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TheStreet Open House

Is Technology A Job Killer? A Few History Lessons

By BERNARD CONDON

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ To workers being pushed out of jobs by today's technology, history has a message: You're not the first.

From textile machines to the horseless carriage to email, technology has upended industries and wiped out jobs for centuries. It also has created millions of jobs, though usually not for the people who lost them.

"People suffer â¿¿ their livelihoods, their skills and training are worth less," says Joel Mokyr, a historian of technological change at Northwestern University. "But that is the price we pay for progress."

A look at breakthroughs that made the goods we buy more affordable, our lives more comfortable â¿¿ and our jobs more precarious:

THE FIRST INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

For most of history, people made many goods themselves. That changed with the First Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the mid-18th century and lasted about 100 years.

New mechanical devices that allowed one man to do the work of several flooded the market with products, most notably textiles. Using cords, wheels and rollers, inventors sped up the twisting of threads to make yarn and the weaving of yarn to make cloth.

Next, steam was used to free the new machines from the limits of man's muscle and make them run faster. The new machines produced so much, so fast and so cheaply, more people could afford to buy textiles. Demand soared and so did jobs manning the machines and doing other work.

In America in 1793, Eli Whitney freed slaves from the laborious work of picking sticky seeds from cotton bolls by inventing a cotton gin that did that automatically. It led to widespread planting of cotton â¿¿ but even more work for slaves.

Whitney also is credited with another invention: interchangeable parts. At a workshop he ran for making firearms, he had his staff make the same part many times so that his guns could be assembled quickly. It worked, and industries such as watch makers copied his method.

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