TRACE, a machine that reads bank checks
I spent nearly 50 years of my life as an engineer, and I think I know when it first started. It was in 1971 that I begin to work in earnest to eliminate people’s jobs.
There was a small engineering consulting company in Austin, and we received a contract from a concern called Autotronic Systems, Inc. Ignoring the name, the company was headquartered in Houston, and they had a chain of self-service gas stations about the country. That was an innovation in 1971, pumping your own gas. It eliminated the job of the smiley attendant, who also checked your oil and wiped your windshield. Our job was to design equipment that fit inside the gas pump and recorded the amount of fuel pumped and the amount charged. The data were transmitted to another device we designed that would store daily sales data and at night phone the home office and transmit the information. Wayne van Citters and I did the software for the home office computer. People lost their jobs.
Two years later I was working for a company in Irving, Texas, and what they did was build machinery that read the sales receipts from gas stations and did all the sales computation. Their machinery would also read bank checks, printed forms, and mail addresses on envelopes. We eliminated the jobs of the people who previously did this data entry.
In particular, the company worked on a program to eliminate Post Office workers who eyed addresses and typed them in, or just entered the ZIP code if that was available. Twelve such work stations fed huge machines by Pitney-Bowes that then sorted the mail to the appropriate collection bins. The huge machine was appropriately call a Letter Sorter Machine (LSM). Jobs were eliminated.
I worked a few weeks at a test operation at the Post Office on 8th Avenue in Manhattan, across the street from Madison Square Garden. Postal workers did not like us. There was back room talk of workers sabotaging the machines. Eventually the company I worked for lost the contract to IBM, and I was fired. But the next day I went back to work for them and did more mischief, eliminating jobs for several more years.
My first patent was for a machine that wrapped a band around a stack of dollar bills. It didn’t have to be one-dollar bills, it would put the strap around 100 bills of any denomination. We sold this system to the Federal Reserve Bank, and my invention eliminated the job of the person who used to put the strap on. Who wanted that job, anyway?
The same company was also a leader in the development of the ATM (automated teller machine). These machines are still around, and they have eliminated thousands of jobs in the banking industry. Docutel was the company that developed ATMs, and it was acquired by Olivetti.
Next I worked on weapons systems for the United States military. You could say I eliminated soldiers’ jobs by automating the work of killing people. My first project involved automating the location of submarines by sonar. I did the software.
My life of developing computer software aimed at eliminating the human element from all manner of tasks. My wife worked for an engineering company, and she was the business manager. She hired me to develop computer software to automate the repetitious accounting tasks. This was before the days of Quick Books.
I finally quit the business of killing jobs four years ago. It’s now the 21st century, and those jobs are not coming back. People are looking for things to do.
Donald Trump campaigned on the basis of a multitude of promises. One promise was to bring back jobs that have been lost in the coal industry. Disinterested parties have looked at this and wondered aloud who would want to go back to working in a coal mine. Nevertheless, idle miners are now looking ahead to going back underground and chewing at the coal seams, or else, sawing off the tops of mountains and scooping up the exposed coal.
But it’s not just safety and environmental concerns that are killing the coal jobs. The 21st century is killing coal jobs. Nuclear power, natural gas-fired power plants, and finally solar and wind power are killing coal jobs. These jobs are not coming back.
Progressive politicians bring us good news. Green power, they promise, will bring back the jobs lost at the coal mines. There is an enormous industry being created to produce wind turbines and solar farms. The new industry will create in the order of 100,000 new jobs, far exceeding the 30,000 lost at the mines.
Not so fast. These green power jobs are not permanent. Once the solar and wind farms are constructed and brought on-line, the industry will only need people to maintain these facilities and to expand them as power needs increase. Unlike coal, wind blows when you are not looking, and the sun comes up every morning. There is no need for the man to shovel sunshine onto a solar panel.
It’s much the same with the automobile industry. Teams of workers who used to assemble automobiles in the United States and in other countries have been replaced by robots. The major industries of electronics and computers would be impossible without the complete automation of just about all processes involved. Watch a video of computer disk drives being manufactured, and you will get an appreciation of the minuscule degree of direct human involvement.
It’s coming to be much the same in all major industries. Retail is eliminating the sales clerk who spends 30 minutes with a customer looking at a $30 pair of shoes without buying. Amazon started it with books, but the trend continues upward. The elimination of human-driven retail drives customer costs down, making it better for the economy all around, but at the cost of out-of-work sales staff.
Will there ever come a time when people will no longer need to be directly involved in producing goods and services? It’s hard to say. Many jobs I (and others) predicted would never go away are now gone for good. Economics, like nature, seeks the steady state. Eliminating jobs reduces the cost of products, but it also eliminates the customer who is supposed to pay for the products. Eventually a balance will be obtained, but at what level? In the meantime, workers are shuffling and trying to adjust, or not. The coal miners of West Virginia just defeated a candidate who promised to eliminate their jobs.
Will workers be able to vote their jobs back? Not likely. When it has been tried it has failed. Communism was a political approach to managing the economy, and it resulted in near 100% employment at the cost of dismal standards of living. This reality killed communism and the Soviet Union, but communism still thrives in the PRC, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba. I am not mentioning North Korea, which seems to be a special case.
In conclusion, if you recently, or a long time ago, lost your job because of me, don’t bother trying to find me. First, it would not be worth your effort, and second you would be chasing the wrong perpetrator. It was the 21st century that took your job.