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Forces of Production

Sunday, February 10th, 2013 at 4:54 pm Written by:

A tip-off from a Noam Chomsky interview lead me to the book Forces of Production A social history of industrial automation by David F Noble. The core of the book is a history of N/C (Numerical Control) Machining from its development at M.I.T. in the 50’s and the almost total funding of it by the US government through the Department of Defence for the next couple of decades in spite of the fact that it was economically impractical due to (a) unreliable and complicated electronics, and (b) computers for calculating the toolpaths were too expensive. It did, however, have the advantage that it promised to do away with skilled machinists who were able to bargain for better wages and so forth. Other more practical technologies, such as R/P (Record Playback of real motions onto a magnetic tape the same way industrial robots have often been programmed), were dismissed, defunded and suppressed by various measures. For example, the use of the totally over-engineered N/C programming language APT was made a precondition for government contracts. (Just to be really annoying, the specification of APT was only available to AIA members.) At least the Defence Department has form; they did it again when they standardized on the equally over-engineered programming language ADA. (I had never seen the point of APT, having only ever worked with G-code.)

Anyhow, the thesis of the book is arguably far-fetched and Marxist (though extremely well researched). But then you look up the citation on p219 for the following Exhibit of a 1963 United States Air Force promotional film on numerical control entitled: Modern Manufacturing: A Command Performance.

Be sure to watch all of it, including the part about the primitive techniques of manual machine tool operation illustrated by a black man in a grass hut.

N/C machining equals nuclear missiles equals Cold War which justified unlimited government dollars to top universities such as MIT to do their interesting advanced research, which provided no reason for their staff, who made up the intellectual elite of the nation, to ever question the insane dance of death known as the Cold War. The sad thing about the Cold War is it’s not even necessary — the public still funds unbelievable levels of spending on the same useless projects more than two decades after any viable pretext has existed. Who could have known? Maybe it’s also possible to obtain sufficient public funding for technological development not through the military budget. I bet there’s a way. And these university grant-scrabbling geniuses should be able to work it out if they weren’t so intellectually lazy and self-centred.


  • 1. Dan Falck replies at 18th February 2013, 2:27 am :

    Wow- they sure don’t make movies like that anymore 🙂 We also seem to be missing those lab coats in our factory. I will schedule a staff meeting about that.

  • 2. Ron @ CHMER EDM replies at 27th February 2013, 4:54 pm :

    Cool video, and thanks for posting about the book. I’ll have to go pick up a copy and give it a skim through.

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