Workers & Machines

In the Bay Area, we are surrounded by hi-tech companies, and we are all familiar with hi tech products from the third industrial revolution such as computer, iPhone, Internet, social network,…

More than a hundred years ago, Chinese workers in the United States also experienced the second industrial revolution. From 1880s to 1910s, the influence of Chinese in the salmon canning industry reached its peak when more than 50% of the low level cannery jobs on the production line were occupied by the Chinese. This period of time happens to be the age of the second industrial revolution in America. The advance in technology has brought about comprehensive changes in American society, and transformed it from an agricultural society to a modern industrial society. The technology development of the salmon canning industry in Alaska was also a microcosm of the second industrial revolution and brought industrialization to Alaska. Due to the mechanization and mass production, the productivity and the output of canned salmon was generally increasing year by year.

After the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1892 took effect, the shortage of the aging Chinese labor force became an obvious problem for the canners, and the salmon canning industry chose to speed up mechanization to solve the labor shortage problem. Mechanization relies on new technology, the most obvious being the countless number of new patents and inventions. By 1900, almost every step in the production line could be replaced by a newly invented machine. This, combined with the high-speed conveyor belt, formed a semi-automatic production line.

In 1910, only some factories were mechanized and automated. At that time, not every region or every factory was fully mechanized. On the one hand, the factory owners were not willing to spend a lot of money to buy these machines; and on the other hand, the Chinese workers were not willing to work with the machines. Although Chinese workers generally resist new machines, they cannot change their fate. Overall, the full-scale mechanization of the salmon canning industry was not completed until just before World War II.​​​​

We can understand why Chinese laborers generally opposed machines. Machines not only made some of them unemployed; at the same time, machines can completely replace many manual skills, making workers playing a secondary role. The speed of the production line was no longer controlled by the workers. On the contrary, the speed of workers was determined by machines. We could say that the Chinese cannery workers passively participated in the second industrial revolution.

Image Source: Cutting machines, Pacific Jefferson Moser, Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, University of Washington

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