July 1961 Electronics World
People old and young
enjoy waxing nostalgic about and learning some of the history of early electronics. Electronics World
was published from May 1959 through December 1971. See all
Electronics World articles.
Once transistorized computers made desktop-sized systems a reality,
the sure eventuality of humans being replaced by their electronic
equivalents became a popular theme of media pundits. News reports
and 'special features' on TV at the same time scared citizens
concerned for their jobs and assured them that by the year 2000,
humans wouldn't need to work anymore anyway because computers
and robots would be doing everything for them. The millennium
crossover occurred a decade and a half ago as 2015 draws to
a close, and looking back it is true that computers and robots
have usurped a lot of what used to be done manually, but, as
Mac presciently predicts in this story, along with the changeover
has come a plethora of new high tech jobs both for creating
and maintaining those systems. There are still many service
type jobs that will never be replaced by automation, but one
aspect of domestic job losses not envisioned by Mac McGregor
(Frye's alter ego) is the offshoring
of call service centers, doctors in Kazakhstan reading our medical
x-ray and MRI images, and all the design work being done in
countries most people never knew existed - using equipment and
know-how provided by American companies. For that matter, he
didn't predict all the service and construction jobs in the
country being taken by illegal immigrants, either
(try finding a legal citizen lawn maintenance
guy in North Carolina or an American citizen cab drive in New
Mac's Service Shop: Automation and the Technician
By John T. Frye
It was Matilda's treat. The office girl of Mac's Service
Shop had made a daring safari through the blazing July afternoon
sun to the corner drugstore and had brought back three chocolate
sundaes. Now she, Mac, and Barney were seated in the service
department contentedly spooning the luscious, high-calorie confections
from their cardboard containers. Only the hum of the whirring
air-conditioner broke the silence.
As usual, Barney polished off his sundae first and regretfully
dropped the plastic spoon into the empty carton. "Thank you,
Matilda; you're a jewel," he announced; "and I can't bear the
thought of your being replaced."
"Being replaced!" Matilda exclaimed, looking up in shocked
surprise. "Whatever are you talking about?"
"I've been doing some heavy reading and hard thinking," Barney
said importantly. "The reading has consisted of reports made
to Congress last spring by Representative Elmer J. Holland and
Howard Coughlin, president of the Office Employees International
Union. According to these reports, it is conservatively estimated
five million office and clerical jobs will be eliminated through
automation in the next five years. In 1961 alone, computer installations
will be made affecting 1.4 million clerical workers and eliminating
a minimum of 350,000 existing jobs. IBM is quoted as saying
it has automated only 7% of the work in U.S. offices and hopes
to raise this to 35%. Yes, Matilda, I hate to think of a shiny
computer sitting out there at your desk. It won't bring us sundaes;
I can't tease it; and it won't be half as cute."
Matilda made a face at him, but Mac noticed the happy look
of a few minutes before had left her countenance. "There're
lots of other reasons no machine will ever replace our Matilda,"
he drawled reassuringly. "No machine will be able to handle
our 'impossible' customers and keep them happy. No cousin of
a computer will try to convince us any job giving us trouble
is a dog to end all dogs and, when we finally lick it, make
us believe we have more knowledge of electronics than there
is. Is a covey of transistors going to check our appearance
every time we start on a service call to make sure we look clean,
neat, and smart? What machine will fuss over us like a hen with
two chickens when we burn ourselves with the solder gun or have
the sniffles? Finally, no automatic device will light up the
whole front end of this place with a smile that is just as warm
and friendly at five in the evening as it was at eight in the
"Aw, Matilda knew I was just teasing," Barney said gruffly.
"No automatic machine can ever replace a hep girl like her."
"I'm glad, though, you've been thinking about the effects
of automation," Mac said as he noticed the little frown disappearing
from Matilda's face; "but, Barney, you wouldn't have needed
to look so far from your own work for examples of jobs being
eliminated by automatic processes. Automation in wiring, soldering,
and component assembly in the radio-TV industry has already
eliminated some 50,000 jobs, and that's just the beginning.
In the telephone industry, business has increased 25% over the
past ten years, but there are 30,000 fewer jobs. In 1960 42%
more electric lamps were shipped than in 1950, and the productivity
of workers was up 52%; yet there were 1500 fewer jobs in the
industry. And it's pretty well agreed that between 125,000 and
160,000 auto workers laid off last winter will never return
to the factories because automation has taken over their jobs."
"Really makes you think, doesn't it?" Matilda remarked.
"It should anyway," Mac agreed.
"I'm convinced automation will make as much difference in
the work and lives of people in the next few years as the Industrial
Revolution made during the last half of the Eighteenth Century.
Then a man-and-a-machine took over the work of dozens of artisans
and craftsmen. Now the machine that elevated the operator to
power has become so clever and sophisticated it no longer needs
his immediate direction, and it is his turn to get the ax. I
imagine the ghosts of the old craftsmen who were victims of
the Industrial Revolution are chortling at the poetic justice
"I get the feeling changes brought on by automation will
happen much faster than those occurring during the Industrial
Revolution," Barney said.
"I agree. Some change is always taking place, but the rate
of change has accelerated steadily during the past few decades.
Things are happening faster and faster. As Julius A. Stratton,
president of M.I.T., recently remarked, 'The world into which
we were born is gone; we have little or no idea of the world
into which our children may grow to maturity.' Improved methods
of communication, financing, and fabrication permit a new way
of doing things to go from drawing board to widespread application
in a very short time; and when an idea catches on, such as automation
is doing, it can easily change our whole way of making a living
in a few short years."
"What I mostly want to know," Barney interrupted, "is how automation
will affect the radio-TV service business."
"Only a seventh son of a seventh son could be sure," Mac
replied; "but maybe we can make some guesses. Let's continue
looking on the dark side first. So far automation has principally
been applied to the manufacturing process and so affects us
only indirectly. Even so the indirect effect can be terrific.
For example, you know how the printed circuit, darling of the
automatic machine, has made radical changes in our service procedures.
Unitized modular construction in the future could possibly do
to us what the sealed compressor unit did to home-refrigerator
servicing. This was a booming business when I was a boy. Many
fellows made a good living recharging the lines with gas, overhauling
compressor motors, and replacing controls. Now, when a refrigerator
fails, the whole sealed unit is simply replaced; and there is
very little home-refrigerator service work done."
"That's a nice gloomy picture," Barney commented.
"Yes, but there is a ray of light in it," Mac went on with
a grin. "Not one of the refrigerator boys who really knew his
refrigeration theory and kept up with what was going on in the
field lost out. They simply transferred into servicing commercial
refrigeration equipment and air-conditioning. Most of them today
are making far more money than they did servicing home refrigerators.
""Reminds me of a refran I learned in Spanish class," Barney
said. "'Si se te cierra una puerta, otra hallaras abierto.'
Translated that means: 'If one door is closed to you, another
will be found open.'''
"Not bad!" Mac applauded. "You must, of course, not waste
time kicking on the closed door and be able to see the other
""Which, I take it, means: Don't sing the blues; know your
electronics theory thoroughly; keep abreast of new developments
in the field," Barney again translated.
"That's the idea. Our trade magazines do their level best
to keep us aware of the many opportunities opening up in maintaining
industrial electronic equipment. It behooves all of us to get
a foothold there while we still carry on our broadcast radio
and TV servicing work. Mobile communications services are increasing
tremendously, and taking care of this equipment is another string
we should add to our bow. And there is closed-circuit TV, and-"
"I get the idea," Barney interrupted.
"You don't need to knock me down with it. But do you think
radio and TV servicing as we know it, is likely to fold in the
"Fold, no; change, yes," Mac said tersely. Just think of
the changes that have taken place since you started to work
for me: TV grew from a novelty to the major portion of our work.
Color TV came in. So did transistor receivers and printed circuits.
In these comparatively rapid changes is contained a reason why
I doubt automation will take over entirely in the radio and
TV industry in the immediate future. Automation, to be economically
practical, needs to work on a product that is comparatively
stable in design. If the whole automatic production line has
to be entirely revamped every little while to incorporate important
improvements or simply to change models, this quickly becomes
time and money consuming. As long as customers insist on a wide
variety of models from which to choose and as long as manufacturers
compete to please them, radio and TV sets are not likely to
be entirely produced in automatic factories. Until they are,
the service technician will probably not be reduced to a mere
"But I've been saving the really bright side of the picture
for last," Mac continued. "If you think a bit, you realize automation
is working for the electronic technician, not against him. Electronics
is the very heart of automation. The machines do their work,
report on their progress, check their output, and examine themselves
all by means of electronics. Electronic engineers play a big
part in designing the equipment and electronic technicians install,
adjust, and maintain it. The electronic technician will be the
fair-haired boy in the automatic factory. But you are awfully
quiet, Matilda. What do you think of all this?" Mac broke off.
"I've been too busy taking notes to do much thinking," Matilda
said as she glanced over the shorthand notes she had been scribbling
on the back of a job-ticket. "You know you're supposed to give
a talk, at the next meeting of the local technicians organization,
and I thought this might make a good subject. Let's see if I've
got you straight:
"You think automation is going to make a tremendous difference
in all our lives in the near future, and you believe each of
us should be thinking about what this will mean to him personally.
Already many jobs are disappearing in various fields as automation
takes over, and it is just starting. While automation yet is
chiefly confined to manufacturing, it still has far-reaching
effects in other fields, such as maintenance. Conceivably, automation
of radio and TV factories could reduce the service technician
to a mere module-changer, but you do not expect that to happen
for some time. All the same, you think it's only prudent for
the service technician to improve his general knowledge of electronics
and to diversify his work and interest by taking on the servicing
of industrial electronic equipment, mobile radio equipment,
etc. His trade magazines are doing their best to help him in
this respect if he will only study the articles they publish
that are not directly connected with repairing household radio
and TV receivers.
"Taking the long view, you believe the well-trained, alert,
progressive technician who does not insist on doing just radio
and TV service will be benefited rather than hurt by the rise
of automation. This is true because electronics is the heart
of automation, and it will not work without the services of
the electronic technician."
"Did I say all that?" Mac marveled.
"I'm growing old and garrulous, I reckon. But thanks for
taking the notes. A machine would never have thought of doing
that. Come on, Buster; let's put away the crystal ball and turn
out some of these commonplace radio and TV sets. They're still
our bread and butter and probably will be for quite a while."
Mac's Radio Service Shop Episodes on RF Cafe
This series of instructive stories was the brainchild of no other than John T. Frye,
creator of the Carl and Jerry series that ran in
Electronics for many years. Mac's Radio Service Shop began life in
Radio & Television News magazine (which
itself started as simply Radio News), and then changed its name to Mac's Service
Shop after the magazine became
World. 'Mac' is electronics repair shop owner Mac McGregor, and Barney is his eager,
if not somewhat naive, technician assistant. 'Lessons' are taught in story format with dialogs
between Mac and Barney.
Posted November 27, 2015