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Facts and Fiction on Automation

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Article by Norman Woodhouse in the Western mail on 17th May 1956, including reference to LEO I, the new electronic office.

Date : 17th May 1956

Transcript :

The first of three articles by Norman Woodhouse

There has been too much confused talk about what automation really is. The ill-informed see it as an uncanny and sinister monster which will suddenly control factories overnight. The misguided imagine it is a weapon of the capitalist, invented to create unemployment.

This is nonsense. Automation is not a new phenomenon, but the inevitable result of years of technical progress since the early days of the industrial revolution; It is a word describing all developments which make automatic production possible - in factories or offices.

The facts have now been revealed in an official report prepared by the Government’s “back room” scientists - the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

“Automation will not make robots of us all.” says secretary, Sir Ben Lockspeiser, in a forward. “On the contrary, it will demand wider knowledge, greater ability and a higher degree of skill from worker and manager alike.”
Three trends

Based on the facts of that report, let us examine firstly what automation is and how it is developing. There are three major trends. 

1. Automatic machining. The first automatic lathe was invented in 1870. It is now possible for components to be transferred from one machine to another automatically, instead of manually.
In the past, car-engine and gearbox castings passed through 20 machines before reaching the fitting shop. These have been replaced by one automatic transfer machine, which even admits its own faults. The lesson which has been learned is that any manual operation can be made fully automatic, provided that sufficient time, money and inventive genius are devoted to this work. The snag is that for costly, complicated operations, automation may not pay.

Two American computer inventions are mentioned. There is an automatic lathe which gets its instructions on punched paper tape. 

In a jet aircraft factory the behaviour of a machine controlled by a skilled operator is recorded on magnetic tape. The tape could then be played back to the machine which will work without an operator. And these machines are the last word in accuracy.

Process control
This brings us to:
2. Automatic process control. An automatic pilot was flying aircraft in 1925 - and the steam engine has had a governor as far back as the days of James Watt. 

This latest form of control was pioneered before World War Two and was used particularly by chemical industries. It is used widely in the petrol, cement, steel, paper, printing, food and brewing industries.

In the control room of a chemical plant a supervisor keeps an eye on a complicated array of clocks, dials and lights on an instrument panel; outside the plant is working silently, with few people to be seen. 

Any variations - an incorrect temperature, a faulty mixture - are detected and corrected mechanically. That is the work of an automatic measuring, controlling, and correcting units. All the supervisor does is to take notes, to see that everything is going well.

Not brains
The most efficient way of operating an open hearth furnace is to control the roof temperature. If it is too high, the roof lining burns away rapidly, the furnace must close for repair, and output is lost. Readings are taken, these control the intake of fuel, which, in turn, keep the temperature at the correct level.

A first-time visitor to a new power station is surprised to find so few workmen manning it. Instead they see many instrument panels which register the automatic control of supplies and coal and air to the furnaces, water to the boilers, steam to the engines which drive the generators. 

3. Automatic process of information. Although computors (scientists do not like the term “electronic brain”) are in their infancy in industry they are beginning to be used more widely in offices: they are an important milestone on the pathway to the automatic office.

The man who probably started it all was Blaise Pascal, who invented the adding machine in 1642.

After years of research we have now two main types of digital computors - they either calculate or memorise and store facts and figures. Office work must be broken down to a series of simple, separate problems which the computer can solve. There must be a clear-cut system.

An American firm streamlined its organisation and was able to save £40,000 a year in one department alone, even before a long-awaited computor arrived.

The caterers J. Lyons and Co. installed a computor in a new “electronic office”. They called it “Leo”. In January 1954 it was put to work for the first time and prepared the payroll for 1,700 staff in one department.
After building up a reputation for reliability, “Leo” now calculates the payroll for 10,000 employees in four hours. That was formerly the full time job of 37 full time clerks, working under supervision. It also handles bakery orders for 150 tea shops, works out the entire wages of another big firm, and still has time for a variety of contract work.
The verdict? “Leo” is more accurate than a team of clerks and an estimate is that it could save £100,000 a year on clerical costs.

A “younger brother” is on order- its cost, about £75,000.

As these three processes I have traced become increasingly automatic, so the reality of the complete robot factory looms nearer.

Russian claims to have a “nearly automatic” factory making pistons. The production lines are a weird snake-like collection of machines connected by conveyor belts. There are 32 distinct processes starting with the conveyor feeding aluminium bars into a smelting furnace and ending at an automatic packing machine.

10 men - seven of them skilled - operate this plant.

Related Topics:
This exhibit has a reference ID of CH64167. Please quote this reference ID in any communication with the Centre for Computing History.

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