Sunday, 27 October 2013

'Labour's Triangular Problem; or, Men versus Machines' by Thomas Shore junior (1888)

Today is the 125th anniversary of the publication of the final instalment of the Thomas Shore junior's 'Men vs Machines', which was serialised in 'The Commonweal', and which I republish in full today.

Shore was a member of the Socialist League, a breakaway organisation from H.M. Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Their journal, 'The Commonweal', featured a number of articles by Shore, including one (brought to my attention by John Levin) about the Luddites. Upon examining the journal in more depth, I noticed an advert for a pamphlet by Shore called 'Men vs Machines' from 1889, which I later found had earlier been serialised in the Commonweal prior to publication.

There is little readily-available information about Shore, who remains an elusive figure. Although he is frequently mentioned in the Commonweal - either writing articles, or speaking at meetings for example - his name does not feature in well-known works about the SDF or William Morris. Brief research I have conducted using other sources reveal him to have originally been a printer by trade, Bankrupted in 1879 alongside his brother George. The address given for Shore in the edition of the London Gazette which announces his bankruptcy - 33 Newington Green Road, Islington - also features as his address in the Commonweal years later, and in various newspaper articles which mention him through the years of the latter part of the nineteenth century. In one of these articles in 1894, he is described as a 'Manager of the Oldfield Road group of London Board schools', yet I have as yet been unable to find any trace him in the Census returns for the late 19th and early 20th century. It has been suggested to me that he may have been operating under a pen name, but his bankruptcy notice and other occasions where his name pops up in newspapers suggests this is unlikely.

Whoever Thomas Shore junior was, his writings are particularly interesting contributions to debates about the role that technology fulfils in capitalism, and it was no accident that his words appeared in the journal of the Socialist League. The organisation the League had split from - the SDF - was headed by H.M. Hyndman, an authoritarian figure whose rhetoric often invoked the name of the Luddites in the modern, abusive sense as backward-looking technophobes, bent on uncontrolled violence. The League took a markedly different stance, with Shore's front page article about the Luddites (unfortunately, a seemingly incomplete serial) and also frequent mentions of the Luddites in the 'Revolutionary Calendar' commemorating significant dates in working class history, which was printed in each edition of the Commonweal.

The version of 'Men vs Machines' below is taken from the Commonweal. I have been unable to access the pamphlet version, but I am aware that it featured a subtitle 'Suggestive Facts and Figures urging National Control of National Powers of Production', and that it carried a foreword by Henry Halliday Sparling, a Secretary of the Socialist League and a member of the Hammersmith branch, who was later briefly married to May Morris, the youngest daughter of William Morris. I would be grateful for any information about Thomas Shore that readers can provide me.

'Labour's Triangular Problem; or, Men versus Machines' 
by Thomas Shore junior
“There is no security against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now. A mollusc has not much consciousness. Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which the machines have made during the last few hundred years, and observe how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing in comparison. The more highly organised machines are creatures not so much of yesterday as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand! ... Even now the machines will only serve on condition of being served, and that too upon their own terms. The moment their terms are not complied with, they jib, and either smash both themselves and all whom they can reach, or turn churlish and refuse to work at all. How many men at this hour are living in a state of bondage to the machines? How many spend their whole lives, from the cradle to the grave, in tending them by night and day? Is it not plain that the machines are gaining ground upon us, when we reflect on the increasing number of those who are bound down to them as slaves, and of those who devote their whole souls to the advancement of the mechanical kingdom.”— (Samuel Butler: ‘Erewhon,' pp. 189, 200.)
The thought-provoking book from which the above is taken contains in chapters xxi, ii, and iii, probably some of the most extravagant speculation ever risked, even in a satirical fable, as it is. The pity is, there is so much of truth in the statement as to the increasing number of those who are slaves to machines.

I am hoping to give some fuller samples of ‘Erewhon’ some day: just now the question is machinery. Political economists at Bath, and trades unionists at Bradford, have just recently been dealing with the questions of machinery, production, distribution. Production and distribution the great question to settle; machinery the great distributing element.

The orthodox political economist says “Produce more and eat less”; the trades unionist, “Produce less and eat more”; the Socialist, “Produce more and eat more.” The political economist says, Increase your powers of production and be more thrifty; the ordinary trades unionist says, Restrict the output; the Socialist says, Control the whole means of production and distribution: produce as much as you want, and consume it. It is a sort of triangular duel, in the course of which some most wonderful nonsense has been written.

The British Printer, one of the latest organs devoted to that trade, and far and away the best printed, in its last number has the following par., which for its size contains more serious warning and specious balderdash than one could think possible:—
“EDISON ON THE LABOUR QUESTION.—In reply to the question, ‘When motive power gets to be four times as cheap as it is, what will become of the labouring man?’ Mr. Edison replied, ‘He will be enriched by it. Machinery will be his slave. See how machinery has multiplied in the last fifty years. As a direct result, working men get double the wages they did then, and the necessities of life cost only half as much. In other words, a hand-worker can to-day buy four times as much with ten hours of work as his father could fifty years ago. For the first time in the world's history a skilled mechanic can buy a barrel of flour with a single day’s work. The machinery in the United States represents the labour of a thousand million men, or fifty times as much labour as all the men in the country. When motive power is still further cheapened—say in another generation—I believe that the unskilled labourer, if sober and industrious, can have a house of his own, and a horse and carriage, and a library, and a piano. It is terrible stupidity that leads some labouring men to suppose that machinery is their foe. It is the thing which gives them independence and even freedom. Without machinery society would drift into the condition of master and slave. The multiplication of machinery means for every worker more food, better clothes, better house, less work. In fact, I believe that the indefinite increase of machinery is going to solve what folks call “the labour problem”—that is, the desire of hand-workers to get a bigger slice of the margin of profit.’ ”
It is rather refreshing to find such a par. in the pages of a journal whose raison de etre is the minimising of machinery. The British Printer is the outcome of a move made some ten or twelve years ago by a few earnest men, with some artistic feeling, to prevent the absolute extinction of printing as a handicraft and art; every page is a typographic protest against the dreary mechanical work of ten to twenty years ago, and a proof of the good effects which have come of once more allowing and urging the workman to be really a craftsman and an artist, instead of a mere automata attending on a machine.

This is by the way; only may it be noted, however, that the incongruity of such a paragraph in such a place is accentuated by finding that the sheets are fastened together with those confounded machine-driven wire staples, which are “stabbed” through as though to murder a choice bit of work, as special sacrifice to the machine demon.

Returning to the paragraph itself, the very serious part is the statement that “the machinery in the United States represents the labour of one thousand million men, or fifty times as much labour as that of all the men in the country.” Extremes meet, we are told, and probably it will be allowed that Robert Owen and J. S. Mill and John Ruskin and Professor Cairnes, extremest of orthodox economists and extremest of Socialists all agree on the position as expressed by Mill, that “it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the days of toil of any human being.”

Edison says that the amount of machinery now permits a man to buy four times as much with his ten hours of labour than his father could. A writer in the Denver Labour Enquirer, Jan. 1885, said, “When it takes 75 bushels of western man's corn to buy one ton of Ohio coal, and the miner has to dig out twelve tons of coal to buy one bushel of corn, we may well stand aghast at our system of developing the country.” This is the way to examine this question; this puts aside the confusion caused by the money value put upon things. The same rule-of-three sums can be worked out here in England on the figures in any labour paper, and gives point-blank denial to Edison's statement.

As to exactly how much man-labour is represented by the machine power in use in the world, that is a very difficult question, but the following from various sources may be useful, just at this time when the Trades Union Congress is being held and is discussing the growth of machine power. “In 1851 machine and tool making employed in England and Wales 48,000 persons; in 1861, 117,000; in 1871, 175,000. In 1851 our exports of steam-engines and other kinds amounted to £1,168,000 ; in 1875 to £4,213,000.” [1]

To make by hand all the yarn spun in England in one year by the use of the self-acting mule, carrying 1,000 spindles—viz., 1,000 threads at the time—would require 100,000,000 men. [2]

Kolb's ‘Condition of Nations’ 1880, footnote p. 99, says, “According to Fairbairn, in 1860 the metal works and smelting furnaces of England employed so many steam engines as to represent together 450,000 horse power. The steam-engines of the manufactories had together 1,350,000 horse power; the steamers 850,000; and the locomotives 1,000,000; making together 3,650,000 horse power. But inasmuch as this power is continuous, while horses would only work eight hours, the figures should be increased to 11,000,000. It is reckoned that the power of seven men is equal to one horse-power, so the steam-engines of England perform a work which would require 77,000,000 men to perform.”

According to M. Chevalier there were 16,500 locomotives at work in Europe. These represented 8,000,000 horses, or 40,000,000 able-bodied men, or the working capacity of a population of 200,000,000 human beings. (Democrat, Nov. 1886.)

Prof. A. Russel Wallace, in ‘Land Nationalisation,’ 1882, footnote p. 6, says, “There seems to be no means of getting at the exact amount of steam power now in use. A writer in the Radical newspaper states it at 2,000,000 horse power. Mr. Thomas Briggs in the Peacemaker states that ‘in 1851 we had steam machinery which represented 500 million pairs of hands,’ but I am informed he means by this the number which would be required to do the same work by the old hand-power machines. In a periodical called Design and Work (vol. x, 1881), it is stated that England now employs 9,000,000 horse power. Taking this estimate as approximately correct, we have a power equal to 90 million men. One-half our population (15 millions) consists of children and persons wholly dependent on the labour of others, and from the remainder we may deduct all the professional, literary, and independent classes, the army and navy, financiers, speculators, Government officials, and most tradesmen and shopkeepers — none of whom are producers of wealth. Taking these, together with the criminals, paupers, and tramps, at 6 millions, we have 9 millions who do all the productive physical labour of the country, while the steam power at work for us is at least ten times as much.”

What this vast increase of power really means can be judged by taking a few of the trades most affected by steam and machinery:—
“In 1874, 538,829 persons employed in mining and handling coal above and below ground extracted 160,713,832 tons of coal. In 1883, 514,933 persons produced 163,737,327 tons—an increase of nearly 23,000,900, with 24,000 fewer persons employed. In 1874 the miners won 261 tons per head; in 1880, 334 tons per head. In 1880, 53,896 were unemployed. In the working of iron and steel, in 1872, 360,356 persons employed produced and used 6,741,929 tons of pig-iron. In 1883, 361,343 persons were so employed, and they produced 8,490,224 tons—an increase of 1,750,000 tons for nearly the same number of persons as in 1872. In the cotton and flax industry 570,000 persons used 1,266,100,000 lbs. of cotton in 1874; while in 1883 but 586,470 persons used 1,510,600,000 lbs. In every case it is the same—decreased number employed, and immensely increased production. In agriculture in England and Wales, persons employed have fallen from 2,010,454 in 1861, to 1,383,184 in 1881, of whom but 800,000 are classed as agricultural labourers. Bear in mind that all this while population has been increasing at the rate of 10 per cent, per annum.” [3]
The Times (December 27, 1882) reported on northern coal trade as follows:—
“On the question of production, it may be said that in South Durham in 1875 each person employed in and at the pits brought to bank on the average 339 tons coal. That rose to 350 in 1879; in 1881 it was 370, and there is ground for the belief that 1882 has given a further increase.”
And Mr. Burt, speaking at the Durham miners’ gala, said:—
“In 1873, a year of high wages, they produced 35,000,000 tons of coal less than in 1883. During those ten years the average produce of each person had increased no less than 20 per cent. Those employed were producing 80 to 90 tons per man more than in 1873; not all due to improved machinery, the bulk due to increase of manual labour.” [4]
“Not all due to improved machinery” is important to note, for it is the expression of a curious confusion of thought; it is an error with much truth. It is correct that the increase is “due to increase of manual labour,” but this increased effort is extorted by fear of machinery; extorted from each labourer by the knowledge that there is a large surplus of unemployed men desirous of taking his place if he does not do the extreme task demanded; so therefore the increase is indirectly the result of improved machinery. The man in one pit is matched against the machine in another.

Returning to agriculture for a moment, W. Saunders (Democrat, March 7, 1885), on increased productiveness, says:—
“One man with a reaping and binding machine drawn by three horses can cut and bind 12 acres in a day—an amount of work which formerly required 20 persons.”
In shipping, he continues, some records dealing with Hull show, in
“twenty eight voyages from Hull to New York and back in 1835, 15,500 tons of cargo were carried; average length of voyage 119 days, the total number of days for the crew being 53,440. The same quantity of cargo this year carried in five Hull ships, average voyage being 47 days, total days being 8,295, or less than one-sixth of the days formerly occupied, the labour of the crews being six times as effective.”
In spinning, 1 person is equal to 750 of a hundred years ago."

Sketchley, in his ‘Review of European Society,’ p. 214, quotes from Carpenter on machinery the following table of productive powers of machinery:—



Estimated number of workers.

Productive powers equal to the labour of men

Productive power in relation to workers.
As 37 To 1
As 52 to 1
As 90 to 1

And from 1840 to 1878 they had again doubled, being equal to the labour, of 1,200,000,000 of men, and as 130 to 1 compared to the number of workers. At p.223 he quotes from a letter of James Caird to the Times of June 5, 1875, that one reaping-machine would do the work of ten men: that in the harvest of 1875 40,000 machines were employed, equal to the labour of 400,000 men; that one steam-plough is equal to the labour of eight men and twenty horses.

Kolb (1880, p. 908) says:—
“Great Britain manufactures at least as much cotton as all other countries together. From 1735 to 1749 only 1,000,000 lbs. were consumed annually, but by 1860 at least 1,000,000,000— that is, more in one working day than in three years of the former period.”
The total population of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland in 1801 is given as 15,717,287; in 1861 the population was 28,974,362. Roughly, one might say population multiplied by 2 in a period during which production is multiplied by 1,000!!

Sidney Taylor in his speech at the evening demonstration of Co-operators made a laboured but poor attempt to show that the people who lay so much stress on inequalities of distribution are wrong:—
“If it be urged that the rich eat more than their fair share of food, and wear more than their fair share of clothes, I reply that after all the rich have only one stomach a-piece, of limited capacity; and that if they were restricted to one or two suits of clothes each the surplus would go a very little way towards covering the nakedness of our widespread destitution.”
This is really very little else than fooling in economics; more, it is not true economically. Every rich man is a consumer with as many stomachs as he has immediate retainers and dependents, who are like himself pure consumers only, and not wealth producers. It will need something stronger than Taylor's “only one stomach” argument to, explain how it comes that ten or fifteen pounds per head is spent on one banquet; there must be a few poor men's coats consumed somewhere to allow one man to be sued for a tailor's bill of £750 for one year's clothing for one man. The women who spend two and three thousand per annum in dress, although having only one back to cover, do so at the expense of sweated East-end shirt-makers’ shifts, and Sedley Taylor ought to know it, if he does not.

An increase of a thousand-fold of production, against three-fold of consumers (not consumption) shows distribution to be a little unequal; and in urging this I am not forgetting the exports argument. This is discounted by the fact that other countries have also increased vastly in powers of production. For instance, take America.
“In 1880 it was estimated we in Britain produced 5,439,645,000 yards of piece goods, and the home consumption about 27 yards per head of population. This would give less than 1,000,000,000 yards, leaving about 4,500,000,000 for export. Now take the United States. In the same year the stated production was 2,131,580,000 yards, and the home consumption equal to 40 yards per head. This would give a total of about 1,900,000,000 yards, leaving about 200,000,000 yards for export. She exported cotton goods to the value of 9,981,000 dols. In 1881 she increased this to 13,571,000— an increase in one year of 3,590,000 dols.” [5]
The same report also makes the important statement that while the average consumption per spindle in Britain is only 32 lbs. of raw cotton, in the United States it is 66 lbs.; therefore one American operative works up as much material as two English. In piece goods the American production is 2.75 against English 2.50.

In coal, iron, and steel the figures given by different authorities are more crushing in their completeness than even in cotton.

In coal the output increased in the term 1869-1880 in Belgium 9 per cent.; Austria, 28 per cent.; Great Britain, 34 per cent.; France 42 per cent.; Germany, 76 per cent.; United States, 135 per cent.!!

In pig-iron in same period, Belgium, 18 per cent.; Great Britain, 28 per cent.; Germany, 64 per cent.; France, 66 per cent.; United States, 126 per cent.!!

Steel production, United States:—




Nett tons:




According to Parliamentary Paper, April 2, 1883, the total production of steel in all European states in 1882 (including England) was 2,200,000, while the production in the United States was 1,800,000 tons. By the same paper we find that during 1882 the quantity of iron ore imported into the United States was only 580,207 tons, value £337,535, of which Spain sent 246,941 tons, France 142,856 tons, England 98,690, and Italy 31,237.

These figures, which I quote from Sketchley’s useful handbook, prove that America, once our very best customer, has set up business for herself, and starts with many advantages over her teacher. Note: the very important detail re the increased output per spindle, 66 lbs. against our 32 lbs. It explains several knotty points. It explains how it is that America can underbid us in what we used to call “our,?” markets, even in our own home markets; it also explains how it is that the American operative has so little advantage in comfort over the English or Continental worker. [6]

John Bright to-day is using all his influence to secure to the landlords of Ireland the high rents obtainable years ago. In January 1885, however, he wrote a letter to the treasurer of the National Industrial Association in explanation of his statement that “if land is not worth rent, it should be, and will be, rent free”; and he went on to say that “in Lancashire there are scores of mills closed now owing to the competition of modem mills of better construction.” The most modern mills are of course those started in America and abroad, where the capitalist embarked with the newest machinery and without any old-fashioned lumber of sunk capital and useless obsolete machinery.

The statement that numbers of men were being deprived of means of living by increased machinery, used to be met by the statement that they could find work at some other trade, and that there were so many more engineers and machine makers wanted that all came out level in the end. Leaving out of consideration the absurdity of the nineteen agricultural labourers finding employment as reaping machine makers, it must be patent that as the same process is going on in every trade, the forced idleness must be increasing in every trade, even in the trade which is the great agent of all this idleness, the engineers and machine makers.

It is rather startling to find at what a rate this disestablishing of disestablishers is going on; to find how very rapidly the engineer is being hoisted on his own petard.

Mr. Shaftoe, President at the Trades’ Union Congress, Sept. 4, 1888, dealing with “Labour-saving Machines,” said:
“There is scarcely any branch of industry to which these mechanical inventions have not been applied; and the effects have been intensified by the sub-division of labour. We find, for instance in the use of steam hammers, that nine men have been displaced out of every ten formerly required. Machinery has displaced five men out of every six in the glass bottle trade; in the manufacture of agricultural implements 600 men now do the work which fifteen or twenty years ago required 2,145, thus displacing 1,545. In the production of machinery itself, there is a saving of 25 per cent, of human labour; and this even reaches 33 per cent. in the production of metals. In the boot and shoe trade one man now does the same work as required five; we find a single lace machine displacing 2,000 women; in paper-making 10 persons can do what used to require 100; in ship-building the displacement is 4 or 5 out of every 6; in clothing 1 man can do w hat used to employ 6 to 9. The general effect during the last 40 years is a saving of labour to the extent of 40 per cent, in producing any given article.”
No matter which way one looks there is no variation, not the slightest; increased production to the capitalist, the machinery controller; decreased consumption to the worker, the producer. A striking example was given by one of the speakers at the Industrial Remuneration Conference, 1885. Mr. J. G. Hutchinson made an elaborate statement to prove the general improvement in the worker's position; he was answered by Mr. James Aitkin (Greenock Chamber of Commerce):—
“In carpet weaving fifty years ago the workman drove the shuttle with the hand, and produced from forty-five to fifty yards per week, for which he was paid from 9d. to 1s. per yard, while at the present day a girl attending a steam loom can produce sixty yards a day, and does not cost her employer 1½d. per yard for her labour. That girl with her loom is now doing the work of eight men. The question is, How are these men employed now? In a clothier's establishment, seeing a girl at work at a sewing machine, he asked the employer how many men’s labour that machine saved him. He said it saved him twelve men's labour. Then he asked, ‘What would those twelve men be doing now?’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘they will be much better employed than if they had been with me, perhaps at some new industry.’ He asked, ‘What new industry?’ But the employer could not point out any except photography; at last he said they would probably have found employment in making sewing machines. Shortly afterwards he was asked to visit the American Singer Sewing Machine Factory, near Glasgow. He got this clothier to accompany him, and when going over the works they came upon the very same kind of machines as the clothier had in his establishment. Then he put the question to the manager, ‘How long would it take a man to make one of these machines?’ He said he could not tell, as no man made a machine, they had a more expeditious way of doing it than that; there would be upwards of thirty men employed in the making of one machine; but he said ‘if they were to make this particular kind of machine, they would turn out one for every four and a-half days’ work of each man in their employment.’ Now, there was a machine that with a girl had done the work of twelve men for nearly ten years, and the owner of that machine was under the impression that these twelve men would be employed making another machine, while four and a-half days of each of these men was sufficient to make another machine that was capable of displacing other twelve men.” [7]
It has been urged by the orthodox economists that although the individual worker may have suffered from his enforced idleness, that since competition resulted to the good of the public generally, competition must continue.

In some cases the reduction in the sale price of an article has been reduced in proportion to the reduced sum paid for labour, but in hundreds of instances which could be given, the whole of the amount saved has for years been the sole profit of the monopolist machinery-controller.

When Charles Babbage issued his ‘Economy of Machinery and Manufactures,’ great as had been the strides made in developing the power of steam, its position then was not a circumstance as compared with to-day. For a book dated 1832, in many respects its tone in dealing with the worker was in advance of the day; some hard knocks are dealt at employers and monopolists. It is admittedly in favour of machinery and economy in manufacture; but, when dealing with the “Effects of the Application of Machinery,” the summing-up is roughly, which is the best—or rather, which is the least evil—sudden death or slow starvation?
“It is almost the invariable consequence of such improvements ultimately to cause a greater demand for labour, and often the new labour requires a higher degree of skill than the old; but, unfortunately, the class of persons who have been driven out of the old employment are not always qualified for the new one; and in all cases a considerable time elapses before the whole of their labour is wanted. One very important inquiry which this subject presents is the question, Whether it is for the interest of the working -classes that any improved machinery should be so perfect as to defy the competition of hand-labour, and that they should be at once driven out of the trade by it; or whether it is more advantageous for them to be gradually forced to quit the trade by the slow and successive advances of the machine?
The italics are Babbage’s, and to me seem to suggest that Babbage was rather wanting to give the machinery owners a hint to be careful. There may be some question as to which would be best or worst for the worker—rapid starvation or slow—there is no manner of doubt as to which has been the best for the exploiters. By the gradual process it has been possible to bring the workers to a degree of endurance of suffering, which by no conceivable stretch of imagination could have come about by a sudden change. By slow degrees we have become accustomed to an immense army of unemployed, which would have sent society to everlasting smash had it been formed or made suddenly by one or two great machines, instead of an infinite number of changes towards automatism.

Constantly, constantly, constantly growing, growing, growing, recruited by tens, by hundreds, by thousands, the army of wholly unemployed, and the army of very irregularly employed, has grown until to-day there is ready for some great Carnot of Labour such a body as never the Hannibals of the past led to the victory of the gory field.

The passage in Babbage above quoted continues thus, “The suffering which arises from a quick transition is undoubtedly more intense; but it is also much less permanent than that which results from the slower process.” Just so: Had the mechanical perfection of to day been possible in say two or three years, instead of taking from eighty to a hundred to bring about, there would have been enough of energy to overthrow the tyrant and break the cords; but year by year the sufferer became more and more accustomed to the suffering; year by year new cords were woven on, and it is only just now that education, a quickened intelligence and mental grasp, is enabling him to understand the causes of his troubles, and will enable him to do by wit and mind what might have been done by main force, had only the accumulated miseries of to-day have been placed on one generation, instead of filtering down through several.

The “right to live” must be made to mean something nearer “right living” than the mere standing by a machine to feed it with raw material to make a monopolist's profit.

The full displacing power of machinery is hardly sufficiently realised by many. The displacement has in most cases been so gradual, and therefore the starvation so gradual, that the starvelings have gradually become accustomed to it, and quietly submitted. But these gradual displacements have been tolerably severe in cases. [8]

In hollow-ware, for instance, Richard Roberts, civil engineer, stated in evidence given to House of Lords’ Committee on Patent Law Amendment, that by “stamping up” from sheets of metal the labour-cost was one-fiftieth of that by the old process. A certain article made at one blow by machine in France could not be done in England without fifty blows and ten annealings; made by machine at the rate of ten a minute, but by hand hardly ten in the hour. [9]

This means, therefore, that out of each fifty men employed, forty-nine would by the machine be dispensed with. Since 1851 this stamping machine has been much improved.

In evidence before a Commons’ Committee 1829, Joseph Merry, ribbon-manufacturer, said he was possessed of an improvement in making ribbon velvets which enabled him to make forty pieces while another man was making one, [10] and exhibited a sample of the goods made. This book of Macfie’s from which I have been quoting has more similar evidence as to the displacing power of machinery; but the work is specially devoted to a question which leads immediately to one other point on which a few words must be said when dealing with the question of “Men v. Machines.”

The contention of the orthodox economist and business man and inventor has always been that, although there might be some amount of—well! “inconvenience” (starvation sounds too ugly,) caused to those unfortunates thrown out by each new invention, yet the great amount of good resulting to the whole community was quite enough to warrant new inventions, and such encouragement as could be given by the protection of Patent Copyright Acts. It is urged by the inventor, but more especially by the capitalist, who almost invariably gobbles up the inventor, that the increased output and the great reductions in price resulting, more than compensates for the few extra “out-of-works.” The glad-to-be-satisfied consciences of the bourgeoisie, who are the chief consumers of the results of improved methods in machine manufactures, accept the statement and no more is said.

Macfie’s book is an attack on Patents and Copyrights, and contains a mass of matter of use to Socialists directly on those questions, and incidentally some very useful information on proving that almost every invention has conduced more to the direct profit of the monopolist, to the direct suffering of the workers, and only in the very slightest has benefited the consumer, the supposed to be much studied consumer.

One or two very short examples can be given to prove how exceedingly small has been the benefit received by the general body as compared with the immense and immediate profit which has resulted to the monopolists, and then I will conclude with a short summing-up of the case against monopolist control of machine power.

W. S. Hale, a maker of stearine and composite candles, in evidence before the Lords, 1851, said “that he was able to reduce the price of two wick candles three halfpence per pound immediately on the expiration of Palmer's patent.” Palmer by his patent, therefore, extorted three halfpence per pound more than was required by a manufacturer not holding a monopoly. Three halfpence extra profit on every pound of candles used forty years ago represented a very large sum of money.

Of necessity, in dealing with the question of Machinery, one has to come in contact with the question of Patents; it is an essential part of the monopoly which lends to the constant debasement of the labourer.

In Sir Henry Bessemer's evidence before the House of Commons Committee, 1871, we have a series of statements which show the enormous profits made by these monopolists. “£4,000 was the cost prior to my bringing the invention before the public, and about £16,000 after my paper was read at Cheltenham, making altogether an outlay of about £20,000.” In three weeks he had sold licenses amounting to £26,000; two iron-masters paying £10,000 each. “Of course, I had a larger stake to play for; I knew that steel was selling at £50, or £60, or £70 per ton, and I knew that if it could be made by my plan, it could with profit be sold at £20 a ton.”

The men who gave these premiums of £10,000 each, made no attempt to utilise the power they had, and five or six years later Bessemer brought back these privileges, giving in one case £20,000 for what he had sold for £10,000. It paid Bessemer to do this, as he then “swept the market clear of all these privileges,” and was able by his further patents to dictate fresh terms―this time a royalty of £1 or £2 per ton on every ton of steel made.

In another manufacture an article was being supplied from Germany and sold at 7s. per ounce, the raw material of which was only worth 11d. per pound. He applied himself to the matter, and was able to make a similar article at a cost of 4s. per pound. He sent out a traveller, and the first order he took was at the rate of 80s. per pound net. For twenty-eight years this trade has been carried on (he is speaking in 1871, and it is still going on), and we are charging the trade 300 per cent, profit, ... in the first instance it was more than 1,000 per cent, profit. [11]

That this great profit has been made mainly by dispensing with manual labour, is proved indirectly in his statement, that three out of his five assistants having died, “the secret was in the possession of only two besides himself,” and it is known that the amount of the trade done was considerable.

At p. 401 he says, dealing with the royalty on iron and steel, “The manufacturers are getting £3 a ton more for railway bars under a 2s. 6d. royalty, than they sold them for under a £1 royalty two years ago.” How much profit do you suppose the seller of that 100,000 tons which you have referred to would have on that transaction?—“I should say that a judicious manufacturer there would have a profit of £2 a ton.” Then your royalty was equal to one-half of the manufacturer's profits?—“We took one-third of the spoil in that case, but that was on the lowest article in the trade, namely, railway bars; on some other articles where we were charging £2 a ton, the manufacturers were getting £25 a ton profit.”

Without any further quotation, it must be allowed as proved that the general public has not benefitted in any way proportionate to the above, while in every instance the amount of labour displaced has been immense. This displacement is constantly going on, and with constantly increasing rapidity, and the time is not far distant when absolute starvation of thousands will force the consideration of two questions—a revival of the old-time machine-smashing mania, or a direct control of all machinery by the whole working body of the people. Sheer self-defence will in the near future force a settlement of this detail; and, although they do not seem to know it, the ordinary newspapers have lately much exercised on a matter which is proof of this statement. “On the threshold of Socialism” was the title of an article in the Pall Mall Gazette a few days ago (Sept. 13), dealing with the rapid growth of the American trust system, which has grown to such an extent as to demand the attention of the president of the United States. The particular trade dealt with was the manufacture of jute bagging (used for cotton packing). The total output is about forty-five million yards. Eight firms, manufacturing two-thirds of the total output, join in a trust, and by one man placed in New York, can practically control the whole trade; for their body, having power to force prices up in its own interest from 7½ cents to 11 cents for its own goods, enables the third who stand out from the ring to get some increase in price simply by the dearth made by the trust holding its goods in. In the Commonweal of September 15, H. F. Charles in the American Letter gave some interesting and useful details as to the Standard Oil Trust, probably the most gigantic monopoly ever formed. Soap, and corn, and beef, and even coffins, have, with other commodities, been subjects of “trusts” in America, and now our turn has come. At the present time the “Great Salt Syndicate” is an important newspaper “item,” but the idea has been working for some time. Amalgamation of dock companies, of canal companies, of railway companies, has been a growing topic in City circles. The dock amalgamation is a fact; the amalgamation of five London railways into two is almost sure very soon. When dock has joined dock, the next and easy step is canal to dock, and then railway to that.

Says the Pall Mall Gazette article: “In the end the fighting trusts are apt to amalgamate, and then the monopoly becomes complete. Underselling is not the only weapon by which a trust can kill out competition. Boycotting is freely resorted to. One trust allies itself with another trust for offensive and defensive purposes. In short, the work of centralisation, is going on at railroad speed.

All these companies are great users of machinery, are constantly trying to get improved machinery, so as to dispense with manual labour. A great monopoly in any trade means, therefore, monopolist control of all employed in making machinery to be used in that particular trade. A sole controlling monopoly in any trade can afford to give the very highest premium conceivable for any machine needful to the purposes of the monopoly, or can starve the machine-builders into accepting the very lowest subsistance wages; more than that, having at last made the monopoly complete, can afford any price it likes to buy up and finally crush out any machine or method not desired to be put into use. Improved methods and machines have repeatedly been bought up by established manufacturers, for the sole purpose of not being used. Under the trust system this can be carried to any extent desired by the monopolists, for they can recoup by famine prices any sum which they expend to maintain their sole control.

Our national life for years past has been depending on the improvements in and development of the trade in machinery, and yet there can be named no particular interest which could not in two years from now be controlled by ten or a dozen English or American capitalists. Take our railway interest; it represents a nominal investment of some eight hundred millions, a real value of less than four hundred millions; it is not a very extravagant idea, seeing what has been done in America, to conceive of our whole railway system managed by a board of millionaires owning the whole controlling power. The very first result of this would be the equalisation of all fares, and the throwing out of employ of thousands of booking and checking clerks; for just as we to-day buy toffee and almond rock, cigarettes, cigars, matches, postcards, and pocket-books in every railway station, so we should then help ourselves to our railway ticket from an automatic. This may seem to some as mere joking, but it is meant in sober seriousness and in face of the developments in machines during the last thirty years, is not to be lightly set aside. How many “try-your-weight” boys has the automatic machine put out of a job during the last two years? and every day brings forth some new supply box ; and the apprentice of Old London who stood outside his master's shop crying “What d'ye lack?” to-day appears in an automatic machine screwed to the door-step or window-frame.

Every day produces some fresh and astounding development in machinery. Even while writing, there arrives some notes on a new method of making sugar by electricity, which if true will totally upset the whole labours and negotiations of some of the ‘cutest business men and politicians of the day, who have for months past been dealing with the sugar bounty question, and who, having made careful arrangements to spoil the public, find themselves outdone by a totally unexpected development in manufacture. And so the game goes on—more and more spoil to the spoiler, more and more of suffering to the mass, until, as Ruskin puts it— 
“Day after day your souls will become more mechanical, more servile: also you will go on multiplying, wanting more food, and more; you will have to sell cheaper and cheaper, work longer and longer, to buy your food. At last, do what you can, you can make no more, or the people who have the corn will not want any more; and your increasing population will necessarily come to a quite imperative stop—by starvation, preceded necessarily by revolution and massacre.” ('Fors' 44, 172.) 
Daily more money spent to manufacture idle men, despite the fact it is “mere insane waste to dig coal for our force while the vital force is unused; and not only unused, but, in being so, corrupting and polluting itself. We waste our coal and spoil our humanity at one and the same instant”; and let this be borne in mind, “Your idle people, as they are now, are not merely waste coal beds. They are explosive coal beds, which you pay a high annual rent for.” [12]

Just a short while longer and these increasing beds of explosives will go off, and the explosion will be such as will put even Sho-Bandai-San to shame as puny; it will not be the mere question of moving a mountain and leaving a wilderness of mud, it will be as complete as that of the American miner, who, reporting a mishap with some new blasting compound, said when the smoke was gone there wasn't even a hole left. A million of starving people, with another million on the verge of starvation, represent a potential of destructive force to measure which no dynamometer has yet been made, but which will, if suddenly liberated, assuredly and absolutely destroy every vestige of so-called nineteenth century civilisation; will destroy it more completely than time has destroyed the traces of human society of Nineveh, Babylon, Greece and Rome, or even of Mexico.

For the especial benefit of some critics, perhaps it may be well to say in conclusion that no word here placed is to be taken as against machinery and improvements; rather I believe in more and more, I rather like to run back over the history of machinery, the romance of improved methods, and, on the data of what has been done, speculate on what is possible and probable in the future. Although I fail to see what use some of the “saved time” will be after it is saved, yet I would give free rein to every one desired to make time-saving improvements. Ruskin analyses this detail in his ‘Fors.’ You may keep on making “time-savers” till there is absolutely nothing to do but to make a machine to use up the spare time; but to that the only answer is, if the human mind can occupy itself only in invention of machinery, why let it, and be hanged to it. The only thing to be claimed is the most perfect freedom for every individual to do the same; total denial of the claim that any small section of society shall dominate and exploit the great mass by monopolising the accumulated results of the whole course of time.

And so I pass on, dreaming of and working to realise the dream of the Chartist prison poet:

“Mind writ in every face; books million-fold
Multiplied; galleries with breath-shapes hung
Raffaelle might worship, or Apelles old;
Groups from great Shakspeare's world or Chaucer's song
In bronzed or marble life, seeming upsprung
From some new Phidian realm of earth beneath
To gem the populous squares; music’s full tongue
Telling to millions what Mozart in death
Enraptured heard, but could not the boon-sounds bequeath;

And all for ALL! Rank, class, distinction, badge
For ever gone! Labour by Science made
Brief recreation—not by Privilege
Avoided, nor its thrift in name of Trade
Or Commerce filched. To give a brother's aid
To brethren, and enlarge the general bliss
From knowledge, virtue, health, beyond parade
Of pomp or gold—affording joy. I wis,
When Truth doth reign, earth shall be such a Paradise!”

(‘Purgatory of Suicides,’ Book viii.)


“We can never control the working-man until he eats up to-day what he earns to-morrow.”—Congressman Scott.


[1] Leoni Levi: ‘Work and Pay’, Straham, 1877, p.51
[2] Idem, p.25.
[3] Nineteenth Century, December 1884.
[4] Democrat, August 8, 1885.
[5] Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of Statistics of new Jersey, U.S.A., 1881, and quoted by Sketchley.
[6] This, by the way, is only a repetition of what took place between England and France. “It is said by one of our factory inspectors that in France one workman looks after 14 spindles; in England one minder and two assistants can manage a mule with 2,200 spindles” (Trant: ‘Trades Unions,’ 1884, p.136). This is an increase of 5,235 per cent., a greater increase than between England and America, which is only a shade over 100 per cent.
[7] ‘Report,’ p. 72.
[8] How exceedingly gradual in some cases may be seen by this example; “The present spinning machinery which we now use is supposed to be a compound of about eight hundred inventions. The present carding machine is a compound of about sixty patents.”―(Paul Rapsey Hodge, civil engineer: evidence before House of Lords, 1851; quoted in ‘Copyright and Patents for Inventions,’ R. A. Macfie, 1883, p.233.)
[9] Report, 1851, quoted in ‘Copyright and Patents for Inventions,’ R. A. Macfie, 1883, p.241.
[10] Macfie, p.214.
[11] Macfie, p.394-97.
[12] Ruskin: ‘Queen of the Air.’

This article was originally serialised in 'The Commonweal' Vol 4, numbers 141, 142, 143, 145 & 146 (September 22nd & 29th, October 6th, 20th & 27th 1888).


  1. This might be what you are looking for. Do you have access to JSTOR via a university or other institution?

    Men versus machinery: suggestive facts and figures, urging national control of national powers of production.
    Sparling, Henry Halliday
    LSE Selected Pamphlets
    Published by: LSE Library

  2. Thanks for that - I've somehow missed that (probably because the author is listed as HH Sparling rather than Thomas Shore junior). I may be able to get access to it. Thanks!