By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, July 30, 1938.
“Well, sir,” said Jimmie Frise, “will wonders never cease?”
“What has happened?” I Inquired.
“I was just reading,” said Jim, “about a new machine some German has invented. All you have to do is put meat and vegetables and flour and butter and stuff in one end. Turn a button. And one hour later, open the back door of your machine and there’s dinner, all ready on the plates.”
“Cooked?” I asked.
“The vegetables,” cried Jim, “peeled, washed and salted. The meat basted and turned. The flour and butter and stuff all mixed and rolled, and baked into a pie.”
“Get away!” I scoffed.
“So help me,” said Jim. “It’s an electric stove, with a lot of tubes and compartments around it that you feed the unpeeled vegetables and rough meat and fruit for your pie. It’s all automatic. It does each thing in the right time to have all cooked and come out the back on a little conveyor belt at the same moment. It even serves the food on plates that you stick in a slot.”
“It’s criminal, Jim,” I declared.
“That’s what Hitler, thinks, too,” admitted Jimmie. “He won’t let the inventor, market it in Germany. It would ruin the old-fashioned housewife.”
“It would ruin more than that,” I protested. “Nobody would need to get married any more if they had machines like that. Does it wash the dishes, too?”
“There’s a dish washing attachment,” agreed Jim. “Feed the dishes in one end and they come out all dried, and the garbage pops out a trap door in the bottom, all parcelled up.”
“Well,” I stated, “all I can say is the inventors are going too far. Somebody had better call a halt to all this inventing.”
“Wait a minute,” laughed Jim. “Who can it harm? The only people who can afford to buy one of those machines are the people so rich that they never have to cook a meal or wash the dishes anyway.”
“It will put a lot of cooks and maids out of jobs,” I informed him. “Just like all the other labor-saving devices. They don’t save labor. They starve, labor.”
“The more the hard and dirty jobs in this world,” said Jim, “are handed over to machines, the happier the human race is going to be in the end.”
“And the more people are going to be on relief,” I pointed out.
“We call it relief now,” said Jim. “But in ten years we’ll call it leisure. We are just in the early stages of realizing that a large proportion of the human race don’t have to work any more. Machines have taken the work over. At first, when people lost their work on account of machines, we never thought about them at all. Then we thought they should get other work. Now we realize that there is no other work, so we support them on what we call relief. Relief, hell. It’s freedom. It’s leisure. They don’t have to work any more.”
It Sounds Wonderful
“Who is going to support them?” I demanded, outraged.
“The machines,” said Jim. “Who else? At first, when we started inventing labor-saving machinery, we imagined the inventors and the big industrialists and smart business men were going to benefit. We were all wrong. As usual, we were thinking with our feet instead of our heads. The first people to benefit from labor-saving machinery are the people whose labor the machinery saved. They are being benefitted now. True, relief isn’t very generous. But it will become rapidly more generous in the next 10 years, as everybody begins to catch up with the idea.”
“Preposterous.” I muttered.
“Not at all,” explained Jimmie. “The first great steps in labor-saving machinery were in excavation machinery and other machines that did away with pick and shovel. They are the first, now, to be unemployed. Next came the machines for doing fairly simple mechanical work. You will observe that in exact proportion, the unemployed are mostly the laboring and unskilled mechanical classes. So it will go. As more and more expert machines are invented, more and more skilled mechanics will become unemployed. Why not? Their work is being done for them.”
“But good heavens,” I protested, do you mean to say we’ve got to go on paying more and more taxes, ever higher and steeper, to maintain in idleness ever-growing classes of unemployed?”
“Ah, no,” explained Jim. “Taxes will only go a little bit higher before all of us suddenly understand the situation. Then we will demand that machines pay the support of all these millions that have been disemployed.”
“Ah, disemployed?” I offered.
“Yes,” elucidated Jimmie, “these people are not unemployed, they are disemployed. Their work is finished. They have had a machine invented to do their work for them. They’re lucky. The machines will now pension them off.”
“It sounds wonderful,” I breathed.
“It is wonderful,” said Jim, “as soon as we wake up to the facts. The joke, however, is on us. On us who can’t be relieved by machines. No machine can draw cartoons or write articles. No machine can manage a plant or an office. All us smarties that thought we were so clever will be the only ones who will have to work on, unrelieved, unpensioned. We can never be disemployed.”
“Then,” I cried, “I ought to alter my sons’ plans and educate them to be mechanics or shoemakers, in the hope that soon a machine will be invented to pension them off into the leisure class for life.”
“Certainly,” agreed Jim. “If you go ahead with your idea of making your sons business men and lawyers and doctors, they’ll have to work all their lives. The leisure class of the next generation will be the workers whose work is done. Done by machines.”
“Jim, I see it,” I cried, “I see it.”
“Good,” said Jim. “The sooner everybody sees it, the sooner this silly business of taxes will end and machines take over the burden they have created. Why should my taxes increase? My cartoons haven’t put anybody out of a job.”
“We’ve been letting machinery get away with murder,” I agreed.
We’ll All Work for Fun
“Murder is the word,” said Jim. “Slow murder. But any day now, when the ever-increasing disemployed become too much for our ordinary tax system to carry, we’ll face the simple facts and hand the job over to the machines. All the profit of the machines goes to the owner of the machines. How silly! How do the machines save them any work? All it saves them is money. O.K. Where the money is, that’s where we get it. Isn’t it?”
“Correct,” I agreed, “But Jim, now I come to think of it, I wonder how happy we’ll all be when machinery reaches its logical conclusion and does everything for us? Will the human race be any happier doing nothing than it was when it was busy all day long?”
“There will be plenty to do,” said Jim. “Fishing, hunting, travelling, motoring.”
“Do you mean to say the disemployed will have motor cars?” I gasped.
“Certainly,” said Jim. “Where else will the market for motor cars be when the majority of mankind are disemployed?”
“They’ll have to be awfully cheap,” I argued.
“They might as well be cheap,” explained Jim, “because, one way or the other, the money will be taken off the machines that make the cars.”
“Then who’ll go into the car manufacturing business,” I triumphed, if there is no money in it?”
“There will always be people,” said Jim, “who will be wanting to be making things, whether there is money in it or not. Some people wouldn’t take leisure as a gift. I think there are enough of that kind of people to keep the rest of us in cars and farm produce and other essentials when the great day comes.”
“Jim, it’s a dream,” I scoffed.
“The one comical discovery the human race has yet to make,” declared Jim, “is that the hardest thing in the world to bear is leisure. When we all can have it, nobody will want it. Then comes the millennium. We’ll all work for the fun of it.”
“Then,” I exclaimed, “come on, you inventors!”
“They’re doing pretty well,” protested Jim. “Do you realize that just 15 years ago there was no radio and now look at it, a vast industry, a giant art, a major profession.”
“And think,” I agreed, “that when we were young men, the first high-behind motor cars were chugging and spluttering through the astonished streets.”
“We were born and raised,” said Jimmie, “in the buggy age. The fastest thing in town was the butcher’s high two-wheeled delivery gig.”
“And the streets,” I reminded him, “were lit with gas lamps on tall green iron posts, about one every hundred yards. A silent, bitter little man used to come huddled along the winter streets, about dusk, carrying a sort of stick with a light on the end of it, lighting all the gas lamps.”
“But on the corners,” said Jim, “there was a tall pole with a round globe dangling from the top, lit with electric carbon lights that hissed and sparked redly all night long, fading and bright by turns. Swinging in the night wind.”
“We had telephones, then, too,” I recollected. “Wall telephones, and the receiver had two bright red bands around it.”
“Only doctors and rich people had telephones,” remembered Jim.
“Yes, all the neighbors came in,” I recalled, “when ours was installed. My old man had got a raise to $25 a week, which put him in the leisure class.”
“Then, cried Jim, “just there, at the turn of the century, something happened. The whole world, the human race, the universe, nature itself, seemed to squirm with a sort of ecstasy of creation. The motor car came. Giant electrical plants were founded. Streets were suddenly ablaze with lights every few paces.”
“The block pavements,” I said, “began to be torn up, contemptuously, and macadam and asphalt laid down, with engines snorting and arrogant Irishmen slamming it down, whole city blocks at a time.”
“What a century’s beginning was that,” cried Jim warmly. “Hardly had it got going, ablaze, moving, gallant, until men were flying in airplanes and a Frenchman flew the English channel.”
“And an Italian buzzed messages through space across the Atlantic,” said I. “Then with a great whoop and rush, we went into the war.”
“And then invention went mad entirely,” said Jim. “We talk of mass production. Mass production was invented in the war. Factory production was developed to unbelievable heights. Research was carried into every conceivable field, to find substitutes, to find cheaper and faster ways of making everything from food to steel.”
“The aeroplane,” I said, “that would have taken twenty years to develop as a novelty, was developed in a few months for war purposes to almost its present perfection.”
“And gas engines,” said Jim. “More was learned about engines in connection with aeroplanes than the automobile industry would have found out in fifty years.”
“Oh,” I summed up, “there was never an era of exploration and development of the material world to equal the four war years and there may never be another.”
“Funny,” said Jim, “that in the four years that humanity lost more than it will ever know, in the spiritual realm, it gained more than it will ever know, in the material realm.”
“By selling our souls to the devil of war,” I suggested, “we bought, like Faust, sundry things that do not matter.”
“How do we get our souls back?” asked Jim. “How did Faust get his soul back?”
“He never lost it,” I explained. “Because he knew that signing a compact with the devil would never damn him; only the self-satisfaction out of the things he would buy would damn him. He found no satisfaction in the things the devil gave him, just as we find no satisfaction in the countless wonders science is giving us. So we’re not damned. Yet.”
“It was a wild, energetic, extravagant beginning of a century,” admitted Jimmie. “Something to be proud of, something we should be glad we shared. But invention has steadied down. The whole genius of men now seems to be bent on thinking of humanity. The motor car and the radio are the two greatest and most characteristic inventions of the new age. Both have set free the human spirit. The one sets free the human body. The other sets free the human mind.”
“I guess the motor car is the greatest development of all time,” I concluded. “It has made one community of whole continents. It is making neighbors of whole nations. Every year it breaks down new barriers and new boundaries.”
“Because of motor cars,” said Jim, “highways are being built to the ends of the earth, across deserts that man would forever have abandoned, through jungles and forests, leaving the trail of village and hamlet and town and city wherever they go.”
“Sure, I’ll Watch You”
“The motor car has set free the farmer from his hermitage,” I recounted, “and discovered a thousand beauty spots for the human heart to feast upon. It rescued mankind from an age of slavery to machines in cities and for that alone we should be consciously grateful every day.”
“God bless the motor car,” confessed Jim, “and all inventors working to set man free.”
“How,” I suggested, “about going for spin? I don’t feel like any more work today.”
“It looks like a thunder storm,” said Jim, flinging his drawing pen aside and walking to the office window to look out over the city.
“Nothing so refreshing,” I said, “as a thunder storm in the country.”
“Will we go in my car or yours?” asked Jim, hopefully.
“Why ride in an oven,” I inquired, “When you can sit in a swell little open job like mine, floating through space? It’s like riding in a launch, over water.”
“O.K.” said Jim, shutting up his desk.
So we went down the back way, on account of editors, and wove my little speed boat out of the parking lot and in no time at all were out the Lake Shore Road headed for pastures old. Great white clouds loomed monstrously on all horizons. A heavy sense of thunder was in the air, but with the little open car washing the breeze over us, like a bath, the contrast with all the world around us, made us all the happier.
“When she starts,” said Jim, looking at the moving mountains of white based upon vast heavens of fateful black, “we ought to run into a gas station to stick the top up.”
“Why?” I inquired sharply.
“The guys can help us,” said Jim.
“Guys nothing,” I informed him. “This is a one-man top. I can stick it up in half a minute by myself.”
Jim just continued to lean back and let the humid air bathe him. We scooted north on the Centre Road. Traffic seemed to have all gone to sleep with the heat and the impending storm. Growls of thunder battered and shook. A livid blast of lightning flashed across the black sky and suddenly the white mountains vanished. A couple of big drops slashed against the windshield.
“How about the top?” asked Jim.
“We’re just on the edge of Brampton,” I advised, letting her out. “We can pull into the curb there.”
Which we did, while everybody stood under awnings and doorways and the great thunder shower fell. First, there was the top envelope to get off, and mostly it comes off like a mitt but sometimes it comes off like a wedding glove. And this time it came off that way, with Jimmie pulling too hard on his side. Then there were the little straps to undo. And when we got them undone, there were the little nuts to loosen, and while usually they are all too loose, this time, they stuck.
Then there was the lifting of the top, which has to be done evenly or else it jams. And carefully, or else it catches your fingers in the numerous hinges and swivels and bolts and bands. But with the rain now pouring straight down in heavy vertical rivers, not in drops, but in continuous spurts half an inch thick and two miles long, up, Jimmie tried to hurry and it jammed and we had to lay it back and start all over again.
“Watch me,” I commanded.
“Sure, I’ll watch you,” said Jim, skipping across under the awning of a store. “It’s a one-man top, eh?”
So I did it myself, the slow way but the right way. And I just thought to myself, as I struggled it through, that in one feature of motor car, inventors have been just a little lackadaisical.
Editor’s Notes: Jim’s description of a machine that could cook your dinner sounds ridiculous and like science fiction, but perhaps there was a sliver of truth to it, since 1938 was the year the first home Pressure Cooker was invented.
Greg mentions sidewalks being made of macadam and asphalt. Macadam is just another name for a type of asphalt.
Car roofs on old convertible cars were notoriously hard to raise. You can watch someone try and raise one on an old Model T by himself here (skip to the 6:30 mark for raising it). Note he says a few times that it is really a two person job. By the 1930s, some manufacturers were touting “one-man” roofs, or automatic roofs.