‘Work Forces’ Workshop: automation and the transformation of labour

The following text was one of the outcomes of the ‘Work Forces‘ week-long workshop run by the History of Art and Architecture (HAA) Department at the University of Pittsburgh, and in which I was fortunate enough to participate…

The ‘Continuous Miner’. A phrase that has a rhythm, and sounds almost poetic. Like Handel’s famous suite from 1720, ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. Or so I thought when I first heard the phrase. Whereas one of these titles is a delightful set of baroque pieces of music played on a harpsicord in the music rooms, salons, and concert halls of polite society, the other is possibly the farthest away in terms of space and culture that you could get. For the Continuous Miner is actually a huge hunk of thick metal and articulated conveyer belt, a noisy room-sized machine which works incessantly in the sulphurous underground amongst dark seams in the sooty coalface. With its hardened, pointed, rotating claws at the front of the conveyor, it digs into the darkness like a monotonous machinic dinosaur. Yet how it becomes a subject of artistic production, as opposed to an object of art, will seem unlikely at first.

Figure 1. The series of paintings arrayed in the Carnegie Museum of Art for Work Forces. Credit: Ana Rodriguez Castillo.
Figure 2. Hedda Sterne, The Continuous Miner (1954)

It has a certain brutal aesthetic, based as it is so purely on function over form. The ‘aesthetic’ aspect is not superficial, as our introduction to the machine within the Work Forces workshop was as a series of paintings presented to us in the Carnegie Museum of Art (fig. 1), commissioned by the manufacturer. The Jewish-Romanian emigrée Hedda Sterne, instrumental in the avant-garde art scene of New York in the 1940s and 1950s, was one of those commissioned artists, and her oil on canvas painting ‘The Continuous Miner’ of 1954 (fig. 2, link) differs from the others because the framing is circular, giving an almost fish-eye impression of the machine in its dark environment to the viewer. Costas Karakatsanis, Fine Arts Curatorial Researcher at the CMoA, talked about the background to the paintings, explained that those machines had been invented as far back as 1948 by the Pittsburgh-based Joy Manufacturing Corporation and cost $50,000 at the time (fig. 3; an online inflation calculator tells me this is equivalent to $532,304 in 2019). A variant of this machine is still being made by the Japanese Komatsu Corporation, which bought Joy in 2016, but enshrines the prior company in the model number: the Joy 12CM12 (fig. 4).

Figure 3. Costas Karakatsanis at the Carnegie Museum of Art. My photo.

Studs Terkel’s rather wonderful oral history of workers in America, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, includes the account of Joe who graduated from high school in 1930 and went straight to work in the mines, getting up around 3.30-4am to start work at 6. 

My hearin’… It coulda been affected with so much noise. I was tampin’ up, shootin’ the coal down, just behind the machine. I worked that continuous miner. That made lotsa noise. This hearin’ aid cost me $395. (Joe, in Terkel 1997:16).

The overview and discussion of the paintings was on Wednesday May 8, and the following day we had the opportunity to see one of these machines ‘in the wild’, as it were, with a visit to the Tour-Ed Mine and Museum in Tarentum, PA, which had a number of demonstrations of mining equipment, starting from the old carts on rails and the use of human loaders with pick axes, and then as visitor progress through the mine you encounter more advanced machines that automated the process. The final machine was a working Continuous Miner manufactured by the Joy Corporation, the exact same machines as in the paintings. We got a sense of the scale of the machine and the noise it created first-hand, and one of the tour guides described working with the machine in his previous job. 

Figure 4. Komatsu Joy CM12CM. From Komatsu website.

For me, the fascination with the Continuous Miner is part of a wider developing interest in the history of automation. Based on my current work on the history of the measurement of bodily sensation from 1833-1945, pain and fatigue feature in factories and workplaces (Movement, Measurement, Sensation: How We Became Sensory-Motor, forthcoming with University of Minnesota Press). But my next project will benefit very directly from the Work Forces workshop, as I look at the history of automata and automation, and increasingly how work and the future of work are being transformed (Animal Automata and Living Machines: Robots, Replicants, and Companion Species, contracted with Routledge). Prior to the HAA Work Forces workshop, my emphasis was beginning to change because of the rich history of labor and work around Pittsburgh, and colleagues for example had introduced me to the Pittsburgh Survey and scholars such as Edward Slavishak’s Bodies of Work: Civic Display and Labor in Industrial Pittsburgh (2008). But the visits to archives, museums, and the intense conversations with fellow workshop attendees has certainly advanced this intersection between the history of labor, automation, and the transformation of the workplace.

2 thoughts on “‘Work Forces’ Workshop: automation and the transformation of labour

Add yours

  1. Jessica Riskin’s ‘The Restless Clock’, University of Chicago Press, 2016, examines automatons from the 15th c to mid-20th c, but from a more philosophical and sociological point of view, rather than your sensory-motor field of study. This might be of interest to you.

    1. Thanks Joan! I’ve encountered (but not actually read yet!) that book, and loved her previous book on Science and Sensibility.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑