Industry's Moral Obligation

"Wake up and think!" A great technologist believes knowledge can cure our modern ills

CHARLES F. KETTERING November 1 1939

Industry's Moral Obligation

"Wake up and think!" A great technologist believes knowledge can cure our modern ills

CHARLES F. KETTERING November 1 1939

Industry's Moral Obligation

"Wake up and think!" A great technologist believes knowledge can cure our modern ills


(¡fncral Manager, Research Laboratories Division,

General Motors Corporation.

WE HAVE reached the time in our industrial research when we know what the essential steps are for the development of new industries. This knowledge is so important that I dare say we shall not get very far from the precarious position business now assumes until the steps are thoroughly understood and appreciated by the owners of business. We shall never enjoy any degree of security until industry accepts as a moral obligation the propagation of new industries.

We technologists have been blamed a great deal for having contributed materially to unemployment, because a sujjeriicial study of certain isolated operations seems to reveal that the use of technological developments results in a decrease in the use of man hours. From this study, generalities are attempted that have led some to the erroneous conclusion that there should be less development. It is very peculiar, however, how in investigating this thing, there are so few' i>eople w'ho consider the picture as a whole and thereby come to appreciate that a technological development can be, and almost always is, labor creating to a far greater extent than it can be labor saving. Very few people have ever suggested the idea that, if we extended our technological development to create new industries, we would more than absorb every unemployed workman, and, in fact, create a labor shortage.

There is no desire on my part to show that industry is beyond reproach, or that technology is not a factor to be

considered in our study of the unemployment problem. But industry and technology are involved only in that the former has failed to make more extensive use of the latter. We have counted far too much on the natural play of economic forces to effect readjustments in our employment. Many people have been absorbed by these forces, in filling stations, radio broadcasting, motion pictures and other new channels. But there remains much to be done, much that can be done, in the propagation of new industries and in the establishment of new channels of employment.

When I say “we,” I mean it generally, of course. We must go back to a consideration of the cry that has been heard in the world ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We are now in a better position to evaluate this old cry, for we have just gone through a century and a half of industrialization. By carefully facing the facts evolved during this period, we may be able to see certain practices of industry that are fundamentally sound.

We have, in the last few decades, become too expert in bookkeeping. We begin to think of return on capital, and yet every motive of our life is determined not by return on capital but by other factors. When we buy a diningroom table, do we try to calculate what the earning on the purchase will be, what per cent we are to get on our invested capital? When we send our boy or girl to school, do we try to figure out the net return on the investment? I sometimes think that if we tried to raise human children on the same basis as that of the highly organized bookkeeping system upon which we are trying to raise industrial children, a baby nine months old would have to be earning its own living.

The engineer must do one important thing. He must teach his financial supporters how to raise industrial children. Remember that a great many of our inventions came along haphazardly, as just the natural flux of picking up this thing or that thing and turning it into a useful tool. Centuries have been permitted to elapse between the revelation that steam was a giant waiting to be harnessed and the actual application of that discovery to the problems of mankind. Much has been accomplished in the past few years by organizing our scientific thinking, by analyzing what the controlling problem is and bringing together such groups of technicians as are necessary to solve the different parts. We are now in a transition period from the ineffective attic inventor to the well-organized industrial-research laboratory. Already we have evidence that organization has made for faster progress in the industrial program, but there still remain certain practices of the old regime that must be eliminated before the group can operate with utmost effectiveness.

Work is Not Enough

WE HAVE yet to get away from the early development of new industries on the basis of profit or loss, the basis of a return on capital. We must think of it as the development of something in which faith, in which the rightness of the thing, becomes the important consideration. We must feel that if a thing is right nothing can stop its success. We have detailed accounting in industry. Sometimes we try to apply that same accounting to research and industrial development. But they cannot live under the same treatment any more than we can budget our baby’s bath or milk bottles. He gets what he needs.

We must treat research as an insurance policy. Whatever we pay for research we must think of on the actuarial basis. We can consider a large number of projects and arrive at the average cost. When we take out a life insurance policy, nobody tries to figure out when we are going to cross the mortality line. Some cross below; some above. Likewise, in the case of research work ; for some who run off the track and fail to accomplish anything new, we can Continued on page 35

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expect a few to meet with success. To some, no doubt, this procedure seems expensive; but the price would be infinitely less to pay for our industrial development than trying artificially to stimulate one in which the principle, the fundamental principle, is not fully recognized. We cannot hope to create unless we know what our objectives are. Simply to put people to work without having any recurring coordination, means that when the money is exhausted we have nothing 'left that will proceed under its own power.

V It is up to the engineer to advise; and in this respect I think he can be criticized, because he has not been as active in getting his financial advisers to recognize that development of industry is as important as operation of industry. I think all of us recognize that building is one of the important phases of industry. Operation is an essential, but the number of people who can be employed in operating is rather small as compared to the builders.

The village built and inhabited by the men who constructed the Panama Canal has today fallen down, gone to wrack and ruin, because after the canal was built the men were not needed. If they had stayed, there would have been nothing to do but parcel out the jobs of operating the canal to the inhabitants of the Zone. But the fact that the village has died of unemployment does not argue that the jobs should have been parcelled out, and it does not constitute any indictment of the system of thought and faith that built the canal.

Knowledge built the Panama Canal— knowledge and engineering thinking. In the war with Spain the American doctors Were forced to learn something about yellow fever and malaria. They did it. thanks to the heroism of a few individuals. In building the canal, Americans possessed merely this knowledge in excess of what the •French knew when they attempted the

construction. The engineers followed the plans of the French engineers almost to the letter. Yet it was known that the female Stegomyia mosquito carries the germ of yellow fever and that the Anopheles carries malaria. That was all Americans knew that the French did not know, and yet the canal was built.

Our present industrial and economic system was built by the same human | qualities that built the Panama Canal. I think that the ills of the system can be j cured by the forces that created them, namely, knowledge and thinking.

If society is to progress, the obsolescence factor must be better understood. In this one great task of creating sufficient work to give every person a chance to trade labor for a living, we must speed up obsolescence; we must indoctrinate ourselves with the belief that no article should be kept off the scrap pile longer than it takes to provide a better article. This is not waste. Waste comes when we cling too long to the old things, such as outmoded buildings.

A few years ago an insurance company arranged for the construction in New . York City of an air-conditioned sky| scraper. The specialequipment probably cost as much as $500,000; but I venture to say that if the full truth were known about the improved health and yearround efficiency of the men and women who are fortunate enough to work in such a building, all of us would begin to clamor against buildings and houses not airconditioned, because they are dangerously obsolete.

Waste in “Economy”

IT IS entirely fallacious for us to go on deluding ourselves by wrong methods of bookkeeping. It is not wasteful to raze an old building when a better one can be put in its place. It is not wasteful to scrap old

machinery when it becomes outmoded. Real waste is suffered when we refuse to scrap our outmoded ideas of thrift. Nothing is more wasteful than neglecting to use modern medical discoveries in prolonging our lives, unless it is to spend our lives less effectively than is possible.

! Most of us are wasteful of our life span : because we have been taught to depreciate ; things slowly, “economically,” at the rate i of two per cent a year.

If we will wake up and think, we can go ahead. We are due for great advances in almost every realm. Almost every product of every kind is being improved and is being cheapened in price. The only things that are keeping us back are our immobility of mind, the age-old characteristic of fear and lack of understanding of how to I malee progress in keeping with the necesi sity of the times. Man can make every| thing he wants. The wants must be stimulated, for the world moves more by striving to satisfy wants than by filling its actual needs. We need sound products, sound purchases, sound payments, sound profits, sound points of view. We need a new idea of what constitutes well-being.

For myself, I am glad that the life span has been lengthened. There are many things I want to do, lots of places I want to visit, and many experiments I wish to make.

I want to find out why grass is green. It is the green in the grass, in the leaves and stems of plants, which has brought to us from the sun all the energy we have. Some little engine in the green of grass and the leaves has the gift, unknown to man, of capturing energy from the rays of the sun, storing that energy, building with it. Thence came, in ages past, all the heat and power now stored in coal, in wood, in oil, in ‘ natural gas.

1 Solve that secret and we shall know' how j to take energy from the sun. Master the secret and we may have a way to free the process of photosynthesis from the growing plant, a way to build engines to transform enough radiant energy from the sun into heat, chemical energy or electricity to run our machinery. We are more intelligent worshippers of the sun than our ancestors were, for w'e recognize our dependence on it more fully. Our rituals may be different, our ideas are certainly different; but our object is the same—to make the best use of its tremendous power.

1 want to see the time when our information consists of more basic understanding. Much that is known to us today is by definitions only. We say we can see through a pane of glass because it is transparent, and yet we do not know the 1 first principle of how light is transmitted through glass. We say a copper wire is a conductor of electricity, and yet our best scientists do not know, even in a small way, how electricity passes through one. We rub our hands together; we say they are warmed by the friction, and yet we have no knowledge today of what friction really is. We know that all these phenomena exist, however, because we see their effects. To some measure we have learned to use the effects, but without the fundamental knowledge we have no way to imagine what a multitude of things we are missing.

Most of all I want to get a glimpse of what we are going to consider a state of well-being next year, five, ten and twenty years from now. Believing in the philosophy that the true function of man is to make straight the way that nature makes jagged and uneven, I want to get more of an idea of the direction in which progress : is tending. For there are certainly infinite ! ixjssibilities before us in almost every realm, if we can only learn the essential ; steps necessary to realize them.