late 1700s pamphlets were also common and news sheets began to be printed. As the 1800s progressed printing firms employed hundreds of typesetters, or 'compositors' as they were known. Yet despite their number, by 1884 not a single daily newspaper in the world had more than eight pages! Typesetting was a slow process.


The Lintoype Machine
Then, in 1884, a new machine was invented which caused panic among the compositors. German-born Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the linotype machine which speeded up the process - and caused uproar! Compositors across the world feared that they would lose their jobs and they were very angry.

Photograph of a Linotype machine

Here is a Linotype machine (left). It looks amazing and it is. Click on the image to see it full size and zoomable in Wikipedia, or click here for the Wikipedia article about the linotype machine (both open in a new window).

Photograph of a Linotype keyboard.

Now one person could sit at a keyboard which you can see near the bottom of the machine and type a whole line of text in seconds. As the operator typed, this amazing machine assembled brass matrices into a row and when the line was full molten metal flowed into them and produced a complete "line o’ type”. The result was called a ‘slug’ and you can see one here.

Photograph of a line of type cast in lead - known as a 'slug'.

At last it was possible to set type efficiently and quickly. But it’s the consequences that are a lesson for us all. The compositors did lose their jobs but this wasn't altogether bad. After all, who would prefer to assemble individual letters one at a time when they could simply sit at a keyboard and type text with great speed? Their anxiety was not with the technology but with fears for their future, their incomes and their families.

What the Linotype machine did was reduce the cost of typesetting. That was its contribution to history. And by lowering the cost of typesetting a whole new industry and millions of jobs were created.

Their fears were groundless
In the event, they needn’t have worried. The linotype machine did not do away with jobs. What it did was reduce the cost of typesetting. The result was the the number of newspapers being produced - and their size - multiplied dramatically and an entire new industry was created - the magazine industry.

Photograph of magazines.

In one respect the compositors did lose their jobs because the need for hand setting of type quickly reduced. But they retrained as typesetters for which there was an enormous demand. In addition, many new jobs were created - reporters, journalists and columnists for example - and completely new types of job appeared, like illustrators, designers, publishers and distributors. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs were created once the new technology had rolled out and the dust had settled. The magaxines in this photograph could not have been imagined by the publishers of early newspapers.

The compositors could not have foreseen their future any more than we can see ours. They saw the technology as a threat to jobs; in reality it created them.

Unexpected Consequences
I call this an unexpected consequence and I think it’s crucial to our understanding of how computer technologies are changingour world. When I first wrote this article, in the early 1990s, people were very anxious about all the jobs which were disappearing as computerisation rolled out. I wrote: "What we should be doing is looking for the underlying consequence and trying to see where the new jobs are going to be. What are the new industries that will grow as a result of the changes that computerisation will bring?”

Incidentally, there was another unexpected consequence of the linotype machine - the birth of the misprint.
Click here to read this amusing story.

Into the Future
Now, in 2015, it is much clearer. The Internet and e-commerce has reshaped the way we do business and we have new and previously unimaginable things - shopping online, social networking, shops with no premises like Amazon, and online auctions like eBay.

Just as the compositors' fears were unfounded, so I believe are ours. Broadband brought all these ideas to fruition and superfast broadband will take us the next giant leap forward.

Slums and Deprivation?
The main problem is not that the world is changing but whether we can manage the change. During the Industrial Revolution the new urban population had to endure slums, overcrowding and disease. Can we avoid similar disasters by foreseeing them and taking steps to avoid them? Can we support those who do lose their jobs and can't re-train?

And most importantly of all, can we change the education system so that the next generation is fitted for life in a world we can only just glimpse at present rather than the old world with which we feel comfortable?  These are the real challenges. These are the real questions to be answered.

An aside: Misprints

Next: Unexpected Consequences


© Brian Smith 2015