An English Mechanic in America

JAMES BLOUNT November 1 1906

An English Mechanic in America

JAMES BLOUNT November 1 1906

An English Mechanic in America


Mr. Blouot is a mechanical engineer, who has had experience in shops both in England and the United States. He explains the fundamental differences between methods in the two countries, showing the ways of work, the attitude of the workers towards their work and the results achieved in both. It is a most instructive comparison illustrating as it does, the importance of education.

THERE has been a long controversy about the comparative industrial efficiency of England and the United States. Probably no one is better qualified to compare the merits of one country with another than one whose lot it has been to rough it in both. 1 have had the fortune to work in engineering shops in both countries, and the following is an account of my experiences and observations. The comparisons drawn are between a first-class large American factory and a well-equipped English works of moderate size and perhaps somewhat indifferent management.

Having taken an engineering course at an English college and received a sound theoretical and some little practical training, I decided, at the age of eighteen, to apprentice myself to a firm of manufacturing engineers. As it is customary for these firms to demand a premium from its pupils, varying from $250 to $1,500, according to their standing and reputation, I looked about for some weeks and finally entered works in London at which I was duly articled for a period of four years. I was considered fortunate to be admitted for a premium of $500, for which sum they undertook to teach me the trade or business. The whole of this tuition I found consisted of being allowed in a limited measure to choose my own work and to take a holiday when 1 felt so inclined.

By way of remuneration for my services I was to receive $1 per week

during the first year, rising to $1.25, $1.50 and $1.75 in my second, third and fourth years respectively, so that at the age of twenty-two I should have been in receipt of a salary of eighty-five dollars per annum, which would be reduced by deductions for lost time and holidays, the latter being much more numerous than in America.

On putting in an appearance to start work I was soon told by an informal deputation of two of the workmen that I should be expected to “pay my footing,” which I found meant presenting each man and boy with a cigar. On my refusal I was subjected to a series of practical jokes, among the mildest of which were being made a target for pieces of waste soaked in dirt and oil, having buckets of dirty water rigged over my machine which capsized on my head when I started the machine, and having the handles of tools heated. I was continually being sent around the works on some fool’s errand, such as finding a left-handed wrench (this, however, I’ll admit was more the result of my greenness than anything else), and many more objectionable and offensive pranks, all which, though doubtless very amusing to the perpetrators, made life so unbearable that at the end of a fortnight I was glad to surrender and to buy my peace by producing the necessary cigars.

I ought, perhaps, in justice to add that if a boy was really too poor to pay, the demand was not pressed and

the baiting died a natural death after a few days.

The works, exclusive of the office staff, were in operation fifty-four hours a week. Starting at 6 a.m.,

work was carried on until half-past eight when a stop of half an hour was made for breakfast. At one o’clock there was another intermission of an hour for lunch. The regular day’s work ended at five o’clock. The whole works shut down on Saturday afternoon, as is the general custom in England.

The foreman of the shop was a man, of very limited education who had obtained his post by influence and who carried into effect the prevailing practice among English foremen of delaying his appearance until about half-past seven, and frequently he was not seen until nine o’clock. As no check was kept upon his time his superiors who did not arrive until after nine o’clock did not appear to be any the wiser. There being no supervision, the hours before breakfast were usually spent by the employes in discussing the latest racing, betting, and general sporting news, and, broadly speaking, there was no work done before nine o’clock, as those men who attempted to do anything were so unmercifully chaffed and pestered that they were glad to join the majority.

As it usually took the shop from ten to fifteen minutes to get into working order, and about the same time to stop, it will be seen that not more than six of the nine and a half hours were spent at actual work. At five o’clock — the signal to quit — everybody, having finished and washed his hands some moments previously, made a rush for the street from every available hiding place in the vicinity of the gate.

In this factory the workmen had one unusual privilege. The firm had rented a large room provided with tables, seats and a large cooking stove for the benefit of those of its employes who lived at a distance, and who partook of their meals in the place. It was my practice to take with me a large bottle of milk which I had to hold under the table while pouring it into my tea, to avoid being the victim of endless and unmerciful chaff for my “babyishness,” the others favoring the more manly liquid, beer, upon which fluid a considerable percentage of their earnings was spent. Many of the men had a really deep-rooted conviction that they could not get through a day’s work without the assistance of some such alcoholic stimulant. And so it was not to be wondered at that I was surprised during my first few days in an American shop to see great, grown laborers openly drinking bottles of milk, and, what was more, their not seeming to be ashamed at being seen doing so.

Having spent about two years in these English works, it was my good fortune to meet some Americans who were touring in England at the time, and who were good enough to offer, if I cared to come, to see me employed in one of the largest engineering works in the United States, where they assured me that if I were prepared to push for myself my chances for getting on were much greater than in England. On receiving this offer I approached my employers with the view to having my indentures cancelled and securing my freedom. To this request they demurred, as I had now become fairly useful and profitable to them ; finally, however, seeing that I was determined to go, and probably realizing that

Si dissatisfied man was undesirable about the place, they acquiesced. I accordingly forfeited the premium that I had paid and sailed a fortnight later for America, and within a week or so after my arrival I had commenced work in an American workshop.

After having been questioned about my previous experience by the foreman of the department of these works I was started to work and was agreeably surprised to find that I was paid ten cents an hour, or $6 a week, for this was a substantial jump from $1.25. I also received intimation that as soon as I proved myself worth it, I should get a rise. This promise proved to be no delusion, as six weeks later they voluntarily increased my rate two cents per hour, and three months later I was again raised to fourteen cents, and within a year I was receiving eighteen cents an hour, or $10.80 a week, which is more than the journeyman mechanic gets in England.

The division of the working hours of the day in America is a more important item than appears at first sight. Working from 7 a.m. until 12, and again from 1 till 6 p.m., gives two periods of five hours each. This necessitates the workman taking breakfast before he comes to work — which is infinitely healthier and more natural than leaving home at 5.30 a.m. and fasting until 8.30, for I think most people will agree that one cannot work honestly on an empty stomach. This system does away with the lost time in the morning so common in England, and I think it is safe to say that 60 per cent, of British workmen do not work twenty-five full weeks in the year. They usually lose one, and frequently two quarters (which is the term applied to the

first two and one-half hours of the day) per week.

It is difficult for those who have not worked under both systems to realize to its full extent the economic value of this difference. The diligent attention to work and the general hustle of the place impressed me greatly. Immediately on the signal to start everyone moved off to his respective place and within a minute everything was in full swing. No one paid any attention to a new arrival, and work proceeded steadily and evenly until it was time to quit. When this signal had been given, the men leisurely took off their overalls, washed their hands, and went home.

It did not take me long to find out that the foreman followed the progress of each man and job with considerable interest, and if the job proceeded tardily, the man was soon reminded that a little more expedition would be appreciated. The foremen all struck me as being men of superior intelligence and education who took as keen an interest in the welfare of the place as the employers themselves, being always the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. They had all risen from the ranks by sheer merit and ability, as it is the boast of this particular firm that they keep no kidglove superintendents.

The men on being kept waiting for material or any other cause displayed what was to me a quite unlooked for amount of patience. It seemed ingrained in them that the only natural thing to do during working hours was to work, consequently the amount of loafing and idling was infinitesimal.

One great difference between the American and British workman is his method of starting a job. The Yan-

kee’s first care is to find out what are the vital and important parts and measurements and what are unimportant, and, by being accurate and careful and wasting as little time as possible, he saves an immense amount of time and labor. In English shops every part is finished with equal care and accuracy, regardless of its relative importance. The English product is more highly finished, a large amount of time being spent in polishing, painting, and decorating, which though more pleasing to the eye has little practical value. Then again the expense accruing from this extra and unnecessary work creates an almost prohibitive price which in these strenuous and competitive days is liable to exclude it from the world’s markets. Another noticeable fact is the growing tendency in America toward specialization, which really reduces the cost of manufacture. This is a doubtful benefit to the country in the long run, for it means less good all-round men. For the British workman, as a mechanic, is undoubtedly a superior all-round man to his American cousin, who in turn, however, excels in some special groove and displays more ingenuity in the invention of small labor-saving devices, which relieve him of much superfluous work and afford him the time to attend to other things.

In the works to which I am referring—which is one of the largest in the United States and which is, as far as I have been able to judge, typical of the country—a great deal of loyalty is displayed by workmen co-operating with foremen and superintendents in securing all possible despatch of work. There is nowhere to be found that feeling of awe of the boss which is so customary on the other side of the Atlantic. Here a

common interest, that of getting out the work in the shortest possible time, overcomes to a large extent the barriers of position, the foreman paying little attention to the niceties of address provided the work is being pushed rapidly forward.

One of the most important differences in the management of American and British workshops is the custom of one workman running two, three, and sometimes as many as four machines at the same time, moving from one to another as occasion demands. Any attempt by an English employer to increase his output per man by these methods would be almost certain to provoke a general strike, the principle of one man to one machine and as little work as possible having been for many years one of the main planks of the trades unions’ platform. The workman in his blindness and stupidity regards anything else as an effort to reduce the number of men employed and the amount of work which the world requires, which to him is definitely fixed. He quite loses sight of the fact that in economics this procedure would ultimately react to his own advantage.

The American workman usually sets his machine going and having adjusted it properly sharpens the tools not in actual use in order to be ready for the next cut and looks after any details requiring attention, which course generally assists him in turning out the work without delay. The Englishman, on the other hand, sits down and waits till his cut or whatever operation is being performed is done, and then, and not till then, does he shut off his machine and attend to those duties. It would no more occur to him to wait and take a drink of water while his machine was running than it would for the

American to shut his machine oh in order to do the very same thing.

These little things, perhaps not of much importance in themselves, are unmistakably significant of the two characters. The Yankee takes a certain pride in the quantity of his output and every day tries to beat his own record, while the Englishman upholds the theory and practice of what his unions teach him— in other words, the longer he lingers over his job the longer it willgive him employment.

What, however, appears to be at the root of the whole matter is the educational advantage which the American has over the rest of the world. Let me then examine the apprenticeship systems of the two countries. In England after the apprentice has paid his premium, hardly any more attention is paid him. He can come and go when he likes, although to run away before his time is up would render him liable to be arrested in any place he might hide. Lie can work as hard or as little as he pleases. And lastly (and this is where the beginning of the divergence of the characters of the two types takes place), no supervision is exercised over the moral or mental side of his character outside the works.

In America, however, the meaning of the word premium is unknown. In the works in which I am at present a man receives at the expiration of his term a bonus as large as the ordinary premium that would be demanded from him by his employers in England before he even set foot in the shop. In this particular works (in one of the three courses which they offer) they pay the apprentice 20 per cent, more than an English trades union mechanic receives. Strict attention is paid to him during work-

ing hours, and if he does not do the work with sufficient accuracy or at a reasonable rate, he is soon called up “to the front” for it. Strict attention is also paid to the hours he keeps, and if he is often late he is told that his services are no longer required. This supervision is by no means relaxed after working hours, for he is required to attend such night schools as his employers specify, and he is also required to recognize their supervision over his conduct out of the shop as well as in it.

Another very striking difference is that everybody starts right at the bottom in America, be he the son of a railroad president or the son of a laborer. Not only does he do this eagerly and cheerfully, but it never even occurs to him to start in anywhere else. Nobody points to anybody else with awe, as being the son of Mr. So and So, the great railroad magnate, or the son of one of the members of the firm, nor is any such favor shown to such young men as in England. Everybody is equal at the start ; nobody better than anyone else until he has shown himself to be better.

The ambitions of the younger generation of workmen in the two countries add another layer to the foundation for the superiority of the American. In England he has, with possibly a few exceptions, practically no ambition beyond becoming a good journeyman mechanic or the questionable ambition of having enough to enable him to lay a few bets on the races and to treat his friends. But this no doubt is due to the present existing social laws of England. In America there is no limit to his ambition.

Although there are, undoubtedly,

equally good opportunities to obtain education in the two countries, only the American seems to want to take advantage of them. In short, the American looks ahead all the time ; the Englishman is perfectly content and satisfied with his present level. America is steadily producing a generation of mechanics, highly trained, not only in the practical but also in the theoretical side of their business, who are prepared and qualified when opportunity occurs to step into high-

er and more responsible positions ; and the way in which inventive genius is fostered and encouraged is bound to tell.

Can we, then, wonder that the products of this country are slowly but surely gaining in the markets of the world and making the United States the foremost commercial nation on earth ? It is simply a case of the victory of an educated workingman with high ambitions over an uneducated man with lower ambitions.