The Steam Locomotive And The Typewriter


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This is a missing chapter in my book Working with Machines. My book editor suggested omitting it because it discusses history rather that prescribe solutions and actions like all other chapters. I agreed with her call, but still think this document is of interest by itself.

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The Steam Locomotive And The Typewriter

  1. 1. CHAPTER 1 The steam locomotive and the typewriter Summary The steam locomotive and the typewriter are icons of the industrial age, and their paral- lel histories show different aspects of the human experience of working with machines. The steam locomotive is fondly remembered; the typewriter, all but forgotten except for the QWERTY keyboard. The steam engine participated in the development of every industrial economy, but the typewriter played no major role in Japan. The typewriter did not demonstrably improve the productivity or quality of office output, but was adopted only because of its image of modernity. Locomotive driver was a prestigious position for a manual laborer, but typist never was. Compared to electrics and diesels, the steam loco- motive had a cab that was exposed to the elements and to the heat of the firebox and therefore uncomfortable, difficult to operate, and dangerous. Yet engineers and firemen preferred it to the tedium and loneliness of modern locomotives. Automatic machines that require human attention only when they malfunction are also in airplanes and in manufacturing plants, challenging the job designer to keep the operator alert and used efficiently.As the typewriter prints one keystroke at a time, typists were always busy with a single machine and determined both its productivity and output quality. Typists worked in comfortable places, but under pressure, and faced the long-term hazards of sedentary work. The typewriter’s main legacy is that a society can make a long-term investment in machines whose tangible benefits do not obviously exceed their costs. Working with Machines Draft 3, 8/2/06 11
  2. 2. The steam locomotive and the typewriter Two icons of the industrial age Both the steam locomotive and the typewriter were in use through most of the industrial age and became obsolete only recently. Both were used in professional settings. A few people may have used typewriters in their pri- vate correspondence, but the overwhelming majority of typewriter use took place in offices. Appearing early in the 19th century, steam locomo- tives have been gradually phased out since 1950 and only remain in use today in a few third-world countries. Typewriters were first marketed in the US in 1874, and electric powered versions after World War II. These machines dominated offices until the 1980’s, but had all but disappeared by 1990. The aftermath of these machines’ disappearance from work life, however, is strikingly different. As shown in Figure 1-1, the steam locomotive is beloved. Steam trains are park attractions as in Roaring Camp in the Santa Cruz mountains of California. Clubs of hobbyists all over the world are restoring steam locomotives and demonstrating their operation. They are used as monuments as in Tokyo’s Shimbashi station, and boys born decades after the end of the steam age spend their early childhood follow- ing the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine. And if you want to expe- rience the thrill of driving a steam locomotive, you can sign up for training courses on real ones or download simulators from the web. a. A park ride b. Public art c. Childrens’ show FIGURE 1-1. The afterlife of the steam locomotive 12 Draft 3, 8/2/06 Working with Machines
  3. 3. The social role of the machine and its operator The typewriter, on the other hand, is all but forgotten, except by a few writers and collectors. Most typists were women, but you do not see clubs of old ladies reminiscing about the good old days of the typing pool. While the popularity of steam locomotives with the public at large is wor- thy of notice, even more surprising was the reluctance shown by steam locomotive drivers to switch to diesel and electric. As we shall see, the newer generations are easier and more comfortable to drive, but challeng- ing in other ways. The social role of the machine and its operator The way human beings perceive tasks is not entirely shaped by the content of the work required, as can be seen by observing rowing teams voluntarily engaging in activities that are similar to those of galley slaves. The same assembly line job with the same wage will be perceived and performed dif- ferently in a company that has a reputation for making well-designed, high quality products and in one that doesn’t. While we cannot quantify the influence of factors that are external to the job itself, we know that it is present and substantial. When steam-driven trains were the fastest way to move people and goods, driving a locomotive was possibly the most prestigious position a manual laborer could aspire to. It involved not only handling a dangerous, high- technology machine but also the responsibility of delivering hundreds of people to their destinations safely and punctually. Other jobs involving similar work content, for example in foundry operations, were not per- ceived the same way. The development of air travel transferred the prestige of the train engineer to the airline pilot and, conversely, on today’s high- speed trains, the job of the driver has become similar to that of the airline pilot: monitoring automatic equipment and responding to emergencies. On the Eurostar between Paris and London, the driver is called “train manager,” his name is given to passengers on the public address system, and he makes announcements like a flight captain. Working with Machines Draft 3, 8/2/06 13
  4. 4. The steam locomotive and the typewriter None of the industrial economies of the world today developed without the steam locomotive, and that is the best testimonial to its usefulness. The same claim, however, cannot be made for the typewriter. Pervasive though it was in the US and Europe, it played a negligible part in the development of Japan, which indicates clearly that it could be dispensed with. A type- writer that could handle the Japanese script was invented in 1915 but, even in its more modern form, never became a staple of office life. The type- writer was used to fill in personal names on official documents and amounts on checks, but, until Japanese word processors (“wapro”) appeared in the 1980’s, most Japanese business documents were handwrit- ten. One of the reasons FAX technology was massively adopted in Japan ahead of other countries was its ability to support electronic transmission of handwritten documents. The original Japanese typewriter, shown in Figure 1-2, was simply too cumbersome. The characters in the Japanese script, made up of two sylla- baries and Chinese characters (Kanji) were classified in a matrix by decreasing frequency of use from the center to the edges. The machine picked up one piece of type at a time, coated it with ink, and struck it against the paper. Not only did the typist need to remember the locations of more that 2,000 characters, but, for proper orientation relative to the paper, the type was arranged upside down! While later electric models could at least show the characters right side up, mass adoption did not occur until word processors (“wapro”) enabled the user to type words in phonetically and convert them automatically to Kanji. While the western QWERTY typewriters are less cumbersome than Japa- nese typewriters, retrospectively, they are more striking by the features they lack than by the ones they have. They do provide an output that looks printed, but they are no improvement over handwriting in any of the fol- lowing: • Editing. “Cut-and-paste” with typescript means using scissors and glue. • Error-correction. Correcting typing errors could only be done with awkward retrofits like white-out fluids or tapes. 14 Draft 3, 8/2/06 Working with Machines
  5. 5. The social role of the machine and its operator FIGURE 1-2. From Japanese typewriters to wapro • Reproduction. It was limited to two increasingly faint carbon copies, on which no error correction could be made. The first real break- through was xerography in the early 1960’s, and it was unrelated to typewriters. • Transmission. Technologies to transmit documents went from the telegraph to the internet with no contribution from the typewriter. • Authentication. Typewritten documents can be more easily forged than handwritten ones. • Indexing and cross-referencing. The first breakthrough came with automatic indexing and table-of-contents generation with word proces- sors in the 1980’s. According to Cornell University’s ergonomics professor Alan Hedge, “This typewriter [...] greatly increased the productivity of workers; it elimi- Working with Machines Draft 3, 8/2/06 15
  6. 6. The steam locomotive and the typewriter nated problems of ‘writer's cramp,’ and for the first time it allowed women to enter the office workforce in large numbers.” These statements raise several questions. Whose productivity did the typewriter increase? Before typewriters, professionals wrote their own documents by hand. The Waterman fountain pen, patented 10 years after the QWERTY typewriter, did improve writing productivity by eliminating the need to dip a nib in an inkwell every few words. After the spread of the typewriter, most profes- sionals still wrote drafts by hand, for somebody else to type. Not only did this fail to eliminate writer’s cramp, but it added new labor and equipment costs. Since the typists themselves were hired for this purpose, there is no baseline against which to measure an increase in their productivity. Finally, Japanese women also entered the office workforce in large numbers without the typewriter as a catalyst. In fact, for offices as a whole, it is not clear that typewriters improved out- put productivity or quality either in form or content. Typewriters were noisy, and typescript was ugly enough to prompt computer scientist Don Knuth to develop Tex as the first computer typesetting system in the early 1980’s. Not everybody surrendered to the dictatorship of the typewriter. Figure 1-3 shows both an excerpt from John Nash’s dissertation, as it was submitted in typescript to Princeton University in 1950, and an excerpt from J. Mandel calligraphed course notes from the Ecole des Mines de Paris in 1975. As a tenured professor, he didn’t have to submit to anyone else’s standards on how to present ideas. In societies like western Europe or the US in the early 20th century, with a primary education system that enabled almost all adults to write legibly by hand, the business case for buying typewriters and training millions of typ- ists was weak, and a hard-nosed manager presented with a realistic cost- benefit analysis would most likely have turned it down. The most plausible explanation for the success of the typewriter is its abil- ity, unique in its time, to allow any organization to produce printed words. The moment a business letter could be made to look printed, the hand- written letter, no matter how legible, became a signal that the sender could not afford modern equipment. The medium was a message that all compa- nies and governments of the western world wanted to send and for that purpose, they implemented the technology in spite of its shortcomings. 16 Draft 3, 8/2/06 Working with Machines
  7. 7. The social role of the machine and its operator FIGURE 1-3. Typewritten versus handwritten science The prestige of the printed word coming out of typewriters, however, did not extend to typists. Typing is not a trivial skill, particularly if it is to be done fast and without errors for a long time, but the job of typist has never been glamorous, prestigious, or particularly sought after. Through- out the 20th century, typing was treated as a menial skill, which managers and professionals did not possess, and often made a point of not possess- ing. Working with Machines Draft 3, 8/2/06 17
  8. 8. The steam locomotive and the typewriter Writers and journalists were the only professionals who did their own typ- ing, and were the exception. Business Week estimated in 1990 that the replacement of typewriters with word processors in the preceding decade had eliminated one million secretarial jobs in the US alone. The skill pro- fessionals learned to produce their own memos, however, was not the lowly “typing,” but instead “keyboarding.” The only visible legacy of the typewriter age today is the QWERTY layout, designed 130 years ago to keep metal keys from jamming. FIGURE 1-4. Motivation for the QWERTY layout Machine operations The steam locomotive and the typewriter are both devices that are intended to performs or assists in the performance of human tasks, and as such deserve to be called machines. This being said, they are as far apart as machines can be both in terms of what they do and the way people inter- act with them. In the most general terms, the driver of a locomotive changes its state in response to events, which includes firing it up, setting it in forward or backward motion, changing its speed, stopping it, stoking the furnace, refilling the water tank, and responding to malfunctions and emergencies. The driver is serving and monitoring a machine that does the work of pulling the train. The typewriter, on the other hand, does not print a single character unless the typist presses the matching key. As a conse- quence, the single task of typing one character at a time monopolizes the typists attention. 18 Draft 3, 8/2/06 Working with Machines
  9. 9. Machine operations Locomotive operations The cab of a steam locomotive, as shown in Figure 1-5, is not an obviously attractive work place. It requires two attendants, the engineer at the controls and the fireman who stokes the firebox. FIGURE 1-5. Mathieu Bernard’s shot of the cabin of a steam locomotive The dials at points 2 and 3 are pressure gauges for the boiler and the brakes, 4 is a thermometer, and 6 is a window through which the engineer is supposed to see the track ahead and read the signals. The view, however, is obstructed inside by the steam whistle handle at 5, and outside by the body of the engine and the smoke, as shown in Figure 1-6. The classic pic- ture of Jean Gabin as the engineer in the movie “La bête humaine” actu- ally shows him leaning out the side for a better look, an unsustainable position for hours of driving. In his “Incredible Cross Sections,” Stephen Biesty shows the cab of the Flying Scotsman of the 1930’s, with the fire- man in action while the engineer leans out of the window. Working with Machines Draft 3, 8/2/06 19
  10. 10. The steam locomotive and the typewriter Point 7 is the mudhole, used to evacuate the sludge that accumulates in the boiler. Point 15 is the firebox door, with a shovel for the fireman. The last models of steam locomotives used a screw-feeder to bring coal from the tender into the firebox. While the locomotive was in motion, the fireman’s job was to maintain the firebox temperature and the steam pressure, which involved putting coal into the firebox, distributing it inside to make sure it burned properly, and feeding water into the boiler. The large wheel at 16 is the cutoff valve which determines the fraction of the stroke during which the cylinders receive steam and whether motion is forwards or backwards. The unlabeled valves at points 1, 7-14 and 17 do the following: • Regulate the flow of steam to the cylinders. • Control the brakes. • Release sand on the tracks to improve traction • Release water from the tender to the boiler. • Use steam to inject water into the boiler. • Dampen the fire in the firebox. • ... FIGURE 1-6. View of the track obstructed by the engine body and smoke To evacuate heat from the firebox, the cab is also open to the outside and has a fan above, which means that the engineer and fireman are exposed not only to the weather but also to the smoke belching out a few feet in front of them.Figure 1-7 summarizes the actions the engineer and fireman took in the course of operating the locomotive, which highlights in partic- 20 Draft 3, 8/2/06 Working with Machines
  11. 11. Machine operations ular the extent of the work that needed to be done for startup and shut- down. Cold In shed Clean the engine (both) Engineer lubricates valve Engineer sets gear, handbrake and Fireman checks boiler, chocks wheels firebox, smokebox, headlamps, brakes, and fills tender Ready to stable Ready to heat Fireman cleans rocking grate, ashpan, and smokebox, Fireman places steel cover over lights fire chimney Cooling down Fire on Fireman Fireman spreads fire, stops stoking injects water into boiler, the fire raises steam In-steam Ready to move Engineer Engineer releases brakes, coasts, then blows steam whistle, brakes releases steam to cylinders Engineer monitors track, reads signals, and adjusts In-motion speed as needed Fireman maintains firebox temperature and water pressure FIGURE 1-7. Simplified state-transition model of steam locomotive operation Working with Machines Draft 3, 8/2/06 21
  12. 12. The steam locomotive and the typewriter Figure 1-7 is a statechart and this graphic convention is used in later chap- ters as a mapping tool for machine operations. The rounded boxes are states, and the large boxes are superstates of the states they contain. Arrows indicate transitions between the states, and are labeled with descriptions of the actions or external events causing the transitions. Given all that the cab of a steam locomotive has against it, the transition to electric and diesel power should have been welcome to the operators. Figure 1-8 shows the electric locomotive cabs of three engines of the world’s fastest trains, of different vintages from France and Japan. The most obvious improvements are as follows: • These engines only need one operator. • In all cases, the cab is at the front of the engine, offering a clear view of the track ahead • The cabs are completely enclosed. • There are visibly fewer controls than the steam locomotives, all within easy reach of one seat and labeled. What looks like a steering wheel on the French BB-9004 and the TGV is in fact a throttle wheel, which is a legacy of the throttle valve found in a steam locomotive. The Japanese Shinkansen uses a joystick instead, which looks like the thrust lever of an airplane. The driver of the BB-9004 still had to read signals on the tracks. Both the Shinkansen and the TGV have “in-cabin signalling,” where signals are electronically transmitted from the track to the train’s control computer. All of these features make the operator’s work experience comfortable but also lonely and dull. As long as nothing goes wrong, the driver is alone with little to do but watch the track go by. This is a problem serious enough for both the Shinkansen and the TGV to have features specifically intended to keep the driver awake. For example, the TGV’s automatic watch VACMA system sounds a siren every minute, in response to which the driver must press the throttle wheel or a pedal. The situation of an automatic machine that requires human attention only when it malfunctions is not found not only in train engines, but also in air- liner cockpits and on the shop floor of many manufacturing plants. On 22 Draft 3, 8/2/06 Working with Machines
  13. 13. Machine operations trains and airplanes, there is no way to take advantage of the driver or pilot’s idle time. During the transition to electric and diesel, train engineers missed the busyness, the companionship and the sense of control they had in the steam locomotive’s cab. Likewise, car drivers trained on the stick shift often see little value in switching to automatic transmissions: they have to sit in the driver’s seat anyway, and the effort saved by not having to shift manually cannot be put to any other use. In manufacturing, however, operator jobs can be designed so that each one can look after multiple machines, and the methods to do this will be discussed in detail in Chapter 8. Working with Machines Draft 3, 8/2/06 23
  14. 14. The steam locomotive and the typewriter FIGURE 1-8. Cabs of electric locomotives Given the overwhelming advantages of electric locomotives for heavy traf- fic routes and of diesels for all others, the change away from steam was 24 Draft 3, 8/2/06 Working with Machines
  15. 15. Machine operations inevitable. The change in power technology, together with cab automation cut in half the number of people needed to operate trains, but challenged the remaining drivers to remain alert while bored and isolated from human contact. As we shall see, the transition away from typewriters unfolded dif- ferently. Typing The typewriter age divided the work of producing documents between authors who composed them in handwriting or on a dictation machine, and typists who generated the printed pages, and this particular division was dysfunctional in several ways: • Authors were often not clear enough as to what they wanted typists to do, and typists often had to ask for clarification. • Typists often made errors, which had to be corrected through multiple iterations. As shown in Figure 1-9, the complete workflow to produce and send out a business document was typically as follows: 1. The author writes a draft by hand and passes it to a secretary. 2. The secretary types the draft double-spaced and routes it for review back to the author and other stakeholders. 3. Until all stakeholders have signed off on the document, the secretary types a new draft, incorporating the changes made by hand on the pre- vious one, and reroutes it. 4. Once the document is approved, the secretary retypes it in its final form. 5. Another secretary and the author then inspect it for errors and get sec- tions retyped as needed. Working with Machines Draft 3, 8/2/06 25
  16. 16. The steam locomotive and the typewriter 6. The secretary ships the document. Reviewers Approval Draft Author Manuscript Document Draft Typist Shipping ready-to-ship Final document FIGURE 1-9. Document flows with typewriter technology Typists were rated exclusively on speed and accuracy. In the Guinness book of world records, the world’s fastest typist is Barbara Blackburn. She could maintain 150 wpm for 50 min. (37,500 key strokes), with 0.2% of errors. US schools expect students to achieve a minimum typing speed of 30 words per minute with 95% accuracy by the 8th grade. The computer age made “typing” as a trade disappear and turn into the “keyboarding” skill that every citizen is expected to possess. Typists rarely typed the same document multiple times, in, that sense, the work was non-repetitive and required their undivided attention. Repetitive manufacturing tasks allow operators to go “on automatic,” meaning that, once their bodies have memorized a sequence of actions, they are able to repeat it without thinking consciously about it. Typists could not do this. In terms of hand motions, however, their work was highly repetitive. In a typing pool as shown in Figure 1-10, the work would involve no leg move- ment at all, particularly if an office manager brings the copy to the typists and picks up their output. The two men in the back of the room have no typewriters on their desks and are writing by hand. While engineers and firemen on steam locomotives had to deal with the dangers of heat, cold, soot, fire and steam under pressure, they had jobs that kept their bodies active. Be contrasts, typists worked in clean, well- lighted places but were faced with the long-term hazards of sedentary work, from swollen legs to carpal tunnel syndrome. These two examples 26 Draft 3, 8/2/06 Working with Machines
  17. 17. Machine operations therefore highlight the two major types of safety issues that need to be addressed when designing how people work with machines. FIGURE 1-10.The typing pool at Bendix Field Engineering in the 1960’s As shown in Figure 1-11, computer-based text editing, word processing, and desktop publishing technology integrated the tasks of composing a document and generating a print image of it, and either dispensed with or automated the generation of printed hardcopy. Needless to say, this tech- nology has none of the shortcomings of typewriters listed on page 15. Automation enables writers to generate indexes and tables of contents for every draft, making it easier to review. Authors still mostly type a keystroke for every letter, even though some word completion programs guess the rest of a word from its first few letters. Even though each action taken by the computer may involve extensive processing of the text, it is done so quickly that the writer has no chance to walk away. From that standpoint, Working with Machines Draft 3, 8/2/06 27
  18. 18. The steam locomotive and the typewriter the human-machine interaction remains the same as it was on the type- writer: the word processor is a tool that the writer directs step by step. Reviewers Readers Drafts Final document Final document (paper) (electronic) Author Printer FIGURE 1-11.Document flows with word processing technology Even for a person of mediocre skills, typing is faster than composing a sentence. As a consequence, typing is no longer the bottleneck of the writ- ing process, the pressure for typing speed is not what it used to be, and, in particular, the optimization of keyboard layout is moot. While it is a fact that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to keep keys from jamming, the advantages of an alternative like the Dvorak keyboard are in dispute. If the Dvorak keyboard were as effective as its boosters claim, its implemen- tation might have made a difference in writing productivity in the typewriter age. It would not today, with authors doing their own keyboarding, because writing is paced by the mental process of composing sentences and not by the movements of fingers on a keyboard. Writing with computers is so productive that documents are released at a rate that exceeds audiences’ ability to read. Many documents are in fact produced from boilerplates to meet mandates, stay on file, and never be read by anybody. Home buyers sign and initial a stack of documents half an inch thick, which, according to realtors, none but engineers who are first- time buyers ever attempt to read. In the US congress, legislators vote on 1000-page bills without reading them. The voters of the European Union (EU), in 2005, rejected a constitution that is 191 A4-pages of small print. By comparison, the vintage 1787 US Constitution with all its 27 amend- ments is 21 pages long. How much of the conciseness of the US constitu- tion is due to the paper-and-quill technology used to write it will never be known, and neither is the extent to which word processing contributed to 28 Draft 3, 8/2/06 Working with Machines
  19. 19. Conclusions the verbosity of the EU constitution. If adding more text had not been so easy, however, it is difficult to imagine how a declaration by Latvia and Hungary on the spelling of the currency’s name could have found its way into a constitution. The end result, however, is clear: the legible US consti- tution is vital after 218 years; the unreadable EU constitution, stillborn. The use of technology for the purpose of maintaining a state-of-the-art image has not disappeared with the typewriter. Managers complain, for example, about staffers fussing for hours with computer graphics for internal presentations where a hand sketch on a transparency or even a white board would have been equally effective. Author Edward Tufte1 faults presentation software with dumbing down business communication by replacing complete sentences in paragraphs with bullet points. Conclusions The examples of the steam locomotive and the typewriter illustrate, on machines that have run through their entire product life, several key issues of working with machines, which will be explored in the coming chapters: • The diligence of machine operators and the personal fulfillment they may derive from their job depends not only on the job content but also on how the job and the machine are perceived both within the organi- zation and in society at large. • Automation is usually not a leap eliminating all human intervention, but instead a sequence of incremental reductions in the need for it through multiple generations of machines, each one offering a new challenge in defining a meaningful and productive role for the operator. • To this day, and particularly in offices, some machines are adopted more for status than for tangible benefits. While wasteful for society as a whole, it can be inescapable for individual economic agents when it affects external interaction. Companies, however, do not have to allow technological keeping-up-with-the-Jones to affect internal operations. 1. “The cognitive style of Powerpoint” (2003) Working with Machines Draft 3, 8/2/06 29
  20. 20. The steam locomotive and the typewriter 30 Draft 3, 8/2/06 Working with Machines