AN EPISODE IN PROGRESS.
To be an Englishman in the full sense of the term is a thing to be proud of. To have grown on the same soil that has produced an Alfred, a Shakspeare [sic], Milton, Hampden, Sydney, and others of our long line of worthies, is to be in some sort their foster-brother.
And to be of the kin of Watt and Crompton, and Hargreaves, and the half Celt, half Saxon race, born mechanicians, along the course of Blackstone Edge, who nursed up Lancashire to its eminence, and clothed the whole world in cotton — albeit an exotic and not an indigenous trade — to claim the men of strong Northumberland and skilful Cornwall, and canny Yorkshire, as our brethren — and the noble army of railway-makers and improvers who — as the Free Masons of old went forth into all lands to build churches — go forth into all lands to lay down the iron cords that bind nations together, and so win the world from the wilderness; — all this stirs the blood in vein and artery, and impels us to cry out:
There be no men like Englishmen,
Such working men as they be.
“England expects that every man this day will do his duty,”said Nelson, and stern duty proved to be a stronger thing than dazzling glory — it was gold versus gilding.
Hard has ever been the struggle of those men, who bent on physical progress have disturbed the even course of the Actual in their search after the To-come. No popular shouts greet them, till external success has stamped them with its vulgar fiat. Capital in employment is all against them, and capital in speculation is chary. It is not often that originality and capital get together at the outset — not common for a Watt to meet with a Boulton; only the originality that is united to perseverance, hoping always against hope, can ensure success.
Few remember the struggle of steam to supplant horses on the highways. Many remember the struggle to supplant highways by railways, for the struggle was crowned by success, and men of all classes abandoned old pursuits for new. The iron wheel on the rail was substituted for the wooden wheels on the gravel and macadam, and it was even thought that springs might be dispensed with, till the matter was put to the proof.
All things were topsy-turvy, and fabulous prices were paid for some of the earlier railway-stock, but curiously enough the distribution of rewards gave as result the highest praises in proportion to the commonness of the work. The men who made the earthworks accumulated fortunes, those who made the locomotives barely got “salt to their porridge.” The reason is plain; business acuteness on a large scale is more accumulative than mechanical skill or genius.
The cost of manual labour, and that skilled labour of the highest kind, in working iron, very easily led the way to the use of machine-tools, while the softer material, wood, was left to the skill of the workman. And thus, long after the construction of locomotive-engines on railways was rendered tolerably automatic, wagons and carriages of all kinds still remained a mere handicraft. The circumstances which led to a change were peculiar.
An inventor, that is, a man of strong perceptive faculties, united with mechanical instincts, whom we will agree to call John Smith, obtained a patent for certain improvements in transit, applicable to ordinary highways. An influential director of a railway, struck with its importance, called on John Smith and requested him to adapt it to railways. After considerable expense and time, this was done, and the success of the principle demonstrated, though the perfect adaptation was impracticable without the co-operation of the holders’ of stock.
Every principle of trade competition forbade this, and therefore, as a next move, John Smith became a builder himself, aiming at lying a builder in the full sense of the term. In common parlance carriage-builders were at that time analogous to watchmakers; they compiled carriages just as watchmakers compile watches. They bought wheels and axles, and springs, and iron-work, and made wooden frames to which to apply them.
Thus joinery, painting, and upholstery comprised the whole of their art. They were guiltless of steam-engines or labour-saving processes. The sawpit, the axe, the hand-saw, the plane, and the auger, were united to manipulate masses of timber requiring three to four men to lift them. Under the system of road-carriages, one man and at most one mate executed a piece of work, but a railway-carriage required several men, one of them, the leader, being the artist to settle the measurements, the others mere handicraftsmen.
So John Smith, instead of being a mere contributor of a part of a carriage, became in addition a carriage compiler also. But he very soon found that to do this profitably it must be done on a large scale. He therefore boldly built a factory in which steam and all like known appliances were got together. A commercial foreman to deal with prime costs and estimates, and a mechanical foreman to overlook construction, were engaged by John Smith upon the intelligible principle that while paying them a living salary, that salary should increase in a certain proportion with the amount of profits. And so once more to work.
Things did not go smoothly. On one occasion a complaint was made that some twenty carriages that should all have been of exact length varied from two to three inches. The workmen were appealed to, and denied the fact. They were directed to measure them themselves, and it then came out that each working by his own two-foot rule, and the rules differing from each other in length, some too short and some too long, the increase or diminution multiplied several times over became something considerable. Moreover, the cost of labour was so great, as to leave no profit.
So John Smith called unto him his henchmen or foremen, Goodwin Gamelye and Bowie Chanter, to hold council together, and John Smith opened the debate.
“Now, my good fellows, first of all, we can’t carry on business without profit, and the sum of wages is so large, that no profit is left.”
“I can’t make the wages less,” said Gamelye, “the men are paid no more than in other factories; and as it is, they don’t earn more than enough to keep themselves and families.”
“Quite right, so far,” said the master. “If we can’t afford to keep well-paid men we must give up business. But how do other people manage?”
“Why, sir, by means you won’t use. They get larger prices really by getting leave to depart from the specifications; the competition is not a fair one, for the execution of the work goes by favour.”
“Do they put less work in?”
“Less work and worse work, and worse material.”
“Well, Gamelye, but we don’t mean to compete in that mode. Can’t we manage to pay better wages than other people, and get the pick of the workmen? Have more piecemen and less daymen.”
“I don’t like the system!” put in Chanter.
“Your reasons,” said the master.
“Why, we make a bargain with a pieceman to do a piece of work for a price, because the pieceman can draw chalk lines on a black board, and knows how to put the work together, and then he employs five or six other hands at day wages, which hands can’t draw, and so, nolus bolus, they must play second fiddle.”
“What wages do the daymen get?”
“Whatever the pieceman likes to give them,” replied Gamelye.
”And so we get the men who will work for least money under the pieceman,” said the master.
“Well, then, as sure as my name is John Smith, we’ll have no more of that. Every man and boy shall have his own money paid into his own hands every Saturday afternoon, and by that means we will settle good living wages, and have all cheerful faces about us.”
”But,” said Chanter, ” are we to find day-men for the piecemen?”
“No; let them find their own men, but we will pay them, and the piecemen will take their work with the understanding that we pay their daymen and deduct the wages from their account.”
“Won’t do, sir!” said Chanter; “they’ll bargain with those they take on, to give them back a part of their pay.”
“That we can’t help; but we can encourage the daymen to tell, and discharge any pieceman whom we find out, and keep a sharp look-out. More than that, we will let any dayman become a pieceman who shows the capacity. Whoever comes in at the gates shall rise from errand-boy to be a pieceman or draughtsman according to his natural aptitude. And now what next, Chanter?”
“Why the chaps pretend to find their own tools, but, having been long out of work, they are pawned, so when a fellow wants to bore a hole he runs off a hundred yards to borrow an auger from another man, and before he has finished boring the hole the man comes for it. So half the time is lost in running about. And so with chisels and hammers and other things. They seldom have more than two or three planes and a saw.”
“Well, Chanter, suppose we were to find our own augers and chisels and hammers, and lend them to the men instead of their lending them to the pawnbroker; how would that do?”
“Well, sir, that would do very well, if we keep back some wages to pay for breakages and loss. And there would be another advantage. The hole would be bored to the right size, instead of using a three-quarter inch auger for a seven-eight inch hole.”
This system was consequently put in practice with decided advantage. At the end of a few weeks John Smith again entered into council with Chanter.
“I think we had better put the chisels, augers, and saws in charge of the steam-engine.”
“How so, sir?”
“Use machinery for wood as we do for iron.”
“The men will all turn out, if we do, on strike.”
“I think not, if we manage rightly.”
”But there is no machinery made for the purpose.”
“Well, then, we must make it for ourselves.”
“But if we do, other people will imitate it, and we should be no better off than before.”
“But suppose the other people do it first, where shall we be?”
“Very true, sir. But it is so large a thing to do.”
“And is not the iron machinery a large thing?”
“Well, so it is, sir. But how shall we begin, the pieces of timber are so heavy?”
“Not heavier than iron. Suppose we begin with boring a hole at yonder drill. Only, as the cutting of wood requires a quicker speed than cutting iron, you must multiply with a larger shaft wheel and a smaller pulley.”
The drill was altered, and holes were bored — varying from six inches to a quarter of an inch — through great thicknesses of timber. The next thing was to put the timber on a wheel-frame on a small rail, so that it could be moved in any direction. By means of a pattern or template every separate hole was marked on the timber and applied beneath the drill.
While this operation was performed, Chanter was sent to look at the operations at a neighbouring factory for planing and grooving flooring boards for builders. He came back with the full conviction that henceforward wood must be worked wholly by machinery. Only hard wood required very different machinery from soft wood.
One after another, machines were constructed for the various operations of sawing, planing, grooving, cutting mortices and tenons, and boring holes. One difficulty after another was surmounted, trial after trial made till the whole was complete.
It was settled that the machines should be worked by men and boys paid by the day, inasmuch as the interest of the pieceman being to get through the work, the dayman would be kept up to the mark. All seemed to go well, when one morning Chanter, with his face red with passion, entered the private office of John Smith.
“Here’s a pretty set-to, sir; these scamps of workmen say they won’t use the machinery.”
“They say it’s of no use to them, and they shall turn out rather thin take to it.”
“Well, Chanter, I can’t force them to use it. Can you?”
Chanter was very savage. He was always just to the workmen, and was indignant at what seemed to him their injustice.
“Well, sir, what shall we do?”
“Why, Chanter, as the men say they won’t use the machinery, and you can’t force them, and I don’t intend to try to force them, you must even give them the work out for hand-make at the usual prices.”
“But the machinery, sir! after all this expense and trouble.”
“Well, it won’t want to eat, will it, Chanter? won’t have a Saturday night?”
“Well no, sir. That’s true.”
“Very well, oil it, and take no further notice.” The work was given out, and a few days after, John Smith, who had carefully watched the laborious processes of handicrafting in sawing, and hewing, and planing, and boring the heavy timbers, caused it to be made known that the men might, if they chose, save their labour by using the machinery, without any other charge than the time of the daymen who worked it at a mere fraction of cost to them. John Smith professed himself satisfied with the saving of material, and left them to their own devices.
In a very short time the men brought piece after piece to the machines, the axe, and the augur, and the saw were gradually abandoned, and mere drudgery became distasteful. One morning Chanter came in to the master.
“Well, sir, these scamps have set the machines at work at everything they can do, and the piecemen will have a balance of forty pounds a-piece to take above their draw at the end of the job. I’ll pay them off for it at the next lot of work. We shall get it so cheap, that all the trade will come to us.”
“Won’t do, Chanter !” said John Smith. “You are like a great boy. I remember when I was a boy, and went fishing. So sure as I snapped at my hook too quick, I lost my fish.”
“Well, sir, you don’t mean to let them go on having the machines for nothing!”
“I don’t mean to have a turn-out of these men urged on by other men!”
So the next work was given out on the same terms as though no machinery existed. This time the men devised more jobs for the machines than had originally been planned. Their profits were greater than ever. This time John Smith called Chanter to him.
“Let all the wood machinery be pulled down, and packed up, next week.”
Chanter stared. “Pull down the machinery!”
“Yes! Did not the men say it was of no use?”
The news went forth that the machinery was to be pulled down. The piecemen were aghast at the prospect of losing profits, and the daymen, who had learned to avoid drudgery, were in ill plight. In a day or two a deputation came in to make an application to John Smith against the removal of the machinery.
“Why, my men, how is this? You were going to turn out because I put up the machinery, and now you seem disposed to turn out because I take it down. You are hard to deal with. Did you not say at the outset it was of no use?”
“Why, so we did,” faltered out one of the men; “but we find it is of some use.”
“Oh, it is, is it? Well, then, you must settle with the foreman of how much use it is.”
“Can’t we settle it with you, sir?” .
“No; I have other matters to attend to. The foreman is to settle between you and me on what terms you can work. He is an honest man, and if you be honest men, you will own that your motive in turning out against the machinery was the fear of having your wages lowered, and yon now find that you have had them unfairly increased.
My object in getting the machines is to obtain work by moderate price while paying good wages and lessening your drudgery. But it is not just that you should put into your pockets the earning of machines that you have neither devised nor paid for. If you think you will be better off in this factory with machines than in other factories without machines, I trust we shall go on together for many years.”
Away they went to work, and competition soon settled the matter — the piecemen bringing down the prices to the fair level by competition with each other. They knew that workmen of many classes were competent to their work when aided by machinery, and that by the machinery their condition had been made one of greater comfort: there was never afterwards any talk of turning out. In fact, they got spoiled for mere laborious handicraft, and were unfitted for other factories where the ordinary hand-labour was used.
Once, some trade delegates came to interfere with the hours of labour, and they were simply told to take away with them all the men who were dissatisfied, and who could be replaced from outsiders. They did not gain a single recruit. Every man and boy in the factory knew that then advancement depended only on their skill. A gardener or a farm labourer entering at the gate might become a cinder-sifter, or an engineer, fitter, or viceman, according to his capacity. He who preferred wood to iron, or vice versa, according to his aptitude, could take to the one or the other.
The usual results took place. Other factories imitated the machinery by degrees, and John Smith had ever after the satisfaction of hearing that men duly trained in his factory were mostly at a premium in other factories. The type had been set which still exists and multiplies. The earliest wood machinery in England was that of Sir Samuel Bentham, known as Brunell’s block machinery at Portsmouth, Mr. Brunell having been the active agent in the erection, but it did not get beyond the sphere of marine work.
How little was done in wood machinery is proved by the fact, that so short a time has elapsed since the introduction of gun-stock machinery from the United States, where the value of skilled labour long ago forced machines into use. Some of the earliest wood machines in Woolwich Arsenal, now one of our Government wonders, were devised and constructed in the factory of John Smith, when artillery wheels first ceased to be a handicraft and became a process of machinery.
The facility of obtaining hand labour in England has much impeded the progress of machinery, which is destined finally to remove from us all painful drudgery. The workmen’s strikes will force on machinery, and the time will come when drudgery will be no more. The inanimate powers of nature will furnish all the labour, and human beings will only be needed for the supervision. It will be a glorious time for our nation when the minds and bodies of our people shall be equally developed by mental and physical gymnastics, and there shall be no brawny arms upon thin legs, and other monstrous and unequal developments.
W. Bridges Adams.