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Two or three things you may not know about the history of automation

In the aftermath of my talk about the history of the future of automation at FutureFest, and with my time at Nesta drawing to a close (I will miss the free fruit), I felt like taking some time to jot down a few final thoughts. And so, here are three lessons I will take away from the days and weeks I spent examining the interesting and thought-provoking – and sometimes downright odd – world of robots and automation. They are ranked in order of seriousness...

Lesson One:

If an automobile magnate is financing your documentary on automation and unemployment, don’t criticise the automobile industry…

This would seem to be an obvious piece of advice, akin to ‘Caution: Coffee Hot’, but it is one that Willard Van Dyke failed to heed whilst working on the film, Valley Town. In 1939, Van Dyke had been hired to write and direct a film about automation and systematic unemployment as part of a series of educational films financed by the Sloan Foundation, the charitable organisation of Alfred P. Sloan, President and C.E.O. of General Motors.

Van Dyke’s original cut of Valley Town, however, was openly critical of corporate America for its lack of concern for the effect of automation on workers. Upon learning that his foundation’s money had been used to fund such a film, Sloan ordered an extensive – and expensive – reworking of the film and pulled his foundation out of the educational film business altogether.

Van Dyke’s original cut can be seen here. Sloan’s reworked final cut can be seen here. The two versions offer an interesting example of the way that money can control the conversation around automation.

In Van Dyke’s original cut, the narrator waxes: “Well, we can’t blame the machines; they do what they’re told to do” – insinuating that those in charge of the machines should share at least some of the responsibility for those thrown out of work by the installation of labour-saving machinery. The workers should have been given dismissal wages, the narrator asserts; they should have been given enough warning to allow them to find new jobs before being laid off.

When an unemployed worker recounts the common adage that more automation means more prosperity means more jobs, a fellow unemployed worker cuts him off: “Prosperity for whom? Not for him, not for you, not for me.” All of this, and more, was cut from Sloan’s reworked version. Whereas Van Dyke’s version had ended with shots of an impoverished town paired with a plea to think about the workers displaced by automation, Sloan’s version strikes a note of conciliation over images of a revitalized war economy. “Government and industry are working together to retrain these men”, proclaims the narrator.

he felt “traumatized” by the whole ordeal

Van Dyke would later say that he felt “traumatized” by the whole ordeal, and recounted that even the film’s composer, Marc Blitzstein, had been disappointed in him: “Blitzstein, whom I liked very much was absolutely furious at me and felt that I had sold a piece of work down the river and I was a whore.”

Lesson Two:

We have made robots do some weird things over the years…

If robots do eventually rise up to make us their servants, they will have a long list of grievances to settle. While some of the things we make robots do are perhaps understandable from a robot’s perspective – e.g. driving around Mars, nudging asteroids, descending into volcanoes, and diving to the ocean’s depths – others are just plain absurd. Perhaps our only chance at leniency when the robots turn toward retribution will lie in the fact that we are far from the first generation to make robots do weird things.

One of the first electrical humanoid robots, a collection of gears, circuits, and wallboard named Televox, was forced to demonstrate his patriotism in 1928 by raising and lowering an American flag. Because freedom. A later English robot named Alpha was made to extoll the virtues of the newest automatic electric toasters and fire a revolver.

In a tone-deaf move at the height – or depth – of the Depression, the US Department of Labor forced a robot to deliver speeches about the virtues and benefits of automation to workers recently displaced by automation. And one of the most famous humanoid robots of the 1930s and 1940s, Elektro, was made to perform cringe-inducing (sexist) standup, and even had to take care of a canine robot named Sparko.

And then there are the smoking robots

Can we talk about the smoking robots? Did the early twentieth century need ten smoking robots? Apparently it did. Televox, Alpha, and Elektro were all forced to inhale the poison. So, too, were the English robot Superman Dennis, the Swiss robot Sabor V, the Russian robot Bip-Bipom John, and the American robots Ohm Kilowatt, Ebenezer, and Willie Vocalite. Even the child-like Willie the Robot was forced to smoke cigarettes – though at least he too got to fire a revolver.

Lesson Three:

Even robots get replaced by newer and better robots. And when they do, they too have to get creative in order to pay the bills.

Speaking of Elektro, the dog-loving, cigarette smoking standup comedian: after losing his job at Westinghouse, Elektro bounced around to a few odd jobs and storage units, eventually finding himself in the City of Angels starring as ‘Thinko’ in the Hollywood B-movie exploitation comedy The Sex Kittens Go to College. It’s worse than it sounds. Much, much worse.

(Main image from The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair)


Jared Robert Keller

Jared is a guest researcher in the Policy & Research department at Nesta. His research looks at the history of debates around the effect of automation on the economy and labour market.