Workers Have Been Fighting Automation Ever Since Capitalism Began
2022 04 08
Automation didn’t start in the age of robots and microchips. In the late 19th century, employers used machinery to break the power of skilled glass workers, and helped launch firms like Coca-Cola on a path to global domination.
The history of capitalism is one of constant revolution in the way goods are produced, transported, and sold. Every turn of the wheel has dramatic implications for workers who may find their bargaining power and livelihoods dissolving virtually overnight. The shift away from coal as an energy source left mining communities high and dry; the use of standardized shipping containers helped employers to break the strength of dockers’ unions.
It’s hard now to imagine a world without cheap, mass-produced glass bottles. Anyone who visits a supermarket or a grocery store will see shelves groaning with them. But the story of how they came to be so ubiquitous and unremarkable is also a story of how capitalists use new technology to gain control over their workers. At a time when the shadow of automation hangs over so many workers, this is a very modern tale.
Artisans and Industry
Before plastic was an option, before Tetra Paks and pop-top cans, one of the best ways to store liquid was in glass bottles. Since antiquity, people had used them to preserve olive oil and wine. In nineteenth-century America, glass bottles were a choice container for commercial writing ink, shoe polish, and whiskey.
Demand for bottles skyrocketed in the late 1800s after railroads stretched across the country, allowing for unprecedented distribution of goods. The market flooded with branded and patented products, from Coca-Cola to Dr Shoop’s Cough Remedy. To maximize sales, all these competing sodas and snake oils had to be bottled by the thousands and shipped around the nation.
However, these bottles weren’t made by the massive iron, steam-spewing machines we might associate with the industrial era. They were made by hand with the same techniques used by artisans in ancient Rome, requiring simple tools, dexterous hands, strong muscles, and powerful lungs.
First, a metal blowpipe was dipped into a furnace to gather a precise amount of molten glass. Next, a mold was closed over the glass gob and air was blown into the pipe, inflating the gob to fill the mold. Finally, the mouth of the bottle was shaped using hand tools.
The process may sound simple enough. In reality, however, it was no mean feat to maneuver a long unwieldy pipe unbalanced by a red-hot blob on the move, quickly coaxing it into shape without ever actually touching it. In nineteenth-century America, glassblowers were so skilled and so hard to come by that entrepreneurs sent agents to Europe to scout talent and lure them overseas.
These sought-after workers were some of the highest-paid artisans in the United States, earning as much as two-thirds more than other skilled artisans. In the 1890s, bottle blowers commonly earned well over $100 a month — the equivalent of over $3,000 today.
The high cost and limited supply of glassblowers irked entrepreneurs who were eager to fulfill the ever-growing demand for glass bottles. With automation pervading all sorts of industries, from agriculture to newspaper publishing, the obvious remedy was some sort of machine that could reduce labor and increase output. Despite efforts to mechanize the glassblower’s work, and progress made in fits and starts, no machine found commercial success or destabilized the centuries-old hand traditions in the nineteenth century.
The Owens Machines
At the beginning of the twentieth century, in Toledo, Ohio, Michael J. Owens patented a machine that changed glass-bottle production forever. A first-generation Irish American, Owens had begun working in the glass industry as a child laborer at the age of ten, shoveling coal into the furnace. At fifteen, he worked his way out of the unskilled ranks to become a glassblower.
By the time he was in his thirties, in the 1890s, he had climbed a long ladder and landed a position as factory superintendent at the Libbey Glass Company. Shortly thereafter, with financial backing from his boss Edward Drummond Libbey, Owens tackled the problem troubling glass entrepreneurs.
After years of trial and error, in 1903 Owens unveiled what would become the first commercially successful automatic bottle-making machine. In the following decades, he introduced a series of newer models, each reducing labor and increasing productivity, and went on to make millions of dollars.
The largest of the Owens machines was more than sixteen feet wide and weighed more than seventeen elephants. A cylindrical agglomeration of pipes, pumps, and levers, it rotated above a pool of molten glass. Fifteen radial arms pumped down to dip into the pool and suck up just enough glass to make a single bottle. Each arm then rapidly blew a bottle to shape with a series of molds and compressed air.
The machines Owens patented ran twenty-four hours a day, requiring only a modicum of low-wage labor, and no artisans. They transformed the industry. A single one could produce as many bottles as fifty glass workers.
Deskilling and Decline
In 1905, before the machines infiltrated the industry, there were nine thousand glass bottle artisans in the United States. By 1917, the number had dwindled to two thousand, at which point Owens machines made half of all glass containers in the country. By 1920, they had displaced most bottle artisans, forcing them into jobs classified as unskilled. Among the unskilled ranks were operators of Owens machines, who worked longer hours and earned two-thirds less a day than glassblowers.
It’s tempting to accuse the machines of obliterating the craft of bottle making. Before we jump to that conclusion, we need to think about what we mean when we use the word “craft,” and why we lament the loss of handwork at the expense of mechanization. In the modern sense of the word, craft typically implies a degree of freedom, creativity, and autonomy. You might think of a craftsperson as someone who has a say in what they make, what it looks like, and how they make it.
Glass bottle artisans had none of these allowances, even before machines entered the workshop. Glassblowers worked in teams because the work was nearly impossible to do alone. Before 1870, a team usually consisted of one skilled artisan and two boy assistants. Thereafter, to increase productivity, employers divided labor so that three skilled artisans and three or four boys made a single bottle together.
The boys were used for the unskilled tasks, like opening and closing the molds, carrying finished bottles to a cooling area, and cleaning blowpipes. Workers made the same products day after day. In a ten-hour shift, a team of six made up to 2,880 identical beer bottles.
Handling hot viscous glass was dangerous work, done in the sweltering heat of furnaces exceeding two thousand degrees Fahrenheit. The real experience of these glass workers lacks the romance we might associate with artisanal labor.
Nonetheless, throughout the nineteenth century, glassblowers were able to maintain relatively high wages and a say in how they worked because their skills were so valuable and rare. Organized labor played a key role in this, with unions fighting to counter the perpetual push by employers to lower costs, increase output, and gain ever greater control over production. Before their work was automated, glassblowers had power if not the upper hand in their relationship with their employers.
There is a confounding twist in the biography of Michael J. Owens himself. He had been one of the most forceful leaders in a national glass union before rising to white-collar ranks. The machines he patented irrevocably wrested control from those he had previously fought alongside.
The Owens Fable
For the glassblowers who managed to keep their positions in the decades after the Owens machines disrupted hand production, circumstances deteriorated. Unions accepted lower wages year after year in a desperate effort to maintain a small foothold in the industry. Glass workers also gave up the long-held custom of “summer stop,” when glass factories shut down for the two hottest months of the year because work conditions were intolerable.
Mechanization, in the hands of Owens, made the skills of bottle artisans obsolete, robbing them of their value and leverage in a capitalist economy. Well before the hand was up against the machine, the worker was up against the capitalist. Automation tipped the scale.
Most writers who have recounted the history of glass bottle making in the United States have not been concerned with the workers or the idea of craft. Since the early twentieth century, accounts have largely focused on Michael J. Owens, praising him for revolutionizing glass bottle production.
Recent popular history books (and some academic ones) still portray him as a brilliant inventor and a self-made man. Despite being born into poverty, the story goes, Owens picked himself up by his bootstraps, worked hard, and took advantage of the fruits of industrial capitalism. It’s the stuff of American Dreams.
The tale has been told on local public television in Ken Burns–style documentary shorts and on the website of an Ohio community college named after Owens. His legacy also lives on through the business he founded in 1903 to license the rights to his bottle machines. The company is still around today, now called O-I (short for Owens-Illinois, the company’s name as of 1929), and is headquartered just outside Toledo.
The corporation’s reach has only grown since Owens was at the helm. A Fortune 500 company, O-I is the world’s largest manufacturer of glass containers. To make our wine bottles and jam jars, the company employs 26,500 people in twenty-three countries across four continents. O-I’s sprawl around the globe has carried with it the Owens tale, promoted as the company’s origin story throughout the O-I website and YouTube channel.
Standing on Shoulders
This version of the story is more myth than history. Economic historian Warren Scoville offered a more measured account seventy-five years ago in his book Revolution in Glassmaking. Scoville’s research showed that Owens was the one who managed to procure capital to fund engineering experiments and then fabricate and patent the machine, but the machine itself was a group effort.
His background as a glassblower was critical, giving him the material knowledge necessary to translate handwork into machine work. But the knowledge of the engineers with whom he collaborated was equally vital. Typically, Owens would come up with a vague idea and leave it to his engineering team to see if his vision could be worked out.
On top of this, the first automatic machine Owens patented, the one that is memorialized for igniting the revolution, relied on three recent inventions developed by other people. The novel thing about his patent was that it brought these earlier innovations together into a single automated machine.
It was also novel that he patented it. US patent law is premised on and fosters the myth of the lone inventor, according to legal scholar Mark A. Lemley. The law assumes that inventions are the products of individuals: a patent is filed by and awarded to one person, who then controls who is allowed to use the technology, and collects profits made off it. That person is also the one who goes down in the annals as the inventor.
In defiance of this legal logic, innovation tends to be both collaborative and incremental. The vast majority of significant modern inventions have been the result of teams working together to take a critical step that stood on the shoulders of previous developments. Usually, the inventions we remember as revolutionary are the ones that made an emerging technology practical and commercially viable.
Such was the case with Owens and his bottle machines. He secured his place in popular history and made his millions by obtaining patents, thereby legally controlling who could use the technology. US law empowered Owens to monopolize bottle production.
Great Men of Industry
According to the Owens myth, not only was he a scrappy genius, but his machines helped put an end to child labor in the glass industry. The notion of machines as labor liberators is flawed in multiple ways. His machines — the ones that changed the industry — first and foremost replaced the highly skilled and highly paid glassblowers. These artisans were the real problem for capitalists, not the low-wage, unskilled assistants.
Labor historian Timothy Messer-Kruse has shown that the early Owens machines relied on more child laborers than had been the case for hand production. In the 1910s, the number of child laborers in the glass industry began to go down, but not necessarily because of mechanization. Rather, these declining numbers correlate with the introduction of Progressive Era child labor laws. The glass industry was an obvious target for Progressive reformers because it employed three times more children than the average industry.
In fact, Owens was a vocal supporter of child labor. In 1922, he told The American Magazine:
Young or old, work doesn’t hurt anybody. . . . One of the greatest evils of modern life is the growing habit of regarding work as an affliction. When I was a youngster, boys wanted to work. . . . In the factory, I went through all the jobs which boys performed; and I enjoyed every bit of the experience. . . . The hard work I did as a boy never injured me.
Rather than being a beneficent industrialist who cared about the well-being of his workers, Owens had long prioritized productivity and profit over such considerations. In the early 1890s, shortly after his promotion to factory superintendent at Libbey Glass, his mold boys (the child workers who opened and closed the molds) went on strike. Instead of negotiating with them, Owens enlisted a blacksmith to develop a tool that could replace them. This was his first foray into mechanization, after which he soon set his sights on automating the artisans’ work.
Eliminating children from a workforce, whether they were displaced by laws or machines, did not address the reason those boys had to work in the first place. When the children lost their jobs, they didn’t take home a severance package that could buy their families food, shelter, and clothing.
Michael J. Owens is by no means a household name like Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, or other figures mythologized as benevolent capitalists, self-made industrialists, or lone inventors. But cities all over the country have their own equivalents of Owens — Great Men believed to have brought wealth and renown locally while contributing toward the greater march of technological and social progress.
Those who perpetuate the Owens myth today — corporate mouthpieces, writers, historians, archivists, and educators — can’t resist giving us a hero. The message they relay, however, is not the only one preserved in the history of glass bottles. A closer look at what remains from the past makes it plain that Owens was able to overpower and overshadow artisans, laborers, and engineers not because he worked harder or was more intelligent than them, but because capitalism enabled him to do so.