Many of the most difficult problems concerned with the development of technology arise when a well-established industry is suddenly rendered obsolete by a new invention. There are many examples of this, such as the numerous improvements in machinery for spinning cotton, the replacement of horse-drawn stage coaches by railways and automobiles, and canal transport by the railways, and the replacement of large passenger liners by huge jet planes. Other dramatic changes, such as the almost continuous development of new technology for war, the introduction of gunpowder and the atomic bomb, have different effects as they are organised and paid for by the State.
In the nineteenth century there was a flourishing trade in ice between the USA and India. In the winter, blocks of ice were cut from the frozen lakes in New England, packed in wood shavings and taken by sailing ship to Calcutta. Surprisingly enough, sufficient ice survived the journey to be available to make ice cream during the hot summer. This useful commercial activity was killed stone dead as soon as refrigerators were invented. Another example is provided by indigo, a dye that was highly prized from ancient times. In India, two million acres were devoted to growing the plant from which it was extracted. The chemist von Bayer succeeded in 1883 after twenty years to synthesize the dye, but the process was too complicated for industrial development. Then one day in 1896 a careless worker stirred a mixture of naphthalene and sulphuric acid with a thermometer; the thermometer broke and the reaction took a different course, producing the vital ingredient for the synthesis of indigo. The mercury acted as a catalyst for a hitherto unknown reaction. Indigo could then be synthesized, and the Indian indigo industry was destroyed (Gratzer 2002, p. 46).
The rendering obsolete of an established industry has devastating effects on the lives of the workers. Their skills, honed over years of apprenticeship and practice, are suddenly made useless. The factory or mine where they work is forced to close down by inexorable economic pressure. They may lose their homes as they are no longer able to pay the rent. There may no longer be any jobs for them in the neighbourhood. Their situation is indeed desperate.
The changes may be foreseeable, and may take place gradually. It is then possible for a sympathetic management to explain what is happening, provide help for the workers to move to another district where jobs are available or even re-organise the factory to produce new goods that are saleable. Some workers may react violently and smash up the new machinery that is threatening to destroy their jobs, as the Luddites did in the north of England.
Another type of difficulty arises when the Government or the industry itself insists, for good reasons, on new safety precautions. These inevitably increase the price of the product and may make it uncompet-itive compared with similar industries in other countries, which are not subject to the same regulations. This situation may be worsened if the workers in the other countries are willing to work for longer hours for lower wages. It is then impossible for the first country, which may have developed the industry in the first place, to survive the competition. In this way the production of cotton cloth in England was destroyed by the competition from Asiatic countries such as India. The same thing happened later on to the British shipbuilding industry, at one time the greatest in the world.
The steady improvement in manufacturing methods and the development of new products is ultimately responsible for widespread benefits and the raising of living standards. However it often has devastating effects on the lives of the workers concerned. In the nineteenth century many trade unions were formed and helped to negotiate better working conditions and remuneration. In many cases they organised strikes that caused loss of production and sometimes destroyed the whole industry. A contributing cause in many cases was complacency among the management and a reluctance to introduce new techniques.
As an example, the Japanese shipbuilding industry was completely destroyed by bombing during the war, and subsequently they were forbidden to build ships. They therefore assigned many young engineers to study shipbuilding and to learn from techniques used in other countries. They developed new and faster techniques, so that when finally they were permitted to build ships they could do so rapidly and reliably, using the latest methods. The British shipbuilding industry, wedded to older techniques and crippled by strikes organised by Communist trade unions, could not compete and one after another the great shipbuilding yards were forced to close down.
So competitive is modern manufacturing that the rights of the workers are often ignored, and they are treated simply as units of production. This is an affront to their dignity as human beings, and over the years the Church has insisted that their rights are respected. A whole series of Papal Encyclicals, Rerum Novarum in 1891, Quadragesimo Anno in 1931 and Tertio Millennio Adveniente in 2000, together with many addresses on various occasions, have described the rights of workers and how they may be implemented.
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