The Heavy Press Program of the U.S. Air Force -
"The Iron Giant," Tim Heffernan’s short article in the current issue of The Atlantic.
A forging press is—begging the forgiveness of the engineering gods—essentially a waffle iron for metal. An ingot, usually heated to increase its malleability, is placed on the lower of a pair of dies. The upper die is then gradually forced down against the ingot, and the metal flows to fill both dies and form the intended shape. In this way, extremely complex structures can be created quickly and with minimal waste.
What sets the Fifty apart is its extraordinary scale. Its 14 major structural components, cast in ductile iron, weigh as much as 250 tons each; those yard-thick steel bolts are also 78 feet long; all told, the machine weighs 16 million pounds, and when activated its eight main hydraulic cylinders deliver up to 50,000 tons of compressive force. If the logistics could somehow be worked out, the Fifty could bench-press the battleship Iowa, with 860 tons to spare.
It is this power, combined with amazing precision—its tolerances are measured in thousandths of an inch—that gives the Fifty its far-reaching utility. It has made essential parts for industrial gas turbines, helicopters, and spacecraft. Every manned U.S. military aircraft now flying uses parts forged by the Fifty. So does every commercial aircraft made by Airbus and Boeing.
The U.S. government ordered ten of these huge forges between 1950 and 1957 to build large scale metal parts for the military-industrial complex. The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s apparently ended the need for a proposed press that would have dwarfed this one at over 100,000 tons. The USSR itself built several presses larger than “the Fifty.”
(Image is from the Library of Congress’ Historic American Engineering Record online catalog.)
EDIT: Tim Heffernan has a follow up post at boingboing.net on the Heavy Press Program, "The Machines That Made The Jet Age."
Back to 1945 for moment. The Soviet acquisition of Germany’s biggest forges made it all but inevitable that the U.S. would build its own heavy presses—but it’s important to note that it did not make the Heavy Press Program inevitable. Private industry could have built its own machines. The government could have built them, too, and indeed early plans called for the military to construct a “pilot plant” and dole out chunks of time to the air industry to experiment on government-run machines. The idea that it was in the public’s interest to pay for the machines but cede their control to industry was a controversial one, and many leaders in Congress strongly resisted it as a dangerous blurring of private and civic concerns.
On the other hand, with millions of WWII servicemen and women being demobilized, mass unemployment was a threat, and shoring up the aerospace industry was an attractive way to stave it off and harness wartime technology to the peacetime economy. Cold War policy also encouraged massive defense spending, but (as ever) a secondary war was being waged by the military branches for funding, and heavy forging wasn’t of much use to the Army or Navy. It was a complex situation, and one that could have been resolved in several ways. But by 1949 it had been decided that the government would build a number of heavy forging machines and the factories to support them, and that these facilities would be leased to the great metals companies of the day on very generous terms. The Heavy Press Program had begun.
Final Offer -
Sturla Gunnarsson and Robert Collison’s documentary on the 1984 contract negotiations between the United Auto Workers and General Motors.
This film, which you can stream online here, focuses on Bob White, president of the Canadian section of the UAW, and his attempts to get the rank and file Canadian members of his union on board with the deal he managed to agree with GM. White led the Canadian wing of the UAW out of the international union the following year to form the CAW, and Final Offer highlights many of the tensions between Canadian and American auto workers that led to this split.
The fundamental issue which divides Bob White and his Canadian members from UAW President Owen Bieber here is the traditional 3% annual raise in their hourly wage, but the underlying tensions within the UAW go back to the Automotive Products Agreement, known as the “Auto Pact,” agreed between the United States and Canada in 1965.
Under this treaty, Canada’s car industry based in southern Ontario towns like Oshawa, the setting for much of Final Offer, grew rapidly, but corporate control of Canada’s automotive assembly lines became much more centralized in the Detroit headquarters of the Big 3 car makers.
Where Did All the Workers Go? 60 Years of Economic Change in 1 Graph
President Obama’s State of the Union speech was surprisingly bullish on reviving manufacturing, prompting one very clever person on Twitter to say something along the lines of: “Democrats want the economy of the 1950s, while Republicans just want to live there.”
It got me thinking: What did the economy look like in the 1950s? If you could organize all the jobs into buckets and compare the paper-shuffling professional services bucket to the manufacturing bucket, what would they look like around 1950, and how has the picture changed in the last 60 years? Read more.
[Image: Brian McGill and Peter Bell/National Journal]
Derek Thompson uses a National Journal chart from their Winter 2010 supplement, The Next Economy, to track the shift from a manufacturing-dominated U.S. economy in 1947 to a primarily service industry-based one by 2009. The chart measures the percentage of GDP each sector accounted for, rather than the percentage of total jobs.
Thompson summarizes this shift succinctly:
The big story about American jobs in the post-war period is this: The manufacturing/agriculture economy shrunk from 33% to 12%, and the services economy grew from 24% to 50%. I don’t want to leave you with a facile explanation, but for the purposes of space, I think it’s acceptable to say that as manufacturing and agriculture got more efficient, they required fewer American workers, while the services industry (which had slower efficiency gains since it has more person-to-person work) required more employees to keep up with the rising demand for consulting, nurses, teachers, computer technicians, and so on.
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A worthy cause!
7/1/1987-Detroit, Michigan- Teamsters block a truck from entering DBD Distributors.
Image by Bettmann
Management is also becoming aware that young workers, on whom they must rely for their future labor supply, are more restless, independent and rebellious than the older employees whose spirit has been gradually subdued by the endless repetition of doing dull, mind-numbing automatic tasks year in and year out. —
"The Lordstown Syndrome," Clayton Fritchey, for the Associated Press (appearing here in the Lewiston Evening Journal, Lewiston, Maine), April 6, 1972
Fritchey finishes his article with this:
Some companies are going in for what they call “job enrichment.” The theory, according to the Wall Street Journal, is that workers become motivated when their jobs are seasoned with “satisfiers,” such as recognition, a sense of achievement, and personal growth. “There’s no question that people are motivated by needs other than just money,” says one plant manager.
In Germany, Lufthansa, the international airline, lets many of its employees work as much or as little as they please; they check in and out at their own convenience. In Sweden, Saab-Scania is touting a new assembly line that uses an industrial robot to assume many monotonous operations. The innovation is expected to allow a [sic] workers to produce an entire engine, instead of just a single part of it.
There is one postscript to all this. Not all workers, the UAW newsletter points out, resent boring, repetitive jobs. Some, it says, “are happy doing what drives others up the wall.” It concludes there is no pat answer to the problem, except “there does seem a need for more exploration in job enrichment so that work is not one big grind in a thwarted lifetime.”
The overt class conflict of the late ’70s ended a while ago. Workers have learned to internalize and mask powerlessness, but the internal frustration and struggle remain. Any questions about quality of work life, the animating issue of 1970s unrest, have long since disappeared — despite the flat-lining of wages in the decades since. Today the concerns of the working class have less space in our civic imagination than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. —
Labor historian Jefferson Cowie, writing in the New York Times, on Labor Day 2010.
I found it really difficult trying to write about the historical trends that have reshaped the workplace since the 1970s, but Cowie’s book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class does this really well. I can’t recommend it enough. Reading Stayin’ Alive was a formative experience in understanding how the American economy, and the fate of the workforce, has shifted since the early post-war era.
(Source: The New York Times)
Division Street: America - Studs Terkel's Oral Histories of Working Americans in the late 1960s -
The Chicago History Museum has several interviews conducted by Studs Terkel with Chicagoans of all stripes in the late 1960s for his book, Division Street: America, originally published in 1967, I think (my Penguin Paperback copy doesn’t have a date). You’re going to need Real Player to listen to them. These interviews cover a huge range of issues surrounding urban life, much of them focused on work and how the interviewees see their jobs. The second interview here is with Eva Barnes, who worked as a pork trimmer in the Chicago Stockyards, among many other jobs in a career stretching back to the age of 9. She has some fascinating insights on the early years of the CIO and the struggle to organize packinghouse workers.
Here’s Eva on working in the Offal section of the stockyards in the 1930s:
And working on these guts, you know, open, and I had to sterilize and wash them. And the ones that were condemned you couldn’t touch it, if you did, you would get a hog itch. And you had to keep your hands in a cold shower on them all the time because to get that hog itch off you. I was sick to my stomach and my children used to say when I got home, ‘Mommy, we love you but you smell awful.’ But you get used to it. (Laughs.) You work in it so long, you can’t smell nothing no more.
[from page 87 of the Penguin Paperbacks edition]
Studs Terkel is one of the giants of this period of labor history for me. His book Working is possibly the richest document of the American economy in the late 1960s and early 1970s that I know of. That book’s subtitle, People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do is almost a guiding phrase for what I think labor studies needs to be focused on.