The 1930s Hysteria About Robots Taking Jobs and Killing People

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Nov. 30 2011 8:00 AM

“A Robot Has Shot Its Master”

The 1930s hysteria about machines taking jobs and killing people.

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An advertisement in the June 5, 1930, Bradford Era of Bradford, Pa., decried the Hollywood movie machine that an established industry is now trying to protect: “300 musicians in Hollywood supply all the ‘music’ offered in thousands of theatres. Can such a tiny reservoir of talent nurture artistic progress?” The irony, of course, is that today the music industry is battling to protect recorded music. Protectionist policies to save the old business models of newspapers, movies, and recorded music mimic those of history.

This is not to say that there weren’t techno-utopian visions of the future during this period. Nor were all predictions about robots negative. It just happened that those who were able to look past the Great Depression and see a glorious technological future happened to be quite well off. Take, for instance, Walter S. Gifford, president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Co., who disagreed with Weber in the March 1931 Modern Mechanix:

This depression will soon pass and we are about to enter a period of prosperity the likes of which no country has ever seen before. It is inevitable that business through science will work toward a social and industrial Utopia which will be gained by the perfection of the best and cheapest possible service consistent with financial safety.
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And then there were the technocrats. The Technocracy movement, which started in New York in 1932, envisioned a society where reason and scientific efficiency vanquished all the world’s problems, including the Depression. The first step in their plan was to replace all politicians with engineers and other scientifically minded professionals. Described as “a revolution without bloodshed,” the Technocrats promised a guaranteed income which they believed would bring an end to crime and disease. One particularly striking issue of the Technocrats’ magazine even featured a cover with a robot, the text reading: “Thirty million out of work in 1933—or $20,000 guaranteed income for every family—which?” Believers in Technocracy’s socialist utopia both feared and respected this new hulking robot of automation that Americans believed were taking away jobs. Technocracy presented a world wherein humanity conquered the robots before the robots could conquer them. Technocracy’s brief heyday came to an end when one of the movement’s founders, Howard Scott, gave a rambling, incoherent, and much-ridiculed speech on national radio on Jan. 13, 1933.

The mythical fight against the mechanical man also made its way to the boxing ring. The April 1934 issue of Modern Mechanix featured an illustrated spread wherein boxing great Jack Dempsey goes toe-to-toe with a foreboding robotic opponent wearing boxing gloves. “I Can Whip Any Mechanical Robot” the headline screams. In the piece, a confident Dempsey proclaims, “I wouldn’t be afraid of any robot or mechanical man. I could tear it to pieces, bolt by bolt and scatter its brain wheels and cogs all over the canvas.” Even Mickey Mouse got in on the action in 1933, with the release of the short animated film Mickey’s “Mechanical Man.” The film shows Mickey the inventor concocting a robot to fight against a gorilla—who subsequently pummels the robot. Everything old truly is new again: Just this year, Dreamworks released the robot-boxing film Real Steel, which Slate’s Forrest Wickman called a celebration of “the supreme might of man and machine working in unison, a combination that ultimately wins out over the soulless tech geekery which aims to outmode workers altogether.”*

Just as the 1930s worried about the tremendous upheaval that the “mechanization of society” had brought, so too do the philosophizers and pundits of our age worry about the corrupting influence of the Internet. From the vantage point of 2011 we might laugh at the people of the 1930s, asking ourselves what on earth they were worried about, but it’s always a matter of degree. No doubt cavemen worried about the corrupting influence of the wheel just as many worried that the written word would destroy society by allowing man the luxury of no longer having to memorize complex tales of fact and myth. These technologies—these robots—are extensions of our humanity. The wheel and the book and the Internet either allow us or force us to become cyborgs. Your belief in this as a good or bad thing likely depends on your economic situation at the moment.

Check out a slideshow about the great robot panic of the 1930s in the pages of print media.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Correction, Dec. 1, 2011: Due to an editing error, this article originally misspelled the last name of Slate editorial assistant Forrest Wickman. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Matt Novak is a writer living in Los Angeles. He writes Smithsonian magazine's Paleofuture blog and is a contributing editor at the Futurist magazine.