Events that shook the world of work

Twenty inventions and developments, and how they changed the way jobs get done

A.D. 1000 Workers' Top Concern -- Will I have sufficient food for myself and my family after paying tribute to my lord?

Imagine that an English serf from the year 1000 suddenly appears in your office. You show him around and try to explain what's happened in the intervening millennium. But so much has changed, he doesn't believe you. Although many people in underdeveloped countries still lead the subsistence existence he did, the West has plucked the average worker from the field and put him in an air-conditioned office (air-conditioning?), with enough money to enjoy two days off each week, take a paid vacation annually, and save for retirement. (What's retirement?)

How did we get to where we are? Here are 20 events that have transformed the workplace during the past 10 centuries:

1. Rise of guilds - 11th century. With the growth of towns in Europe, merchants and artisans form guilds to set prices, regulate trade, and standardize the quality of goods in their area. Merchant and craft guilds delve into politics, build schools and roads, and help ease the transition from feudalism to capitalism. By the 16th century, their monopolistic ways start to clash with newly powerful national governments and the ideas of the Reformation.

2. The compass - 12th century. Although first discovered by the Chinese, this instrument proves to be the first of several crucial improvements that European seafarers seize upon. The compass, navigational charts, and increasingly sophisticated ships help speed up the expansion of trade centered in the Mediterranean. They also spawn a burst of exploration that by the early 1500s pushes explorers out into the oceans, establishes European nations as world powers - and discovers a New World in the process.

3. End of serfdom - 1300-1861. As agricultural productivity increases, the bonds that bind people to specific plots of land begin to relax. They still pay their lords a substantial portion of their harvests, but as labor shortages grow (especially after the plagues of the 14th century), property-owners begin to pay wages - a crucial step that engenders a money economy and prepares the way for hourly wages when Europe industrializes. By the 16th century, serfdom is waning in western Europe. In 1861, Russia outlaws the practice and gives serfs their own land allotments.

4. Newspaper - 1530s. Some 80 years after the invention of the printing press, the first known business "newspaper" appears in Antwerp. (General newspapers don't appear for another century.) Entrepreneurs realize they can make more money selling information to merchants than they can by hoarding it and competing with them. By 1716, the manager of a London business can subscribe to seven daily or weekly business papers, each costing about $800 a year in today's money, says John McCusker, an historian at Trinity University.

5. Trade unions - late 17th century. Starting in Britain, tailors, carpenters, printers, and others begin to organize by trade. A key gripe: It's increasingly hard to move up the ladder from "journeyman" to "master" of particular crafts. By the 1850s, craft unions become national entities, trying to regulate working conditions and restrict entry to their trades in order to keep wages high. When economies become industrialized two centuries later, unions begin to organize by industry rather than by craft. By the end of the 20th century, their power appears to wane.

6. Steam engine - 1711. If the millennial clock comes with chimes, they peal loudly this year when British inventor Thomas Newcomen invents the first practical steam engine. The machine inaugurates the Industrial Revolution, which soon sends thousands of workers into factories and thousands more into coal mines. Work speeds up. The pace of an employee's day is no longer set by himself and the sun, but by machines and the clock. The factory, which produces such things as cloth and shoes, also begins to challenge the craftsmen who produce these things. Meanwhile, the steam engine (particularly after James Watt's improvements 50 years later) powers the railroad, the steamship, and even (briefly) the automobile. No longer dependent on the forces of nature, transportation becomes regularly scheduled. Perhaps no other invention changes the workplace so dramatically in these 1,000 years.

7. "The Wealth of Nations" - 1776. In this landmark book, philosopher Adam Smith provides the first comprehensive rationale for a capitalist rather than a mercantile economy. His notions of the "invisible hand" of competition, division of labor, and the workings of supply and demand still influence policymakers, businessmen, and workers today. His example of the pin factory, where workers produce more by specializing in a particular procedure, foreshadows the awesome power (and boredom) of future factories.

8. Labor laws - 1802. As the exploitation of factory work becomes apparent, Britain passes its first law regulating child labor, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act. The idea spreads to Zrich in 1815 and France in 1841. The Swiss canton Glarus in 1848 enacts the first law limiting adults' working hours. Less than 40 years later, Germany pioneers health insurance and workmen's compensation. The United States does not enact many of these laws until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

9. Telegraph - 1844. Using Samuel Morse's system of dots and dashes, the message "What hath God wrought!" travels 35 miles by wire between Washington and Baltimore. The telegraph speeds up and transforms the workplace. It allows far-flung businesses to instantly communicate and employees in remote locations to consult headquarters rather than follow a rigid rule-book. Decades later, the telephone and e-mail allow new forms of work arrangements. By the late 20th century, round-the-world design teams pass off projects so work on them never stops; increasing numbers of employees work from home rather than at an office; still others use cell phones and other wireless devices to serve customers instantly.

10. The Communist Manifesto - 1848. If Adam Smith rationalizes capitalism, Karl Marx's most famous work eventually sends a host of nations down another path. Communist Russia and China and many smaller states abolish private property and inaugurate communal agriculture and central planning. But these "workers' paradises" don't yield the expected fruits and, by the early 1990s, most of the totalitarian states are swept away. The biggest exception, China, introduces liberal economic reforms.

11. Railroads - 1852. Although invented in Britain, railroads come of age in the United States. In 1852, the Baltimore and OhioRailroadconnects the East Coast with the Ohio River, quickly followed by five other lines that cross the Appalachian mountains. The railroads open up the young nation's vast interior withcheap transportation. (Until the early 19th century, it was cheaper to ship goods from Europe than to transport them 30 miles inland in the US, says Lou Galambos, an historian at Johns Hopkins University.) More important, the great railroads become the first fully modern businesses, pioneering new accounting methods and a whole system of managers and management levels, which would look familiar today. Railroad stocks greatly boost activity on the (soon-to-be-named) New York Stock Exchange; railroad bonds spur the development of the banking system.

12. Internationalization - 1851. Having lost his US patent on the mechanical reaper, Cyrus McCormick decides to outsell his competitors by, among other things, introducing it to European farmers at London's Great Exhibition. The reaper takes the grand prize and begins selling internationally. Four years later, the Singer Company wins first prize at the Paris World's Fair and five years later becomes the world's largest manufacturer of sewing machines.

13. Chain stores - 1859. George F. Gilman and George Huntington Hartford found the Great American Tea Company in New York. By 1881, under the name Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, the company operates stores as far away as Virginia and Minnesota. Regional and even national competition among retailers spurs the development of brand names. Through advertising and catalog sales, companies such as Procter & Gamble and Sears become household names. By the late 20th century, some brands - such as Coca-Cola, Toshiba, and McDonald's - achieve virtually worldwide recognition.

14. Typewriter - 1874. E. Remington and Sons introduce their typing machine for court reporters, but within a few years it moves into the office with a vengeance. "A great revolution is taking place, and the typewriter is at the bottom of it," Pensman's Art Journal concludes in 1887. "Today its monotonous click can be heard in almost every well-regulated business establishment in the country." Because business is booming and male clerks are in short supply, companies hire female typists. But women quickly bump into a glass ceiling. Traditionally, male clerks could rise to the top ranks of a company. The women don't. "We developed this separation between the people who did the thinking and the clerical piece of it," says JoAnne Yates, management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1964, the US passes the Civil Rights Act, which bans workplace discrimination on the basis of sex or race, but by the year 2000, many women and minorities claim subtle discrimination remains.

15. Electric utility - 1882. Thomas Edison supervises the installation of the world's first permanent, commercial central power system in New York City. Electricity not only brings more consistent and safer lighting to the workplace, it also supplies the power for other great advances - electronics, telecommunications, computers, and consumer electronics - that will change the 20th-century workplace.

16. Pensions - 1888. Germany pioneers the idea of helping workers who can no longer fend for themselves. At age 70, all German workers in trade, industry, and agriculture become eligible for benefits. Many Western European nations quickly follow suit, giving rise in the 20th century to the modern welfare state. The United States waits until 1935 to pass its Social Security Act. At century's end, it retreats from some welfare programs.

17. Mass production - 1890. Using production accounting and other advances to drive down costs, Andrew Carnegie's mills turn out so much steel that the US passes Britain in steel output for the first time in history. The company becomes the archetype of the late 19th-century mass-production company, not only huge but vertically integrated, owning everything from the ore mines to the railroads that transport the materials. Some US companies achieve such dominance that the federal government passes laws against monopolies and, in 1911, wins a court suit that breaks up the mighty Standard Oil Company of John D. Rockefeller.

18. Assembly line - 1913. American meat-cutters pioneered it, but Henry Ford popularized the assembly line and, with his Model T, brought mass-produced machines to the masses. The car was manufactured so efficiently that in 1915 it sold for an unimaginably low $950; by 1926, it cost less than $300. Today's consumer-electronics manufacturers still follow the Ford model: The more they produce something, the less expensive it becomes. By the late 20th century, however, companies move away from Ford's notion of workers as human cogs in a system and try to involve them in decisionmaking. Japanese manufacturers introduce new refinements, including just-in-time delivery, which reduces inventories. The automobile, like the steam engine 200 years earlier, also changes work life. It speeds employees into the suburbs, ties them up in "rush hour" traffic jams, cloaks them in smog, heats up their atmosphere with its tailpipe emissions, and gives the common man unprecedented mobility.

19. Transistor - 1947. When three Bell Labs researchers invent the transistor, they set off a chain of innovations that launch the digital revolution. The integrated circuit appears a decade later and continued miniaturization technologies create ever faster and cheaper computer chips, which push the computer into the mainstream. By the 1960s, IBM mainframes rule the business world. In 1981, the company creates the personal computer, a desktop machine that's widely copied and rapidly moves onto workplace desktops and into homes. Four centuries after the first newspaper, the Information Age arrives.

20. World Wide Web - 1993. Researchers at the University of Illinois create "Mosaic," software that popularizes the Internet by allowing users to view data graphically. Consumers and businesses rush to go online and create the beginnings of e-commerce. At century's end, it's not clear whether the rapidly expanding computer network will change the workplace the way the assembly line did or completely transform it the way the steam engine has. "The Internet is not for this millennium, but it's going to be as important as any of these [changes]," predicts Alfred Chandler, professor emeritus of history at Harvard University.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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